A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the deal with stigmata?

February 20, 1998

Dear Cecil:

Is there anything to the phenomenon known as "stigmata," i.e., when people inexplicably develop the same type of bloody wounds inflicted on Jesus on the cross?

Cecil replies:

Maybe I shouldn't tell you this, but I have these scaly patches on my palms that have been known to bleed. At first I thought they were caused by winter dryness. But now I know. They're stigmata.

As you might guess, Cecil is pretty dubious about this stigmata thing. The first definite case (there may have been a couple of earlier ones) was Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224. As of 1894, 321 cases had been recorded, and there have been many more since. The Italian stigmatic Padre Pio died in 1968; in 1997 he was declared "venerable," a step on the road to sainthood. In 1992 a stigmatic Catholic priest turned up in, of all places, suburban Washington, D.C. Not only did Father James Bruse have wounds, but religious statues wept and changed colors in his presence, and several people he blessed were said to have been healed.

Lest you get the wrong idea, stigmata aren't some wacky variant on getting your ears pierced. The wounds supposedly just appear. And sometimes keep on appearing. One of the classic cases of the 19th century, Louise Lateau, got them every Friday for 15 years.

The question isn't whether the stigmata are self-inflicted. Of course they're self-inflicted. Even if I were disposed to believe in divine intervention, the variety in the appearance and location of the wounds on different stigmatics argues strongly that this is a matter of, how shall I say, human handiwork. In some cases the wounds have duplicated those of Jesus as depicted at the stigmatic's local church.

The real issue is whether the wounds are psychosomatic — that is, a physical manifestation of the stigmatic's tortured psyche — or else got there by more conventional (i.e., fraudulent) means. Plenty of cases have been shown to be hoaxes, but with others you can't be sure. Tantalizing evidence comes to us from the medical journals, which report numerous cases of "psychogenic purpuras." These are instances of nonreligious stigmata, in which patients with emotional disorders experience unexplained painful bruising and swelling and occasionally even bleeding through apparently intact skin. One theory blames "autoerythrocyte sensitization," in which individuals react pathologically to their own blood.

Stigmatics are often tormented souls. Many of the religious ones deny themselves to the point of masochism. The nonreligious ones are frequently on the operating table or the shrink's couch for a laundry list of ailments. Reading some of the accounts makes you think that if anybody were likely to get psychosomatic wounds, these would be the guys.

On the other hand, the fact that many stigmatics are emotionally unbalanced means you can't rule out the possibility that they're simply hurting themselves when no one's looking. It's virtually impossible to keep an eye on someone every second of the day, and observers are often naive about what they do see. One scientist thought he'd proved something when Lateau's hands bled even though he'd covered them with bandages and gloves. But he ignored the fact that the bandages were perforated with pinpricks. In 1973 doctors reported a ten-year-old girl in California who was briefly stigmatic. They thought the chances she was faking were "almost nil," but when they attempted to observe her, the bleeding appeared only when she was alone.

Whether you believe in psychosomatic wounds or not, nobody's arguing that even the most intense hysteric can make things happen from the other side of the room. That's what makes reports of multimedia miracles so suspicious, as in the case of the stigmatic Father Bruse and his weeping statues. Bruse had been something of a character in his youth, having three times gotten himself into the Guinness Book of World Records for most consecutive hours riding a roller coaster. In a time of declining church attendance, his ability to conjure up signs and wonders kept the pews packed every Sunday.

When we spoke, he told me nothing unusual had happened since he'd been made pastor of a rural Virginia parish in 1995. We had the following exchange:

Me: Father, not to be melodramatic about this, but it seems to me that if I lied about something like this and deceived the faithful, I would be trifling with my soul. On your honor as a priest, did you fake this?

Father Bruse: What?

Me: Did you fake the stigmata and the tears?

Father Bruse: No, no, no.

To which I can only say again: I'll be damned. Or he will.

Nailing the stigmatics

Dear Cecil:

In your recent column regarding stigmata you failed to mention one very important fact. In most cases the stigmata displayed by "stigmatists" manifest on the palms and the feet. It's well known that the Romans discovered very early that nails through the hands and feet (especially the hands) would not support the weight of the body and would rip through the hands very quickly. Anyone with stigmata of the palms, therefore, would definitely be bogus. Seems to me that would be the quickest and easiest way to debunk these quacks. Whaddaya think?

Cecil replies:

Jeff, you're absolutely right. I can't believe I overlooked an opportunity to describe nails ripping out of flesh. But I should tell you, the facts are more complicated than you think.

The Romans crucified people by the boatload, but exactly how they went about it is unclear, since crucifixion wasn't the kind of thing you wrote instruction manuals for. The gospels describe wounds in Jesus's hands, and most people (including most artists depicting the crucifixion) have assumed the nails went through the center of his palms.

But some modern researchers have disputed this. The most enterprising was the French surgeon Pierre Barbet, who nailed up freshly amputated arms through the palms and tied weights to the other ends. He found that the nail tore through when the weight was increased to 40 kilograms and the arm was given a good jerk. (Be grateful you weren't this guy's lab assistant.) Since a human body would exert substantially more force, he concluded that nailing through the palm was impractical.

Barbet believed the wrist was a more likely location. After more experiments with nails and amputated arms he found that a nail could be driven readily through an anatomical area known as Destot's space, located near where the base of the hand joins the wrist. Because Destot's space is surrounded by the wrist bones, a nail there could easily support the weight of the body.

To buttress his thesis Barbet cited the Shroud of Turin, which appeared to have blood marks at the wrist. Shroud advocates were quite taken with this notion and gave it wide currency. Barbet summarized his findings in his book A Doctor at Calvary, published in 1953.

Barbet's hypothesis seemed to get a boost in 1968 when archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the first known skeleton of a crucifixion victim. The guy's feet had been nailed to the cross sideways, through the heel rather than the arch, as is commonly depicted. More to the point, there was a scratch on one of the bones of the right forearm (the radius), as though from a nail. In the minds of many people this cinched the wrist crucifixion hypothesis.

In the biblical archaeology game, however, nobody ever gets the last word. Among the objections raised: (1) In the Jerusalem crucifixion victim, the nail didn't go through Destot's space in the wrist bones, it went between the two bones of the forearm. (2) There might not have been a nail at all. Two later researchers claim that scratches and indentations are commonly found on ancient bones and have nothing to do with crucifixion (Zias and Sekeles, Israel Exploration Journal, 1985). They think the Jerusalem victim was tied to the cross with ropes. (3) Destot's space, and for that matter the bones of the forearm, aren't the only places you can nail a guy to make him stay up. In a 1989 issue of Bible Review, Frederick Zugibe, a medical examiner for Rockland County, New York, claims that there are at least two other possible nailing locations, one of which is on the palm. (It's in the "thenar furrow," the deep fold where the base of the thumb joins the hand — touch your thumb to the tip of your little finger to see it.)

In short, we have no idea how Jesus was crucified, other than the fact that they nailed him somewhere. Even if we did it wouldn't prove anything. Remember Father Bruse, the stigmatic Catholic priest who could make statues weep, heal the sick, etc.? His stigmata — you can see this coming — were on the wrist.

Thanks to the Biblical Archaeological Review for research assistance. Let me know when I can help you guys dig something up.

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