Blood relics and contemporary memory
Basement room of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, where the Russian Imperial Family was executed. Investigator Nicholas Sokolov apparently recovered 13 drops of blood from here. Via Wikipedia. Public domain.
In the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich there is an exhibit, carefully preserved in an environmentally conditioned case, which is amongst its most popular and venerated visitor attractions. It is the dress uniform of a rear-admiral in the Royal Navy, and is of the highest provenance. For this is the uniform Lord Nelson was wearing when he achieved immortality at Trafalgar by the simple expedient of dying at the precise moment of victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets, on October 21, 1805.
Nelson had been shot with a musket ball fired from above and in front, by a French sharpshooter high in the rigging of an enemy ship; his uniform coat bears the evidence of an entry wound in the left shoulder. Continuing its downward trajectory, the ball passed through his spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae, and lodged two inches (5 cm) below his right shoulder blade in the muscles of his back.
Apart from the torn fabric left by the ball’s entry, it is the now faded blood stain on the tails and left sleeve that still has the power to shock and awe, even at two centuries’ distance. However, what most members of the public gather around the case to gawp at, this most tangible of all connections with Britain’s greatest naval commander, is that astonishing as it might sound, this blood is not even Nelson’s.
Rather, it belonged to Nelson’s secretary John Scott, who was walking with him on the quarterdeck of HMS Victory when the flagship came under heavy bombardment by enemy cannon. Scott was effectively dissected by a direct hit, and it is his blood that Nelson was spattered with.
Nelson’s remains were preserved in a cask of brandy and lashed to the mainmast for return to England and burial at St. Paul’s. (Coincidentally the schooner that carried news of the victory ahead to Britain was HMS Pickle). Meanwhile the unfortunate—and presumably slippery—Scott had been hastily heaved overboard even as the battle still raged, and so the only tangible physical remains we actually have of him is the blood that spattered Nelson’s uniform and soaked through his stockings.
Blood stains have long had quasi-religious significance even in these more secular times. This is presumably because they can afford a palpable connection to the past, allowing an almost mystical communion with a revered—or despised—historical figure. At Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, today the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, there is an unusual stain on the floor of Mary, Queen of Scot’s presence chamber. It is long associated with the brutal murder there in 1566 of her secretary David Riccio by her husband Henry Lord Darnley and his confederates. Riccio was dispatched by no less than eighty-eight dagger-inflicted wounds, a not untypical way of resolving palace intrigue in sixteenth century Scotland. I have seen this stain and there is nothing to suggest that it is a four centuries old blood stain. That does not stop guides touting it as such and tourists getting down on their haunches to examine it up close. Unfortunately, as in the case of Nelson’s bloodstained uniform, things are not always as they appear.
Almost precisely sixty years after Nelson’s death, on April 15, 1865 the sixteenth President of the United States reclined in a silk upholstered rocking chair in the Presidential Box at Washington’s Ford’s Theatre. The story of what happened that night is well-known. Abraham Lincoln was shot in the back of the head by John Wilkes Booth, using a derringer pistol. The low velocity .44-caliber projectile fractured both orbital plates of the frontal bone, causing the eye sockets to become engorged with blood and pushing fragments of bone into the brain. The first physician on the scene, Dr. Charles A. Leale, quickly declared the wound mortal. Such was the damage caused that medical consensus now is that this would remain the case today.
There is a photograph of the room in the Petersen House where the President expired early the following morning. It must have been taken immediately after Lincoln’s body had been removed, and the other participants in the drama had dispersed. The chairs are haphazard and the bed sheets are rumpled but what really draws attention are the pillows. They are blood soaked; Lincoln had survived as long as he had only because the doctors were regularly probing the wound to clear away newly formed blood clots. This relieved the pressure on the brain’s respiratory center but resulted in heavy bleeding. So this is undoubtedly Lincoln’s blood; however, these pillows have long since disappeared.
However, the provenance of the rocking chair, now preserved and restored at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is beyond question. It is amongst the most popular attractions, and tourists comment on the dark stains on the fabric. Once again it is easy to jump to conclusions, for this staining is not even blood at all. The prosaic truth of the matter is that it is grease stains from the hair of paying customers who tried the chair out for size in the years immediately following 1865 when ideas about preserving historical artifacts, even a relic associated with one of the most iconic figures in American history, took second place—presumably—to turning a quick buck.
Ideas of propriety had changed somewhat when Jacqueline Kennedy made the decision to donate the pink suit (a Chez Ninon take-off of a Chanel original, apparently) that she wore on 22 November 1963, to the National Archives in Washington DC. By all accounts this decision was made sometime after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, and the suit seems to have spent a considerable period sequestered in Janet Lee Auchincloss’ attic in New York, boxed and wrapped in tissue paper before its transfer. It came with a deed attached that keeps the suit from public view at least until 2103. Until then it is stored in “an acid-free container in a windowless room . . . the precise location is kept secret. The temperature hovers between 65 and 68 °F (18 and 20 °C) degrees; the humidity is 40 percent; the air is changed six times an hour.”
This suit is the real deal, a blood relic that ticks all the right boxes. Here we have a demonstrable personal connection to a revered figure. Secondly, and this is the most important requirement, the blood staining can be dated to the very moment of that revered figure’s death and transformation—at least in the popular mind—to secular sainthood.
It is not enough just to be famous. Governor John Connolly was in the limousine with the Kennedys on that fateful day in Dallas, sitting in the jump seat when he was (apparently) hit by the second shot, which passed through the President’s neck before continuing on its downward trajectory, entering Connolly’s chest before exiting through a wrist and lodging in his leg. Connolly had the audacity to survive his encounter with the eponymous “magic bullet,” later becoming Treasury Secretary in the Nixon Administration, and irrespective of what our views might be of him as a statesman it would be a push to describe him as “revered.” So when Connolly’s stained and ripped suit coat went on public display in Texas in 2013, marking fifty years since the assassination, it attracted only muted press coverage. The crowds still turned up, but it was more out of curiosity rather than an act of pilgrimage.
There is a unique case in the curious history of twentieth century blood relics when the secular was transmogrified into the sacred. On 16 July 1918 the Russian Imperial Family—Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra, their five children, and several retainers—were massacred in a basement room at Ekaterinburg in the Urals. It was the height of the Russian Civil War, and the city was occupied just days later by anti-Bolshevik White forces, who appointed a series of investigators to direct a judicial inquiry. The last—and most diligent of these—was Nicholas Sokolov. Sokolov’s findings formed the basis for the accepted historical version of what happened to the Romanovs until the 1990s. His enquiry gathered together a plethora of evidence, ranging from first-hand witness testimony to various artifacts, which when complete formed an eclectic collection ranging from belt buckles, corset stays, and various precious stones, to a set of dentures belonging to the imperial physician and the corpse of the Tsarevich’s pet spaniel.
But Sokolov’s sleuthing also bagged him genuine physical relics. These included a severed female finger and several pieces of earth mixed with “fatty substances” found near the mineshaft which the family was tossed down after being undressed, doused with acid, and cremated. Sokolov also claims to have recovered thirteen drops of blood from the basement room where the shooting took place. All of these relics were placed in a box, which later accompanied him into French exile before disappearing.
The fall of communism brought with it posthumous rehabilitation for the Romanovs, whose remains were recovered in 1991. In 2000 they were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, but sainthood brought with it a whole host of problems. Despite DNA and other evidence of identity the church hierarchy continued to question the provenance of these supposed imperial remains.
If Sokolov’s box ever reappears it might help resolve a lot of questions.
Including how thirteen drops of apparently uncoagulated blood could be recovered several weeks after a shooting. Unless it really was a sacred relic.
ROBBIE PORTER, JP, BA, PGDip, PGCE, is a lecturer and charity worker from Worcester, England. He was born in Hawick, Scotland and studied English and History at the University of Sunderland. His short story Mannerley was published in the 2018 supernatural horror anthology Cathartic Screams.
Submitted for the 2019–2020 Blood Writing Contest & Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 12, Issue 2 – Spring 2020