Martyr at the Picnic Table

May 30, 2018   •   By Aaron Robertson

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18,  Genius

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In the Basilica di Santa Margherita, which overlooks the expansive Val di Chiana in Tuscany, Margaret of Cortona’s relic is kept in a small casket. The patron saint of the dispossessed, canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1728, has been housed inside her glass shrine for centuries. Margaret was not an obvious candidate for sanctitude. She was born in Laviano, Umbria, to a peasant family. At 16, she fled with a nobleman from Montepulciano. Nearly 10 years later, when the nobleman was found mangled in a forest, Margaret moved with her son to Cortona where she led a life of penitence and self-mortification. As proof of her contrition, she asked to be dragged through the streets like an ass by a rope around her neck. Margaret could not tolerate her own beauty. A friar caught her before she could hack off her nose and lips, the iconography of her great allure. In her twilight, she reprimanded vice and experienced many ecstasies before dying in a small cell within the church that would become her temple.

The casket rests on a marble altar, on which scenes from Margaret’s life are engraved. The altar is the work of sculptor Gano di Fazio, but the reliquary was designed by Baroque painter and craftsman Pietro da Cortona. St. Margaret has been dead since the 13th century, but her corpse bears no evidence of putrefaction. She is a small woman. All but her head and feet are covered by a sand-colored tunic. The skin on her face is ashen and dry, and it looks as though someone had placed a burlap sack over her head and pulled taut until her eye sockets and mouth were outlined in the cloth. According to Catholic orthodoxy, Margaret is incorrupt. Her corpse was not found to be embalmed, mummified, or dressed with spices. The intact body is supposed to be an expression of divine favor.

The corpse, as a category, is a storehouse for the fantasies of the living. In times of medieval sickness, its organs were thought by some to contain medicinal unctions and oils. In times of war, encomia were written to praise the anonymous dead. The maturation of burial practices signified the presence of civilization, as though the division between brute and man was the degree to which one embellished the dead, cast glory upon them, and escorted them into memory. St. Margaret, though inanimate, is still a prominent actress. She was kept alive by those who couldn’t fathom the idea that a body once inhabited by a holy soul could be dismissed as a vessel of dust and earthworms. As historian Thomas Laqueur writes, “The corpse represents something radically different from itself.” Whether or not Margaret’s soul is immortal, imagination has prolonged her — and others like her — in ways that were not inevitable. The cadaver stiffened by rigor mortis is yet limber in our cultural theater.

Similarities between the treatment of two peculiar types of corpses have been alluded to, but left understated. That is, the bodies of Christian saints and the mutilated remains of African-American martyrs. Our understanding of martyrdom must be fluid. The martyr figure often whets his performative abilities against the stone of persecution. Death may canonize his fugitive sufferings, but alive he can acquire the gaping stigmata and stinging gashes that testify to his capacity to watch the flesh deform. The expressive sacra rappresentazione (sacred performance) exhibited by Polycarp or St. Jerome and the brutalization of lynch victims Henry Smith and Jesse Washington are similarly theatrical, notwithstanding some important distinctions between them.

When we talk about the black martyr, do we mean the retributive, self-destructive prophet, like Nat Turner? Maybe we speak of the messiah, like Dr. King, or the unwilling lamb, George Stinney? These models are useful for more than the writing of a martyrology, a Golden Legend or Actes and Monuments for condemned blacks. The particularities of one’s death allow us to better understand both the corpse’s appeal as a fetish object and its usefulness as currency. In the schema of black martyrdom, if death is the mytheme — the invariable element that unites all other myths — then the corpse’s contours, its stench and solidity, its dissolution and repose determine how and by whom it can be mobilized.


Moribund flesh and viscera have been likened to food in the ways that they are dressed, vitalized, and virtually consumed by the living. Late historian and gastronomist Piero Camporesi identifies body parts as the “tormented protagonists” of the Middle Ages. Holy corpses were tampered with like any well-dressed holiday turkey, prepared as they were with unguents, poultices, and greases. While the souls of saints gloried in the ether, subsisting on light and air, living hedonists occupied themselves with dead chaff.

The sensational account of St. Clare of Montefalco, an Augustinian abbess, is telling. After Clare succumbed to illness, a group of ecstatic nuns opened her corpse with a razor, removed her intestines, and placed them into earthenware jars. The four nuns are said to have marveled at the woman’s gallbladder and heart, the latter of which they severed in two. The witnesses claimed that, embedded in the abbess’s heart, were the Arma Christi, the instruments associated with Christ’s Passion. Among the grisly inventory were a miniature crucifix, the Scourge, the Crown of Thorns, and three nails — a verification of the Trinity’s presence. These claims withstood the scrutiny of bishops, theologians, doctors, and civic judges. Camporesi believes this was one of many collective delusions that drifted across the medieval age. More likely, he supposes, the thorned coronet was a bundle of white nerves, the “nails” nothing more than dark tissue.

Following the inquisition, St. Clare’s cadaver was drained of blood — the spirit’s conduit, what Camporesi calls “the edible substance” — which was then kept in vials where it boiled during times of cataclysm and woe. Chroniclers wrote that the corpse exuded an odor of sanctity. An intoxicating fragrance, maybe of juniper or rosewater, hovered around her and deflected the corruptive heat of summer. The gentle abbess, stuck in time, embodied sprightliness and longevity. Hers was not the only flesh to be adored as health-giving. In some regions of Europe, bone ashes were imbibed in broth and wine while skull fragments were consumed to combat headaches and epilepsy. Leagues of the afflicted collected the liquefied fat of hanged criminals — a ghastly forefather of ibuprofen — in cups and pots. One form of cannibalism persists in the Catholic tradition as the Eucharist. A taste of Christ’s transubstantial body and a swig of His blood give rise to a memorial culture in which food is the direct link between death and life.

Few were so dementedly eager to disfigure themselves as the saints. While the modern world built its cranks and muskets, hermits and anchorites embraced guillotines, stakes, arrows, swords, and fasting — anything to ruin the flesh and subordinate their individuality to the symbol of divine mercy they could become. The post-mortem sweetness of the incorruptible’s body was a consolation prize from God.

From the other side of a translucent casket stared the envious onlooker. Her inner state reflected the extent of her immersion in the material world. This was the common person, as malodorous as a carrion flower. If her face was daubed with lily-root and saffron tincture, her innards stank like worm-infested feces. Her cadaver’s putridity would confirm what was already known about her tainted soul.

But smells were mercurial and ambiguous. Aromatic jasmine collided with the fetor of latrines. The by-products of dysentery and reeking spoil banks mingled with bitter berries. Sundry scents were discombobulating, in flux. Inevitably, smell guided taste. Air became a macrocosm of the kitchen and the courier of wretched stenches. The bodies of martyred saints were minced, pared, cured, and roasted. Consider the apocryphal tale of St. Lawrence, archdeacon of the early Church, who lived during the age of Christian persecution. When the Roman prefect demanded that Lawrence cede the Vatican’s wealth to the empire, Lawrence responded by presenting a horde of the poor and diseased. Though he was likely beheaded, legend has it that he was placed on a gridiron and cooked alive. When one of his sides was sufficiently burnt, he is said to have asked his executioners to turn him over.

Accounts of the renowned martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, presaged the descriptions of black lynchings that would fill 20th-century newspapers and postcards. In the year 155 AD, at the order of Irenarch Herod, soldiers arrested Polycarp and brought him to an arena. He rode into the city on the back of a donkey. When he refused to renounce his Savior, we are told that the crowd prepared his pyre with “timber and faggots.” A fire was lit and then:

The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was there in the midst, not like flesh burning, but like [a loaf in the oven or like] gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.

When the flames failed to kill the bishop, an executioner stabbed him to death. His blood flowed so profusely that it snuffed the fire. Officials wanted to keep the body away from the public because they feared it would be hailed as an imitation of Christ. And so it was. His martyrdom was one that “all desire[d] to imitate, seeing that it was after the pattern of the Gospel of Christ.” The saint’s corpse proselytized. His grisly wounds testified to the Lord’s greatness more directly than a zealot. The beautiful death was true.


Henry Smith is an American Negro from Paris, Texas, an outlaw who killed the white baby Myrtle Vance in 1893. Smith’s punishment must be as savage as the man. He asks to be shot instead of ceded to a mob of thousands. He is told that he approaches destiny ad quod damnum. He will fit into a martyr’s mold as though it were a tailored suit. But, Sir Thomas Browne asks, who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? who hath the Oracle of his ashes, or wither they are to be scattered? 

They transport him to a scaffold in a mule cart. Hot irons scorch his feet, his tongue is set aflame, and his eyes are gouged. They bathe Smith with oil. Fire engulfs him like a coat. The tendons in his arms snap like poor bridge cables and he reaches for his eye sockets with crisp stumps. Smith tears away from his post hollering and burning, and when he crawls away, they toss him back. The next day, the Aurora Daily Express describes the collection of Smith’s remains: “Every scrap of his clothing was sought by relic hunters, and when all was over fragments of his bones were carried away also.”

Hagiographic texts are babels of undisciplined history and invention. The saint mutates in successive chronicles written by disciples, clergy, and anonymous scribes until the historical personage is fractured. The body of the saint becomes a stage. The corpse is revived in every retelling and dies interminably. The pious listener accepts the necessity of the decapitated head. Her old eyes glisten with desire and the sublime.


When James Baldwin wrote his short story “Going to Meet the Man,” he thought of Jesse Washington, a black man from Waco, Texas, accused of assaulting and murdering a white lady in 1916. Many children at the killing ground were on their lunch hour. Baldwin likens this genre of public execution to a Fourth of July picnic. He writes that the “wind blew the smoke from the fire across the clearing” into the protagonist’s eyes and nose. The protagonist senses “the odor of something burning which was both sweet and rotten.” What do they taste, these children, women, and men? Before castrating the lynch victim, a man weighs the accused’s scrotum in his hand like a meat merchant. When they finish, the deceased’s head is blackened pulp. At the story’s closing, the protagonist tells his son, “I reckon we better get over there and get some of that food before it’s all gone.” In truth, attendees stole Washington’s bones, genitalia, and teeth. Some were sold, others kept. Like triumphant Achilles, the denizens watched as this Hector was dragged through the town by horses.

With the help of civil rights activist Elisabeth Freeman, W. E. B. DuBois and the NAACP used the photographs of Waco resident Fred Gildersleeve to promote their anti-lynching campaign. News of the “Waco horror” resounded in nooks and dailies from America to Europe. The lynching, the most notable of its day, was condemned by most. Lynching had not reached its apotheosis, but the publication of Washington’s mutilated corpse tempered rhetoric in support of the practice. The specificity of the violence — Washington’s body, and no one else’s — was made general. His mourners were not his own. They were rather like paid eulogists, grieving for whomever required commemoration.

These bodies, scoured by crows and all but stuffed into the maws of mobs, glimmered in their chaos. They were unintelligible, unnaturally oriented, decontextualized. Brutalized bodies were denied the grave, and those that were disfigured into anonymity were more likely to be upheld as martyr symbols.

Franny Nudelman, a historian, criticizes the abstraction of pain in her book John Brown’s Body. The faceless martyr sustains a community based on pain. The unrecognizable corpse was — and still is — an object of great interest because it let empathizers shape something that no longer had an identity. Empathy is possession. The spectator gorges on the suffering of the victim. Nudelman warns against the impulse to glorify and conflate the anonymous dead. It denies the exactness of one’s pain and allows the viewer to indulge in limitless orgies of misery.

But imagine the congeries of pilgrims to Mecca and Canterbury. For most, they are palatable in aggregate alone, zooming toward that asymptote where the individual is infinitely indistinguishable from the group. The space between individuals turns into void. We populate it with imaginary emblems. Some of these are born in literature: history books, librettos, novels. Archetypes, in other words, the shadows we cast on the ground.

The black martyr lives. Its ghost threads through Laura Nelson, Denmark Vesey,  Addie Mae Collins, Mary Turner, Charles Lang, Michael Griffith, Yvette Smith, Stephon Clark, and Emmett Till. Many little black girls and boys hear Till’s story at a young age. I was 10 when I saw the images of that 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who died most horribly in Money, Mississippi, 1955. The story of the inciting incident is as contested as St. Lawrence in flames.

Emmett, with the hesitant approval of his mother Mamie Till-Bradley, is visiting his family Down South. He and some other boys skip church and enter a grocery store, where young proprietress Carolyn Bryant tends to business. Perhaps Emmett whistles at Bryant or says something bold and flirtatious as he exits the store. How little the facts matter. Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law abduct Emmett from his uncle’s home that evening. He is beaten, shot, and thrown into the Tallahatchie River with a 74-pound cotton-gin fan noosed to his neck by barbed wire. It is a burlesque of the strange fruit swinging from the tree, in the open air.

Emmett plummets into dark waters and, on the third day, is found by two boys gone fishing. After some struggle, his body goes home to Chicago. Two blocks from the funeral parlor, Mamie Till smells a “most terrible odor.” When she enters, she doesn’t recognize what lies in front of her. Its skin is bloated and its teeth are missing. An eye stretches across the jaw and she can see daylight through its head. Mamie leaves her son’s glass-topped casket open for the funeral. Tens of thousands flock to see the child, and images of his body metastasize in black-owned publications across the country. He is the bellwether of aborted democracy. His flesh is rigmarole and confusion. This Christ-figure becomes part of the bedrock that undergirds the nation’s Second Reconstruction.

Emmett Till finds new life as a political totem. Mourners blow breath into his battered body in an incredible act of necromancy. Black literati and intelligentsia hallow the boy that had no refuge in an American wasteland. They cradle Emmett in their hosannas and accommodate him in their dreams. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks writes a ballad that fictionalizes Carolyn Bryant. As she awaits the return of her knight-errant, she labors in the kitchen:

Her bacon burned. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve.

The woman does not know if her life was worth more than that of the “Dark Villain.” Her Fine Prince, her husband, beats her in front of their children and she envisages blood. Her blood and the blood of the Villain, who is the innocent child, commingle. The blood is as viscous as fruit spread, a “red ooze” that was “seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly / Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders / And over all of Earth and mars.” Emmett’s blood terraformed the earth. Its nectar shocked the palate and stirred the insensate masses. They had tasted blood before, white and black alike, but never so publicly. There were thousands of Emmett Tills circulating in private night terrors. The law, for all its pompous austerity, was impotent. After receiving payment for their confession, Emmett’s killers walked free. Custom was held as law.

And so Emmett’s body was its own advocate and intercessor. Its gnarled limbs pleaded eloquently. Emmett’s apostles rendered in speech what the boy had no tongue to say. The interpretation of Emmett’s body was unusually cogent: blameless flesh was inconsonant with a culpable, bloody empire.


Sixty years later, the unrest in Ferguson would become a new iteration of an aged myth. The martyr of the Third Reconstruction was born at the instance his body was penetrated by six bullets and Darren Wilson’s fretful imagination. Like Mamie Till before her, Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was inducted as the Black Madonna. The Passion of Mike Brown enthralled us because we were uncertain what had led to its lurid conclusion. Eyewitnesses read Brown’s body as an archetypal construction. Furious observers noted that the body laid unattended for hours under the sun.

Brown’s corpse was the difference between the law as it was and as it should be. It was an expression of insidious, unchanging folkways. Ours is an age of exceptional harvest. Legends are recast and horrific morality tales are authored by gunfire. This juncture is what the postwar historian C. Vann Woodward calls “the twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history.” The catalog of executed blacks is Homeric in scope and the boundary between Ralph Ellison’s tragic character Tod Clifton and casualties like Laquan McDonald, Amadou Diallo, or Philando Castile is fading, if it has not already dissipated. (Of Clifton, Ellison wrote: “Cause of death (be specific): resisting reality in the form of a .38 caliber revolver in the hands of the arresting officer”)

The organizers of Black Lives Matter are storytellers. They architect marches and vigils that evoke the agitations of the 20th century. Their slogans (“I can’t breathe”) echo and subsume the dead. Their questions (“Is my son next?” “Is my niece safe?”), at once rhetorical and earnest, organize the myth’s structure and dictate how it will be told. The questions come from a place of knowledge. They have already been answered and the protesters know this. Their fear is predictive. It is meant to warn. Yes, my son is next. My niece will be killed. It’s his little boy today, her girl tomorrow, and mine is somewhere in line.

The same basic story retold, with myriad permutations. Its narrators are masterful, always finding some way to make it new. This one is set in Milwaukee, that one near Detroit. This one was shot at more than 100 times, but that boy only took one. It is a story the narrators would rather not tell. But they will renew it as often as they must, ad infinitum until the body finds its niche in unalienable life, so that its executioner may know the restless charge of firebrands.


Aaron Robertson is a James Reston Reporting Fellow for The New York Times.