venerated trivia roundup

Rounding up some obliquely-saint-related trivia…

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1. Depending on your location, St. Anthony’s Fire is: (a)  the skin infection erysipelas (Britain & the US; it’s what killed John Stuart Mill), (2) shingles (Italy and Malta), (d)  ergotism (France and Germany).

Ergotism is a dastardly affliction caused by the consumption of ergot (mold) infested bread and was distressingly common in the middle ages. It causes two broad classes of symptoms, and one might be forgiven for not knowing which is worse: convulsive or gangrenous. The gangrene happens because circulation to the appendages is restricted. The convulsive symptoms include itching and burning skin, spasms and seizures, and at the end, mania, psychosis, and hallucinations. Those last symptoms led to speculation that mass ergot poisoning caused the Salem witchcraft hysteria (compelling, but it seems unlikely because the effects of ergot poisoning had already been known for centuries—what made Salem unique?). Ergot poisoning is just one of many proffered medical explanations for witchcraft, including Lyme disease, PTSD, and for the Freudians, a projection of repressed aggressive impulses that could not be acted upon in Puritan culture. Freud really can explain anything!

Ergotism in art
Ergotism in art

The St. Anthony of St. Anthony’s Fire is notable as, more or less, Christianity’s first hermit (I discovered that the technical term for a religious hermit is anchorite, which I’m sure will come in handy down the road). His hagiography—first time I’ve used that term literally—holds that the devil afflicted him with laziness, lust, and boredom (“once the doctors thought I had mono for like an entire year, but it turns out I was just really bored”), which he overcame through prayer; the “temptations” of St. Anthony thus became a common theme in the arts, featured in paintings by Michelangelo, Flaubert, and Dali—Dali’s and Grunewald’s are particularly batshit, even by their own standards. Apparently enraged that “boredom” did not dissuade Anthony from a life of prayer, the devil beat him—an uncreative response from the prince of darkness—and then sent apparitions of wolves, lions, and scorpions at him. It didn’t matter; Anthony spent 20 years alone in an abandoned Roman fort and emerged no worse for the wear. Hagiographies are 100% bananas, and I haven’t even gotten to Erasmus yet.

•     •     •

2. 80s medical drama St. Elsewhere lasted six seasons and 137 episodes, featured Howie Mandel in a prominent role, and the final scene showed the main character’s autistic son silently playing with a snow globe that contained a scale model of the hospital, implying that the entire series had occurred only in his imagination. Perhaps this was a middle finger one-upping to the amateurs at Dallas who only had the artistic vision and daring to play off one season as a dream.

Because Elsewhere characters appeared on other shows, the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis holds that almost 400 TV shows, including Cheers, 24, and The Wire, can be considered part of the same dream universe. And because of the internet, here’s a philosophy professor pushing up his glasses and making Wittgensteinian formalized objections to the hypothesis. <heaves self out window>

Actual St Elsewhere episodes include: “Once Upon a Mattress” (“Fiscus is deeply depressed after his surgery, and no one can cheer him up except his hospital roommate who’s just had a penile implant.”), “The He-Man Woman Haters Club”, “No Chemo, Sabe”, “A Pig Too Far” (this pun isn’t even trying), “Bang the Eardrum Slowly” (that’s better).

St. Elsewhere is not to be confused with 80’s brat-pack dramedy St. Elmo’s Fire, a movie about universal existential angst and ennui and how knowing what to do with your life after you graduate from Georgetown is so hard and, like, what really is “being an adult”, man, directed by the guy who put nipples on the Batman costume. One executive who turned down the script called the relentlessly self-absorbed septet “the most loathsome humans he had ever read on the page,” which is notable since he’d just green-lighted a Kissinger biopic. A reviewer questioned whether “anyone over the moral age of fifteen” could enjoy the movie: “The turbidly self-important treatment of these vacuous college graduates, each one a ‘type’, is like a TV sitcom without jokes.” Well, dammit, now I actually want to see it.

the true pain of being
the true pain of being

St. Elmo’s Fire is not to be confused with St. Elmo’s Fire, the luminous electrical discharge often seen consuming the masts of a ship during a storm, sometimes considered a portent of either good or back luck by sailors. The phenomenon is actually named for St. Erasmus, the patron saint of sailors, pyrotechnicians, steeplejacks, chimneysweeps, and helper of those suffering from abdominal pain and cattle pests. Erasmus was apparently the basis for Vigo the Carpathian in Ghostbusters II, as he was said to have survived all manner of brutality: “beaten with leaden mauls until his veins broke and burst,” thrown in a pit of vipers and worms, covered with boiling oil, forcibly un-toothed, branded, and drawn and quartered, before finally being disemboweled, which is why we pray to him for abdominal pain. His final words were “Death is but a door, time is but a window, I’ll be back.”

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3. The great thing about patron saints is the bizarre juxtapositions of groups and afflictions—sailors, pyrotechnicians, and chimney sweeps—served by a single saint. For example: Adrian of Nicomedia (patron of arms dealers, butchers, soldiers); Alexander of Comana (charcoal burners, and he’s not even the only one for charcoal burners), Anthony the Abbot (swineherds, motorists, basket-makers, gravediggers), Ambrose of Milan and Bernard of Clairvaux (beekeepers, both of them); Christina the Astonishing (millers and psychiatrists, probably the astonished); Edward the Confessor (kings); Jadwiga of Poland (queens); Gummarus (lumberjacks!); John of Damascus (people who make crucifixes); Joseph of Arimathea (funeral directors and tinsmiths); Roch (dogs, the falsely accused, and those suffering from bubonic plague); Stephen (bricklayers, casketmakers, deacons, altar boys). Also, I can’t verify this anywhere but also listed for Joseph is “people who fight communists.” No, I don’t know either.

And the saints you pray to for relief of illness: Agricola of Avignon (bubonic plague and misfortunes; seems like “misfortunes” covers all the bases); Arthelais (kidnapping); Castulus (skin disease, lightning, horse theft, wildfire, drowning); Expeditus (procrastination, of course); Fiacre (venereal disease and hemorrhoids, and reminder that we usually pray to saints who suffered these afflictions themselves), Ursicinus (stiff neck).

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4. Casper Holstein (1876-1944) was born in St. Croix but settled in Harlem, where he ended up a millionaire. He brought (back) to Harlem the numbers game, an unsanctioned lottery sometimes called bolito, earning him the nickname The Bolito King. Usually numbers games were mob-controlled rackets, but the 1920s mafia was so busy bootlegging that Holstein was able to run his games unfettered. He might be otherwise unremarkable but for his largesse, donating money to hurricane relief on his native Virgin Islands, building dorms and establishing scholarships for black colleges, and acting as patron for artists, writers, and poets, including Langston Hughes. For that, Holstein is considered an important economic driver of the Harlem Renaissance. His arrest in 1935 may have been orchestrated by a post-bootlegging mob—when he was released from jail a year later they’d taken over the numbers racket. He died in 1944, and the character based on him in Boardwalk Empire is amazingly named Valentin Narcisse.

One of Holstein’s competitors was Stephanie St. Clair (1886), alternately known as Queenie or Madame St. Clair. Less philanthropic than Holstein, she employed a cutthroat gang called the Forty Thieves to run her games with an iron fist. She once threatened corrupt cops in newspaper ads, was arrested and jailed, then one-upped the fuzz by testifying before the Seabury Commission on police corruption (dozens of cops were fired, probably none because of her, but it has a nice karmic resonance).

Holstein & St. Clair
Holstein & St. Clair

St. Clair was pushed aside just like Holstein, possibly with the assistance of her chief enforcer, Bumpy Johnson. Dutch Schultz, the “family man” who engineered her ouster, was later assassinated. While he lay dying, St. Clair sent him a telegram that read “As ye sow, so shall ye reap” (super rabbit hole side-note: Schultz had been tried for tax evasion twice by Thomas Dewey, eventually of “Dewey Defeats Truman” fame; he was killed by the five families after he tried to assassinate Dewey without permission). Per wikipedia, St. Clair “…died quietly and still rich in Harlem in 1969.” Talk about a life goal.


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