The Leech Imposture

The Leech Imposture bleeding picture at St Saturnin.

The Leech Imposture bleeding picture at St Saturnin.

The Fortean world is no stranger to stories of bleeding statues and icons that seep with scented oils. Today we visit a small French village church where a miraculous bleeding painting of the Saviour edifies the faithful and baffles the scientists.


We are not accustomed to place implicit reliance on the accounts of so-called miracles which we read in Catholic books and journals, but after what we have seen with our own eyes, it would be irrational and unjust to presume that they are all the mere fabrications of designing priests. The following example, which appeared some time since in the Catholic Standard, is sufficiently remarkable. Protestant sectarian journalists, as will readily be apprehended, are wont to treat all similar accounts as absurd falsehoods, conceived and sanctioned by papal authority to further the most unholy designs, but the unprejudiced reader will deem it lawful to judge for himself.

Miraculous Picture in France.

La Commune, of Avignon, gives the details of an apparently well-authenticated miraculous occurrence of a most striking character, at the little church of the Calvary, St. Saturnin-les-Apt. On Wednesday, the 18th ultimo, a resident medical practitioner, M. Clement, was summoned by the cure of St. Saturnin, to examine and report upon a remarkable exudation of a red color that had made its appearance on the wounds of Christ in a picture representing the descent from the cross. The doctor, on arriving at the church, had to make his way through a dense crowd of people who filled the body of the sacred edifice, and who appeared most powerfully affected. He was requested to ascend the altar, and touch the exudation. He did so; after having manipulated and tasted it, he pronounced it to be human blood. Taking a white linen napkin, he applied it to the wounds, and the blood, which seemed to have been staunched, appeared afresh. He then satisfied himself that the picture was firmly attached to the wall; that it had not been disturbed, and that the exudation had not come through the varnish of the picture, the surface of which was unbroken. A report officially made to the local authorities states that, on Monday, the 6th ultimo, upward of 600 persons witnessed the exudation of the blood on the wounds of the Christ in the picture in question. It describes the profound impression made on the vast multitudes who were flocking to the church, attracted by the accounts of the miracle, and of the measures necessary to be taken to maintain order among them. On Thursday, the 10th ult., the sub-prefect of Apt made it known that he had himself visited the locality for the purpose of satisfying himself on the subject of the reports in circulation; that he had recognized the trace of blood on the wounds, and had seen the stains left by them on several linen cloths. He also visited a poor and pious girl, whose prayers were believed to have been the cause of this miracle, and who regarded it as a proof of divine mercy. He ascertained that the miracle had been taking place several days before it was made public—and he was assured by the holy maid that it would probably be again manifested on the Wednesday following. This took place, and is stated to have been witnessed on that morning by the writer of the article from whence we extract these particulars, as well as by the civil authorities of the district and the archbishop of the diocese, with a number of his clergy. On this occasion the witnesses described to the archbishop in detail all they had seen. The sub-prefect declared that he had bene the first to approach close to the picture, and to see the blood forming itself in limpid and pearly drops upon the wounds, with a sort of bubbling plainly perceptible to the eye. The wound in the side had been wiped by him with a white linen cloth, which was stained with the blood, and when attentively examined both with the naked eye and with a glass, it presented the exact appearance of a real wound in living flesh, and from which the blood had just been wiped. These gentlemen, as well as two medical men, Dr. Camille Bernard and the above-named Dr. Clement, together with several other persons, corroborated the declarations previously made and decided on drawing up a report to be addressed to the superior civil authorities. Such are the facts as stated in the Avignon paper. Le Mercure Aptesien informs us that a fourth effusion had taken place in the presence of a large number of persons; that the archbishop had celebrated mass and preached an eloquent discourse in the church, which was crowded to excess, but no formal ecclesiastical decision had as yet been given on the subject. Two workmen had been sent for to take down the picture; its back had been carefully examined, but no marks were apparent in the canvas at the spots corresponding to the wounds; no traces of moisture were discovered, no openings in the picture, nor any indications of liquid of any kind having been applied. Several extraordinary conversions of sinners had, we are told, been operated by the miracle.

The American and Foreign Christian Union, Volume 2, 1851: pp. 105-6

Of course, it was all too good to be true.


Tm; Dublin Evening Mail says the miracle at St. Saturnin of the bleeding picture has been detected to be an imposture, and the commissioners of the Archbishop of Avignon have been obliged so to report it. These officers have reluctantly adopted the following conclusion :—‘My lord,-—The commission which your lordship nominated for the examination of the events of St. Saturnin, has terminated its labours, and hastens to communicate to you the results. We find in these events several circumstances, at present unexplained, capable of making a strong impression on those who should examine them only on the sensible side; but whether we consider the condition on which they were made to depend—the different circumstances which, according to the witnesses, accompanied their production on different days—the expectations raised for particular days, and not realised: or whether we examine in the point of view of Christian perfection certain well-known details of the conduct of the person who has taken the principal part in these events, it is impossible, in our opinion, to recognise in them the characteristics of a true miracle.’ [We should like to know what, in the opinion of the Catholic church, are the conditions of a true miracle.]

The Reasoner, Volumes 10-11, 1851 p. 340

Bear with me in this next article, for it recaps some of the action, but adds some important background detail on giant cabbages and heavenly buttons. I’ve edited out a little of the usual pearl-rosary-clutching about disgraceful superstition and credulity among the Better Classes, but really, some of it is quite entertaining.


St Saturnin (says the Athenaeum) is a small village in the Vaucluse Mountains, and not very distant from Avignon. So lately as the year 1850, this village became first celebrated and afterwards notorious as the residence of a girl called Rose Tamisier, pretending to have the power of working miracles, and to be in immediate communication with heaven….First, as to the impostor herself:—[The narrator is Edmund Spencer, author of A tour of inquiry through France and Italy.]

“We shall not fatigue our readers by entering into any lengthened details respecting the life and adventures of our village saint; still a few particulars of an impostor who so successfully mystified the world, and acquired by her miracles a sort of European celebrity, cannot be altogether uninteresting. At all events, this fraud must be considered as an evidence of the fact, that notwithstanding the vaunted civilization of France, her universities, schools of learning, printing-presses, and all the varied facilities for acquiring useful information, there must be something wrong in the training of the public mind, when such a system of transparent jugglery could have found a single believer in the nineteenth century. It was disgraceful even to the most ignorant among the populace; but when we reflect on the numbers of the better classes who aided the deceit, our surprise is only equalled by our regret. It appears that Rose Tamisier, the heroine of our tale, had been educated gratuitously in a convent of nuns at Salon, Bouches-du-Rhone, where eventually she became an inmate, and made herself remarkable by the frequent visits she asserted she was in the habit of receiving from certain saints and angels, above all from the Virgin Mary. At length, impressed with the belief that to her was confided the divine mission of restoring religion to its original purity in infidel France, she left the convent, and sought a retreat in her native village, Saignon, where she made her first debut on the stage as a miracle-worker, says her biographer, the Abbé André, by causing the growth of a miraculous cabbage! sufficiently large to feed the hungry villagers for several successive weeks, and that during a season of such universal drought that every other species of vegetation languished or died. In the meantime, she refused every species of nourishment but consecrated wafers, which angels were in the habit of purloining from the sacred Pyx of the church, wherewith to feed the favourite of heaven! and to compensate the good old curé of the commune, the Abbé Sabon, for their loss, she mended his clothes with thread and buttons rained from heaven. But whether the villagers clamoured for more substantial food than cabbage, or the curé demanded a new soutane for the loss of his consecrated wafers, certain it is, that one fine summer’s evening she was borne aloft by angels, und deposited in the romantic village of St Saturnin. Up to this time, the believers in the holy mission of our village saint chiefly comprised the simple vine-dresser, the mountain-shepherd, and it may be their equally simple cure; but the odour of her sanctity and the fame of her miraculous powers increased so rapidly, and spread so extensively, that she quickly acquired a European celebrity. She had already performed many surprising miracles, and by the intensity of her devotion caused the representation of a cross, a heart, a chalice, a spear, and sometimes the image of the Virgin and Child, to appear on various parts of her body, at first in faint lines, and afterwards so developed us to exude blood, thereby exciting the amazement and pious admiration of every beholder. But she now worked in the little church of Saint Saturnin the crowning miracle, by causing a picture of Christ descending from the cross to emit real blood, and that in presence of the parish priest, and a numerous congregation, assembled to witness the extraordinary event. This took place for the first time on the 10th of November 1850.”

We have then the following statement of a most extraordinary measure of sanction on the part of the French government :—

“The affair of the bleeding Christ now assumed an aspect of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the government; when M. Grave, the sous-préfet of the department, M. Guillibert, juge d’instruction, M. Jacques, substitut du procureur de la République, and other civil and military officers, were despatched to investigate the correctness of their representations. Even Monsignor, the Archbishop of Avignon, was summoned, with the higher clergy of his diocese, to behold and verify the miracle in propriae personae: [sic, in the text, to the credit of either Mr Spencer or his printer]. On the day appointed by the saint for the performance of the miracle, these great civil and ecclesiastical dignitaries, arrayed in the costume and insignia of office, attended her invitation, together with thousands of the curious and devout from every part of the romantic Provence; and, to prove that no design was entertained of imposing on the credulity of mankind, the painting, at the command of his grace the archbishop, was removed from its place over the high altar; when, lo! To the astonishment of the awe-struck multitude, the back, which might have contained some machinery for carrying on the imposture, disclosed a numerous colony of spiders, who seemed to have remained there for centuries. Still the blood continued to ooze from the picture of the crucified Christ as fast as his grace and the préfet wiped  away with their cambric handkerchiefs from the hands, feet, and side of the figure. And what a value did these acquire! They were immediately cut into shreds, and transmitted to the faithful in every part of France. The public authorities and the clergy were satisfied, the spectators were satisfied, and the archbishop preached an eloquent sermon suitable to so great an occasion; and in order that every thing should be done systematically and in due form, the préfet and all the other high dignitaries affixed their names and seals of office to a public document, attesting the truth of this most mysterious phenomenon, which was forthwith dispatched to Paris, and by means of the public press circulated throughout every country in Christendom.”

Fortified by testimonials like these, of course the St Saturnin miracle became a highly profitable and popular adventure; and the whole community of the Provençal canton had for a time substantial reason to bless the good fortune which gave them ю exalted a saint as Rose Tamisier for a countrywoman. The scientific men were at first puzzled with the circumstance of the apparently bleeding picture; and although every competent person in France felt that a juggle was at the bottom of the whole performance, still they were unable to point it out. At length, however, and before many weeks had elapsed since the eloquent confession of the miracle by the archbishop and the sub-prefet, an ingenious chemist at Apt, M. Eugene Colignon, succeeded in unmaking the imposture.

We resume Mr Spencer’s narrative :—

“Taking it for granted that our readers have acquired an interest in the career of our miracle-working Saint of Provence, we may as well relate the denouement of a tale, which in reality surpasses all that the prolific mind of the most industrious writer of romances could invent of the folly and superstition of mankind, rendered still more interesting to the Protestant English reader, when he remembers he is only separated from this land of wonders—this mysterious people—by a narrow strait, and that this imposture, so disheartening to the friends of civilization and progress, took place in 1850, and was frequently repeated in 1851. A few weeks subsequent to our visit to the village of the Provencal saint, we received a letter at Nice from a friend at Avignon containing a full account of the means by which the imposture had been detected; and to do the French justice, their ingenuity is rarely baffled either in performing or discovering the secret of a miracle. In the present instance, the credit of unravelling this most mysterious affair of the bleeding Christ is due to the intelligence and assiduity of M. Eugene Colignon, a chemist of Apt, who, after wasting much time and labour in fruitless researches, at length succeeded in discovering that human blood disgorged by a leech, having lost its fibrine, was capable of serving the purpose of Rose Tamisier, and might be made to penetrate a painting, and then issue forth in small globules, or drops, according to the quantity employed, and which not only does not coagulate for many hours, but continues to flow from the face of the painting, however frequently it may have been wiped off, while a drop remains. In short, the miracle of the bleeding Christ was imitated so successfully by this gentleman in presence of the public authorities, and a large number of the most eminent scientific men of the country, that not a doubt could remain in the mind of the most devoted believer in the miraculous powers of our heroine, that she was an impostor, particularly when it was proved that she invariably insisted on being allowed to pass some time in solitary prayer in the chapel, previous to performing the miracle, when no doubt she took care to saturate those portions of the painting necessary for her purpose with the sanguineous fluid. The cheat having once become generally known, such a storm of public indignation was raised in the country as compelled the authorities to have the imposter arrested and tried as such at Carpentras, the chief town of the district; but here the jury, we presume, influence in their decision by a superior power, declared themselves incompetent to pronounce a verdict. This made bad worse, and the authorities, fearing some outburst of popular discontent, the affair was transferred to the assizes at Nismes, where, about the middle of November, 1851, after a long and patient investigation, aided by the laborious efforts of counsel on both sides, the saint was pronounced guilty of escroquerie et outrage a la morale publique et religieuse, and condemned to six months imprisonment, with a fine of five hundred francs and costs.”

And so the saint was sent to jail and the miracle became an addition to a long catalogue of shams.

The Christian Treasury, 1854 pp. 101-3

Mlle. Rose gets an A for effort in my book. But what I want to know is, how did she get the idea? Divine/diabolical inspiration? Or, most likely, frequent visits from Monsieur le docteur?  She had plenty of experience with physicians. She was a sickly child with a deformed leg. When she was eight years old, a wound in her chest had been instantly healed, she said, by a lady surrounded by light, who appeared in her bedroom. She became so ill during her novitiate with the Order of the Presentation of Mary that she had to leave the convent and return to secular life. Still, it must have taken a keen observer to divine that the blood from leeches did not coagulate or was that common knowledge at the time? I haven’t studied leeches except casually in a “leech hazard” at a Michigan miniature golf course, so if you know if this information would have been shared with a nineteenth-century patient, please let me know. chriswoodyard8 AT, who is squeamish at the very thought.

For a detailed, multi-post series on Rose Tamisier, see here.

For another religious imposture, see A Weeping Virgin Ends in Tears.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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