Since the early days of Christianity, some particularly fervent believers have venerated the remains of martyred saints or objects they once possessed, out of a belief that God utilizes those relics as a vehicle for performing miracles. Handkerchiefs touched by St. Paul supposedly were able to cure the sick. A catechism written at the Council of Trent in the 1500s reported that at the tombs of early martyrs, “the blind and cripples are restored to health, the dead restored to life, and demons expelled from the bodies of men.” As the religious historian Garry Wills has written, some even considered the remains to be physical links to the spirit world, which at the end of time would be reclaimed by the saints and reconnected to their glorified souls. 

The bones of martyrs were considered so precious by Christians, in fact, that thieves sought to steal them and resell them to believers. By medieval times, what Wills describes as a “black market in white magic” had become so lucrative that when St. Francis of Assisi died in 1226, his friends took turns standing guard over his corpse, in order to fend off robbers intent upon carrying off portions of his remains. (Such tomb-robbing was known, euphemistically, as “pious theft.”) Some of the crooks actually were clerics themselves. A French priest, for example, stole relics of St. Helen from a church in Rome and used them to perform miracles on the way back to France, where he was hailed as a great hero.

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But stealing relics wasn’t easy, since there were only so many saints, and their tombs were often protected by followers. According to Wills, at least in legend the relics themselves actively resisted such chicanery, miraculously becoming too heavy to lift, or even flying from pursuers. As a result, some relics peddlers found it easier simply to pass off the remains of non-saintly ordinary Joes as sacred objects. According to A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, in the late 500s,Greek monks were caught digging up random graves near Rome, in search of bones that they could take home and claim to be saintly in origin. 

Local bishops of that era were at a disadvantage when relic’s peddlers offered them a purportedly precious bone, because they didn’t have carbon dating, DNA analysis or other tools to determine the verity of the sales pitch. Instead, as the Council of Saragossa decreed in 592 AD, suspected forgeries were subjected to trial by fire. In the late 900s, Egbert, the archbishop of Trier, became suspicious of a portion of a finger that supposedly had belonged to St. Celsus. In the middle of a Mass, he wrapped the bone fragment in a cloth and threw it into a crucible filled with burning coals. But as the story goes, the relic was authentic, and it remained untouched by the fire through the completion of services. 

Even the prevalence of fakery, however, failed to diminish believers’ enthusiasm for obtaining pieces of their favorite saints, a practice that endured into modern times. This 1925 New York Times article, for example, describes how Rev. Joseph Shrembs, the Bishop of Cleveland, returned from a trip to Rome with an urn containing the bones, skull and dried blood of the Fourth Century AD martyr St. Christine, presented to him as a gift by Pope Pius XI. The account also notes that the Bishop took $35,000 with him to Rome, and promised to spend another $165,000 on a building to house the relics. Apparently, that was the going price for a piece of sainthood.

Tonight on National Geographic Channel, for the first time, the Catholic Church will allow scientific experts and historians to openly test the veracity of the remains of reported saints. NGC has exclusive access to the forensic investigation. For more, tune in to Explorer: Mystery of the Murdered Saints on Tuesday, April 19 at 10 p.m. et/pt. Check out a sneak peak from tonight’s episode: