Update on Jefferson Davis’s Crown of Thorns

Pius_IXAfter last week’s post on the controversy surrounding whether the story of Jefferson Davis receiving a crown of thorns from Pope Pius IX was authentic, I received this additional information.

It looks like part of the problem has to do with commentary that is contained in Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823-1899, which was selected and edited by Hudson Strode (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).  As part of an introduction to two letters written in 1878 Strode wrote the following: “When the ex-President was in prison His Holiness had sent him a large photograph of himself with a crown of thorns woven by the papal fingers and an inscription in his own hand. The photograph and thorn crown may be seen today in Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans.”  The first letter was written by Varina for JD, but it is the second letter by JD that is worth considering here: “When our war had closed in the defeat of the South, and I was incarcerated with treatment the most needlessly rigorous, if not designedly cruel; … [more observations on the defamation, etc., JD endured] a voice came from afar to cheer and console me in my solitary captivity. The Holy Father sent me his likeness, and beneath it was written, by his own hand, the comforting invitation our Lord gives to all who are oppressed, in these words: ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ That the inscription was autographic was attested by Al. Cardinal Barnado, Dec. 1866 (under his seal).”  It seems strange that JD specifically mentions the Pope’s letter without also citing an object that was supposedly handmade specifically for him.

In addition, a list of “relics and documents” presented to Memorial Hall in New Orleans by Varina Davis attributes the crown of thorns to her. The following appeared in Confederate Veteran [July 1899]:

[F]amily Bible, given by Jefferson Davis to his wife Varina Jefferson Davis, with his written indorsement to that effect, and one from Mrs. Davis, presenting it to Memorial Hall; pciture of Pope Pius IX (framed), with an autograph and a Latin sentence inscribed on it by his holiness, bearing his seal, and certified to by Cardinal Barnabo Pref. (The Pope sent this picture to Jefferson Davis while a prisoner at Fortress Monroe.  Accompanying the picture is a crown of thorns, made by Mrs. Davis, that hung above it in Mr. Davis’s study[.]

Keep in mind that Varina Davis was still alive in 1899.  Do you believe that Varina would have allowed this attribution to go unanswered if it in fact was a mistake?  That’s it for now.  I will keep you updated if I hear anything more.

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9 comments… add one
  • jh Sep 28, 2009 @ 11:36

    When we are talking about the issue of the Vatican and Confederacy Govt we are entering in a realm of truth, half truths , and down right myth. Much of the Pope's intentions is based on mere speculation.

    It should not be forgotten that the Vatican as well as Europe was kepping a eye on the United States. Or at this time still Catholicism had a Southern flair to it and up to this point had been a mostly Southern Church. Jefferson Davis would have been on their radar for some time. He was friendly to Catholics , and in fact in school begged to convert, and of course was Senator from a State that had early historic Catholic ties.

    I expect the appreciation that the Pope is showing has a lot to do that Jefferson , like Lincoln and his successor, were very vocal in opposing the Know Nothing movement in the 1850s

    The interaction of the Vatican with the Confederate States , contrary to myth there was never an official recognition, had more to do with the Vatican wanting to end a war that destructive to their flock on both sides and the fact that the Vatican of course wanted to have Confederate Catholic Soliders tended to in the field.


  • msimons Sep 28, 2009 @ 7:42

    Thanks for sharing that Kevin I had heard that story for years and on the surface had accepted it as fact. Nothing like getting the Truth.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2009 @ 7:44


      Glad to hear that you found this to be of some interest. I would remind you and everyone else, however, that it does not necessarily represent a final word on the subject. Research is being carried out by a number of different parties so I suspect that we will learn more in the near future.

      • msimons Sep 28, 2009 @ 15:05

        I understand that it is nice to get new insights into the Civil war and its post-war history.

  • toby Sep 28, 2009 @ 2:34

    It is worthwhile reading the biography of Pius IX on Wikipedia. Pius may have seen Davis as a kindred spirit. Exercpt:


    Pius IX celebrated his silver jubilee in 1871, going on to have the longest reign in the history of the post-apostolic papacy, 31 years, 7 months and 23 days. As he lost temporal sovereignty, the Roman Catholic Church rallied around him, the papacy became more centralized, to which his personal life-style of simplicity and poverty is considered to have contributed.[112] From this point on, the papacy became and continues to become more and more a spiritual, and less a temporal, authority. Pius IX's pontificate marks the beginning of the modern papacy.

    After starting out as a liberal, Pius IX turned conservative after being thrown out of Rome. Thereafter, he was considered politically conservative, but a restless and radical reformer and innovator of Church life and structures. Church life, religious vocations, new foundations and religious enthousiasm all flourished at the end of his pontificate.[101][113] Politically, his pontificate ended with the isolation of the papacy from most major powers of the world: “The prisoner of the Vatican” had poor relations with Russia, Germany, and the United States, poor relations with France and open hostility with Italy. Yet he was most popular with the faithful in all these countries, in many of which Pope Pius associations were formed in his support. He made lasting Church history with his 1854 infallible decision of the Immaculate Conception, which was the basis for the later dogma on the Assumption. His other lasting contribution is the invocation of the ecumenical council Vatican One, which promulgated the definition of Papal Infallibility.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 28, 2009 @ 4:40


      Thanks for the additional information. You may be right that the Pope viewed Davis as a kindred spirit. It's an interesting story that I suspect most people know little about.

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