Jeff Davis’s Crown of Thorns

jefferson davis colorized

“Then the soldiers of the governor [Pontius Pilate] took Jesus … stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it on his head … and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! … And after that they had mocked him, they … led him away to crucify him (Matt. 27:27-31).”

This ironic crown, combining highest honor and degrading torture, became a premier symbol for the Passion of Christ – all that he suffered before and during his crucifixion. Like the Cross itself, however, it was made glorious by his resurrection.

At the end of the War for Southern Independence, which the South lost, the only president of the short-lived Confederate States of America was treated like a criminal. He was clapped into solitary confinement in a military prison, at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The discipline was so strict that Jefferson Davis and his guards (and at first two were right in the cell with him) were forbidden to speak to each other. Davis could never for a moment, even for the needs of nature, leave their presence or the small stone room.

News soon leaked out to his wife, Varina, who was also held in custody with their four young children, that to Davis’s rigorous confinement and constant surveillance had been added the disgrace of chains. She could not write to him at the time; no one could; his confinement was solitary indeed. But later she told him: “I could not keep the children ignorant [of the fact that he was chained].” “So I made them feel it was a crown of thorns, and glory.” Thus she passed on to her children a Christian tradition going back to St. Paul, the privilege of uniting one’s own private suffering to the Saviour’s on the Cross (See, e.g., Phil. 4:7).

Coming out of the mysterious prison isolation where no reporters were allowed, the tale of Jefferson Davis’s chains swelled and contracted with the telling. They were variously termed “manacles,” “fetters,” or “irons”; they were fixed on his ankles, his wrists, or both; the fixing was done placidly, or with a great struggle; Davis wore his chains for only a few hours, or, they had never been removed. In actuality, the President resisted as violently as he could under the circumstances. It took four men to hold him down. But of course he was completely overpowered. The public outcry against this insult was so great, even in the North, that the very heavy ball and chain were struck off his ankles by the blacksmith five days after they were rivetted on.

The original crown “platted” by the Roman soldiers was three-dimensional real. It became an object of reverence almost equal to the Cross itself. Its reality was tacitly attested when it became a piece of merchandise. The sainted king, Louis IX of France, purchased it from the Byzantine Emperor Baldwin II in 1247, along with a piece of the True Cross. To house these holiest of relics, King Louis built in Paris the exquisite little church, La Sainte-Chapelle.

Varina’s crown was metaphorical, a symbol of anguish plucked from her Bible-rich memory. Many years later, when Davis’s sufferings all had ended, an Episcopal priest revived her image. He was dedicating the memorial window to the President in his war-time church, St. Paul’s, Richmond. The speaker called his imprisonment, especially the shackling, “wanton cruelty to the innocent.” “And see, “ he went on, “how God reversed all this.” “Yes, and the thorn crown of that shame and anguish which wicked hands forced down on his noble brow crowned him a king to the hearts of his people as he had never been crowned before. It changed to a diadem of beauty and a crown of glory … His people love him most of all because he suffered this for them.”

But there is another crown of thorns connected with the name of Jeff Davis. It is material and symbolic both. Like the original, it is made up of actual thorns taken from nature, some of them two or more inches long, held together by fine wire. The maker and the intent of this crown have been, like the details of Davis’s shackling, shrouded in confusion. Its reality is not in question. I saw it myself at the Confederate Museum in New Orleans in 1978, when doing research for Jefferson Davis, Unconquerable Heart. It was hanging rather jauntily on the upper right corner of a large, heavily carved, wooden frame. Inside the frame was the portrait photograph of Pope Pius IX which the pontiff himself had inscribed and sent to Davis in his prison in December of 1866. Thereby hangs the tale.

The position of the crown in the display not only suggested, but almost demanded a connection with Pope Pius. The identifying card in the glass case when I saw these objects only deepened the mystery: “Crown of Thorns Prized by President Jefferson Davis To be placed over the head of Pope Pius IX [.]” But why?

The pope’s picture, and his handwriting across the bottom, are attested by a cardinal as genuine. Basically, “Pio Nono,” as Davis calls him, quotes the Latin of St. Matthew’s gospel omitting one phrase “Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus” [Come unto me, all ye who labor and I will refresh you, saith the Lord] (Matt. 11:28). Jeff Davis saw this as “the comforting invitation our Lord gives to all who are oppressed.” The pope’s voice, he said, “came from afar to cheer and console me in my solitary captivity.”

Davis’s ardent Catholic friend, Lucius Bellinger Northrop, however, saw it as proselytizing: “You did not understand all the significance of his kindly act…[He] delicately invited you to come to him as [Christ’s] vicar.” Northrop’s interpretation could find some support in a second picture of Pope Pius, identical with the one in New Orleans. It has the same date, but a different inscription. This time the pope quotes the Latin of Psalm 94 (KJV 95:7-8): “To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart.” And in 1863, His Holiness, writing as one head of State to another, had prayed that God would illumine the Confederate president “with the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.”

But what had the crown of thorns to do with the pope, or the pope with it? This question vexed my research for several years. I could find no one who even mentioned the second picture. I vouch for its existence. I saw it at Beauvoir in 1978 when the museum collection was displayed underneath the house. There was no card identifying it. I merely recognized it from the other one. There was no crown of thorns.

Only two writers, to my knowledge, deal with the crown at all. Ishbel Ross in First Lady of the South: The Life of Mrs. Jefferson Davis
( Harper and Brothers, 1958) shows Varina donating it to the New Orleans museum and says she had made it for her husband in prison. This author does not explain why, in that case, it “hung over the picture of Pope Pius IX.” Hudson Strode evidently mulled over this question. In Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964) he announced his conclusion as if it were fact: the “chaplet of thorns” was “woven by the Pope’s own fingers.” Two years later, in Jefferson Davis: Private Letters 1823-1889 (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), he again stated his opinion as fact. The pope “had sent him a large photograph of himself with a crown of thorns woven by the papal fingers.” Strode was very knowledgeable about the Davis family. His word is taken as law about the crown to this very day.

His rationale was sensible enough, given the relation of crown to picture in the museum, but, unless it was perhaps part of the fancied papal plan to draw Davis into Catholicism, it just didn’t ring true. Stewing dissatisfied, I decided in 1980 to go to the source. I wrote to the Vatican archives, asking if they had any record of the photograph or the crown. Two months later a reply came back on Vatican stationery, postmarked Washington, D.C. “It is not possible to satisfy your request for information.”

One of the advantages of being an “independent scholar,” as my publisher calls me, is that one is free to pursue leads in obscure places. I had often thought that the Confederate Veteran was crammed with first-hand information, but I seldom, if ever, saw it cited as a source. I had photocopied some of its Davis items, and shortly after the Vatican blank wall, I picked up one to read. It was “Reminiscences of Jefferson Davis,” published in Vol. 37, No. 5 (May, 1930). Its author was “Miss Nannie Davis Smith.” Suddenly, all the pieces of my puzzle fell into place.

Nannie was a granddaughter of Davis’s oldest sister, Anna, who had cared for him from infancy like a second mother. Nannie became very close to the presidential couple after the War. She was helping Varina nurse Uncle Jeff when he died. She mentions the gift of the pope’s picture. Then she says: “Suspended over this picture is a crown of thorns, woven by the recipient after Pope Pius IX had likewise been despoiled and persecuted.” (By 1870, the unification of Italy had stripped from Pope Pius’s hands every Papal State except the Vatican City.)

“The recipient” can only mean Jefferson Davis. Perhaps he helped, or suggested this way of repaying the pope for his sympathy. But Varina was the handy one of the pair. She was always busy with her fingers, sewing, knitting, crocheting, fashioning little decorations. Jeff could handle big things: he made a wooden bench and chair for the Beauvoir porch. But he managed to wrench off, in short order, the top of a little coffee pot that someone sent him in prison. “Awkwardly done” he pronounced over an attempt to tie up a lock of his hair for a keepsake, so dear to Victorian hearts. As a matter of fact, it was Varina who made the crown.

It had occurred to me long before that the gift of crown and picture might have come to the New Orleans Confederate museum with a description by the donor. A member of the museum board had informed me that all their records were now housed in the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University. The Head of the Rare Books and Manuscripts division there, Wilber E. Meneray, replied on August 6, 1985:

We do have a list of the items donated by the Davis Family over a period of time from 1891 through 1907. The majority were donated in 1891. . . . The inventory states “. . . picture of Pope Pius IX with an autograph comforting Latin sentence inscribed on it…. The Pope sent this picture to Jefferson Davis whilst a prisoner at Fortress Monroe. Accompanying the picture is a crown of thorns made by Mrs. Davis that hung above it in Mr. Davis’ study.”

What a relief came with that last sentence! I was finally face to face with the crown-crafter herself. Varina’s description also cleared up another mystery – why Nannie Smith says the crown was “suspended,” why Ishbel Ross says it “hung over” the picture, and why Hudson Strode, in a footnote to page 302 in Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, says “the photograph with the crown of thorns hangs on the walls of the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans.” In the text of the same page, he describes its location as I do, on the carved wooden picture frame, so he must have seen it in both places. My guess is that the curators originally replicated the arrangement in the Jefferson Davis household described by Nannie Davis, but at some point, possibly for safety, brought both items down into the glass case.

So it was, after all, not by the pope or for Davis – that the crown was made, but for the pope, to link his suffering to Christ’s. And its maker can no longer be in doubt. It is simply “Mrs. Davis.”

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