Painted in 1940 by Chicago artist Warner Sallman, Head of Christ was a luminous, brown-and-gold-toned oil painting of the head and shoulders of Jesus Christ.
It was said to possess an almost supernatural radiance, and it led at least one man, quoted in David Morgan’s Icons of American Protestantism, to say, “I have had visions of Our Lord Jesus Christ and [Sallman’s] painting is a very close resemblance.”
From 1941 until 1945, when World War II ended, the Salvation Army and the YMCA gave out copies of the painting to every American soldier headed toward Germany or Japan, and one Chicago printing press printed the picture continuously, day and night, to keep up with the demand. Over time, over 500 million copies of the painting were sold or given away—printed on buttons and lamps and clocks and church bulletins and—most commonly—on pocket-sized, plastic-covered cards.
In 1972, one such card made its way to a Lubbock, Texas drugstore, where Kathy Mallot, a visiting New Mexico nurse, bought the card for thirty-three cents, to give to her grandmother, Willie Mae Seymore of Roswell.
For seven years, the little picture stayed tucked into the lower corner of a much larger framed picture, on a wall in Seymore’s living room, until the afternoon of Friday, May 25, 1979, when it allegedly began to bleed. Seymore, her daughter Charlene Spidahl, her granddaughter Kathy Mallot, and Kathy’s husband Zach Mallot all claimed that they had seen dark red blood trickle from the painted Jesus’ right eye for over ten full minutes, as it bubbled up through its plastic casing and dripped down onto its frame.
The family rushed to call the local newspaper, the Roswell Daily Record, and a young reporter and photographer named Al Gibes hurried over. When he arrived, he recalled in a 2007 interview, the blood on the picture was still wet.
“I do know what I saw,” Gibes said. “I saw blood on this picture. And I don’t believe these people had anything to do with it.”
Zach Mallot placed the framed Head of Christ on a chair and placed the chair at the front window of the Seymore home. Gibes took a photo of the blood-streaked Head of Christ, the photo got picked up by the Associated Press, and pieces concerning the phenomenon began appearing in newspapers across the country. Soon, hundreds, and then thousands, of people were lining up around the block to peer through the glass of the two-bedroom home at the 4 ½ by 2 ½-inch, plastic-coated miracle. Whole crowds fell to their knees, prayed out loud, and cried. Traffic around the house increased until numerous policemen were needed to direct it, Gibes made hundreds of dollars selling souvenir photos of the picture to visitors, TV crews showed up from as far away as Texas, and everyone searched for an explanation.
The predominant theory was that the painting really was a miracle, or a sign—though no one could agree on what it meant. The Vatican refused to confirm or deny the happening as divine, but the chief medical technologist from the New Mexico Medical Center ran tests that confirmed the blood was human. Some said that Jesus had cried through the picture because on the day the blood had appeared, May 25, 1979, an airplane leaving from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport dropped an engine, crashed, and exploded thirty seconds after taking off—killing all 271 people on board and two others. (The event was the worst air disaster in American history until 9/11.) Others said the picture had cried because, on that same day, convicted murderer John Arthur Spenkelink had died in Florida in the electric chair, the first American man to receive the death penalty following the end of a ten-year ban on capital punishment. Others wondered if it might just have something to do with Zach Mallot, who was thirty-three years old—the same age as Jesus when he died. Mallot was more of an electrician than a carpenter, but he had been known to sometimes make handcrafted coffee tables as gifts for his friends. Perhaps, people whispered, he was some sort of heavenly messenger or messianic figure.
Another theory surfaced later in Lyall Watson’s The Nature of Things, in which it was suggested that the bleeding picture was the product of humanity’s “psychic need” for something meaningful and mysterious, a need so strong that it physically manifested itself through the inanimate picture crying tears of blood.
And other, more skeptical theories pointed out that Kathy Mallot could have used her nursing job to get blood from a hospital, and that Zach Mallot seemed a little too eager to bring new developments to the story. At one point, he volunteered to take a polygraph test about what he’d seen, but then he changed his mind, saying such a test wasn’t the right thing to do, since people were supposed to learn to have faith. Also around that same time, he announced that Christ had appeared to him in a dream.
“Zach Mallot, who is staying at 306 N. Union Ave. with his wife’s grandmother, Willie Mae Seymore, told the Daily Record today that Christ looked into his eyes and said: ‘There are those that will believe. There are those who will not believe. There are those that will deceive,’” reported the May 30, 1979 Roswell Daily Record. “Describing Christ as being about 6-foot, 3-inches tall, with short, red hair and dark brown eyes, wearing a white robe, Mallot said he was told: ‘They saw me and did not believe. There will be many signs and wonders. I am coming soon.’”
And then, in 1981, Jesus did.
No, wait, no, he didn’t.