A Thief in the Night (Cornwell book)

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A Thief in The Night is a 1989 book by British historian and journalist John Cornwell on Pope John Paul I conspiracy theories in which the author challenges previous writings on the subject by David Yallop.[1][2]

Discovery of the body[edit]

Yallop’s murder theory requires that the pope’s body be found at 4:30 or 4:45 a.m., one hour earlier than official reports estimated. He bases this on an early story by the Italian news service ANSA that garbled the time and misrepresented the layout of the papal apartments. Yallop also claims to have had testimony from Sister Vincenza to this effect but refused to show Cornwell his transcripts.

Both papal secretaries and a confidante of the late Sister Vincenza insist that the body was discovered about 5:30 a.m. The nun noticed that the coffee she had left outside the pope’s bedroom door a few minutes earlier, as per his morning routine, had not been touched. She went through two sets of doors and parted a curtain to find John Paul dead on his bed with a light on and reading material in his hands. Magee was summoned first, then Lorenzi. They found rigor mortis already beginning to set in and tore the Pope’s cassock while preparing his private laying-out. This supports the official estimate for time of death as 11 p.m. the previous evening.

Secret autopsy[edit]

Yallop suggests that a real sealing-off of the Pope's corpse from public gaze was performed to allow a “secret” autopsy. Cornwell claims that he refers to a simple cosmetic retouching of the corpse.

A major source of suspicion for Yallop was the lack of a publicly issued death certificate, which he claimed showed either official reticency in assigning a cause of death, or an outright lack of medical authority for the "heart attack" claim. Cornwell was given access to the death certificate, and reproduces it.

Yallop also relates (without endorsing) a claim that the undertakers were summoned at 5 a.m. before the official finding of the body, but this is based on an incorrect news story taken from garbled secondhand information. The Vatican carpool log shows the embalmers were sent for at 5:15 p.m. The procedure began about 7 p.m.

Cardinal Villot[edit]

Yallop questions the disappearance of incriminating personal effects, supposedly removed by Cardinal Villot. He thinks John Paul’s slippers and glasses might have been stained with vomit caused by the digitalis poisoning. But Cornwell finds that the Pope's sister took them. His last will was a brief document bequeathing his goods to a Venetian convent.

Yallop's one damning datum was a Swiss Guard’s observation of Paul Marcinkus walking near the papal residence at an unusually early hour on the morning of the Pope’s death. But the guardsman, Hans Roggen, told Cornwell that his testimony was taken deceptively and misrepresented. Marcinkus was a demonstrably early riser and had driven in at his usual time.

Pulmonary embolism[edit]

Cornwell's research suggests that Luciani had indeed been in poor health, in which claim he is supported to an extent by the late Pope's niece Pia, herself a doctor, and anecdotally by many senior but medically inexpert Vatican figures.

His niece, Pia, suggested that Luciani suffered from swollen ankles and feet (a sign of poor circulation and excessive coagulability of the blood) such that he could not wear the shoes purchased for him at the time of his election. These conditions were also noted by Yallop, who talked with the Pope's doctor and found the swollen ankles a sign of low blood pressure. The Pope did not drink, had never smoked and ate sparingly.

Cornwell concluded that John Paul I died of a pulmonary embolism (which was supported by the fact that he had experienced a retinal embolism in 1976).

Cornwell suggested that John Paul died at about 9.30 p.m., perhaps 10.00 p.m., at his desk and was found on the floor by the priest secretaries. These moved the body into the bed and placed it in what is truly an unusual position for a person who has died suddenly (sitting up, eyeglasses in place and papers in hand), with no indication whatsoever that he was experiencing a fatal attack. Lying next to the Pope was a report on the Jesuit Order that had just been completed, but history is unclear as to whether John Paul had just finished reading the report or had in fact been writing it.[citation needed]

Covering up health problems[edit]

Cornwell's rationale is that by moving the Pope's corpse, the two secretaries were trying to disguise the late Pope's supposed health problems. Cornwell claims that the Pope had suffered two episodes of acute chest pain that are consistent with a diagnosis of an imminent pulmonary embolism, as well as a severe coughing fit.

The two secretaries had suggested that in both cases of chest pain the Pope's doctors should be summoned, but the Pope had brushed them off. Cornwell claims that guilt drove them to want to make his death look sudden so that no blame would fall on them.

Both secretaries (one, John Magee, is the retired Irish Catholic bishop of Cloyne) deny Cornwell's claims.

Cornwell's theory is held to explain strange comments by both men; Magee reportedly talked on the night of the Pope's death to the nuns in the Papal Household about the possibility of the Pope's death "that night".

Algor mortis[edit]

The other secretary reportedly spoke of the pope's back and feet still being warm when he lifted him. Even if the Pope had died in bed, Cornwell believes algor mortis would mean his corpse would have been externally cold by the time he was found (around 5.30 a.m., by which time rigor mortis had set in). There is dispute over this suggestion, since Cornwell also claims that the summer of 1978 saw a high air temperature in Rome that was behind the decision to embalm the Pope as soon as possible (see above). Cornwell's conclusion of rigor mortis onset also contradicts his conclusion that the Pope's corpse was manipulated into position (sitting up in bed, holding papers) after discovery.


  1. ^ Kennedy, Eugene (5 November 1989). "Was the Pope murdered?". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017. 
  2. ^ Bolle, Sonja (10 December 1989). "LA Times". L.A. Times. Retrieved 8 March 2017.