She's also mentioned twice in the historical records of the Inquisition, when Spanish Catholic inquisitors found and destroyed a shrine to Santa Muerte in Central Mexico. After that, Santa Muerte disappeared from historical records for more than a century, only to resurface, in a relatively minor way, in the 1940s.
"From the 1940s to 1980s, researchers exclusively report Santa Muerte (being invoked) for love miracles," Chesnut said, such as women asking the folk saint to bring back their cheating husbands.
She then faded into obscurity for a few more decades, until the drug wars brought her roaring back.
What's the appeal of a saint of death?
Part of the attraction to Santa Muerte, as several sources familiar with the devotion explained, is that she is seen as a non-judgemental saint that can be invoked for some not-so-holy petitions.
"If somebody is going to be doing something illegal, and they want to be protected from the law enforcement, they feel awkward asking God to protect them," explained Fr. Andres Gutierrez, the pastor of St. Helen parish in Rio Hondo, Texas.
"So they promise something to Santa Muerte in exchange for being protected from the law."
Devotees also feel comfortable going to her for favors of vengeance - something they would never ask of God or a canonized saint, Chesnut said.
"I think this non-judgemental saint who's going to accept me as I am is appealing," Chesnut said, particularly to criminals or to people who don't feel completely accepted within the Mexican Catholic or Evangelical churches.
The cultural Catholicism of Mexico and the drug wars of the past decade also made for the perfect storm for Santa Muerte to catch on, Chesnut explained. Even Mexicans who didn't grow up going to Mass every Sunday still have a basic idea of what Catholicism entails - Mass and Saints and prayers like the rosary, all things that have been hi-jacked and adapted by the Santa Muerte movement.
"You can almost see some of it as kind of an extreme heretical form of folk Catholicism," he said. "In fact, I can say Santa Muerte could only have arisen from a Catholic environment."
(Story continues below)
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This, coupled with the fact that Mexican Catholics are suddenly much more familiar with death, with the recent drug wars having left upwards of 60,000 - 120,000 Mexicans dead - makes a saint of death that much more intriguing.
"Paradoxically, a lot of devotees who feel like death could be just around the corner - maybe they're narcos, maybe they work in the street, maybe they're security guards who might be gunned down - they ask Santa Muerte for protection."
Why she's no saint
Her familiarity and appeal is actually part of the danger of this devotion, Fr. Gutierrez said.
"(Santa Muerte) is literally a demon with another name," he said. "That's what it is."
In his own ministry, Fr. Gutierrez said he has witnessed people who "suffer greatly" following a devotion to the folk saint.