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Tattooed on a Soldier’s Breast
Chapter IX, John F. Finerty Reports Porfirian Mexico: 1879
by John F. Finerty, aka “The Reckless Hibernian”
books I sing"
- A Texas Escapes' column
showcasing excerpts from “volumes of forgotten lore.” Rescued from
library sales, thrift store shelves and recycling dumpsters, if it’s
amusing, poignant or illustrates the somewhat overblown and colorful
prose of yesteryear, it can find a place here. Think of it as a home
for unwed paragraphs or a museum of resuscitated sentences.
in the 1870s a popular regiment of the United States Infantry was
stationed at Fort Brown in Texas.
It was a corps that had written its name with sword and bayonet on
the pages of history in our war with Mexico.
In all the ranks of that regiment there was no more well-built and
handsome soldier than Private Bradley. Whether or not he enlisted
under his real name is a military mystery, because a great many of
the wearers of Uncle Sam’s uniform, for one cause or another, masquerade
under assumed names. I remember on one occasion, in Arizona that a
young Infantry officer approached and called me by name. I was surprised
to recognize the youth, a scion of a wealthy and “high-strung” family
of Chicago. A tendency toward wildness and a dispute with his “governor”
had driven him to enlist. He rather liked the life and asked that
I not let his family know that I had seen him. After his five years
of service would expire, he intended to go home and surprise them.
I don’t think that he has fulfilled his intention, because I have
not laid eyes on him since.
Well, Private Bradley may not have been a prince in disguise, but
he was, in the testimony of comrades, a gentleman in manner, well
educated, but rather given to wild adventure and amorous intrigue.
He admitted that he had many voyages at sea, and his familiarity with
the customs and conditions of faraway lands and peoples confirmed
the truth of his interesting narrative. Like most clever fellows destitute
of good moral balance, he was fond of the cup and devoted to the softer
The old historic Mexican city of Matamoros lies across the
Rio Grande from Fort Brown, and is always a source of great attraction
to the soldiers stationed at that post who are often granted passes
as a special favor to visit their Aztec neighbors. Sometimes, when
the privilege is denied, a few of the wilder spirits take “French
leave” and cross to the other side at any risk.
Christmas eve, 1875 was crisp and lighted by stars, as Mexican nights
in that region are about that time of year. Private Bradley was almost
as well known on the streets of Matamoros as the Colonel commanding
Fort Brown himself. It was also well known that the particular attraction
which brought him so often to the right bank of the ugly river was
a certain dark-haired, black-eyed, yet fair-skinned senorita, whose
claim to beauty none denied, but whose reputation for purity might
have been greatly improved. She had many ardent lovers among the sandaled
chivalry of Matamoros, but the graceful form, manly face, and attractive
manners of the young American soldier inflamed her imagination and
won her capricious affections. Bradley first met and danced with her
at a “fandango” and from that hour an intimacy grew between them which
was only terminated by a remarkable tragedy.
the particular Christmas eve mentioned, Bradley asked leave to visit
Matamoros. His commanding officer refused permission on the grounds
that quarrels had been frequent of late over cards and mescal between
American soldiers and soldiers and citizens of Matamoros. Bradley
had made an appointment with his Mexican charmer, and was resolved
not to disappoint her, whatever might be the cost to himself. The
infatuated soldier “ran the guard” and crossed the river to join his
mistress at her residence. There they pledged their mutual love in
many a brimming cup of Coahuila wine before they fell into a sleep
that, for one of them, at least, was to know no waking.
Reveille sounded sharp and clear on the parade ground of Fort Brown
on that beautiful Christmas morning of many long years ago. Roll call
proceeded but the first sergeant of Private Bradley’s company called
his name in vain. The sergeant was surprised for this was the first
time the missing soldier had ever been absent from his proper place
in the ranks. The captain, fearful of something evil, ordered search
and investigation be made at once.
The sun rose scarlet-hued on the towers, domes and spires of picturesque
Matamoros that fair and holy morn. Almost at its first beams the frenzied
shrieks of a woman in mortal terror and distress rang out from a small
house on one of the streets opening on the main square of the city.
Her cries brought both the police and the military patrol. The woman,
young and beautiful was in her night garment, which was splashed and
dyed with blood. The officer of the patrol asked what was wrong and
with trembling hand, she pointed to the open door of the house. With
renewed wailing and yet wilder shrieks, she led the way into the house,
through the kitchen and into the bed chamber.
The sight that met the eyes of the beholders was such as to shock
the most hardened of them. The bed had been placed beside the window
and like all windows in Mexico,
it was barred, but not very close. The lattice or blind had been pushed
aside. The light of the early day fell upon a bloody couch, and upon
it the ghastly corpse of the stalwart young American whose dead face
wore a look of agonized surprise. The body rested upon the back, and
through the left breast was driven a stiletto which pinned it to the
bed. The assassin had pushed his arm through the window bars and had
committed his dastardly crime while the unsuspecting victim slept.
The wretched woman, steeped in the fumes of wine, had slept until
the chill of early dawn and a sensation of inexplicable horror had
aroused her. She became violently insane and had to be removed to
a place of safe detention.
The American commandant sent a surgeon, with a few men to investigate
the sad affair. When the American party reached the fatal house near
the plaza, one of the soldiers immediately identified the dead body
as that of Bradley, and tearing aside the bloodstained shirt of the
victim, cried out to the surgeon, “look there, sir!
The surgeon did look and saw the dreadful weapon of death had entered
the breast just below the left nipple, had pierced the heart and back
and had absolutely, so to speak, nailed the body to the reeking mattress.
After removing the dagger and washing away the blood, the surgeon
saw that the breast had been artistically tattooed, after the fashion
prevalent in the navy, with the shield and arms of the United States.
This was on the right breast while on the left, partially perforated
by the cruel stiletto, was tattooed a human heart with a dagger piercing
it and the red blood gushing from the wound.