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Columns | “Of books I sing…”

A Gruesome Prophecy
Tattooed on a Soldier’s Breast

Chapter IX,
John F. Finerty Reports Porfirian Mexico: 1879
by John F. Finerty, aka “The Reckless Hibernian”

Early 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 sex.

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.

On 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.

"Of 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.

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