In the prior article on Captain Joseph Fry, I briefly laid out the details of his life. Now, I wish to write this second article about the details of his death. The Virginius Affair might be well-known to diligent students of American history. This was yet another event which fanned the flames of animosity between America and Spain, which would finally burst into an inferno twenty-five years later.
This tragic event has its beginning when Joseph Fry left Louisiana for New York City in order to find a position of command on an ocean steamer. His efforts led to him being introduced to General Manuel Quesada, a leader of the Cuban resistance, who convinced Fry to captain the steamer Virginius. The old vessel would be put to use by the Cuban freedom fighters as a blockade runner; even though the vessel suffered from not being well maintained. This would prove fatal later, but Fry, desperate to find a means of providing for his family, eagerly accepted the command. In the hope that the Stars and Stripes would provide some protection, they registered the vessel as an American ship.
From the first, the Virginius lay under the suspicion of the Spanish government. After this vessel left the harbor of Kingston, Jamaica, the Spanish warship Tornado received the order to capture her. Not far from the coast of Jamaica, the Virginius was sighted by this Spanish vessel and chase was given. A day long chase and the dilapidated condition of the Virginius led to her capture on October 31, 1873. Captain Fry’s hope that the American flag would provide some protection to the crew was dashed when the Spaniards declared Fry’s vessel a pirate ship, hauled down the flag, and kicked and trampled upon it. Fry addressed the boarding officer thus: “If my men were armed, you would not thus treat the American flag with impunity.”
At Santiago, the prisoners, save for the captain, were denied the right of appealing to their consul, and both American and British consuls were prevented from sending a message to their home countries. After a very short trial, four resistance leaders who were captured on board were executed on November 5th. Despite Fry’s many protests on behalf of the crew and passengers (he never pleaded for his own life), Fry and forty-eight of his passengers and crew were executed by firing squad on the 7th. However, only Fry went down on the first volley: the rest were sabered and bayoneted to death. It is a wonder that war did not begin there and then between the United States and Spain. To execute blockade runners was a breach of international law, and many veterans, North and South, declared their wish to punish Spain for this barbarity. To make things worse, the Spaniards would have continued to massacre the rest of the ninety-three passengers and crew were it not for the British captain Sir Lambert Lorraine arriving at Santiago with his man-of-war and ordering the Spanish authorities to cease and desist.
Thus ended the life of Captain Joseph Fry at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind a wife and seven children. Grant’s administration was content with a wergild of $80,000 for the relatives of the condemned men paid by the Spanish government. The British government is said to have received a better deal. Many of the Spanish officers and officials not only went unpunished by their government for the hasty trial and execution, but were even promoted shortly after the event.
If anything good stands out in this event, it is simply Captain Joseph Fry’s unselfish attempts to save the lives of his crew and passengers. The last letter he wrote to his wife highlights his unselfish character and concern for his family. I wish to end this article with this touching letter as well as encouraging my dear readers to pick up this great man’s biography, The Life of Captain Joseph Fry the Cuban Martyr by Jeanie Mort Walker.
On Board the Spanish Man of War La Tornado
Santiago de Cuba, November 6, 1873
Dear, dear, Dita: When I left you I had no idea that we should never meet again in this world; but it seems strange to me that I should tonight, and on Annie’s birthday, be calmly seated, on a beautiful moonlight night, in a most beautiful bay in Cuba, to take my last leave of you, my own dear, sweet wife! and with the thought of your bitter anguish my only regret at leaving.
I have been tried today and the President of the court martial asked the favor of embracing me at parting, and clasped me to his heart. I have shaken hands with each of my judges; and the secretary of the court and interpreter promised me, as a special favor, to attend execution, which will, I am told, be in a very few hours after my sentence is pronounced. I am told my death will be painless: in short, I had a very cheerful and pleasant chat about my funeral, to which I shall go in a few hours from now. How soon I cannot yet say. It is curious to see how I make friends. Poor Bambetta pronounced me a gentleman, and he was the brightest and bravest creature I ever saw.
The priest who gave me communion on this morning put a double scapular about the neck, and a medal, which he intends to wear himself. A young Spanish officer brought me a bright, new silk badge, with the Blessed Virgin stamped upon it, to wear to my execution for him, and a handsome cross in some fair lady’s handiwork. These are to be kept as relics me. He embraced me affectionately in my room with tears in his eyes…
Dear sweetheart, you will be able to bear it for my sake, for I will be with you if God permits it. Although I know my hours are short and few, I am not sad. I feel I shall always be with you right soon, dear Dita, and you will not be afraid of me…
Pray for me and I will pray with you…There is to be a fearful sacrifice of life from the Virginius, and, as I think, a needless one, as the poor people are unconscious of crime, and even of their fate up to now. I hope God will forgive me if I am to blame for it.
If you write to President Grant, he will probably order my pay, due when I resigned, paid to you after my death…People will be kinder to you now, dear Dita; at least I hope so. Do not dread death when it comes to you; it will be as God’s angel of rest–remember this…
I hope my children will forget their father’s harshness, and remember his love and anxiety for them. May they practice regularly their religion and pray for him always…
Tell [Our Lord] that the last act of my life will be a public profession of my faith and hope in Him of whom we need not be ashamed–and it is not honest to withhold that public acknowledgment from any false modesty or timidity. May God bless and save us all.
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Sweet, dear, dear Dita, we will soon meet again. Till then, adieu, for the last time.
Your devoted husband,