A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook

Author: Richard Harding Davis  | Date: 1897

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Richard Harding Davis New York 1897 Harper and Bros.

The Death of a Cuban Patriot


Adolfo Rodriguez was the only son of a Cuban farmer, who lived nine miles outside of Santa Clara beyond the hills that surround that city to the north.

When the revolution broke out young Rodriguez joined the insurgents, leaving his father and mother and two sisters at the farm. He was taken, in December of 1896, by a force of the Guardia Civile, the corps d’élite of the Spanish army, and defended himself when they tried to capture him, wounding three of them with his machete.

He was tried by a military court for bearing arms against the government, and was sentenced to be shot by a fusillade some morning before sunrise . . .

I witnessed his execution.

There had been a full moon the night preceding the execution, and when the squad of soldiers marched out from town it was still shining brightly through the mists, although it was past five o’clock . . .

As the light increased a mass of people came hurrying from the town with two black figures leading them, and the soldiers drew up at attention, and part of the double line fell back and left an opening in the square.

With us a condemned man walks only the short distance from his cell to the scaffold or the electric chair by the prison walls, and it often occurs even then that the short journey is too much for his strength and courage.

But the merciful Spaniards on this morning made the prisoner walk for over a half-mile across the broken surface of the fields. I expected to find the man, no matter what his strength at other times might be, stumbling and faltering on this cruel journey; but as he came nearer I saw that he led all the others, that the priests on either side of him were taking two steps to his one . . .

He had a handsome, gentle face of the peasant type, a light, pointed beard, great wistful eyes, and a mess of curly black hair. He was shockingly young for such a sacrifice, and looked more like a Neapolitan than a Cuban.

I confess to have felt a thrill of satisfaction when I saw, as the Cuban passed me, that he held a cigarette between his lips, not arrogantly nor with bravado, but with the nonchalance of a man who meets his punishment fearlessly, and who will let his enemies see that they can kill but cannot frighten him . . .

As the officer gave the first conmand he straightened himself as far as the cords would allow, and held up his head and fixed his eyes immovably on the morning light, which had just begun to show above the hills.

He made a picture of such pathetic helplessness, but of such courage and dignity, that he reminded me on the instant of that statue of Nathan Hale which stands in City Hall Park, above the roar of Broadway, and teaches a lesson daily to the hurrying crowds of money-makers who pass beneath.

And then happened one of the most cruelly refined, though unintentional, acts of torture that one can very well imagine. As the officer slowly raised his sword, preparatory to giving the signal, one of the mounted officers rode up to him and pointed out silently what I had already observed with some satisfaction, that the firing squad were so placed that when they fired they would shoot several of the soldiers stationed on the extreme end of the square.

Their captain motioned his men to lower their pieces, and then walked across the grass and laid his hand on the shoulder of the waiting prisoner.

It is not pleasant to think what that shock must have been. The man had steeled himself to receive a volley of bullets in his back. He believed that in the next instant he would be in another world; he heard the command given, had heard the dick of the Mausers as the locks caught—and then, at that supreme moment, a human hand had been laid on his shoulder and a voice spoke in his ear.

This boy mined his head steadily, and followed with his eyes the direction of the officer’s sword, then nodded his head gravely, and with his shoulders squared, took up a new position, straightened his back again, and once more held himself erect.

As an exhibition of self-control this should surely rank above feats of heroism performed in battle.

The officer of the firing-squad, mortified by his blunder, hastily whipped up his sword, the men at once levelled their rifles, the sword rose, dropped, and the men fired. At the report the Cuban’s head snapped back almost between his shoulders, but his body fell slowly, as though some one had pushed him gently forward from behind and he had stumbled.

He sank on his side in the wet grass without a straggle or a sound, and did not move again.

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Chicago: Richard Harding Davis, A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook, ed. Richard Harding Davis in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CSNDR26E83MBR8W.

MLA: Davis, Richard Harding. A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook, edited by Richard Harding Davis, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CSNDR26E83MBR8W.

Harvard: Davis, RH, A Year from a Reporter’s Notebook, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CSNDR26E83MBR8W.