Text: Edgar A. Poe (translator), “The Head of St. John the Baptist,” the New Mirror (New York), June 17, 1843, pp. 169-171


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[page 169, column 2:]

THE HEAD OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST.

Translated from the French for the New Mirror.

ON the route from Barcelona to Valencia is a defile, known by the name of Col de Balaguer. Running between the sea and a chain of hills, the road is everywhere commanded by steep rocks: at one place, where it forms an elbow, enormous stones detached from the rocks, and large crevices, serve as nooks of concealment of malefactors. This place is famous for the number of its assassinations, and six crosses, erected at short distances from each other; announce to the traveller that Christians here met death without having received the holy viaticum, and have not been buried in consecrated ground.

All these murders were attended by the same circumstances, remarkable for their singularity. The first victim who perished in this dreadful defile, was a rich merchant. In the month of March 1828, he was going from Lerida to Tortosa. Some business forced him to leave the direct route. He travelled alone, on his mule: a mendicant friar found him in the morning, lying by the road-side, bathed in blood. A shot had struck him in the forehead, just between his eyes. His money and jewels had been taken, but the assassin had disdained his other effects; his mule was quietly grazing at a little distance., and his valise had not been carried off. With astonishment it was observed [page 170:] that a wooden cross, rudely fashioned, was placed in the hands of the dead man. Officers of justice were sent to the place, but could discover no marks by which to trace out the criminal. Five similar murders were successively committed in the same place; the victims were all struck with the same precision, a single blow, which killed instantaneously. Every one was found with a wooden cross near them.

All these crimes took place at periods not far distant from each other. The eve of the feast of St. Hilaire, of the same year, (October 23d, 1828,) Don Sebastian Aravedra, who had been to Barcelona, to sell wool from Segovia, was assassinated as he was returning to Murcia, to overlook the culture of his olive-trees.

On Low-Sunday, of 1829, Don Juan Andras Escoriasa, having delivered a cargo of muskets at Tarrangona, was going to Tortosa for his trading, when he was killed in the same place.

The 24th of February, 1830, Zoannofer, a pedler, who had been travelling over Navarre and a part of Catalonia, was going to take a boat at Tortosa, to go up the Ebro, when he was murdered in the same manner.

Eight days before the Feast of the Dead, of the same year, Don Antonio Pasquita Dirba, hunter and smuggler, who had been engaged the same morning in facilitating the fraudulent introduction of a cargo of French tobacco, in the environs of Balaguer, was found assassinated in this place, with a loaded musket on his shoulder.

The 14th of January, 1831, Nervasy Alaves was going to Tortosa to deliver a quantity of extract of licorice at Catalonia. He was the last of the unfortunate travellers who were killed in this defile.

These rocks form this time became so famous, they were dreaded not only by travellers, but also by all the inhabitants in their vicinity. Some herdsmen related that in driving their goats on that side, they had found faded flowers on the graves of these strangers, placed there by an unknown hand; they asserted they had seen at evening a tall shadow prostrating itself before the cross, but every time they approached it, it vanished instantly. They said, also, they had heard sad groans at the foot of the hill. At length a religious terror surrounded the place, and he was a bold man who would venture to approach the place alone after sunset.

Nothing had been able to discover or bring the criminal to justice. The public voice had indeed cast suspicion on Verceslas Uriarte, a stranger, by birth of the province of Catalonia. His former mode of life was unknown; it was only presumed that, before the revolution of 1822, he had been a jailer in some prison of the Holy Office. He had also served in the Army of the Faith. Within a few years he had settled in the environs of Tortosa; but no one knew whence he derived the means of procuring his livelihood, though he lived like a noble. Notwithstanding his loudly professed piety, still he was believed wicked and vindictive. They related conversations of his, of such a nature as would induce the believe he was capable of the greatest crimes.

He was asked how one so well skilled in the use of the bow as he, did not love the chase?

“Because you must run some time before you find a hare; after shooting it, you must run to pick it up, and then run to sell it. It is easier to wait for a man; he comes of himself; and when you have killed him, you have only the trouble to search his wallet.”

At another time he got very angry with Antonio Pasquita Dirba for the most trifling cause. Having accompanied him to hunt in the Alfaques, they went into a fisherman’s [column 2:] hut to procure some refreshment. A salad was all they could get. Antonio, to dress it for his companion, handled the rude wooden dish given him very awkwardly. Antonio pretended he used it upside down, and that he was trying to hold the liquid* in the convex part. Antonio maintained it was the hollow side. A quarrel, and a violent one, followed. In the meantime, a person who knew not their dispute came in, and they submitted the utensil to him. He declared at first sight it was a battledore, and consequently had no hollow on either side. Notwithstanding the cause of this altercation was so slight, still Uriate preserved a lively resentment of it, and three days after Antonio Pasquita Dirba was assassinated at the Col de Balaguer.

During Lent, in 1832, a troop of comedians had met with the greatest success at Tarragona, in playing a celebrated auto-sacramentale; the decollation of St. John the Baptist. Hoping for the same success at Tortosa, they set out for that place; the baggage was put on two mules; but Hernando Garcia, who played the part of St. John the Baptist, feared to trust the precious head he wore when acting the death-scene of the saint to the care of the muleteer; the head, with its moveable eyes of enamel, being not the least cause of adding effect. (Nothing is more common in the auto-sacramentale than the representation of the martydom of saints. They choose an actor of small stature, put a skull-cap on his head, to which, by means of springs, a head of pasteboard or wax is fastened; his clothes are made to rise above his own head, leaving only the false one apparent; this is cut off on the stage in such a manner as to produce an astonishing effect.) To carry it safely, Hernando fixed it on by way of head-dress; and, as it was growing late, and the mist rising from the sea being rather cold and uncomfortable, he abandoned himself to the fidelity of his steed, and covered his face and eyes with his cloak. He leisurely followed on at a little distance behind his comrades; when, on turning the rock, the explosion of fire-arms made his horse rear and fling him on the ground. Struggling to disentangle himself from his cloak, he saw a man dart by him, with a carbine in his hand. He jumped up and grasped his stiletto.

Uriate, for it was he, confounded for the first time in missing his aim, was about to escape; but, when he saw the two heads upon each other, the eyes of St. John the Baptist rolling in their orbit in the most horrible manner, the flashing eyes of Garcia beneath, fixed upon him, he believed he had encountered the devil, and was seized with inexpressible fear. He fled, but at every step his alpargatas caught in the brambles; he tried to climb the rock; he seized a shrub which had grown out of a crevice, but it was torn up by the roots, and he rolled down to the feet of Garcia, who was pursuing him. As he fell he stammered, “Noli me tangere Satanas. Vade retro.” In the meantime, the cries of Garcia had brought his comrades to his assistance. They found Uriarte lying on the ground, fear having deprived him of all consciousness. They carried him to the alcalde, mayor of Balaguer. They searched him. He wore a hair-cloth, a rosary, had a prayer-book and some hair of St. Dominick; but they also found a ponaird, four bullets wrapped in bits of linen, and a few charges of English powder in a box. His carbine was still blackened by the smoke of the powder. Uriarte, conquered by these evidences, was forced to confess his crimes. [page 171:]

“But how dare you,” said the magistate, “put the sign of our redemption in the hands of the victims of your wickedness? It is a little thing to kill the body, but to kill the soul is a heinous crime.”

“I carried flowers to their graves. I read prayers over them, to spare them the pains of purgatory. Immediately after death I put crosses which had been blessed in their hands, so that if they were not in a state of grace they could repel demons. But I have seen him! There he is! There he is!” said Uriarte, perceiving Garcia, who, to show the magistrate how he had escaped death, came in with his two heads. “There he is! there he is!” said Uriate; and, seized with nervous spasms, he struggled a few moments and then fell into a state of insensibility.

Uriarte, for good reasons, took exceptions to the inferiour judges, and was, at the request of the procurator-fiscal, carried before the criminal courts, where the depositions of the witnesses proved the facts which have just been related. He was, consequently, condemned to be hung, and his goods were confiscated. 

E. P.


[The following footonotes appear at the bottom of page 170, column 2:]

* Salad is served in Catalonia cut in very small pieces, swimming in a mixture of oil and vinegar, which the Spaniards call broth, calda.

† The alpargatas are shoes worn by almost all the inhabitants of Catalonia and the provinces of Valencia and Grenada. They are made of twisted rushes.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - NM, 1843] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - The Head of St. John the Baptist]