Legends of the City of Mexico | Annotated Tale

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Legend of the Living Spectre

APPARITIONS of dead people, Señor, of course are numerous and frequent. I myself--as on other occasions I have mentioned to you--have seen several spectres, and so have various of my friends. But this spectre of which I now am telling you--that appeared on the Plaza Mayor at noonday, and was seen by everybody--was altogether out of the ordinary: being not in the least a dead person, but a person who wore his own flesh and bones in the usual manner and was alive in them; yet who certainly was walking and talking here on the Plaza Mayor of this City of Mexico in the very self-same moment that he also was walking and talking in a most remote and wholly different part of the world. Therefore--in spite of his wearing his own flesh and bones in the usual manner and being alive in them--it was certain that he was a spectre: because it was certain that his journeying could have been made only on devils' wings. The day on which this marvel happened is known most exactly: because it happened on the day after the day that the Governor of the Filipinas, Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, had his head murderously split open, and died of it, in the Molucca Islands; and that gentleman was killed in that bad manner on the 25th of October in the year 1593. Therefore--since everything concerning this most extraordinary happening is known with so great an accuracy--there can be no doubt whatever but that in every particular all that I now am telling you is strictly true.

                Because it began in two different places at the same time, it is not easy to say certainly, Señor, which end of this story is the beginning of it; but the beginning of it is this: On a day, being the day that I have just named to you, the sentries on guard at the great doors of the Palace--and also the people who at that time happened to be walking near by on the Plaza Mayor--of a sudden saw an entirely strange sentry pacing his beat before the great doors of the Palace quite in the regular manner: marching back and forth, with his gun on his shoulder; making his turns with a soldierly propriety; saluting correctly those entitled to salutes who passed him; and in every way conducting himself as though he duly had been posted there--but making his marchings and his turnings and his salutings with a wondering look on the face of him, and having the air of one who is all bedazzled and bemazed.

                What made every one know that he was a stranger in this City was that the uniform which he wore was of a wholly different cut and fabric from that belonging to any regiment at that time quartered here: being, in fact--as was perceived by one of the sentries who had served in the Filipinas--the uniform worn in Manila by the Palace Guard. He was a man of forty, or thereabouts; well set up and sturdy; and he had the assured carriage--even in his bedazzlement and bemazement--of an old soldier who had seen much campaigning, and who could take care of himself through any adventure in which he might happen to land. Moreover, his talk--when the time came for him to explain himself--went with a devil-may-care touch to it that showed him to be a man who even with witches and demons was quite ready to hold his own.

                His explanation of himself, of course, was not long in coming: because the Captain of the Guard at once was sent for; and when the Captain of the Guard came he asked the stranger sentry most sharply what his name was, and where he came from, and what he was doing on a post to which he had not been assigned.

                To these questions the stranger sentry made answer--speaking with an easy confidence, and not in the least ruffled by the Captain's sharpness with him--that his name was Gil Pérez; that he came from the Filipinas; and that what he was doing was his duty as near as he could come to it: because he had been duly detailed to stand sentry that morning before the Governor's Palace--and although this was not the Governor's Palace before which he had been posted it certainly was a governor's palace, and that he therefore was doing the best that he could do. And to these very curious statements he added--quite casually, as though referring to an ordinary matter of current interest--that the Governor of the Filipinas, Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, had had his head murderously split open, and was dead of it, in the Molucca Islands the evening before.

                Well, Señor, you may fancy what a nest of wasps was let loose when this Gil Pérez gave to the Captain of the Guard so incredible an account of himself; and, on top of it, told that the Governor of the Filipinas had been badly killed on the previous evening in islands in the Pacific Ocean thousands and thousands of miles away! It was a matter that the Viceroy himself had to look into. Therefore before the Viceroy--who at that time was the good Don Luis de Velasco--Gil Pérez was brought in a hurry: and to the Viceroy he told over again just the same story, in just the same cool manner, and in just the same words.

                Very naturally, the Viceroy put a great many keen questions to him; and to those questions he gave his answers--or said plainly that he could not give any answers--with the assured air of an old soldier who would not lightly suffer his word to be doubted even by a Viceroy; and who was ready, in dealing with persons of less consequence, to make good his sayings with his fists or with his sword.

                In part, his explanation of himself was straightforward and satisfactory. What he told about the regiment to which he belonged was known to be true; and equally known to be true was much of what he told--being in accord with the news brought thence by the latest galleon--about affairs in the Filipinas. But when it came to explaining the main matter--how he had been shifted across the ocean and the earth, and all in a single moment, from his guard-mount before the Governor's Palace in Manila to his guard-mount before the Viceroy's Palace in the City of Mexico--Gil Pérez was at a stand. How that strange thing had happened, he said, he knew no more than Don Luis himself knew. All that he could be sure of was that it had happened: because, certainly, only a half hour earlier he had been in Manila; and now, just as certainly, he was in the City of Mexico--as his lordship the Viceroy could see plainly with his own eyes. As to the even greater marvel--how he knew that on the previous evening the Governor of the Filipinas had had his head murderously split open, and was dead of it, in the Molucca Islands--he said quite freely that he did not in the least know how he knew it. What alone he could be sure of, he said, was that in his heart he did know that Don Gómez had been killed on the previous evening in that bad manner; and he very stoutly asserted that the truth of what he told would be clear to Don Luis, and to everybody, when the news of the killing of Don Gómez had had time to get to Mexico in the ordinary way.

                And then Gil Pérez--having answered all of the Viceroy's questions which he could answer, and having said all that he had to say--stood quite at his ease before the Viceroy: with his feet firmly planted, and his right hand on his hip, and his right arm akimbo--and so waited for whatever might happen to be the next turn.

                Well, Señor, the one thing of which anybody really could be sure in this amazing matter--and of which, of course, everybody was sure--was that the devil was at both the bottom and the top of it; and, also, there seemed to be very good ground for believing that Gil Pérez was in much closer touch with the devil than any good Christian--even though he were an old soldier, and not much in the way of Christianity expected of him--had any right to be. Therefore the Viceroy rid himself of an affair that was much the same to him as a basket of nettles by turning Gil Pérez over to the Holy Office--and off he was carried to Santo Domingo and clapped into one of the strongest cells.

                Most men, of course, on finding themselves that way in the clutches of the Inquisition, would have had all the insides of them filled with terror; but Gil Pérez, Señor--being, as I have mentioned, an old campaigner--took it all as it came along to him and was not one bit disturbed. He said cheerfully that many times in the course of his soldiering he had been in much worse places; and added that--having a good roof over his head, and quite fair rations, and instead of marching and fighting only to sit at his ease and enjoy himself--he really was getting, for once in his life, as much of clear comfort as any old soldier had a right to expect would come his way. Moreover, in his dealings with the Familiars of the Holy Office his conduct was exemplary. He stuck firmly to his assertion that--whatever the devil might have had to do with him--he never had had anything to do with the devil; he seemed to take a real pleasure in confessing as many of his sins as he conveniently could remember; and in every way that was open to him his conduct was that of quite as good a Christian as any old soldier reasonably could be expected to be.

                Therefore--while he staid on in his cell very contentedly--the Familiars of the Holy Office put their heads together and puzzled and puzzled as to what they should do with him: because it certainly seemed as though the devil, to suit his own devilish purposes, simply had made a convenience of Gil Pérez without getting his consent in the matter; and so it did not seem quite fair--in the face of his protest that he was as much annoyed as anybody was by what the devil had done with him--to put him into a flame-covered sanbenito, and to march him off to be burned for a sorcerer at the next auto de fé. Therefore the Familiars of the Holy Office kept on putting their heads together and puzzling and puzzling as to what they should do with him; and Gil Pérez kept on enjoying himself in his cell in Santo Domingo--and so the months went on and on.

                And then, on a day, a new turn was given to the whole matter: when the galleon from the Filipinas arrived at Acapulco and brought with it the proof that every word that Gil Pérez had spoken was true. Because the galleon brought the news that Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas--the crew of the ship that he was on having mutinied--really had had his head murderously split open, and was dead of it, in the Molucca Islands; and that this bad happening had come to him at the very time that Gil Pérez had named. Moreover, one of the military officers who had come from the Filipinas in the galleon, and up from Acapulco to the City of Mexico with the conducta, recognized Gil Pérez the moment that he laid eyes on him; and this officer said that he had seen him--only a day or two before the galleon's sailing--on duty in Manila with the Palace Guard. And so the fact was settled beyond all doubting that Gil Pérez had been brought by the devil from Manila to the City of Mexico; and, also, that the devil--since only the devil could have done it--had put the knowledge of the murderous killing of Don Gómez into his heart. Wherefore the fact that Gil Pérez was in league with the devil was clear to all the world.

                Then the Familiars of the Holy Office for the last time put their heads together and puzzled and puzzled over the matter; and at the end of their puzzling they decided that Gil Pérez was an innocent person, and that he undoubtedly had had criminal relations with the devil and was full of wickedness. Therefore they ordered that, being innocent, he should be set free from his cell in Santo Domingo; and that, being a dangerous character whose influence was corrupting, he should be sent back to Manila in the returning galleon. And that was their decree.

                Gil Pérez, Señor, took that disposition of him in the same easy-going way that he had taken all the other dispositions of him: save that he grumbled a little--as was to be expected of an old soldier--over having to leave his comfortably idle life in his snug quarters and to go again to his fightings and his guard-mounts and his parades. And so back he went to the Filipinas: only his return journey was made in a slow and natural manner aboard the galleon--not, as his outward journey had been made, all in a moment on devils' wings.

                To my mind, Señor, it seems that there is more of this story that ought to be told. For myself, I should like to know why the Familiars of the Holy Office did not deal a little more severely with a case that certainly had the devil at both the bottom and the top of it; and, also, I should like to know what became of Gil Pérez when he got back to Manila in the galleon--and there had to tell over again about his relations with the devil in order to account for his half year's absence from duty without leave. But those are matters which I never have heard mentioned; and what I have told you is all that there is to tell.


The theme of this legend--the transportation by supernatural means of a living person from one part of the world to another--is among the most widely distributed of folk-story motives. In The Arabian Nights--to name an easily accessible work of reference--it is found repeatedly in varying forms. In Irving's Alhambra a version of it is given--"Governor Manco and the Old Soldier"--that has a suggestive resemblance to the version of my text. Distinction is given to the Mexican story, however, by its presentment by serious historians in association with, and as an incident of, an otherwise well-authenticated historical tragedy.

                That Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, Governor of the Filipinas, did have his head badly split open, and died of it, in the Molucca Islands, on the 25th of October in the year 1593, and that on that same day announcement of his so-painful ending was made in the City of Mexico, are statements of natural and of supernatural fact which equally rest upon authority the most respectable: as appears from Señor Obregón's documentation of the legend, that I here present in a condensed form.

                Guarded testimony in support of the essential marvel of the story is found in a grave historical work of the period, Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, written by the learned Dr. Antonio de Morga, a Judge of the Criminal Court of the Royal Audiencia and sometime legal adviser (consultor) to the Holy Office in New Spain. This eminent personage notes as a curious fact that the news of the murder of Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas was known on the Plaza Mayor of the City of Mexico on the very day that the murder occurred; but adds--his legal caution seemingly disposing him to hedge a little--that he is ignorant of the means by which the news was brought.

                Without any hedging whatever, Fray Gaspar de San Agustin, in his Conquista de las Islas Philipinas (Madrid, 1698), tells the whole story in a whole-hearted way. According to Fray Gaspar, there arrived in Manila about the year 1593, Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas being at that time Governor, ambassadors sent by the King of Cambodia--one of them a Portuguese named Diego Belloso, and the other a Spaniard named Antonio Barrientes--whose mission was to ask the assistance of the Spaniards in repelling an invasion of Cambodia, then threatened by the King of Siam. As a present from the King to the Governor, the embassy brought "two beautiful elephants (dos hermosos elefantes), which were the first ever seen in Manila."

                Don Gómez Pérez promised readily the assistance asked for; but with the intention of using a pretended expedition to Cambodia as a cloak for a real expedition to seize the Moluccas. To this end he assembled an armada, made up of four galleys and of attendant smaller vessels, on which he embarked a considerable military force; and, along with the soldiers, certain "notable persons and venerable religious." His preparations being completed, he sailed from Manila on October 17, 1593. A week later, the capitana galley, having on board the Governor, was separated from the fleet by a storm and was driven to take shelter in the harbor of Punta de Azufre: to make which haven the two hundred and fifty Chinese rowers were kept at their work with so cruel a rigor, the climax of other cruelties, that they determined to mutiny. Accordingly, on the night of their arrival, October 25th, "putting on white tunics that they might know each other in the darkness," they rose against the Spaniards and murdered every one of them--the Governor, as he came forth from his cabin, having "his head half split open"--and tossed their dead bodies overboard into the sea.

                Fray Gaspar points out that Don Gómez Pérez came to that bad end as a just reward from heaven, because on various occasions he arrogantly had "contended and disputed" with the Bishop of the Filipinas; and in support of this view of the matter he declares that the Governor's deserved murder "was announced in Manila and in Mexico by supernatural signs." In Manila the announcement was symbolical: "On the very day of his killing there opened in the wall [of the Convent of San Agustin] on which his portrait was painted a crack that corresponded precisely with the splitting of his skull." Of the other announcement, that described in the legend, he writes in these assured terms: "It is worthy of deep ponderation that on the very same day on which took place the tragedy of Gómez Pérez that tragedy was known in Mexico by the art of Satan: who, making use of some women inclined to such agilities (algunas mujeres inclinadas á semejantes agilidades), caused them to transplant to the Plaza Mayor of the City of Mexico a soldier standing guard on the walls of Manila; and this was accomplished so unfelt by the soldier that in the morning--when he was found walking sentry, musket in hand, in that city--he asked of those who addressed him in what city he was. By the Holy Office it was ordered that he should be sent back to these islands: where many who knew him have assured me of the truth of this event."

                Señor Obregón's comment, at once non-committal and impartial, on Fray Gaspar's narrative admits of no improvement. I give it in his own words: "In the face of the asseveration of so brainy a chronicler (un cronista tan sesudo) we neither trump nor discard (no ponemos ni quitamos rey)"; to which he adds a jingle advising the critical that he gives the story as it was given to him:

"Y si lector, dijeres, ser comento,      
Como me lo contaron te lo cuento."

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Legend of the Living Spectre
Tale Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Book Title: Legends of the City of Mexico
Book Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1910
Country of Origin: Mexico
Classification: unclassified

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