On this date in 1873, Joseph Fry,* captain of the captured U.S. blockade runner Virginius, was shot in Santiago de Cuba along with 36 of his crew members. (The full roster of those executed on November 7 can be found on this page.)
This shocking mass execution just a day after court-martial compassed many U.S. citizens among its number including the captain himself, a former Confederate naval officer, and it threatened to spiral the Virginius crisis into war between the U.S. and Spain.
“The feeling of our citizens was raised to fever heat by the execution of the Cuban leaders,” one paper raged (the Evening Post, as quoted by the Washington, D.C. Daily National Republican of Nov. 13, 1873). “It will now rise to the boiling pitch.” The New York Herald called on the Grant administration to “speak to them [Spain] now with an iron throat before the rest of the victims of the Virginius are slaughtered, and in language that they would understand.” (Nov. 12, 1873)
Within days, the war tocsin rang throughout the American republic, from the lips of Congressmen and the fulminations of editorial pages. Gunships were scrambled from Atlantic ports. Even Tammany Hall passed a resolution demanding hostilities. Under different leadership on either side of the prospective conflict matters could easily have escalated; U.S. papers were soon inflating the already very sizable death toll 80, or even to the entirety of the Virginius crew. This press roundup from the Providence (Rhode Island) Evening Press will suggest the tenor of the moment.
NEW YORK, Nov. 13 — Senator Conkling said in an interview at the 5th Avenue Hotel last night, “If the facts are as represented, I have not the least doubt that instant measures will be adopted to avenge the outraged honor of this country, and teach a lesson they will never forget to those who have dared insult our flag. Those measures will be of a character that will involve not alone the fate of the insurrection in Cuba, but the whole future of the island… The honor of the country will I repeat, be vindicated if on investigation it shall be found that an outrage has been committed on our flag.”
NEW YORK, Nov. 13. — The Herald says, we can no longer trust to diplomatic protest and Madrid orders. Our safety must be in the weight of our metal and bravery of our sailors for the outrage of the murders at Santiago de Cuba …
The Sun says the nation might put up with having their flag trampled upon. They might even submit to murder in cold blood of the Cuban leaders taken under the protection of that flag; but this wholesale butchery shocks every feeling of humanity, and cannot fail to rouse the sentiment of national honor and dignity …
The World says: The pretence of piracy is too absurd for serious discussion. But on any other hypothesis the Cuban authorities had no right to meddle with the Virginius, except within a marine league of their own coast.
The Times says, although we are a peaceable nation,** we have not arrived at the point at which we can stand by and see Spain assassinate American citizens with impunity.
By reply, “The Voz de Cuba of today [Nov. 12, 1873] says editorially that it [is] as humane as anybody, more so than many who make ostentatious professions of philanthropy, but it cannot do less than approve of the energy displayed toward all rebels, and particularly toward those whom the filibustering steamer Virginius brought to make more bloody war on Cuba.” (quoted from the Worcester, Mass. Spy of Nov. 14, 1873)
* An 1875 biography is in the public domain: Life of Capt. Joseph Fry, the Cuban martyr.
** This phrase assuredly appears in the wartime propaganda campaign drinking game.
Part of Corpses Strewn: The Virginius Affair.