Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Man Who Burnt John Rogers

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Man Who Burnt John Rogers

By Robert Charles Sands (1799–1832)

[Born in Flatbush, Long Island, N. Y., 1799. Died at Hoboken, N. J., 1832. Writings, in Prose and Verse. 1834.]

ON board of one of the ships sent out by Walter Raleigh under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth, to make discoveries along the North American coast, was a passenger of a singular and melancholy aspect, who from the first moment of departure was regarded by all the company with eyes of doubt and suspicion. There was a settled gloom upon his countenance, mingled with an expression that seemed sinister and malign, at the same time that it was timorous; and there was a restlessness and uneasiness in his deportment and gait which it was disagreeable for one who noted him to observe. He would sometimes start when there was neither sound nor sight, nor other cause of agitation. Sometimes he was seen, as darkness was descending over the waters, to conceal himself near the ship’s stern, or among ropes and coils of cable; on which occasions he would start and turn pale, as if detected in guilty musings, or would assume a savage aspect, as if he wished to destroy the intruder on his stolen privacy. The horrors of a guilty conscience seemed evidently to possess him. It seemed as if its workings had given him an unnatural appearance of premature age. The lines of his face and the furrows of his brow were deeply impressed; and a morbid imagination might almost trace, in the dusky red characters of the latter, the thunder-scars of the fallen angels. His hair in some places had turned completely gray. And yet, on the whole, he seemed not to have numbered more than forty years.

He entered the vessel under the general invitation, unknown to any of the ship’s company. A rumor was soon current that his assumed name was fictitious, and that he had done some deed which rendered him odious among mankind. His crime was variously surmised, and, among other things, it was whispered that he had been an executioner. There were in that ship many desperadoes, and many who were flying from justice at home for crimes which in any country would have made them infamous. But no man inquired into or cared for his neighbor’s character, though notoriously bad. This man alone, convicted by his peculiar and disagreeable physiognomy and manner, was the mark of aversion to all his fellow-voyagers. The awkward attempts which he made, during the first few days of their voyage, to form acquaintances, met with such unpromising reception that he desisted, and became uniformly silent. The women passengers avoided his glance, or looked at him askance, with a mingled expression of curiosity and horror; and at night they stifled the cries of their children by telling them that the Strange Man was coming. At meal-times, a solitary corner became his own by prescription, where his food was given and received in silence: and at night he retired to a couch, from the vicinity of which the occupants of the adjacent dormitories had removed; as they said his motions, groans, and cries prevented them from sleeping. The sailors regarded him with a superstitious dislike, as the Jonas of their vessel, and avoided, or coarsely repulsed him, when he drew near them at their work. He frequently overheard their comments on his situation, and their surmises as to the cause of his revolting appearance, and the disgust it excited; which were all, however various, alike disgraceful to him.

Thus, on the bosom of the ocean, and within the narrow prison of a ship, without friend or counsellor, or the power of vindicating himself (for who can fight single-handed with prejudice?) among hundreds of his fellow-beings, men of like passions with himself, this wretched exile found himself the focal object of aversion, hatred, and disgust. He seemed to be in the situation of a guilty ghost; more tormented in its unnatural exposure to the living world than in its congenial hell; or like some of the prodigies with which the superstitions of different ages have teemed; like one who had been bitten by a rabid wolf; or who, having had his own veins sucked by a visitant from the charnel-house, had become himself possessed by the horrible appetite for blood. He was like the first-born Cain, bearing an obvious but inexplicable mark, which was at once the stamp of his guilt and his protection from the death which he coveted; or like the Jew who insulted our Divine Redeemer, as he passed on to his closing passion, branded with the indelible stigma which men trembled at and fled from. But the first murderer and the wandering Israelite had the world before them, with its solitudes and lurking-places, where no human countenance could obtrude with its expression of scorn, or fear, or detestation. This man was tied to his stake, with a tether whose shortness only allowed him to make idle and maddening efforts to hide himself from the many hundred eyes that glanced distrustfully and with loathing upon him. The Hindoo who has lost his caste can mingle with others, who, however despised by millions around them, at least form a community and fellowship of misery. But this man was alone; and the hatred for all his persecutors, which he gave them back in return for their aversion, was silently consuming his heart.

There was, however, a young man, named Rogers, among the company, whose sympathy for the desolate state of this individual overcame the repugnance which, in common with the others, he could not help feeling. He had, once or twice, made an effort, when none observed him, to break through the sphere of repulsion with which the lonely man had become invested. But the latter, supposing his object was derision or insult, avoided his looks and retreated from his advance. Rogers, however, had marked him, when he apparently thought himself secure from notice. He had observed that he wore a shirt of coarse hair under his upper garments, and had seen him in the attitude of prayer telling his beads. He naturally concluded that the source of so much anguish was some dreadful and unforgiven crime, for which he was undergoing penance.

The weather, which had long been threatening in appearance, now indicated an approaching storm; and the symptoms increased in terror and in certainty. A tremendous gale rendered it impossible for the ship to carry any canvas; and night came on with tenfold darkness. The commander of this vessel, now separated from the others, was in the utmost perplexity; and the ship was alternately rolling and driving under bare poles, at the mercy of the tempest. At first a murmur, and soon a shout was heard among the crew, that the strange man should be brought forth and thrown overboard.

Roused by the clamor and the sound of his name, reiterated amid the uproar, the unfortunate being sprung from his troubled slumbers, and rushed upon deck. He trembled in every joint and fibre; his hair rose in distinct bristles; and his eyes, after wandering wildly, fixed in an intense gaze that spoke of expected evil, dreadful and inevitable. It seemed as if he had been summoned to reveal to the assembled universe the secret that overburdened his heart, and to receive the forfeit of some unpardonable sin, among the hootings and cursings of mankind. No one approached him who regarded his countenance by the fitful light of the lanterns; but those immediately before him shrunk backward, under the overpowering influence of preternatural terror. Two stout seamen, however, sprang from behind, and were hurrying him rapidly towards the gangway. He was urged along so speedily, that he made no resistance until on the verge of destruction. The ship rolled downward on the side whence he was about to be precipitated; and a ruddy flash which streamed from a lantern held near the spot, fell upon the troubled waste beyond. They were on the summit of an immeasurable mountain-wave; and the wretch looked downward and downward into infinite darkness; while stretching high above, before him, another advancing Alp of waters was impending over the gulf, which was to be to him the abyss of eternity. He uttered one long and shrill and piercing shriek; and clung, in the agony of his struggle, so firmly to his conductors, that they in vain endeavored to shake him off; but when they had pushed him from his foothold, he adhered, with the tenacity of despair, to the gripe he had taken of each of them, and was thus suspended over the yawning shades below. One was advancing with a cutlass to sever him from his tormentors and from life, when the vessel, shifting its position, threw all three backward. His grasp relaxed; he fell, as if exanimate, and rolled against the mast. The two men, having sprung again on their feet, were kicking him towards the opposite quarter; when Rogers, who had been standing near, interrupted them, and arrested the body of their intended victim in its progress. The whole scene had passed in a few moments; but in that brief interval the poor Jonas of the ship had passed through all the bitterness of death. Rogers now remonstrated with the seamen, but to no purpose. In vain he represented that the man had an equal right with themselves to the precarious protection which the ship yet yielded them; that they might one day be called to account for it; and that, though they should escape from human tribunals, they must eventually, and might, perhaps, in a few moments, follow this now living being, who had never offended them, to the last common audit, to answer for their usurpation of the attribute of God.

His intercession would have been altogether ineffectual, had not the commander himself at that moment appeared, and restored order by directing the execution of some new manœuvre. While the attention of the men was thus diverted, Rogers dragged the insensible being down to his couch, and deposited him there in darkness and temporary safety. He opened his eyes, which fixed for a moment on his deliverer; then, turning on his face, he enveloped himself in his covering, and lay coiled in the farthest corner of the recess which had been allotted him to sleep in.

The storm abated, and courage and confidence returned to the crew. On the day following the night of his jeopardy the strange being crawled from his lurking-place, unobserved, until he suddenly made his appearance in his usual place at the hour of dining. His danger on the preceding night was not generally known; but the company looked at him with a creeping sensation of superstitious awe, when they saw that his hair had turned completely white. His lower jaw seemed to have dropped. His head was bowed low over the trencher, from which, with trembling hands he took his allotted fare. Silence for some time prevailed in the cabin; and when the spell was passing away, the speakers addressed each other in an undertone, that sounded unnaturally to themselves, rebuked as it was by the fear that had fallen upon them. From a furtive glance which he threw towards him, Rogers thought that the object of so much terror recognized him as having been his preserver. He soon took an opportunity, unobserved, of beckoning to him, and the man followed him to a retired corner. Not without some emotion, Rogers requested him to meet him, at midnight, on the quarterdeck. “I will, sir,” replied the man: “I believe I owe you my life. Would to God I had never incurred the debt. May I know the name of one, who, at any rate, meant to befriend me?”—“Rogers.” At this word the man recoiled. His limbs seemed seized with a sudden paralysis, and he was only sustained from sinking by a projecting timber. “I know you not,” said Rogers: “you never did me any injury: I may do you some good. Remember your appointment.” So saying, he left him.

Whether curiosity or humanity had most influence with the young man in seeking this interview, is a question which, probably, he did not ask himself. Whatever was the original motive, the former inducement was now exceedingly strong. He determined to gain from the stranger a confession of the cause of his situation; and though it could not possibly interest him, though it might involve him in a troublesome confidence, or stamp on his memory some disagreeable picture with which his imagination might be ever after haunted, though the supposed possession of the man’s secret, or even a discovery of their private conference might render him obnoxious to the dislike of all his companions,—he still felt impatient until the hour should come which was to gratify his desire of penetrating this mystery. Such is the disease of the mind, however denominated, or by whatsoever cause excited, inseparably connected with the thirst for knowledge. Eve could not have disbelieved the warning which she heard from the lips of Omnipotence; that evil, however darkly apprehended as to its nature, must follow the breach of the Divine prohibition; and yet she plucked and ate, and death came into the world.

The wind had lulled, but a universal darkness covered the face of the deep as the appointed hour drew nigh. Save the watch and himself, all the inhabitants of the vessel were resting below from the fatigues and alarms of the previous night and day, as Rogers was slowly pacing the quarter-deck. The lights from the binnacle glimmered with wan and melancholy rays, deepening the infinity of gloom around. The ocean seemed moaning, as if after its recent tortures. There was no other sight nor sound, until a stifled groan fell on the ear of Rogers—a sob of deep agony, which the sufferer seemed vainly endeavoring to repress. He looked in the direction whence it came, and indistinctly discerned a figure advancing with irregular movements, and half-crawling towards him. He began to experience an unaccountable nervous agitation. This man was probably insane; perhaps unnaturally visited by some demoniac possession. Credulity was rife with stories of the kind at that time. Why had he sought this intimacy? Why summoned him in private, at this untimely and ghostly hour? But the figure had reached him, and after a little timid observation, the strange being stood up and began to gaze earnestly on Rogers’ countenance, as the dim light played flittingly across its features. There was nothing to terrify the subject of its scrutiny, either in the gaze, or in the appearance of the examiner. For the former soon changed from the expression of anxiety to that of humble entreaty; and the figure shook as with decrepitude. And, indeed, after a short time he fell down on his knees, took hold of his young defender by the skirts, and looked up to him with an imploring eye. Rogers drew him from his abject situation to the stem of the vessel, and there bade him sit down beside him.

Silence succeeded for a few moments; when, with some hesitation, he addressed him: “I believe I did, indeed, preserve your life last night. You say you cannot rejoice at your deliverance. I have felt compassion for you, because you are alone among so many. Confide in me, and I will extend my protection still further. Whatever crime you may have committed, you are going to the deserts of a new world, where you may begin a new existence. The arm of retributive justice cannot reach you there; and the face of man cannot behold you, if you choose to fly into its solitudes. I have a strong desire to learn your history, and promise, most solemnly, never to betray your trust, without your consent.”

“I have committed no crime,” replied the man, “for which I am amenable to human laws. In what I have performed, I have been told I did Heaven service. But could I fly from man, nay, could I escape from the presence of God, beyond the uttermost parts of the earth or the depths of hell, I cannot fly from myself. I have prayed for madness; but I am not mad. I can reason, and, alas! too well remember. Here it is, printed on my brain, a picture of fire; and it burns, and will burn forever, unless the soul can be annihilated. I would not commit an offence which I believe would consign me to perdition; or I would, long since, have laid down this tormenting load of life: yet how could I be happy in heaven, if memory is there, or if there I am to meet any of the countenances that are now looking upon me, though you cannot see them,—so sad, so horror-struck, so agonized? Have you not read how heathens, in old times, guilty of parricide, or other inexpiable offence, were followed over all the earth, and even to the thresholds of their temples, by terrible women, shaking unquenchable firebrands, with living serpents hissing and twisting around their heads? I am beset by many followers; but they do not threaten me, but look fixedly and sorrowfully upon me; and I seem sinking down and down beneath their looks into a fathomless pit. Last night I saw them, too, deep in the monstrous womb of the ocean; and now I see them; and I shall see them forever. The heathens, I have read, could cling to their altars; and the Jews had certain places where the avenger of blood could not pursue. But I have no sanctuary, and no city of refuge, in all the wide world of land and waters that basks in the sunlight;—and I cannot look for it in the grave.”

And here he lay down on his face, and a strong convulsion shook him like an ague fit. He regained some composure, and continued: “Since I have been on board of this vessel the torments of my earthly purgatory have been condensed to an intensity greater and more unremitting, than ever the persecutions of those who follow me have been constant. Every living thing around has mocked at and shunned me; until each human countenance seems to be that of a fiend to whom the penal torture has been assigned of persecuting, and mouthing, and chattering at the guilty; but I could abide all this, if they were not with me. I have seen them in crowded capitals; in the Arabian deserts; and in the dungeons of the infidels; but never, though long years have passed, more distinctly than now.

“But why should I weary you with what you cannot understand, and have no interest in. You ask to know the source of my calamity. I will endeavor to tell you as briefly and intelligibly as I can. I was the son of an industrious and frugal woollen-draper, in the city of London, and his only child. I was much indulged; and my father, having bound me apprentice to himself, did not chastise me when I neglected his business, but was satisfied to reprove me for my present offences. I did not acquire any vices; but I was an idle youth, and loved to see spectacles of all kinds. In particular, I attended all public executions; and was very sure never to be absent when any tragic scene was to be acted on Tower-hill or at Tyburn. I loved to watch the countenances of men going to be separated instantly from the bustle of life; and felt a strange excitement at the parade and circumstances which attend the awful execution of law. I did not go with the common feelings of the multitude, who thought no more of the event after it had passed, but dispersed to other places of amusement, or to their every-day business. The procession to the scaffold or the tree; the prayer, and the psalm, and the dying speech; the preparations for the block or the halter; the descending axe or the withdrawing cart; the hushed pause of the countless spectators; the mangling of the bodies afterward—were all to me so many acts of a stage-play, in which I took a fearful but intense delight. It became a passion, paramount above all others; insomuch, that I sometimes envied the vile executioner, all stained as he was, and besmeared with the blood, and tearing the vitals of his often yet conscious victims; because he enjoyed a nearer prospect of the scene, from which I was kept back by the crowd and the soldiery.

“I have seen, in the East, men who derived their sustenance from mortal poisons; and others who kept tame snakes in their bosoms, and would caress the slimy monsters, as they were wrapped in their grisly and glittering folds. I have heard, too, of cannibals, and of forlorn creatures who haunt graveyards and prey upon dead carcasses. Not more unaccountable even to myself than the fancies and appetites of these extraordinary creatures was the desire that possessed me of witnessing the sufferings of human beings previous to the separation of soul and body. I have reasoned upon it since, and found no satisfactory cause; for in my nature, if I know what it was in childhood, there was no cruelty nor malice against my fellow-men. But so it was, that the contemplation of all these scenes of bloodshed and terror was my constant employment, and visions of executions, in all their terrible variety of pain, and fear, and agony, held their infernal sabbath in my mind, so that I neglected business and regular occupation of every kind.

“The persecution of the heretics began, and burnings took place in every part of the country. I had never attended an exhibition of this sort, and imagined, according to the craving of my diseased curiosity, that it must surpass in terror and sublimity all I had witnessed of the closing drama of penal justice. It so happened that I had made acquaintance with one of the sheriff’s men, with whom I had held much communion on the subject always uppermost in my thoughts; and he came one morning to inform me that a minister was to be burnt the next day, and that I might, if I pleased, be close to the pile, and see everything as it occurred. This was a golden opportunity for me; and one for which I had long and vainly sighed. I was, however, not a little damped in my eagerness, when he told me it was necessary I should light the pile myself. From this office, although a good Catholic, and esteeming, even as I still do (but forgive me—you are a Protestant), the consuming of heretics as an acceptable thing to God;—from this function, I say, I recoiled, as unbecoming the son of an honest man, out of whose province it was entirely to perform the part of the common hangman. My acquaintance, however, told me, that I could gain a near access to the stake on no other condition; and gave me a mask which was adapted to the upper part of my face, and which, he said, would prevent any person from recognizing me. He added, that he would call for me the next morning, and so saying, he left me.

“All the rest of that day I was uneasy, irresolute, and almost beside myself, pondering between my desire to indulge a long-cherished curiosity, and the repugnance I felt to execute an office considered disgraceful even when prescribed to an individual as his legal duty. Before I fell asleep, I had made up my mind to depart from home early in the morning, and to behold the spectacle from a distance among the multitude. My dreams, prophetic of all I have ever had since, were troubled, wild, and agonizing; and I awoke in a feverish state of excitement. Very soon the populace was seen pouring from various quarters to the field where the execution was to be; and while I was yet meditating whether to evade my appointment by flight, or to refuse accompanying the sheriff’s follower, he made his appearance, and beckoned to me, and as if by a fatal, uncontrollable impulse, I slipped quickly out of my father’s shop, and accompanied him on his way. Turning down a narrow alley, he equipped me with my mask, and hurried, or rather dragged me towards the prison. No notice was taken of me, as, by the side of my companion, I mingled among the retainers of the law. Very soon the inner gates were opened, and there came forth among the officers a man in black vestments, a little advanced in years. His countenance, though not discomposed, was sad; for, as I heard, he had just parted from his family. And behind the escort I saw them slowly advancing, but did not then note them particularly; for a heavy load had fallen upon my heart. I heard not distinctly what was uttered around me, and turned my face neither to the right nor the left, but was led by the arm, mechanically, by my companion; following, with the other attendants, the cart in which the victim intended for the present sacrifice was placed.

“In this stupor I walked on the whole distance, unroused by the great following of the people, or the occasional interruptions that took place in our progress, until we arrived at the spot where the stake and the fagots were prepared. I kept my eyes fixed, as if by enchantment, on that fatal pile, and was dragged along unresistingly, while a ring was formed around the scene of torture. With dim and dreaming vision, I saw the minister descend from the cart, and walk tranquilly and firmly, as it seemed, to the goal of his earthly pilgrimage. There were other things passing, which swam indistinctly before my sight. There was a priest with an angry countenance, holding a cross, from whom the heretic minister turned away; and a proclamation was read, of which I heard the sounds, without perceiving the meaning of the words. Then they fastened the prisoner to the stake by iron hoops, and closed up the circle of fagots around him. At this moment I was thrust forward so suddenly by my companion, that I was urged within a few feet of the pile. I stood without motion, rather as a machine than a thinking being, and a torch was put into my hand by a halberdier. The sheriff, who stood by, addressed me, but I understood not his words. I only comprehended from his gesture that I was to light the pyre. A dead silence prevailed among all the assembled people, and we might have heard the whisper of an infant, or the falling of a leaf. A brief struggle passed through my frame, and hastily, by the same seemingly mechanical impulse, of which alone I appeared to be conscious, I advanced with the fatal brand. One instant I cast my eyes upwards on the victim. His countenance was serene and cheerful; and he bent his eyes upon me with a settled calmness and forgiveness, which now lives before my sight as though it were yesterday. I thrust the torch among the light stuff and combustibles at the foot of the pile; and the flame speedily ran all around it, and mounted among the wood. I thought I felt it at the same moment encircling my own brain. I dropped the torch and returned to my companion. There was a weight upon my feet that seemed to clog them to the earth at every step, and a deathlike coldness at my heart. Then, as I lifted up my eyes, I beheld, behind the surrounding guards, a melancholy train in sable apparel. There was a mother with a little infant in her bosom. She was tall and of a dignified aspect; but her cheeks were pale; and her eyes, swollen and red, were fixed in the direction of the pile where her husband was suffering. There were two lusty and stately youths, who stood gazing sternly and sadly; but as the fire began to crackle fiercely behind me, they lifted up their voices and wept aloud. There was a maiden just arrived at womanhood, slender and graceful, with a saintly countenance, such as I have seen in pictures of the Holy Virgin; and she clung weeping to her elder brother. There was a younger girl, with golden hair and blue eyes, like a young cherub, weeping, shrieking out for mercy for her father, and a boy, deformed, and supporting himself with a crutch, who had an obliquity in one eye, that gave to the agony of grief, expressed in his face, a strange peculiarity. And there were little children clinging around their mother’s garments, all crying bitterly; the youngest, poor souls, for company, not knowing why the rest were so afflicted. Methought that, at the same instant, they all directed their eyes towards me; and ever since I have retained the individual expression of each of those woe-begone faces. I turned around, and saw the father of this family surrounded by the ascending blaze, that burnt fiercely, but with a pale unnatural lustre, in the broad glare of day. His look was serene, and he stretched out his hands, and washed them in the consuming element.”

(Here there is a large defect in the manuscript.)
The vessels were in sight of the coast of Florida, A delightful perfume was wafted from the shore, and the adventurers beheld the banks, even down to the edge of the water, covered with luxuriant vines and groves of magnolia. Some boats put off from the ship in which Rogers was a passenger, for the purpose of paying a visit to this land of promise; and in one of them the unhappy man, whose history is herein before recorded, went on shore. He was never seen more. Those who were in the same boat with him said that he had wandered into the interior of the country, and could not be recalled in time. It is more probable that they purposely left him.

The ship under command of Sir Francis Drake, a few years afterwards, took from the Virginian coast the remnant of the colonists, who were unfortunate in their settlement. Among the survivors, Rogers returned to England, by whom the foregoing facts were narrated. And notwithstanding many traditions and legends that have been popular, the above are the only authentic particulars in relation to the MAN WHO BURNT JOHN ROGERS.

Hæc scripsi, invitâ Minervâ, RICHMOND, August 27TH, 1724.