Dungeon Tales

Bloomfield’s Illustrated Historical Guide was a tourist guide book for St. Augustine in the late 19th century. Max Bloomfield, who identifies himself as the editor, publisher and proprietor, had a shop where he sold newspapers, books and stationery.

Below is his account of the infamous dungeon at the Castillo de San Marcos – also known as Fort Marion.

Under the northeast bastion we find a dark, gloomy dungeon twenty feet long, six feet wide, and nearly five feet high, where not a ray of light can penetrate. This was once built up, and cut off from all communication with the rest of the fort.

Castillo de San MarcosIn 1836 the terreplein of the northwest bastion fell in, revealing a dark and dismal dungeon. We have heard from the lips of a reliable person, still a resident of St Augustine, and who was present at the time of the above accident to the fort, of the following facts: “I stood upon the edge and looked down into this dungeon, and there saw the complete skeleton of a human being, lying at full length, apparently on its back; the arms were extended from the body and the skeleton fingers were wide open; there appeared to be a gold ring upon one of the fingers. Encircling the wrists were iron bands, attached to which were chains fastened to a hasp in the coquina wall near the entrance to the dungeon.”

The military engineer having charge of the repairs of the fort and sea wall, descended into this dungeon, when his curiosity was excited by the discovery, to the northeast, of a broad stone, differing greatly in dimensions and appearance from those of which the wall was built. He noticed, moreover, that the cement which held this stone in its place differed in composition and appeared to be more recent. On the removal of this stone, the present dark and dismal dungeon was disclosed. On entering with lights there were found at the west end, two iron cages suspended from hasps in the wall. One of the cages had partially fallen down from rust and decay, and human bones lay scattered on the floor. The other remained in its position, holding a pile of human bones. The latter cage and contents may be seen in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington.

This stone was removed by the assistance of Mr John Capo (now deceased), an honest old harbor pilot and mason; we have his statement made personally to us, confirming the finding of the two cages containing the skeletons, as presented in this sketch.

From a lecture delivered at the fort by J. Hume Simons, M.D., and afterward published in the Florida Press, we quote:

“The broken cage, with all the bones, except those which I hold in my hand, were buried in the sand mound to the north of the fort. I recognize these as portions of the tibia and fibula (or leg bones) of a female.”* (* Whitney’s Pathfinder)

The following letter and item we quote from Edwards’s Guide of East Florida:

“The story of the finding of iron cages inclosing human skeletons must lose its horrible interest when the following letter is read. It is an answer to one of mine of inquiry on the subject.”

Smithsonian Letter
The following we quote from Dewhurst’s excellent History of St Augustine, which is undoubtedly the true story of the cages and skeletons.

“At the time the Americans took possession of the fort, they found the last casemate, fronting on the court, on the east side, filled with the coquina floor of the terreplein, which had fallen in, as the timbers supporting it had rotted. Naturally this half filled casemate had become the place of deposit for all rubbish accumulated upon any part of the works. In the course of repairs, the rubbish was cleared out of the casemate, and the entrance into the adjoining cell exposed. Entering this cell, and examining the masonry for anticipated repairs, the engineer in charge, said to be Lieutenant Tuttle, U.S.A., discovered a newness of appearance about a small portion of the masonry of tne north wall. Under his instruction a mason cut out this newer stonework, and found that the small arch under which those who now enter the ‘dungeon’ crawl, had been walled up. . . . . Near the entrance were the remains of a fire, the ashes and bits of pine wood burned off toward the centre of the pile in which they had been consumed. Upon the side of the cell was a rusty staple, with about three links of chain attached thereto. Near the wall on the west side of the cell were a few bones. Finding these very rotten, and crumbling to pieces his touch, the engineer spread his handkerchief upon floor, and brushed very gently the few fragments of into it. These were shown to the surgeon then stationed the post, who said they might be human bones but were badly crumbled and decayed he could not determine definitely. Nothing else was found in the cell.*

(* The finding of any bones is denied by Major W. H. Benham, U.S.A., on the authority of a Mr. Ridgely, Lieutenant Tuttle’s overseer. Major Benham took charge of the work upon the fort in January, 1839.)

“The iron cages which have been described as a part of the fixtures of this terrible dungeon, and which it has been said, contained human bones, appear upon the testimony of old inhabitants, to have been found outside the City Gates entirely empty . . . . The cages are described as having had much the shape of a coffin; and the tradition is that a human being had been placed in each, the solid bands of iron riveted about his body, and after life had been extinguished by the horrible torture of starvation, cages and corpses had been buried in the ‘scrub’ then covering the ground north of the gates.

“Doubtless these cages were used for the punishment of criminals condemned for some heinous crime; but whether they were introduced by the Spanish or English is unknown.”

You have now perused Dewhurst’s and Whitney’s cage stories. The following has been related by an old citizen, who distinctly remembers that when a child, of from eleven to thirteen years old, there was a tree situated just inside and close to the City Gates, from which was suspended an iron cage; ’twas just high enough for a man to kneel or lie in. This cage contained a man, and suspended above him, just beyond his reach, was a glass of water and a piece of bread, to make the pangs of hunger, from which he suffered, more keen. At the expiration of a few days, his tortures had made him a maniac, and his shrieks that pierced the air, were something horrible. The person who related the tale is ninety one years old, which makes this event to have happened about eighty years ago, during Spanish rule in St Augustine.

Source:

  • Bloomfield’s Illustrated Historical Guide, Embracing an Account of the Antiquities of St. Augustine, Florida, to Which Is Added a Condensed Guide of the St. John’s, Ocklawaha, Halifax, and Indian Rivers–. St. Augustine, Fla: Max Bloomfield, 1882.[http://www.google.com/books]

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