In honor of today’s Memorial of Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues and their companions, here’s a sample of what they endured in their efforts to save souls. It’s an excerpt from “Saint Among Savages,” the classic book on the life of St Isaac Jogues (these paragraphs are from the chapter entitled “Along the Trail of Torture”).
When the Mohawks (a tribe of the Iroquois confederation) captured Fr Jogues and his companions (consisting of his fellow priests, a few French laymen, and the Hurons who had converted to Christianity), they took them to the various villages along the rivers and lakes. At each Indian village, the Mohawks encouraged their local brethren to “caress” their trophy prisoners, which began with having them run a gauntlet. Having traveled from the point of their capture for several days already with no food, they arrived at the first such village::
The prisoners were stripped totally naked, and whipped into file. The old men were placed at the head, for they would set a slower pace. The stronger Hurons were interspersed with the weaker. Couture was in the forefront; Goupil in the middle; and Jogues, as the greatest in dignity was held as the last, so that his punishment might be the greatest. The signal was given. The first of the Hurons was driven between the lines of Iroquois. He ran blindly, while the executioners pounded down blows [using clubs and switches of thorny rods] on his head and body and legs. Another Huron was fed in; the shrieks grew diabolical; Couture rushed into the midst of the whirling clubs; then other Hurons; then Goupil; the outcries were blood-curdling; the hill was a mass of wild passions.
Father Jogues saw it all as he waited for his own ordeal of running the gauntlet. He was shoved between the columns. Blows beat down on his head and neck and arms, thudding blows, stinging strokes of switches and thorns, on his sides, on his legs. Madly he tried to race up the hill. They tripped and impeded him. He fought forward. He stumbled, and fell to the ground ere he had gone a hundred steps. They showered more blows on him to make him rise. He tried to escape; but he was hurled back. He was numbed, paralyzed. He felt nothing. The Mohawks kicked and beat him the more; but he did not move. They dragged him unconscious to the top of the hill.
When he opened his eyes, Jogues found himself lying on the rocky ledge at the top of the hill. In the center of the open space he saw a platform, half the height of a man, roughly strung together from branches and wattle. His comrades were being driven to mount it, while the Iroquois giddily whirled around and showered them with blows. He was discovered revived; then he, too, was lifted roughly and thrown on the stage. They hauled him up to a standing position, but he sank down to the wood, utterly unable to support himself. The savages dug into his flesh with their finger nails and thrust burning fagots against his arms and thighs. He could not move to protect himself. One of them took his thumb and bit it, crunching and macerating it until the flesh was torn to bits and the bone exposed. Another held a live coal against his other fingers. Under the onslaught, once more he swooned off, lifeless.
The Mohawks were finished with the French and threw them off the staging. They turned with newer vigor on the Hurons. Ahatsistari was the center of their rage. Jogues watched his sufferings with growing terror. He saw them slash the flesh with their long knives, from head to feet, saw them staunch the blood with burning torches. Eustace stood unmoved, never flinching, taunting and maddening them by his words of courage. They lifted his arms, and severed both of his thumbs in revenge for the arrows he had directed into the hearts of their kinsmen. He remained unmoved. One of the Mohawks took a tough stake, cleared of the bark and well pointed; he rammed it into the socket from which the thumb of the left hand had been amputated. He forced the wood up through the flesh until it protruded at the elbow. Eustace held his composure. He would not disgrace his people by twitching a muscle; he would not show himself a coward and thus give satisfaction to his enemies. He drew himself up more proudly, invincible.