Death by poison?
CONTRARY TO popular belief, teaching is not a one-way street. I learn a lot more from my students than they do from me. Students’ questions, comments and papers make me see things differently. Many years ago during a field trip to San Agustin, I pointed out Juan Luna’s niche in the crypt, moved on to the nearby refectory to explain monastic eating protocol, and left the students to go over religious images collected by Luis Araneta. On our way out I realized that one of the students had not moved from Luna’s grave. Seeing her eyes filled with a mix of wonder and discovery, I asked why she had strayed from the group. She replied: “Dyan ba talaga nakalibing si Luna (Is that really Luna’s grave)?” I elaborated on how Luna suffered a fatal heart attack in Hong Kong in 1899: The corpse was cremated and the remains were returned to Manila where these were kept in a pail under the bed of his son, Andres Luna de San Pedro, for many years before being laid to rest in San Agustin.
Then came a follow-up question that changed my life: “Sir, ang ibig ninyong sabihin, totoong tao si Luna (Are you saying Luna was a real person)?” That hit me like a lightning bolt. For many students the names and deeds of our heroes are like myths and legends. History can sometimes sound like fairy tales that begin with “once upon a time in a land far away…” Maybe it is true that history is a foreign country because people do things differently then and there.
While Juan Luna’s death certificate gives the cause of death as angina pectoris or heart attack, our story does not end there because his mother, Laureana Novicio, believed he was murdered. Juan Luna’s brother, Jose Luna, was a toxicologist who was of the opinion that the real cause of death was poison. We need an autopsy and a complicated “CSI”-type investigation to get the real answer, but one of the main pieces of evidence is made up of narrations of Luna’s last days as related in two letters by Mariano Ponce.
From Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 1899, Ponce wrote his friend Francisco Rivero:
“A sad event impeded the sending of my letter of the 7th [December] that was written moments before our dear friend Juan Luna had ceased to exist. I forgot to refer in the letter to his arrival in this port on Sunday the 3rd of this month aboard [the ship] Ernest Simon from France. From the time he disembarked he came to live with us and in the same room where I stay.
“Sunday night we went to visit Don Pepe [Jose Ma. Basa]—who sends you, through me, his best regards—and there we were till midnight. On Monday morning [Luna] paid various visits and in the afternoon gave fencing lessons to some friends. The whole of Tuesday he didn’t complain of anything, he packed his clothes and luggage and in the afternoon we did some target practice with pistols. On the evening of this day he felt a chill and had a bit of a temperature so he lay down. We thought he caught the flu (trancazo) that is common here. He took a purgative and on Wednesday morning wrote his mother. On Wednesday afternoon we conversed a long time [about the Philippine-American War] and he expressed his great disgust on knowing that his brothers had gone to Manila and were on good terms with [US General Elwell] Otis. On Thursday morning he felt pain in his head; he felt dizzy and vomited. By seven in the evening he was a cadaver. What a great shock for us. He had suffered a heart attack. Let us pray for him.”
On Dec. 21, 1899, Ponce wrote a lengthy letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt, part of which reads:
“The sad note, the saddest, concerns the death of poor Juan Luna who died here some days after his arrival from Paris. He arrived on December 3 in good health; he came and lived with us, and in the same room with me. On the evening of December 5 he felt a fever and a headache that we all thought was a simple cold. He took a purgative. On the morning of December 6 he was very relieved. He even wrote a letter to his mother. On the evening of the same day, as his bed and mine were close he talked much over our question [of resistance to the Americans who occupied the Philippines] and he manifested his great opposition to know that his brother had moved to Manila with the permission of Otis. This gave him cause for much worry and disgust and I consoled him by saying we should wait for [fresh news on developments back home] before we passed judgement. At the time we knew that they had moved to Manila with the consent and knowledge of Mr. Aguinaldo. Early morning of the 7th he had a very strong headache that left a few moments after I gave him some remedies. At 7 in the evening of the same day he had a heart attack, without agony, and had a tranquil death. You can imagine the pain for us all. Some of my dear friends I have seen pass away. I was affected much by his death such that I felt sick some days after. Recently we had talk about you and the very pleasant visit that he had (this is a secret between you and me). Keep quiet about this. I send this because my great wish is to personally embrace you and hope to greet your family some day.”
Where is the last letter Luna wrote to his mother? I handled the last letter he wrote to his son Andres, but failed to read its contents because I was distracted by a cheerful watercolor of the Hong Kong harbor at the top of the page. Soon the jigsaw puzzle will be complete.
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