Toothpicks & Oranges
The Tower of London, sitting forbiddingly on the Thames, is a small village within impregnable walls. It has served as a palace, a fortress, and, more ominously, a prison. Here a young Catholic named John Gerard suffered for his faith during the reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth I.
He was a Jesuit priest, educated on the Continent, who began covertly performing priestly work in England at age 18, moving from place to place one step ahead of the law. He was eventually captured and taken to the Clink, a prison so infamous that its name lives to this day. For three years he was kept there, sometimes chained, often attempting to escape. Then he was moved to the Tower.
One of the buildings there, the White Tower, contains a deep vault without windows or outer doors. There in the eerie glow of flickering torches, Gerard was hung by his hands for hours, day after day. When he fainted, he was revived and the torture reapplied. His arms swelled monstrously, his whole body throbbed, his bones screamed, and his hands became so damaged he couldn’t even feed himself.
The torture was finally suspended for a while. The young priest did finger exercises, and within three weeks he could again feed himself. Soon he asked for oranges and toothpicks. The toothpicks became pens. Orange juice became ink, visible only when heated. Messages flew back and forth. A rope, a boat, and outside helpers were recruited. On October 5, 1597 Gerard climbed through a hole to the roof of Cradle Tower, threw a rope over the side, and slid down it, wincing as it mutilated his hands. Friends whisked him to a hiding place outside London.
He was soon back at his clandestine priestly work, always a mere step from recapture. Finally it became untenable for him to stay in England, and he sadly slipped out of the country in the retinue of the Spanish and Dutch ambassadors. He labored in Rome until July 27, 1637, when he passed away at age 73. He is known today as one of an elite handful of people who outwitted the Tower of London.
Morgan, R. J. (1997). On this day: 365 amazing and inspiring stories about saints, martyrs & heroes (electronic ed.). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.