Contrary to popular belief, four people, not just three, were executed by garrote in Bagumbayan on February 17, 1872. Before the three priests was a man named Zaldua, also implicated in the Cavite Mutiny, and judged guilty.
Of the three priests, the first to be executed was Mariano Gomez, who was born in Santa Cruz, Manila on August 2, 1799. He studied at the University of Santo Tomas, and served as parish priest in Bacoor, Cavite, where he was well-loved by his parishioners. The oldest of the three martyrs, he was calm and resigned to his fate. It is said that as he walked to the scaffold his eyeglasses fell, and his famous last words are often quoted: "Let us go where the leaves never move without the will of God."
Jacinto Zamora, who was next in line to be executed, was born in Pandacan on August 14, 1835. At the time of his death he was working for a doctorate in canon law at the University of Santo Tomas. In 1860 he headed a small student protest which resulted in his being confined to his quarters for two months. However, that bit of juvenile subversion did not affect his serving in parishes in Marikina, Pasig, and Lipa. He was later connected with the Manila Cathedral, where he served as an examiner for new priests.
Zamora's fatal vice was panguigui, a popular card game. He was implicated in the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 due to an invitation that read in part, "Grand reunion...our friends are well provided with powder and ammunition." This may have sounded ominous to the military, but this was simply an innocent invitation to play cards, "powder and ammunition" beingpanguigui players' code that meant that they were armed with enough money for an overnight card game. There were no famous last words from Father Zamora. Those who were amazed at his serenity as he walked to his death did not know he had lost his mind.
Jose Burgos was the last victim that morning. He had just turned 35 when he died, having been born on February 9, 1837 in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. He was the most distinguished among the three, having earned two doctorates one in theology and another in canon law. He was a prolific writer (although some of the writings attributed to him like La Loba Negra on the 1719 murder of Governor-General Bustamante, are probably not his), and was connected with the Manila Cathedral. He refused a seat in the Commission on Censorship, and was a good swordsman and boxer. His death was the most dramatic. One arresting detail in the account of the Frenchman Plauchut has him suddenly standing up from the garrote seat and shouting, "What crime have I committed to deserve such a death? Is there no justice in the world?" Twelve friars of different orders restrained him and pushed him back into seat, advising him to accept a Christian death. Burgos calmed down, but go up again shouting, "But I haven't committed any crime!" At which point, one of the friars holding him down hissed, "Even Christ was innocent!" Burgos finally gave in to the executioner who broke his neck with one swift and sudden twist of the garrote handle.
Gomburza was not only an inspiration for Rizal but for Bonifacio and many Katipuneros as well. Many carried, as relics, black cloth ribbons said to have been fashioned out of the soutanes worn by the three priests at death.
It has been said that had the Cavite Mutiny and Gomburza not happened, Jose Rizal's life would have taken a different direction. His dedication of the impact the El Filibusterismo to the three priests indicates event had on his consciousness: "The Church, in refusing to degrade you, has placed in doubt the crime imputed to you; the Government, in shrouding your cause with mystery and obscurities, creates belief in some error committed in crucial moments, and the whole Philippines, in venerating your memory and calling you martyrs, in no way acknowledges your guilt.
"As long therefore as your participation in the Cavite uprising is not clearly shown, whether or not you were patriots, whether or not you nourished sentiments of justice and liberty, I have the right to dedicate my work to you, as to victims of the evil that I am trying to fight. And while we wait for Spain to reinstate you and make herself culpable for your death, let these pages serve as belated wreath of dried leaves laid on you unknown graves: and may your blood be upon the hands of those who, without sufficient proof, assail your memory!"
To the present, the Spanish government has not released the court records of the swift military trial that sent Fathers Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora to the garrote.