John Pershing and the Myth of Bullets Dipped in Pig’s Blood

A few days ago, Donald Trump made an incendiary comment in public about the supposed actions of an American military officer in the Philippines more than a century ago. In particular, he repeated a myth that an American officer by the name of John Pershing had ordered that Muslims be executed with bullets that had been dipped in pig’s blood.

I had never heard of this myth, and I’m not sure where it came from, but in looking at some information about John Pershing one can get a sense of how such a myth could have been created.


The Wikipedia entry on Pershing gives a sense of his long and diverse career in the military. This included a period from 1899-1903 when he participated in the American conquest of the Philippines. During this time Pershing engaged in campaigns against “Moros,” that is, Muslims in Mindanao.

He was very successful, however if the writings about Pershing are to be believed, then he was successful for precisely the opposite reason that Trump’s comments suggested. Rather than being merciless and deliberately culturally incentive, Pershing was depicted as seeking to bring peace by building bridges between the conquering Americans and the Moros.

This, for instance, is how Pershing was described in a 1919 work, John Joseph Pershing: A Story and a Play by Ruth Hill:


“Captain John Joseph Pershing like a good soldier never questioned orders and never delayed their execution. When the government ordered that proclamations be sent to the Moros warning them against resistance, he immediately delivered such proclamations. His experience with the Indians, however, helped him in dealing with these savage tribes. In his messages, he addressed every chief as his friend.

“All the time he had been in the Philippines, he had been studying the conditions there. He had gone alone Into the villages where no white man ever had been before. No more difficult mission had ever been given him, however, than when he was sent to the worst part of the Moro country. He and his soldiers took the proclamations to the Moro villages. Whole tribes would start to resist, but he would convince the chieftain that he came in friendship, and there was little trouble.”

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This idea that Pershing made an effort to befriend Moro chiefs is repeated in the writings about him. At the same time, a 1961 biography – Richard O’Conner’s Black Jack Pershing – also indicates that Pershing at least threated to cross cultural boundaries.

To quote,

“He was not easily dissuaded that peaceful methods would work and even used what must have seemed like white witchcraft to impress the natives. A number of Moro chiefs, on the verge of warring among themselves, were summoned to a peace conference but balked at signing a treaty. Pershing ordered his aides to bring in an Edison ‘talking machine,’ which had just been developed and put on the market back in the States. Helen Gould, the daughter of financier Jay Gould, had purchased ten of the machines and presented them to the Army for recreational purposes. One of these had been sent to the Philippines and was passed along, by coastal steamer and pack train, to Camp Vicars.


“Pershing played a musical selection, which only bored the Moros, who regarded their own gong, cymbal, and bamboo flute music as superior. Then he put a cylinder titled ‘A Day at the Farm’ on the machine. The sounds of an American barnyard delighted his guests, but they still refused to sign the treaty.

“Pershing nodded to another officer, and a moment later two orderlies appeared. One carried a dead pig, the other a bucket of pig’s blood. More than anything else, the Moros feared contamination by a pig, which would bar them from the Mohammedan heaven. Pershing scooped up a dipper of the blood, enough to spatter the whole assemblage, then pointed to the treaty. There was no further argument from the chiefs. One by one they stepped forward and agreed to the treaty.”


So this is a connection between Pershing and pig’s blood. The same book, however, contains another passage in which Pershing rejects a suggestion to use this religious taboo as a tool to defeat the Moros.

To quote again,

“General Bliss, commanding the Philippine Division, suggested to Pershing on May 23, 1911, that he adopt the methods used by the British in India to deal with Mohammedan fanaticism. Juramentados, Bliss recommended, should be buried with the carcass of a pig or encased in a pigskin, which meant to any Mohammedan that he would spend eternity in a state of contamination. ‘This I think a good plan, for if anything will discourage the juramentado it is the prospect of going to hell instead of heaven,’ Bliss wrote. He recognized that there might be an outcry of protest from humanitarians over such a measure, but ‘you can rely on me to stand by you in maintaining this custom. It is the only possible thing we can do to discourage crazy fanatics.’


“Pershing, however, realized that General Bliss’s suggestion, while ingenious, might arouse an enduring bitterness among the whole Moro population. The British in India, for all their condign punishments, including the practice of shooting natives out of cannon, had never managed to rule except by the exercise of force, and he was intent on conciliating the Moros to the extent that they could soon be handed over to civilian administrators.

“His approach was paternalistic and would probably have seemed to verge on the maudlin to any proper British colonial officer. It was exemplified by a letter he wrote the Moros of the Taglibi district on Jolo: ‘I am writing this letter that you may know that I want my children to come in and stop fighting. We do not want any more fighting. Too many Moros and their women may be killed. . . . These guns are not worth fighting for. . . . Your people are better off not to have these guns as we can then have peace in the island. The government will pay for all guns. … If your people need rice to eat, the government will give it to them. . . . I want to see all of my people and speak to them so that we may forever be friends.’”


While the above comments portray Pershing in a generally positive light, it seems clear that he was also participated in bloody battles as well.

In particular, in 1913 Pershing was sent back to the Philippines where he directed a battle against Moros on Mount Bagsak on the island of Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago.

This is how O’Conner wrote about this battle in 1961:

“‘Probably there has been no fiercer battle since the American occupation,’ Pershing wrote to the commanding general at Manila. He listed his own casualties as six killed and seven wounded. Not even an estimate of the Moros who were killed in the crater was given.

“Newspaper dispatches from Manila reported that Bagsak had been defended by 500 Moros and that most of them had been killed, either in rushes down the slopes or in the crater itself. Back home, however, newspapers gave wide circulation to an interview in San Francisco with John McLeod, a civilian employee of the Army Quartermaster Department who arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines six weeks after the battle. McLeod told reporters that 2000 Moros had been killed, among them women and children ‘mowed down by the scores’ with rifles and machine guns. ‘The news of the fighting was strictly censored at Manila. . . . Three correspondents who managed to reach the seat of war were arrested on orders of General Pershing. . . It was believed that every Moro that took part in that battle was killed.’ The reporters did not question McLeod on the source of his information, and his account, necessarily based on hearsay, was greatly exaggerated. Bagsak, however, was a stern and blood-spattered ‘punishment,’ as Pershing himself put it. It was also the last large-scale action fought hi the Moro country until the final withdrawal of American authority from the Philippines.”


In 1963, the above poster was made by the Department of the Army entitled “Knocking Out the Moros,” and this is how it was described:

“The four-day battle of Bagsak Mountain on Jolo Island in the Philippines took place from 11 to 15 June 1913. Americans of the 8th Infantry and the Philippine Scouts, personally lead by Brigadier General John J. Pershing, brought to an end years of bitter struggle against the Moro pirates. These Bolo men, outlaws of great physical endurance and savage fighting ability, were well organized under their Datus or chiefs. They had never been conquered during several centuries of Spanish rule in the Philippines. The U.S. Army .45-caliber pistol was developed to meet the need for a weapon with enough striking power to stop fanatical charges of lawless Moro tribesmen in hand-to-hand fighting.”

So what can we determine from all of this? While Trump was repeating a myth, one can get a sense of where that myth might have come from. In Pershing’s biography there is an episode involving the threat to contaminate with pig’s blood, and there is a discussion of a bloody battle which largely brought to an end Moro resistance to American rule. The above poster then emphasizes the use of the .45-caliber pistol in that battle.

In other words, while there is no evidence for the story that Trump talked about, one can see how such a myth could have been “inspired” by various elements in the history of Pershing’s time in the Philippines. However, the reality of what actually occurred in the past was clearly different and far more complex than the simplistic and incendiary version that Trump presented.

15 thoughts on “John Pershing and the Myth of Bullets Dipped in Pig’s Blood

    1. Not off topic at all. I was just working on my application to become a citizen of Antarctica. If this election goes the way it looks like it’s heading, then that’s where I will be a year from now. 🙂

      1. Yes, it is reachable in Vietnam when you post as a Facebook note. A new trick reported yesterday for Vietnamese readers: install Opera browser and turn on turbo mode.

  1. Was the battle of Bagsak mountain the one about which Mark Twain sardonisticallly commented under the name of ” Moro massacre ?
    It was one of the numerous massacres perpetrated by the bloodthirsty Americans bent on their treacherous conquest of the Philippines . The USA
    secretly signed a treaty with the Spanish to acquire their rights to the Philippines islands then attacked the insurgents who thought the Yankees came to help them . The US tried afterwards to steal Vietnam ‘s independance from the Viet minh .
    The Pershing deft counterinsurgency ploy ( threatening with bloodpig )
    won’t redeem the eternal stain on the USA ‘s flag
    The Philippines war was a rehearsal for the Vietnam war , it has been carefully hidden and rarely mentioned in the history books talking about the US involvement in Vietnam

    1. I agree that the US conquest of the Philippines and its takeover of the Kingdom of Hawaii are very important topics for thinking about US imperialism, and that they are topics that are not as widely known about as they should be. (Almost none of the American university students I teach have any idea that the Philippines was once a US colony. . .)

      However, as for the idea that “the US tried to steal Vietnam’s independence from the Viet Minh,” that is of course far too simplistic of an explanation of what took place at that time.

      The following article looks at the complexity of this period. And to reword one of the author’s points in order to address the topic of “stealing,” we can also ask who “stole” the anti-colonial revolution from the urban and bourgeois nationalists who supported it?

      Tuong Vu, “Triumphs or Tragedies: A New Perspective on the Vietnamese Revolution,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 45.2 (2014): 236-257.


      A new perspective has begun to challenge both the conventional portrayal of the Vietnamese revolution and the communist account of its success. This essay takes stock of new research that presents revolutionary Vietnam in a more complex and less triumphal way. It is argued that Vietnam’s nationalist revolution (1945–46) should be conceptually distinguished from the subsequent socialist revolution (1948–88). The former had a distinctly urban and bourgeois character, was led by a coalition of the upper and middle classes, and lacked ideological intensity. The latter was imposed from above, based on socialist visions, and dependent on foreign assistance. The failure to disentangle the two revolutions in existing narratives assigns little agency to Vietnamese actors and leads to triumphs being exaggerated while tragedies are overlooked.

  2. 1/ Perhaps Tuong Vu’s article should be read along with this article by Milton Osborne:

    “Continuity and Motivation in the Vietnamese Revolution: New Light from the 1930’s”, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 1974), pp. 37-55.

    The money quote at page 49:

    “The attraction of the ICP, as described by one of its members who was arrested during the 1930-31 protests was of a very different order. In words that seem prophetic for the political divisions in the later history of modern Vietnam, he recorded his desire to see an independent Vietnam. This did not, he emphasized, mean that he was in agreement with those who described themselves simply as nationalists. ‘What differentiates nationalism and Communism is that nationalism leaves the rich in opulence and the poor in misery, while Communism will bring happiness to the poor.’”

    Now compare the Osborne quote to this one from TV at page 244:

    “The imminent victory of the Chinese communists in mainland China enabled radical Vietnamese communists (e.g. General Secretary Truong Chinh) to assert a more radical line for their party and to prepare for a socialist revolution that would, by the early 1950s, destroy the class alliance and the political compromises undergirding the Viet Minh government. The nationalist revolution was for all practical purposes defeated at this point, as non-communists were effectively removed from power. Steered by radical communists, the DRV would become an outpost of the Soviet bloc, with its initial class basis being the poor peasants who benefited from the land reform.”

    The interesting question that TV’s article has left unexplored is, in my opinion, the extent to which the failure by the “coalition of the upper and middle classes” to preserve their 1945 nationalist revolution could be attributed to their very own failure to address socioeconomic concerns of Vietnamese at lower social stations.

    2/ This brings us then back to Donald Trump, the blogpost’s original subject. If the American press is to be believed, he is an improbable “Working Class Hero” leading an insurrection of white blue collars against the rich donor class that has traditionally dominated the GOP but that has persistently neglected their material interests. He is, as one columnist has put it, accomplishing a “hostile takeover of the Republican Party.” In this regard, Trump is, arguably, not dissimilar from Trường Chinh et al who had “hijacked” the 1945 revolution 🙂

    3/ It is, however, also predicted in the American press that the Don will eventually sell out the disaffected workers who are propelling his campaign, in which case he would become functionally indistinguishable from the Vietnamese Communist Party that, in the end, had betrayed its landless supporters as well (TV, 248).

  3. I happened upon an article of Fabian Hilfrich, “Visions of the Asian Periphery: Vietnam and the Philippines,” in: Andreas Daum, Lloyd Gardner, Wilfried Mausbach, eds., America, the Vietnam War and the World: Comparative and International Perspectives ( I can’t find back the on-line references )
    I learn of quite interesting new concepts : reverse domino theory , psychological domino theory and regionalism
    The article draws parallels between the US rationalizations and motivations of both wars
    Looking back at Philiippines events , one can’t help having conspiracy mindset , one can understand why the Philippines conquest was litterally
    deep-sixed .Then , communism and Cold war didn’ t exist as alibis
    The Philippines motivations were purely hubris , greed , …. with in the background racist feelings of superiority , scorn of human life and exceptionalism ( which can be viewed as a mental illness) : the USA got too powerful in an extremely short timespan .
    As for a human being , such abrupt changes induces psychic imbalance , they can’t restrain themselves;their history is one of continuous expansion , mindless expansion for its own sake .
    They had at the end of 19th century China in their sights , some were the opinion they just take some philippine harbour as a coaling station ; the land conquest was unnecessary , they could have spared the Filipinos 10
    years of massacres with one million victims
    A General Shafter declared :” it may be necesssary half of the population so that the other half accede to a lifestyle superior to their present half barbaric one”

    1. Erratum : _ instead of ” why the Philippines conquest was litterally
      deep-sixed ” ,read ” the Ph… conquest history was ……”
      _ instead of ” it may be necesssary half of the population” , read ” it may be necessary to kill …..”

      In VN, knowing about the Philippines precedent shows , the US would have invaded VN anyhow , even without Communism and Cold war .All the talk about ” noble cause , saving VN , making the world safe …,, about being unwittingly sucked in ” , half the history books about the roots of US involvement in VN can be thrown into the dustbin .Same thing for ” vietnamese agency revisionism ” ; whatever the VN could have done would have not deterred the US depredations

      1. Interesting comments. I’ve never thought of US involvement in South Vietnam as an “invasion.” I’ve always seen it more like the involvement of the Ming and the Qing in Vietnam – getting called in by one Vietnamese faction that is at war with another, and then creating an even bigger mess in the process.

        So how do we label the 300,000 Chinese who went to North Vietnam during the war? Where they invading too?

        As for US depredations, they are of course undeniable. But I would agree with the findings of Pierre Asselin’s new book that we really can’t fully understand that war if we don’t also take into consideration the decisions and actions of Vietnamese as well. Le Duan, after all, was no angel.

        “Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War opens in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva accords that ended the eight-year-long Franco-Indochinese War and created two Vietnams. In agreeing to the accords, Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam anticipated a new period of peace leading to national reunification under their rule; they never imagined that within a decade they would be engaged in an even bigger feud with the United States. Basing his work on new and largely inaccessible Vietnamese materials as well as French, British, Canadian, and American documents, Pierre Asselin explores the communist path to war. Specifically, he examines the internal debates and other elements that shaped Hanoi’s revolutionary strategy in the decade preceding U.S. military intervention, and resulting domestic and foreign programs. Without exonerating Washington for its role in the advent of hostilities in 1965, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War demonstrates that those who directed the effort against the United States and its allies in Saigon were at least equally responsible for creating the circumstances that culminated in arguably the most tragic conflict of the Cold War era.”

  4. I am quite surprised with Asselin’s assertion ” the Geneva accords created two VNs ” As far as I know , they were mainly cease-fire and separation of forces agreements between French and Vietminh troops . They didn’t broach political matters save for one point :the French were to leave their regroupment zone and elections were to be held in some time to reunify the two zones ( military , not political ) . In no way , are the accords meant as legitimation of a separate south VN .The US took advantage of a vacuum in the transition period to take over south VN and install a dependant regime whose ethnic base were imported Catholic northerners , US – Diem stole south VN from the jaws of the victorious Vietminh . An analogy would be the ” Boer great trek ” ; another would be the creation of the Republic of Panama , snatched from Colombia .
    In south VN , the US “invented ” the Republic of VN to legitimize their invasion . In 1965 , they disembarked their Marines on Da nang ‘s beaches without bothering to ask the then Saigon government leaders who were just informed two days before the fact .
    Anyhow the Paris 1973 accords namely mentioned the Geneva accords
    as a basis for peace for Vietnam ( and Indochina )
    As for north VN or Lê Duân southward agency , I think North VN has as much legitimacy as Lincoln vis à vis Confederacy or the USA vis à vis Napoléon III Mexican intervention .

  5. Moro resistance did not end at Bagsak. Moro revolts against the Americans continued to break out in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and one revolt lasted right up to the Japanese invasion in 1941.

    Moro jurmamentados continued to carry out random suicide attacks on Americans and the Filipino constabulary just weeks before Pearl Harbor.

    The US conquest of the Philippines is known, but not of the Moro war. You can’t help but think there is some kind of deliberate agenda here.

    In American history that is taught in schools, all the wrongdoings and imperialist behavior of the USA that is taught, are things that no longer impact American relations with the rest of the world, have no bearing on current day events and are all things that will stay in the past and people can do nothing about.

    Such as Native Americans- any Native American who starts a resistance movement is going to get shot by the police or FBI like what happened in 1971 with AIM at the Wounded Knee incident. They can’t do anything about their situation so its safe to learn in schools. The only thing people are going to do is make bad jokes about Casinos and firewater.

    Native Hawaiians- same thing. Native Hawaiians cannot do a damn thing about the fact that they are outnumbered in their own land and will never get independence.

    Philippines- lots of people know about the Philippines American war. the current Philippines is an ally of America and hosts the American military. So it doesn’t impact opinion on relations between the countries.

    Some random Latin American country where the CIA implemented a coup- that was during the Cold War and nobody cares anymore. Nobody is going to do anything about it.

    The agenda comes into play when we look at the Moros. The Moros today are still fighting the Philippines. American soldiers are participating in “Operation Enduring Freedom” and fighting directly against Moros in Mindanao and Sulu. The Moros last year humiliated the Filipino military and their American advisors in the Mamasapano clash.

    Absolutely zero about Moros is taught in American history. Nothing. Only the Philippine-American war is taught and not the Moro war. Documentaries on the Philippines during World War II on the history channel will only mention Filipino and American soldiers. Nothing about Moro resistance in Mindanao against the Japanese. The Moros eliminated most of the Japanese in their land before MacArthur returned to Leyte.

    The Philippine American war was fought first. The USA signed the Bates Treaty with the Moro Sulu Sultanate in 1904 which put its foreign affairs in the hands of the USA but let the internal affairs and laws of the land to the Moros.

    After the Philippine American war was over the USA unilaterally tore up and violated the Bates Treaty and invaded the Moros in 1904. They continued waging war until total conquest of all the Moro lands.

    The New York Times, which blatantly wrote in its editorial board about how the USA must support the Philippines against China, claimed in 2013 on the battle in Zamboanga that the Philippines has been bringing “peace” to the Muslims (Moros) since independence in 1946 and accused them of being Islamist fundamentalists.

    America and the Philippines implemented a program to colonize Moro lands with Filipino Christians from the Visayas and Luzon. Millions of Filipinos were settled in Mindanao and they changed the demographics of hte land- Moros used to be majority, now they are minority and Filipino Christian settlers are the majority at over 70%.

    The current Moro insurgency was started when the Filipino Dictator Marcos tried invading the Malaysian state of Sabah and killed dozens of Moros in the Jabidah Massacre. Marcos also burned the entire city of Jolo to the ground with the Philippines airforce and killed over 10,000 civilians in that city. Filipino settlers formed the Ilaga militia to fight against the Moros and they carried out the Manili massacre of Moro women and children and ate the body parts of their victims. The Filipino military carried out the Malisbong massacre against Moro civilians and hundreds of Moro girls were raped. There were other multiple massacres under Marcos.

    The New York Times’ definition of bringing “peace” apparently means burning down entire cities, massacring tens of thousands, murdering and mutilating women and children, and mass raping girls.

    The Moro MNLF website posted articles attacking and criticizing the Philippines and America’s actions against China in the South China Sea and even posted a memorandum to Obama and demanded to know why America and Japan still support the Philippines against the Moros.

    When the Moros defeated the Filipino military at the Mamasapano battle last January, the Filipino President was effectively forced to halt the American military “pivot” to the Philippines against China.

    There is a very blatant agenda going on in the media. Portray Philippines as an innocent victim, don’t mention Moros and when you have to mention them, portray them as evil Islamic fundamentalists whom the Filipino government is righteously fighting.

    If the media was forced to report honestly on what is going on in Mindanao and the violation of the Bates Treaty is taught in American schools, public opinion would question why America is fighting against the Moros in Mindanao and militarily supporting the Philippines. Its an ongoing conflict and the American government has deemed supporting the Philippines as one of its highest priorities.

    1. Thanks for your comments! First of all, you are of course right in pointing out that Moro resistance did not end at Bagsak. I should have qualified that statement by saying something about how that was more like the “official narrative” that might have been known by whoever created the myth about the bullets.

      As for “the blatant agenda in the media,” that’s something that I have even less insight into than my limited knowledge of Philippine history, but there are some comments that I read recently that were made by the late historian Benedict Anderson that I think also point to a contributing factor – the total lack of interest in the Philippines in the US.

      To quote:

      “[Philippine Studies] has never, except for a short time after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, been very popular in the U.S. This is certainly the consequence of the peculiar character of American colonialism, which, one could argue, was, in the long run, a domestic embarrassment. The U.K., France, Spain, and Holland were small countries with huge colonies of which they were proud, and none of them today is of any major importance. The U.S. is a vast continental country, while its largest true colony, the Philippines, is only the size of New Mexico. London, Paris, and Amsterdam regularly put on shows, in museums and elsewhere, about India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. It is hard to imagine the U.S. doing anything like this for the Philippines, which, except for Filipino-Americans, is largely invisible. An American going to the Philippines will find very little to be ‘proud of.’ You might also say that it was difficult for a young American to feel himself or herself as a ‘pioneer,’ except in one respect: in the later 1960s a few young researchers believed themselves the first to be truly fluent in Tagalog. Perhaps, too, the Philippines was and is not ‘exotic enough,’ too Christian, too lacking in spectacular precolonial edifices. No imposing dynasties, no aristocracies—always a lure for Americans. Not really disdain, rather indifference.”

      I think this relates to the point that you make here, “Absolutely zero about Moros is taught in American history. Nothing. Only the Philippine-American war is taught and not the Moro war.” Even there, I don’t think much is taught about the Philippine-American war in most cases. Unless the students are Filipino-American, most of the students who I teach have never heard of this war, nor do they even know that the Philippines was a colony of the US. As for the Filipino-Americans that I teach, they at least know those two facts, but very little beyond that.

      Related to all of this, if you visit the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, you have to first watch a video about the historical context surrounding the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I remember that they remade this video at some point either in the late 1990s or early 2000s and there was academics whom they consulted. In general the video is very well done. However, there is one point that is “interesting” – in talking about the Philippines it doesn’t mention that this was an American colony at the time, it just makes reference to “American interests in the Philippines.”

      In any case, my point is to say that I think the issue you are pointing to is larger than an agenda. There may be an agenda in the media (I have no way of knowing), but there is a much larger condition of a lack of knowledge about, or interest in, the Philippines in the US.

      That said, there have been several books published recently on the history of the Moros. You are probably aware of them (I’ve only read the McKenna one).

      Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines by Thomas McKenna
      Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines’ Muslim South by Michael Hawkins
      Moroland: The History of Uncle Sam and the Moros 1899-1920 by Robert A. Fulton
      The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913

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