Villa’s secretary Luis Aguirre Benavides, an eyewitness, told the New York Times in 1915 that when Benton called Villa a bandit he “…did not finish the sentence. General Villa quick as lightning, threw himself, pistol in hand, on the Englishman with the intention of instantly killing him. The woman [Villa’s wife Maria Luz Corral] placed herself between th[e] two, thus preventing Villa from firing. The officers of the guard threw themselves on Benton, and, disarming him, led him off immediately to an adjoining room, where he was handcuffed and detained…”

 

Exactly how Benton died is not known. Villa and his secretary Aguirre Benavides maintained that Fierro took Benton in a caboose to nearby Samalayuca and smashed his scull thereby killing him. According to Villa and many historians who have researched the incident, Benton was an abusive hacendado who had lived and worked in Chihuahua under the protection of Terrazas and Creel. Understandably, Villa and the revolutionary propaganda machine would use these charges to somehow justify the murder. However, the alleged abuses seemed to have transferred into the historiography unchecked. Whether or not the Scottish hothead was more abusive than the American hacendados who were fortunate enough to keep their lands and cattle is unclear. According to historian Katz, Villa and Benton had had an earlier run-in, which had resulted in Villa taking horses and supplies from Benton’s ranch. Benton also had been overheard in the Foreign Club in Chihuahua as supporting the military dictatorship of Huerta. Clearly, the altercation had very personal roots that had little to do with Benton’s treatment of Mexican villagers or the supposed confiscation of his ranch.

An added fact that could have exacerbated Villa’s hatred for Benton exists in the curious timing of the altercation at Villa’s office. As Felix Sommerfeld hunted down the fugitive General Pascual Orozco in the months before, one specific lead pointed to Benton who allegedly knew where Villa’s nemesis was hiding. Agent Blanford of the BI asked Sommerfeld to verify the rumor. “Sommerfeld stated that he knows Benton so I requested him to interview him.” The BI agent reported to his superiors on January 19th 1914, “Sommerfeld told me later that he had found Benton and that he had been informed that the friend of young [William S.] Benton is a Mexican and that this Mexican talked with Orozco in Shafter on the 15th instant. The present whereabouts of Orozco was not known to Benton, although he was certain Orozco had left Shafter." The implication was that Benton somehow had been involved in hiding Villa’s most hated opponent. It might never be known what Sommerfeld had reported to Villa with respect to his investigation. However, if Benton indeed had been in any way implicated in the disappearance of Orozco, Villa’s wrath would have been boundless.

As it turns out, Sommerfeld not only knew Benton, but the English-born cattle rancher who had meanwhile become a Mexican citizen was his friend. See the drawing... 

 

William S. Benton drawn by Felix A. Sommerfeld

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