Today 100 years ago, about six miles south of Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, a derailment in a curve leading through Box Cañon blocked the passage of a following train on the way to Cusihuriachic, a mining town in the south of Chihuahua. Villa commander Colonel Pablo López, a loyal Yaqui Indian officer of Villa’s famed Dorados, with an estimated seventy Villista troops quickly surrounded the second train. The train carried among its passengers seventeen American employees of the Cusihuriachic Mining Company, one Canadian, and a British citizen. The conductor described in an affidavit what happened: 

A telling cartoon which Heinrich F. Albert kept in his files. See his handwritten notation.

A telling cartoon which Heinrich F. Albert kept in his files. See his handwritten notation.

"The train arrived at Santa Ysabel at 1:15 P. M. Arriving at Kilometer 68, eight kilometers beyond Santa Ysabel, we encountered a train, engine No. 57, off the track. When I got off to see what had happened the shooting started. Afterward General [sic] Reyna came up and placed us under guard, searching us and also searching the car. All the money on the passengers and in the car was taken. After this had taken place we left, the Americans having been killed. Some of the foreigners were first shot on the train, and a number, including one Mexican [M. B. Romero, an American citizen of Mexican heritage from New Mexico, the Cusi Mining Company auditor], who were wounded in the car, were later taken off and murdered. Some of them jumped off the train and ran toward the river. These included [Charles R.] Watson [the general manager of the Cusi Mining Company]. They were followed and fired upon.” 

Thomas B. Holmes, the only American who survived the massacre, described the crime in especially graphic detail:

“Watson, after getting off, ran toward the river, Machatton [actually Richard P. McHatton of El Paso] and I followed. Machatton [sic] fell. I do not know whether he was killed then or stripped. Watson kept running, and they were still shooting at him when I turned and ran down grade, where I fell in some brush, probably 100 feet from the rear of the train. I lay there perfectly quiet and looked around and could see the Mexicans shooting in the direction in which Watson was running. I saw that they were not shooting at me, and, thinking they believed me already dead, I took a chance and crawled into some thicker bushes until I reached the bank of the stream [the Ysabel river]. I then made my way to a point probably 100 yards from the train. There I lay under the bank for half an hour and heard shoots by ones, twos [sic], and threes. I did not hear any sort of groans or yells or cries from our Americans…"

The bodies that arrived at Chihuahua City on the following day showed single bullet wounds to the forehead, except for the corpse of supervisor Charles Watson whose entire head had been blown off. A funeral train delivered the victims’ bodies to El Paso on January 13th. American mining companies immediately evacuated hundreds of their employees from the Northern Mexican mining centers of Madera, Cusihuriachic, and Parral. Settlements of Mormons in Chihuahua with mostly American expatriates refused to heed the call of evacuation and requested Carrancista troops for protection instead. 

The reaction to this massacre was predictable: Pablo López, who the Mexican passengers on the train had clearly identified as the leader of the raiding party, immediately became the obsession of outraged El Pasoans who wanted to hunt him down in Mexico and bring him to justice. El Paso police arrested Miguel Díaz Lombardo, the Villa Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who still professed loyalty to his chief, for “vagrancy” and expelled him from the city. Díaz Lombardo complied and went to Los Angeles. Tensions between Mexican and Anglo residents of El Paso ran so high that an altercation between two American soldiers and several Mexicans on Broadway in downtown El Paso caused a mob of eight hundred to one thousand men to challenge the police and U.S. cavalry detachments. Barely able to contain the angry crowd, Carrancista soldiers from the Ciudad Juarez garrison prepared to cross the international line in order to help their Mexican brethren in El Paso. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. General Pershing ordered all U.S. troops to return to Fort Bliss. The local sheriff arrested nineteen men while clearing the streets. The city government of El Paso cancelled a mass meeting planned for the next day, January 14th, as a result of the explosive mood on the street.

The El Paso Herald and other papers in cities along the border, as well as the entire Hearst press, clamored for action and decried the ineffectiveness of the Carranza administration in finding the perpetrators of the massacre. Conservative voices long opposed to President Wilson’s Mexico policy, such as former president Theodore Roosevelt, former ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson, Senators Fall, Borah, Poindexter, Gallinger, Works, and Lewis, joined in the interventionist chorus. German Ambassador Count Bernstorff reported to his superiors in Berlin, “It is significant to note about the debates [in the U. S. Senate] that none of the speeches excluded the possibility of military intervention.” Count Bernstorff also noted the potentially devastating political impact of this latest Mexican outrage on Wilson’s reelection campaign in 1916. “The Republicans all agreed [despite diverse opinions on what to do] in the condemnation of the policy of ‘watchful waiting…’” Despite the intense political and public pressure, Woodrow Wilson quickly announced that there would be no military intervention as a result of the slayings. A few weeks later, in Cleveland, Wilson explained, “The world is on fire and there is tinder everywhere. The sparks are liable to drop everywhere, and somewhere there may be material which we cannot prevent from bursting into flame. The whole influence of passion is abroad [sic] in the world, and it is not strange that men see red in such circumstances.”

Having disagreed with the president on military preparedness over the course of 1915, Secretary of War Lindley Garrison as well as Assistant Secretary of War Breckenridge offered their resignations on February 10th 1916. Both had been firmly on the side of military preparedness, seeking to strengthen the army and navy. They also openly favored American military intervention in Mexico. The shakeup at the War Department dealt a heavy blow to the administration. General Hugh Lenox Scott became the acting Secretary of War the next day. Count Bernstorff, a keen observer of the American political landscape, reported on a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William J. Stone, a Democrat from Missouri. The Wilson advocate retorted to the Republican accusations of presidential weakness, that it was the best proof of the “human” strength of President Wilson by refusing to take the country to war despite the fact that his personal interest, namely re-election, would be better served by intervention. Stone proposed to give Carranza one last chance to create order and concluded that no intervention would take place “unless there were further developments to force it.”

The “further developments” did not take long to materialize. Two Americans, a prospector and a ranch-hand, turned up murdered near Santa Isabel three days after the massacre. A group of Villistas crossed the international border at Hachita, New Mexico, on January 18th, about sixty miles northwest of Columbus. They raided a ranch and engaged a detachment of the 7th Cavalry Brigade. Also on the 18th, Villista raiders attacked a camp of the Alvarado Mining Company near Hidalgo de Parral, Chihuahua, and “killed the Chinese cook, wounded the [American] watchman and looted the company store.” The raids and the subsequent mass exodus of foreigners from Chihuahua all but stopped the important mining business in the region. Carranza’s government immediately felt the pinch from lost tax revenue and export duties. Desperately trying to impress the American public (and the U.S. government) with rigorous action, Carrancista commanders “eagerly” executed dozens of Villistas. While Carrancista officials claimed that these executions dealt with men guilty of the Santa Isabel murders, most had nothing to do with them. Repeated false reports of the arrest of Pancho Villa and Pablo López incurred the mockery of El Paso dailies, citing the inefficiency of Carranza’s pursuit of the rebels.   

Despite, or maybe because of the desperate attempts of the Carranza administration to prove its control over the border region, Villa retreated from public view, the headlines in the U.S., and the border during the month of February. Villa’s disappearance from center stage presented a welcome break for the Wilson administration. It was already dealing with the threat of a renewed German submarine campaign, scheduled to start on March 1st, 1916, and trying to regain its balance after the vicious attacks from the right, the left, and the press. However, those who thought that the guerilla commander had given up his quest for revenge would soon be disappointed. Villa had sent a letter to Emiliano Zapata asking him to join forces against the United States on January 8th 1916, two days before the massacre at Santa Ysabel. Villa wanted to provoke a military intervention. Pablo López encapsulated Villa’s rational. The executioner of Santa Isabel told a reporter on May 25th 1916, in an interview shortly before being executed,

"Don Pancho was convinced that the gringoes [sic] were too cowardly to fight us, or to try and win our country by force of arms. He said they would keep pitting one faction against another until we were all killed off, and our exhausted country would fall like a ripe pear into their eager hands… Don Pancho also told us that Carranza was selling our northern states to the gringoes [sic] to get money to keep himself in power. He said he wanted to make some attempt to get intervention from the gringoes [sic] before they were ready, and while we still had time to become a united nation… The Santa Ysabel affair partly satisfied my master’s desire for revenge, but it did not succeed in satisfying his other wishes. So we marched on Columbus – we invaded American soil." 

Pablo Lopez body after his execution in Chihuahua in May 1916

Pablo Lopez body after his execution in Chihuahua in May 1916

López’s recollection of Villa’s strategy that led to a seemingly quixotic attack on the United States is fascinating on several levels. As Felix Sommerfeld had primed Villa’s closest confidantes with “first-hand” witness information that Carranza had sold Mexico out to the United States, Villa had concluded that it was not a question of whether, but when, the United States would invade Mexico and take control of the land and resources Carranza had ceded for recognition. Rather than waiting for war, he decided to keep the element of surprise, while at the same time rallying Mexican popular support behind his efforts to save the fatherland.

Read the full account of how German agents tried to use the turmoil in Mexico to their ends in Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.