German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von 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 in February 1016. 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 over the massacre at Santa Isabel 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 18, 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 del 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 1, 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 guerrilla 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 Isabel. Villa wanted to provoke a military intervention. Pablo López encapsulated Villa’s rational. The executioner of Santa Isabel told a reporter on May 25, 1916, in an interview shortly before being executed,
News of Villa approaching the border with a force of between five hundred and six hundred men, and the supposition that the revolutionary chieftain had finally decided to seek refuge in the United States, preceded the fateful night between March 8 and 9. The El Paso Herald reported on March 8, “With three American cattlemen presumably held as prisoner, Francisco Villa, the outlawed Mexican insurgent, was reported today with between 200 and 700 men at a point on the Boca Grande river in Chihuahua, 15 miles west of Columbus and 27 miles south of the border.” The three men had the bad luck of crossing Villa’s path as his raiding party prepared to attack the United States. They did not survive the encounter. The next day, an American military unit found their bodies hanged and burnt.
Despite the reports that Villa was at the border with a sizable armed force, and despite the obvious fact that he did not appear to have changed his attitude towards the United States, rumors persisted that the Mexican rebel commander wanted to cross into the United States. The commander of the Columbus garrison, Colonel Herbert J. Slocum, who had given the information of Villa’s whereabouts to the El Paso paper, seemed confident that Villa did not represent any danger. American intelligence, save for two agents, got it wrong. George Carothers, formally President Wilson’s special envoy to Pancho Villa, cabled to the Secretary of State on March 3, 1916, “I anticipate renewed Villa activity in the near future.” Zach Lamar Cobb, the tireless customs collector of El Paso and State Department intelligence officer, sent multiple telegrams to his superiors in Washington detailing Villa’s whereabouts: He reported on March 3, “Villa left Pecheco Point, near Madera with three hundred men headed towards Columbus, New Mexico…” Cobb believed that Villa “intends to cross to United States and hopes to proceed to Washington.” He still cautioned as to Villa’s intentions.
The rumor of Villa personally seeking to absolve himself for the Santa Isabel murders in Washington was the result of communications between an AP reporter, George Seese, and Villa. Seese had advance knowledge of Villa’s coming to Columbus and was supposed to accompany the revolutionary chieftain to Washington D.C. On February 28 he wrote a letter to his editor in Los Angeles: “I have reached Villa with proposition to come to United States secretly [and] go with me to see President Wilson… whether the president sees him or not we will have five or six days of fine exclusive stuff, and I have motion picture friend who would foot the bills for all expenses for the right to make pictures. …My plan is to meet Villa somewhere near Columbus, run him up past Almagordo, N. M., to avoid eyes that might know him, board a train and scoot for Kansas City, thence via Chicago to Washington… ” Seese’s boss immediately responded, “Do not at all approve plan…” Seese wrote another message from El Paso on March 4, “The Villa matter was dropped like a hot stove as soon as I received your message. I went after the proposition because I thought that having Villa in the United States would relieve the Mexican situation of one of its problems, afford the United States [sic] officials some satisfaction and give us a dandy story… Villa may come across the line any time now. By the time you get this he may already have crossed. I hope to put over a beat when he does, but the Associated Press is not and shall not be committed to anything.”
Seese did travel to Columbus on March 8 with an aide. It was never discovered who interceded with Villa on his behalf. While no archival smoking gun has turned up yet, Felix Sommerfeld did have all the right credentials to play the intermediary. He had worked for AP News and personally knew its general manager, Melville E. Stone, very well. Sommerfeld also had a close relationship with Fred B. Warren, the general manager of Goldwyn Film Company. Warren, who lived in the Hotel Astor (just as Sommerfeld and Albert), would have been the person to promise funding of the project. Albert, at the time, heavily invested in German propaganda films and his own film company. Finally, Sommerfeld was, albeit “unofficially” since October 1915, the loyal Villa representative in the United States. Sommerfeld told investigators in 1918 that he himself tried to get Villa to explain himself. “The only time I got in communication with Villa [after the recognition of Carranza] was the killing of the Americans at Santa Isabel [sic]. General Scott happened to be here in New York… I sent a long telegram, which I showed to General Scott, and sent it down to El Paso… The murder of seventeen Americans is an atrocious crime. People believe you have had something to do with it. In order to prove it, you will have to get the man who did the killing and show that no foreigner’s life has been, or will be, threatened by you.”
Of course, Sommerfeld knew exactly what Villa was up to. He had stoked the rumors of a secret pact between the U.S. and Carranza, had even convinced General Hugh L. Scott of its existence. Villa was about to, in his own mind, save Mexico from the takeover of his beloved country by the Yankee imperialists...
Read the rest of the story in the next blog on the 9th of March. If you can't wait that long, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War!