Pancho Villa’s Troops Murder 18 Americans

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 219th installment in the series.  

January 11, 1916: Pancho Villa’s Troops Murder 18 Americans 

On January 11, 1916, a group of bandits associated with the Mexican guerrilla leader Pancho Villa stopped a train at Santa Ysabel in Chihuahua state, forced nineteen mining engineers from the American Smelting and Refining Company to get off, and then shot them all, with just one man surviving by playing dead. The sole survivor, Thomas B. Holmes, recalled: 

Just after alighting, I heard a volley of rifle shots from a point on the other side of the cut and just above the train. Looking around, I could see a bunch of about 12 or 15 men standing in a solid line, shoulder to shoulder, shooting directly at us… Watson kept running, and they were still shooting at him when I turned and ran down grade, where I fell in some brush… 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. I crawled through the bushes until I reached the bank of the stream… There I lay under the bank for half an hour and heard shots by ones, twos and threes. 

A Mexican miner who was present told a correspondent for the New York Sun

No sooner had the train been brought to a standstill by the wreck the bandits had caused than they began to board the coaches. They swarmed into our car, poked Mausers into our sides, and told us to throw up our hands or they would kill us. Then Col. Pablo Lopez, in charge of the looting in our car, said: “If you want to see some fun watch us kill these gringoes. Come on, boys!” he shouted to his followers… I heard a volley of rifle shots and looked out the window… Colonel Lopez ordered the “tiro de gracia” given to those who were still alive, and the soldiers placed the ends of their rifles at their victims’ heads and fired, putting the wounded out of misery. 

This outrage was the latest chapter in Villa’s long, twisted relationship with the United States, which had actually supported the charismatic rebel leader for a time. 

After the liberal reformist president Francisco Madero was overthrown by Victoriano Huerta in 1913, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson turned against the brutal military dictator and offered support to a challenger, Venustiano Carranza, who ousted Huerta the following year with support from Villa and another rebel leader, Emiliano Zapata. Carranza, who did not want to be seen as an American puppet, rebuffed Wilson’s offer of help, and further alienated him with nationalistic policies which threatened U.S. business interests, as well as his illiberal attacks on the Catholic Church in Mexico. Meanwhile Villa and Zapata had both turned on Carranza as well, and in 1914-1915 the U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan sided with Villa, whom he believed was committed to democratic ideals. Villa, a savvy publicist, also curried favor with U.S. public opinion by striking deals with American film companies, and even recruited Americans to join his army (below). 

However, after Carranza’s forces inflicted serious defeats on Villa’s rebel army in April 1915 Bryan gave him up as a lost cause, and towards the end of the year Wilson – faced with a fait accompli – reluctantly threw in his lot with Carranza, who promised democratic reforms and an end to religious persecution. 

Villa viewed this shift as a betrayal by the U.S. government, and began pursuing a new strategy: instead of trying to overthrow Carranza directly, he would provoke a war between the U.S. and Mexico that would result in U.S. intervention and the collapse of Carranza’s regime. 

Villa hoped to provoke war by raiding the U.S. border, killing American citizens and destroying property in order to inflame public opinion. And this approach worked remarkably well: after the massacre of the American mining engineers in Santa Ysabel, El Paso, Texas, was placed under martial law to prevent its enraged citizens from organizing a militia and carrying out reprisals in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. 

Despite calls for military action by the Senate, Wilson refused to declare war over an atrocity committed by bandits, and instead called on Carranza to apprehend Villa and his men. This was a tall order, as Villa’s force of around 1,500 troops was running free in the vast, remote reaches of northern Mexico, and the guerrilla leader remained determined to precipitate a conflict between the two national governments. 

After committing several further atrocities, Villa almost succeeded in this aim – and the tense situation he helped create laid the groundwork for the infamous Zimmerman Telegram scandal, in which Germany secretly tried to stir up war between the U.S. and Mexico in order to distract the U.S. and prevent it from joining the war in Europe.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Orson Welles's Former Hollywood Hills Estate Is Taking Vacation Reservations

Fred Mott, Getty Images
Fred Mott, Getty Images

Orson Welles's former Hollywood Hills estate is a perfect place to get away from society, grow a bushy beard, and brood over a bottle of whiskey.

Interested? The late Hollywood icon's 3000-square-foot home is available to rent for about $755 a night through HomeAway. The house, which sits on its own private 15,000-square-foot knoll, was home to Welles at the very beginning of his career and is where he wrote the screenplay for 1941's Citizen Kane. Bring along your typewriter and try to channel some of his greatness.

Quite a few other celebrities have inhabited the house as well, including Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and David Bowie. Features of the grand four-bedroom mansion—built in 1928—include a lagoon pool, Jacuzzi, deck, and both canyon and city views.

There's never been a better time to rent Welles's abode: his final film, The Other Side of the Wind, is set to premiere at this month's Venice Film Festival before arriving on Netflix. The unfinished flick, which was shot intermittently between 1970 and 1976, has been completed and restored for its much-anticipated release. (Of course the mansion has plenty of TVs for your viewing pleasure.)

The property has a three- to five-night stay minimum, depending on the season. For more pictures, see below or head to HomeAway. And since you're already in vacation-planning mode, another creative celebrity abode to consider is F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's Montgomery, Alabama home, which is available to rent via Airbnb.

Orson Welles' house
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles mansion
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

Orson Welles' former home
Courtesy of HomeAway

10 Things You Might Not Know About Robert De Niro

RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images
RALPH GATTI, AFP/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is part of the pantheon of independent-minded filmmakers who cut through Hollywood noise in the 1970s with edgier fare to create what became known as “The New Hollywood.” Following stints with Brian De Palma and Roger Corman, De Niro teamed up with Martin Scorsese for the first time with 1973's Mean Streets, which launched a fruitful artistic collaboration that has produced some of the best movies of the past half-century.

Even after his shift into commercial comedies like Meet the Parents, “dedication” has remained De Niro’s watchword. The two-time Oscar winner has earned Hollywood legend status with panache and bone-deep portrayals. Here are 10 facts about the filmmaker on his 75th birthday. (Yes, we’re talkin’ to you.)

1. HIS FIRST ROLE WAS IN A STAGING OF THE WIZARD OF OZ—AT AGE 10.

Robert De Niro got bit by the acting bug early. He threatened to thrash a hippopotamus from top to bottom-us as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz at the tender age of 10. (This is the remake and casting the world needs right now.)

2. HE DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL TO PURSUE ACTING.

Robert De Niro arrives at the UK premiere of epic war drama film 'The Deer Hunter', UK, 28th February 1979
John Minihan, Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

De Niro’s mother, Virginia Admiral, was a painter whose work was part of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and his father, Robert De Niro, Sr., was a celebrated abstract expressionist painter. So the apple falling into drama school instead of the art studio still isn’t that far from the tree. Having already gotten a youthful dose of stage life, De Niro quit his private high school to try to become an actor. He first went to the nonprofit HB Studio before studying under Stella Adler and, later, The Actors Studio.

3. HE’S A DUAL CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES AND ITALY.

De Niro is American, Italian-American, and, as of 2004, Italian. The country bestowed honorary citizenship upon De Niro as an honor in recognition of his career, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing to the passport office. A group called the Order of the Sons of Italy in America strongly protested the Italian government’s plan due to De Niro’s frequent portrayal of negative Italian-American stereotypes.

4. HE GAINED 60 POUNDS FOR RAGING BULL.

Preparing to play the misfortune-laden boxing champ Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull required two major things from De Niro: training and gaining. For the latter, De Niro ate his way through Europe during a four-month binge of ice cream and pasta. His 60-pound-gain was dramatic enough that it concerned Martin Scorsese. It was one way to show dedication to a role, but the training element was even more impressive. De Niro got so good at boxing that when LaMotta set up several professional-level sparring bouts for the actor, De Niro won two of them.

5. HE AND MARLON BRANDO ARE THE ONLY ACTORS TO WIN OSCARS FOR PLAYING THE SAME CHARACTER.

De Niro won his first Oscar in 1975 for The Godfather: Part II, for portraying the younger version of Vito Corleone—the wizened capo played by Marlon Brando, who also won an Oscar for the role (Brando’s came in 1973, for The Godfather). No other pair of actors has managed the feat, although Jeff Bridges came close in 2010 when he was nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit (a role originated by John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 movie of the same name). Oddly enough, Bridges was in contention for the role of Travis Bickle, the role that earned De Niro his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

6. HE DROVE A CAB TO PREPARE FOR TAXI DRIVER.

If you’re looking for commitment to a role, ask Hack #265216. De Niro got a taxicab driver’s license to study up to play Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and spent several weekends cruising around New York City picking up fares. It’s possible that having his teeth filed down for Cape Fear is the most intense transformation he’s undergone for a role, but picking up a part-time job to live the lonely life of Bickle is more humane.

7. ONE OF HIS FILMS POSTPONED ONE OF HIS OSCAR WINS.

The 53rd Academy Awards—where De Niro won for playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull—were originally scheduled for March 30, 1981 but were postponed until the following day because of an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. The would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., claimed the attack was intended to impress Jodie Foster, who Hinckley grew obsessed with after watching Taxi Driver.

8. HE LAUNCHED THE TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WAKE OF 9/11.

Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal speak onstage at the 'Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives' Premiere during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall on April 19, 2017 in New York City
Theo Wargo, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Producer Jane Rosenthal, philanthropist Craig M. Hatkoff, and De Niro founded the Tribeca Film Festival in 2001 as a showcase for independent films that would hopefully “spur the economic and cultural revitalization of lower Manhattan” after the devastation of the 9/11 terror attacks. With its empire state of mind, the inaugural festival in 2002 featured a “Best of New York Series” handpicked by Martin Scorsese and drew an astonishing 150,000 attendees.

9. HE WAS ONCE INTERROGATED BY FRENCH POLICE CONCERNING A PROSTITUTION RING.

One of the most bizarre chapters in De Niro’s life came when he was publicly named in the investigation of a prostitution ring in Paris. The 1998 incident included a lengthy interrogation session (De Niro filed an official complaint) and a pile of paparazzi waiting for him when he left the prosecutor’s office. De Niro railed against the entire country, vowing to return his Legion of Honour and telling Le Monde newspaper that, "I will never return to France. I will advise my friends against going to France.” (He had cooled off enough by 2011 to act as the Cannes Film Festival’s jury president.)

10. HE LOVED THE CAT(S) IN MEET THE PARENTS.

Meet the Parents’s Mr. Jinx (Jinxy!) was played by two Himalayans named Bailey and Misha, and De Niro fell in love with them. He played with them between scenes, kept kibble in his pocket for them, and asked director Jay Roach to have Mr. Jinx in as many scenes as possible.

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