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.

8 Provocative Facts About the X Film Rating

iStock/tolgart
iStock/tolgart

When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced the modern movie ratings system in 1968, they couldn’t have known that one of their classifications would become the calling card of pornography. The X rating, intended to denote films not suitable for anyone under the age of 17, went from being attached to Academy Award contenders to filling video store spaces located behind saloon doors. Fifty years after its debut, we’re taking a look at the most infamous letter in moviegoing history.

1. ACCEPTING THE RATING WAS VOLUNTARY (KIND OF).

In 1968, the MPAA and its president, Jack Valenti, introduced a four-tier system to classify films. G was suitable for all audiences; M was the equivalent of PG (which replaced M in 1970), indicating that juveniles should consult with a parent before attending; R was intended for adults, or children only with a guardian present; X marked films that shouldn’t be seen by adolescent eyes. But the MPAA never forced a film studio to submit to its decision. It could release a film with no rating at all. The problem? The MPAA’s arrangement with the National Association of Theater Owners meant that an unrated film would almost certainly have difficulty finding a theater to screen it.

2. A ROBERT DE NIRO MOVIE WAS THE FIRST TO GET SLAPPED WITH AN X.

Immediately after the introduction of the new MPAA system, the advisory board got its first bona fide sample of an X-rated submission: Director Brian De Palma’s Greetings, a 1968 film starring Robert De Niro as a New Yorker confronting the possibility of being drafted, garnered the rating due to its sexually explicit content, including nudity that would likely earn an R rating today. (De Palma would later run afoul of the MPAA multiple times; 1980's Dressed to Kill, 1981's Blow Out, and 1983's Scarface were all threatened with an X before being edited.)

3. FILMMAKERS COULD GIVE THEMSELVES THE RATING.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Though it was quickly going to become taboo, there was a time when an X rating for a mainstream film was a badge of honor and an effective marketing tool that signaled a film was being made for discerning moviegoers—not just viewers looking for titillation. Arthur Krim, the head of United Artists, willingly gave 1969’s Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight film Midnight Cowboy an X of his own volition even after he realized the MPAA would give the film an R designation. (The MPAA later applied an R to the movie in 1971.)

4. IT WAS WELCOME AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS.

The X rating was not an impediment to critical or commercial acclaim. In 1970, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971, earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture; Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), starring Marlon Brando as a sex-obsessed American in France, got two nominations, including Brando for Best Actor.

5. THE XXX MARK MAY HAVE STEMMED FROM AN ALCOHOL DESIGNATION.

A neon XXX sign
iStock/07_av

In the hyperbole of film marketing, studios and advertisers didn’t believe one X was enough. Some films, like 1968’s Starlet!, were advertised as having an unofficial XXX designation to signify it was even more intense than other adult-oriented films. The label may have come from an old practice of denoting the strength of beer with a X, XX, or XXX label.

6. PORN TOOK OVER THE RATING DUE TO AN MPAA OVERSIGHT.

A rating of X in 1969 was no big deal. By the mid-1970s, it signaled to audiences that they were about to watch an anatomy lesson. That’s because the burgeoning adult film industry of the 1970s was screening films in theaters—VHS was not yet a household acronym—and blared advertisements with promises of “XXX” salaciousness. The MPAA never reviewed these films, and titles like 1972’s Deep Throat and 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas used the mark freely. The reason? The MPAA never bothered to copyright X as it applies to film ratings, allowing anyone to use it. In short order, the X rating became synonymous with pornography and grew into a scarlet letter for films. No reputable theaters would book such movies, and few newspapers would take ads for them.

7. PEOPLE COLLECT X-RATED FILMS.

The seedy, lurid films that applied their own X (or XXX) ratings in the 1970s and 1980s have developed a small but devout following of collectors who have a “strong desire to own, preserve, and reclaim erotic history,” according to one aficionado who spoke with The New York Times in 2014. These specialists focus mostly on the 16mm and 35mm films that were produced prior to the advent of VHS.

8. ONE STUDIO SUED OVER IT.

Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in 'Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!' (1989)
Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
The Criterion Collection

When the MPAA gave an X rating to the 1989 Pedro Almodóvar drama Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Miramax decided to sue, claiming such a label would harm the film financially. The studio lost the suit, but it signaled the end of the war.

In 1990, a year that saw 10 movies get slapped with an X, the MPAA overhauled the ratings system. It dropped the X in favor of NC-17, which it hoped would distance films with artistic merit from pornographic material. And this time, the pornography industry couldn't co-opt it: Learning from its past mistake, the MPAA trademarked the designation.

Stranger Things's David Harbour Shared Some Season 3 Spoilers—With Absolutely No Context

Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

While Netflix likes to keep the details of Stranger Things a mystery, David Harbour, who plays Detective Hopper, likes to have fun with his fans.

Harbour posted a cryptic image to his Instagram which, while it clearly contains Stranger Things Season 3 spoilers in both the photo and the caption, does not give away any “context,” hence leaving us with very little real information.

Harbour did share that he has wrapped filming on season 3 of Stranger Things—and that we can kiss his mustache goodbye.

The mysterious post raises a number of questions. In the photo, Harbour rocks a hat that supports a local Hawkins business. The hat reads, "Gary's Plumbing & Heating, Warming Hawkins, IN since 1972."

We’re not sure if the hat is referencing the Gary already in the show, as he is the coroner, but we can’t wait to find out.

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