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1916 Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

On April 5 Charles Spencer Chaplin became the highest-paid star in Hollywood when he signed a one-year contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for the sum of $670,000. Just three years earlier the English actor had left the London vaudeville stage to make his first one-reeler for Mack Sennett. “Well,” Chaplin declared upon signing, “I’ve got this much if they never give me another cent—I guess I’ll go and buy a whole dozen ties.” In another two years the Little Tramp would sign with First National for one million dollars.

Throughout much of April newspaper readers followed reports of scouting patrols of National Guardsmen pursuing the Mexican nationalist Francisco (“Pancho”) Villa and his followers across the desert. The going was often dogged. Pack mules sank knee-deep into the sand; the terrain was bewildering, and captured enemy troops denied ever having seen Villa. The hunt became so frustrating that when the U.S. Cavalry discovered fresh snow tracks in the mountains, it made the front pages.

Maj. Frank Tompkins thought that he knew where Villa was, and his scouting party set out in search on April 2 only to be attacked ten days later by rioting Villistas at Parral, Mexico. The riot expanded to a skirmish between the Americans and Mexican government troops stationed there. Tompkins took a bullet in his shoulder in the initial fighting.

As his outfit attempted to ride north out of the town, the government troops made a final charge—“without formation, hell-bent-for-election, … yelling like fiends,” as Major Tompkins described it, and “making a … beautiful target.” A second cavalry troop arrived and put an end to the fight. Major Tompkins returned to General Pershing’s headquarters without Villa.

Ever since Porfirio Diaz had been forced out of power in 1911, competing revolutionary factions had been fighting for control of Mexico. While the faction warred, President Wilson assembled Latin American leaders to advise his State Department in choosing among them. The Five Power Conference recognized Gen. Venustiano Carranza as de facto president in October 1915, provoking Villa’s particular ire. He struck on January 10, 1916, at Santa Ysabel, killing sixteen American engineers, and soon four hundred Villistas attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. It was a week after that that General Pershing’s six thousand troops followed Villa’s men into Mexico.

Combat was rare. Villa, who President Carranza said was “everywhere and nowhere,” liked to hit fast, then retreat into the fathomless mountains. Although Villa himself always escaped Pershing’s traps, one of the general’s young officers, George S. Patton, Jr., managed to hunt down and kill his bodyguard. “We have a bandit in our ranks,” announced Pershing. “This Patton boy! He’s a real fighter.” In eleven months of campaigning, Pershing’s scouts never found their man. The U.S. Army finally retreated north in time for Carranza’s formal election, on March 11, 1917.

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