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He died with his silk undies on…

23 June 2007

I know from experience that Mexican crabs are tough customers, forcing me to boil my underwear and seriously consider using kerosene (OUCH!!) — but I never considered turning to the Mexican Army. However, back in 1917, when fear of crabs was a convenient excuse for an outbreak of our periodic fear of Mexicans — the Mexican Army was called in to … try and Kwell the situation.

Alexander Cockburn, fascinated that Zyclon-B was part of the story, writes in Counterpunch:


The mayor of El Paso at the time, Tom Lea Sr., represented… “the new type of Anglo politician in the ‘Progressive Era’. …In Lea’s case, ‘progress’ meant he would clean up the city.” … He had a visceral fear of contamination and, so his son [Tom Lea, Jr., a well-known Western artist and writer] later disclosed, wore silk underwear because his friend, Dr. Kluttz, had told him typhus lice didn’t stick to silk. His loins thus protected, Lea battered the U.S. government with demands for a full quarantine camp on the border where all immigrants could be held for up to 14 days. Local health officer B.J. Lloyd thought this outlandish, telling the U.S. surgeon general that typhus fever “is not now, and probably never will be, a serious menace to our civilian population.”

Lloyd was right about this. Lea forced health inspectors to descend on Chihuahuita, the Mexican quarter of El Paso, forcing inhabitants suspected of harboring lice to take kerosene and vinegar baths, have their heads shaved and clothes incinerated. Inspection of 5,000 rooms did not stigmatize Chihuahuita as a plague zone. The inspectors found two cases of typhus, one of rheumatism, one of TB, and one of chicken pox. Ironically, Kluttz, presumably wearing silk underwear, contracted typhus while supervising these operations and died.

As part of the anti-lice (or, rather, anti-Mexican lice) campaign streetcars coming in from Juarez were stopped, passengers forced to strip naked and doused with gasoline. Women passengers suspected (and were later proved to be correct) that they were being photographed while naked.


17-year old cleaning woman Carmelita Torres, a Mexican Rosa Parks, refused to strip one day. David Dorado Romo, in his Ringside Seat to a Revolution (Cinco Puntos Press, 2005) picks up the story:


At 7:30 a.m. on January 28, 1917, when Carmelita was asked by the customs officials at the bridge to get off the trolley, take a bath and be disinfected with gasoline, she refused. Instead, Carmelita got off the electric streetcar and convinced 30 other female passengers to get off with her and demonstrate their opposition to this humiliating process. By 8:30 a.m. more than 200 Mexican women had joined her and blocked all traffic into El Paso. By noon, the press estimated their number as “several thousand.”

The demonstrators marched as a group toward the disinfection camp to call out those who were submitting themselves to the humiliation of the delousing process. When immigration and public health service officers tried to disperse the crowd, the protesters hurled bottles, rocks and insults at the Americans. A customs inspector was hit in the head. Fort Bliss commander General Bell ordered his soldiers to the scene, but the women jeered at them and continued their street battle. The “Amazons,” the newspapers reported, struck Sergeant J.M. Peck in the face with a rock and cut his cheek.

The protesters laid down on the tracks in front of the trolley cars to prevent them from moving. When the street cars were immobilized, the women wrenched the motor controllers from the hands of the motormen. One of the motormen tried to run back to the American side of the bridge. Three or four female rioters clung to him while he tried to escape. They pummeled him with all their might and gave him a black eye. Another motorman preferred to hide from the Mexican women by running into a Chinese restaurant on Avenida Juárez.

Carrancista General Francisco Murguía showed up with his death troops to quell the female riot. Murguía’s cavalry, known as “el esquadrón de la muerte,” was rather intimidating. They wore insignia bearing a skull and crossbones and were known for taking no prisoners. The cavalrymen drew their sabers and pointed them at the crowd. But the women were not frightened. They jeered, hooted and attacked the soldiers. “The soldiers were powerless,” the El Paso Herald reported.

More on the El Paso Bath Riots, and Ringside Seat is at National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” site.

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