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The twice-dead Scotsman

6 August 2009

(First in what I hope is something of a series)


In early February, 1914 a Scots rancher entered a house in Ciudad Juarez.  His wife never saw him again.  She suspected foul play and called on assistance not from the British Embassy, nor the local police, but the United States consul in Juarez, who could not do much more than ask the house’s occupant, one Mr. Francisco Villa, if he had any ideas.

Villa did, but wasn’t particularly forthcoming, which led to wild allegations in the U.S. and British press:  much as the disappearance of foreigners in Mexico still does today.

Mr. Villa, a rather busy gent with business all over the State of Chihuahua took the time to respond to his critic in the press.  He explained the situation in a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times, published 21 February 1914:

Chihuahua, Mexico.  A court-martial sentenced Benton to death with complete justification, due to his crimes in having made an attempt on my life, as I am able to prove.

FRANCISCO VILLA, General in Chief

What had annoyed Pancho was not that Benton had been executed, but that his gringo friends were speculating that he killed Benton over something so mundane as robbery.  Benton had gone to Villa to complain about his cattle’s “liberation”, and Villa — always careful to maintain good relations with foreigners and respect foreigner’s property rights — made Benton an offer he shouldn’t have refused.  Villa would expropriate Benton’s ranch, and pay the fair price for the land, cattle and buildings.  And in return, Benton (who wasn’t particularly well liked in Chihuahua) would leave Mexico.  Sounded reasonable… to Pancho Villa anyway.

Benton — rather foolishly — pulled a pistol on Pancho.  Villa was probably more annoyed that some Scotsman had got the drop on him than anything, but not wishing to create a scene (he had guests — specifically the widow and children of one of his soldiers for whom he was arranging a pension — and executions during dinner are bad manners), asked Rudolfo Fierro to take care of the situation.  Fierro hustled Benton out the back way, put him on a train headed south, held a court martial and — formalities over — stopped the train near Samalayuca.  Soldiers dug a hole and then  Fierro — being less loathe to execute prisoners than many, and never one to shirk the dirty work — decided it was a waste of bullets to shoot a minor irritant like Benton.  He bashed the Scotsman over the head with a shovel, tossed him in the hole and that should have been that.

The Scots corpse could have stunk up the Revolution.  Venustiano Carranza, Chief of Constitutionalist Forces and Villa’s nominal political and military superior, was particularly annoyed that the U.S. consul had not followed protocol going to Villa, and not gone through proper channels.  It wasn’t something to be taken lightly.  Carranza had rebelled, not for the sake of change, but to restore what he saw as constitutional government, overthrown by Huerta’s coup * .

Secondly, the British government still recognized the Huerta government, an untenable position to Carranza.  He made it very clear – in an interview with John Reed set up by Isadoro Favela,  that the United States consul in Juarez had no jurisdiction over Mexican-British relations, and by recognizing the illegitimate government, no standing with him:

… England, the bully of the world, finds herself unable to deal with us unless she humiliates herself by sending a representative to the Constitutionalists; so, she tries to use the United States as a cat’s paw.  More shame to the United States…!

While Carranza also had in the back of his mind the need to remind everyone (including Pancho Villa) that Villa was subordinate to the Constitutionalist government, Villa had his own ambitions and agenda.  He sought U.S. support, and was less a stickler about protocol and official recognition.  Enter Benton again.

To rebuild the trust with his U.S. backers, Villa offered to turn over Benton’s corpse to the media for examination.  Which created a problem – two problems.

First off, they had to find Benton, and hope he hadn’t been dug up by coyotes.  Which he wasn’t, but Villa had been under the impression that Benton was shot, and had already said there had been a firing squad.  I don’t think he fibbed, but Fierro may have.  No matter, no one makes a liar out of Francisco Villa.

Benton’s corpse was dug up and in good enough condition to be tied to a post and shot a couple of times.    Villa’s staff pathologist warned the General that even in pre-CSI days, it was obvious when somebody had been shot after they were dead.  Villa was a smart guy, just not a well-educated one.  The concept didn’t quite sink in, as he told the pathologist, “OK, then make it look like he was alive when he was shot… even if there’s a second autopsy.”

There never was an independent autopsy.  Carranza finally just told the British, Villa and the U.S. media to stuff it (their whining, not the corpse).  The U.S. newspapers had no right to Benton’s body anyway.  Carranza won, in a way.  Foreign recognition was years away, but governments learned that independent operators weren’t welcome in Mexico, and one had to go through official channels.  Favala, the young diplomat who helped John Reed get his interview would make a name for himself in the 1930s and 40s in setting the standards for the proper behavior of foreign governments, and the rights of diplomats, during wartime.  And – if you wonder why outside “free agents” like “Dog the Bounty Hunter” or Canadian attorneys who barge into routine accident investigations and throw accusations of foul play and demand their own autopsies when one of their citizens does something fatally stupid like get hit by a car or fall off a balcony… now you know….   If you’ve got a problem with it, take it up with Mr. Benton, wherever he is now.

* A with the Honduran coup of 28 June 2009, Huerta’s February 1913 coup was within the letter of the law. With the resignation of President Madero and Vice-President Pino Suarez, as well as the third in line for the Presidency, the Attorney General (all at military insistence),  #4 backup, Foreign Minister Pedro Lascuráin, was sworn in as President,  appointed Huerta acting Interior Minister (#5 on the lineup) and then resigned himself.  The governments of the United States and Great Britain both claimed Huerta was “constitutionally” President, but – like the “constitutionally” selected Roberto Micheletti in Honduras — nobody bought the convoluted explanation.  Forcing a president out at gunpoint is a coup.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ron Cruickshank permalink
    11 May 2010 3:49 pm

    clears up a mystery as to what happened to my g-g-great-uncle (through my grandmother – Alexandra Hay Benton of Aberdeenshire)

    Presently my son David is in Lafayette Louisianna and is doing some research
    can be contacted: Cruickshank, David
    E-mail Address(es):

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