Early on February 6, 1926, a graveyard caretaker named Juan Amparan was patrolling the grounds of the municipal cemetery in the town of Parral, in Chihuahua, Mexico when he discovered something that shocked the entire nation of Mexico: The grave of the famous general, hero of the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa, had been desecrated.
Pancho Villa’s coffin had been dug up during the night and his body mutilated. Amparan was reluctant to report the desecration to the municipal authorities because Villa’s body had been decapitated and the head was missing. None of the gates to the cemetery were damaged, which led authorities to believe that the perpetrators had climbed the small wall surrounding the graveyard. In his statement, Amparan reported that Villa’s body had been in the grave for 3 years and nothing unusual ever happened. However, when he returned to the graveyard after making the report, he discovered that the grave had been ransacked by souvenir seekers who had removed pieces of the coffin and other parts of Villa’s remains. And so begins the legend of Pancho Villa´s missing head.
The man and the myth.
Pancho Villa was born in the Mexican state of Durango in 1878 under the name José Doroteo Arango Arámbula. Young Doroteo was left in charge of his family after his father passed. The family included his mother Micaela, his sisters, Martina and Mariana, 12 and 15 years old and his younger brothers Antonio and Hipólito. On September 22, 1901 Doroteo arrived home and found a brutal scene, quite common back in those days. Agustín Lopez Negrete, owner of the land and the people who lived on it, tried to take Doroteo´s younger sister to rape her. Doroteo took his fathers old pistol and shot López Negrete 3 times, killing him. Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos he escaped to the “Sierra de la Silla” starting a life as a fugitive.
By 1902 he was captured and forcibly inducted into the Mexican federal army. A few months later, he killed an army officer, stole his horse and made his way north to Chihuahua. He changed his name to Francisco “Pancho” Villa, claiming to be the illegitimate son of the legendary northern bandit Agustín Villa (although there was no proof of this) By 1910 Villa’s political sympathies layed with Francisco I. Madero, the national leader of the opposition to the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship which had gripped Mexico for over 30 years. The legend and history of Pancho Villa’s military activities during the Mexican Revolution is an extensive and complex one, it is full of tall tales mixed with events, hard to separate one from the other with one thing in common, they were all violent ferocious battles. Among those was the raid on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9th, 1916, which caused US President Woodrow Wilson to order the US Army into Mexico to capture Villa, a task never completed. There is a legend about a $100,000 USD bounty based on the fact that a bill was introduced in the United States Congress that never passed. That fact did not stop people from seeking the reward.
Villa continued his revolutionary exploits and in 1920 after several changes in power in Mexico City he requested amnesty from president Adolfo de la Huerta. In exchange for ceasing hostilities and abandoning his revolutionary army, Pancho Villa was granted a 25,000 acre hacienda outside of Parral, Chihuahua, amnesty for 200 men who served in his army who eventually worked and lived on the hacienda and $500,000 gold pesos as a pension to split amongst the combatants.
On July 20th, 1923, while running an errand in the town of Parral, Villa’s car was ambushed, and he was shot 40 times. There was a rumor that Villa was considering a run for the presidency of Mexico in 1924 and certain factions wanted him stopped. Based on his violent history, Villa had plenty of enemies with countless reasons to see him dead. He was laid to rest at the Parral cemetery in an ordinary plot.
The initial suspect of the decapitation was Salas Barraza who had recently been released from prison for his involvement in Villa’s assassination. Barraza’s sister had been kidnapped by Villa’s army and left to die in the desert, however, he had been closely watched since his release from prison. Authorities were sure he was not the perpetrator, so they investigated a rumor that linked Chihuahua´s governor and a Mexican General with a secret society from a university in the United States which had offered a significant reward for the head of Pancho Villa. After that, the focus of the investigation shifted to any local American who might have had opportunity to make off with the skull.
The suspect was an Iowa-born, Swedish-American named Emil Lewis Holmdahl who had joined the US Army search for Pancho Villa after the raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916.
Holmdahl had been in the Parral area hunting for a rumored treasure buried by Villa somewhere in the Sierra Madre. Holmdahl was arrested the day after the grave desecration, his belongings and his hotel room were examined but no decapitated head was found. The American had been picked up for questioning on the day after the event, which gave him sufficient time to dispose of Villa’s head. During his arrest and questioning, Holmdahl claimed he had spent most of his time at the cantina “El Club Minero” and this was confirmed by many witnesses. He was released and left town.
In 1955, Haldeen Braddy, author of Pancho Villa´s biography “Cock of the Walk, Qui-Qui-Ri-Quí! The Legend of Pancho Villa” (Publisher Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press) received a letter from a L. M. Shadbolt which described an encounter with Holmdahl in an El Paso hotel in 1927. According to the letter, Shadbolt had been drinking heavily and met Holmdahl in the hotel bar. Holmdahl had permanently moved in to the hotel after he left Parral. After a few days of drinking with Holmdahl, he was invited back to Holmdahl’s room to be shown the head of Pancho Villa. Holmdahl told him he was being paid for the skull by a buyer in the United States.
Three questions arise. Was the letter sent to Haldeen Braddy almost 30 years after the incident a fake? If so, why would a letter like this be faked? Who was the buyer of such grotesque item?
In 1984, Mangan Books published a biography by Teresa Williams Irvin. The book was about rancher Ben F. Williams. In the book, it is said that Ben Williams developed a close friendship with Emil Holmdahl who admitted that he had stolen Villa’s head, and claimed to have sold it for $25,000 USD.
In “La muerte de Pancho Villa y los tratados de Bucareli” written by Adolfo Arrioja Vizcaíno it is said that the prominent man who paid that amount was an American named Frank Brophy, a man with close ties to Prescott Bush, the father to the 41st president of the United States George Herbert Walker Bush and grandfather to President George W. Bush, the three of them were part of a group of Yale University’s secret society “Skull and Bones”. For many years, it was rumored that Prescott Bush took the head of the Apache leader Geronimo to display at their Connecticut headquarters along with the heads of other prominent people.
In 2002 a “Skull and Bones” exposé was written by Alexandra Robbins titled “Secrets of the Tomb: The Ivy League and the Hidden Paths to Power”. In her book, she claimed that the secret society had possession of the famous skull. Robbins retracted the claim in 2004 in an interview with the Yale Herald.
Truth or myth, the question still remains about what happened with the head of legendary hero/bandit Doroteo Arango also known as Pancho Villa, a Mexican folk hero turned into a legend. One way or another, this story remains one of the biggest mysteries in Mexican history.