Heads and Tales
When it comes to Pancho Villa’s cabeza, conspiracy theories abound
by Gustavo Arellano
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is a best-of from the author for the end of the year. The column originally ran in April, 2007.
Dear Mexican: What do Mexicans think about President Bush’s grandfather having a hand in getting the guy who stole Pancho Villa’s head out of jail?
Kruising Klassily in Kennebunkport
Dear KKK: Ah, Villa’s stolen skull. No macabre Mexican legend is more mired in intrigue, distortions and looniness — and in a country where many believe the U.S. stole half of its land, that’s saying something. Here are the accepted facts about Pancho’s purloined pate: On Feb. 6, 1926, someone raided Villa’s tomb in Parral, Chihuahua, and scurried away with the famed general’s three-years-dead head. Mexican authorities quickly arrested Emil Holmdahl, a gabacho mercenary who fought for various factions during the Mexican Revolution and had been seen around Villa’s tomb. Holmdahl denied any responsibility, and the Mexican authorities released him for lack of evidence. Nevertheless, stories of Holmdahl boasting about his crime (read Haldeen Braddy’s “The Head of Pancho Villa” in the January 1960 edition of Western Folklore for more details) soon spread on both sides of la frontera.
Flash forward to the mid-1980s. In 1984, Arizona rancher Ben F. Williams declared in his memoir Let the Tail Go With the Hide that Holmdahl not only admitted to stealing Villa’s skull but that he received $25,000 for the deed. Williams shared this information with a friend who belonged to the Order of Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society that counts three generations of the Bush dynasty as members; the friend told Williams that Holmdahl sold them Villa’s skull. Two years after Williams published his book, Skull and Bones members (amongst them Jonathan Bush, Dubya’s uncle) met with some Apaches and offered them a skull. Tribal leaders had recently discovered an official Skull and Bones log claiming that Dubya’s granddaddy Prescott Bush and other Bonesmen stole the skull of Geronimo from his burial grounds in 1918.
Still with me? Gracias. Now, refry this: Around the time George H.W. Bush ran for the presidency in 1988, someone merged the details of the Villa and Geronimo grave robberies, noted the Skull and Bones connection and concocted a fable in which Prescott Bush helped Holmdahl dodge the federales, bought Villa’s skull and displayed it alongside Geronimo’s noggin at the Bonesmen’s headquarters. Coupled with Prescott’s Nazi ties and George’s CIA past, the Bush-Villa conspiracy served as further proof to critics that the Bushes are the First Family of the New World Order (and Dubya’s reign has done nothing to indicate otherwise).
Problem is, the Bush-Villa conspiracy is as flimsy as a swap-meet T-shirt. For one, Williams’ 1984 memoir was the first time anyone had publicly tried to connect the Skull and Bones with Villa’s remains, and the book never mentioned Prescott Bush. Braddy’s essay mentioned that Holmdahl himself reportedly told friends that scientists in Chicago paid him $5,000 for the cabeza. Not only that, but all serious scholarship on the matter is skeptical. Friedrich Katz, author of the definitive English-language Villa biography, The Life and Time of Pancho Villa, called the Skull and Bones claim “the latest story to surface” among dozens of similar yarns. And while Alexandra Robbins wrote in her 2002 exposé Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power that the organization possessed Villa’s skull, she retracted the claim in a 2004 interview with the Yale Herald.
So why does this legend persist? Simple: it’s a myth where everyone wins. Mexicans get to cry about Yankees desecrating their heroes; gabachos can crow about pulling a fast one on the Mexicans; and everyone gets to fret anew about the creepy Bush family. A shared belief in the Villa-Bush conspiracy is one of the few things that unite Mexicans and gabachos — and if believing in a stupid conspiracy is what it takes to get the two groups together, then count me a Bonesman.
I’ve got a suggestion — let’s build an electric fence along the border. Any filthy Mexican trying to cross will be fried, scraped off, rolled in a tortilla (corn or flour) and sent back to be eaten in Mexico. I’m a fucking white Spaniard! Just like Antonio Banderas! Don’t confuse me with no filthy, stinking Mexican.
— Paella Power
Dear Wab: So you’re a filthy spic who forgot that English is a language where double negatives are a no-no — got it!