As the Southern Pacific passenger train slowly pulled into the dusty little desert town of Columbus, New Mexico, the passengers leaned out of the windows, eager to see as much as possible of the surrounding scene. Just a day earlier, Pancho Villa and hundreds of his bandits had sacked and raided the town, killing eighteen American citizens.
Gathering bags and parcels, my mother, my aunts, my grandmother, and I got off the train. My mother picked me up and began silently weeping as we crossed the street from the station to the Commercial Hotel, where my grandfather and three of his guests had been shot dead the day before.
My grandfather, William Taylor Ritchie, had built the hotel about 1910 and managed it with my grandmother, Laura Ganette Ritchie. They lived in an apartment there with their three daughters: Blanche, nine years old; Edna, fourteen; and twenty-two-year-old Myrtle, my mother.
Now my widowed grandmother, my two aunts, and my mother stood holding one another for comfort in front of the burned ruins of their home.
I had spent the previous four or five days in El Paso with my paternal grandmother and was not in Columbus during the raid. My family brought me home by train after my grandfather’s funeral the following day. I remember being very confused about the weeping. Why were there so many dead horses lying about in the streets? What had happened to our hotel? Most of all, where was my grandfather? I was four years old, and no one explained anything to me.
But in the course of time, my grandmother’s new house on Jones Street became the place where lawmen and victims of the raid gathered to talk about what happened, so the details of the day became indelibly impressed on my mind and memory.
On March 9, 1916, at about 4:00 A.M. the Ritchie family was awakened by shouting and shooting in the street. Peering cautiously out of the window, as stray bullets ricocheted off the stovepipes and walls of the rooms, they could dimly see horses and hear the pounding of hooves. Shouts of “Viva Villa” and “Mata los gringos!” (Kill the Americans!) added to their fears. Bandits on foot were running and shooting in every direction and smashing storefronts with the butts of their rifles. Entering the stores, they bayoneted bags of flour and unrolled bolts of cloth in the streets. They swept what had been orderly rows of merchandise on the shelves into ruined piles of trash.
Hearing the commotion, guests of the hotel, mostly men, gathered in the upstairs hall. All were armed, with guns drawn, but my grandfather cautioned them to put their weapons away as it would be dangerous to shoot it out with the bandits, and the women must be protected.
Although my grandfather had securely bolted the downstairs door, swarms of outlaws pushed into the hotel and made their way upstairs to the guests’ rooms and the Ritchie apartment. As they stalked into the room, a small kerosene lamp cast weird shadows of the Villistas on the wall.
“Where is Sam Ravel?” they kept asking. My grandfather told them over and over that Sam Ravel, a local resident, was in El Paso, as indeed he was. They milled about the apartment, opening wardrobes, drawers, and cupboards and rudely scattering the contents over the floor. The room was filled with these foul-smelling, gun-waving men. With their crossed bandoleers over their shoulders and guns pointed, they presented a heart-stopping terror to my family.
Finally the leader thrust a gun into my grandfather’s chest and motioned for him to leave the room; the bandits followed. My mother clung to her father, pleading, “Papa, don’t go!” but the bandits thrust her aside.
In addition to my grandfather, the bandits seized three guests of the hotel and pushed them down the stairway at gunpoint: Dr. Hart, a veterinarian from El Paso; Charles DeWitt Miller, an engineer doing some surveying in the area; and Walton Walker, a young man on his honeymoon. Walker’s bride clung to him as they forced him downstairs. A bandit roughly shoved her aside, and when Walker made some move to protect his wife, he was shot dead and left on the stairway. My grandfather, Miller, and Dr. Hart were marched through the front door and shot in the street. The bodies of Miller, Hart, and Walker were totally consumed when the hotel burned to the ground, but U.S. soldiers eventually pulled my grandfather’s scorched body clear of the flames.
Meanwhile my grandmother and her daughters stood stunned in the hotel room while the bandits continued looting. One Mexican approached the telephone on the wall and began slamming it with the butt of his rifle. When my grandmother made some impulsive gesture with a raised arm against the flailing gun, the bandit swung around and hit her wrist. She wore a sling for several weeks afterward. Then another bandit yanked the locket from her neck and tore some rings from her fingers. She offered no resistance. Yet another bandit grabbed my mother’s hands and began trying to take her rings. They were a bit tight, and as my mother tried to get them off, the bandit pushed her against the wall, grinning and making an obscene gesture. Little Blanche, watching from behind her mother’s robe, saw a bandit whisk a treasured pink dress and new slippers from a chair and stuff them into his shirt.
Still not satisfied, the bandits forced my grandmother to lead them through the rest of the hotel. They bayoneted the beds to make sure no one was hiding beneath them and broke the dresser mirrors with the butts of their guns, scattering glass over the floor.
After the bandits had left, the Ritchie women and Susan Walker, the bride, stood in the hallway in stunned confusion. In a short time a man appeared at the door. My grandmother looked at him in relief. He was one of their Columbus friends, Juan Favela.
Juan said, “Mrs. Ritchie, the front of the hotel is on fire, and I have come to help you get to a safe place.” The girls began throwing clothes, shoes, small possessions, and family papers into a large trunk. Juan helped my mother drag the trunk down the rear stairway and out of the building, where it was retrieved the next day. After the hotel burned, that trunk contained all that was left of their possessions.
Juan led the women to a small house across the alley from the hotel where he had hidden his own wife. They stayed there until the raid was over, about 6:30 A.M. All members of the Ritchie family are forever grateful for his help.
As the frightened group stood in the small, dark adobe hut listening to the shooting outside, my aunt Edna suddenly remembered the pet canary she had left in the burning building. Disregarding my grandmother’s pleas, Edna sprinted across the alley and up the back stairway with her coat flying behind her. (That coat, with two bullet holes in it, survived many years until moths finished it off.)
Into the burning building Edna ran, but she was too late. The canary and the cage lay crushed on the floor. On impulse she rushed down the smoke-filled hall and out on the porch overlooking the street below. She almost fainted at what she saw. The body of her father lay sprawled in the street. Nearby the body of Charles DeWitt Miller rested on the hood of his car where he had fallen, apparently trying to get away.
Edna returned to the hut with the devastating news. I can only imagine my grandmother’s thoughts as she stood in the dark little hut knowing that her husband was dead and everything she owned was being consumed by fire.
Now may be a good time to clarify Sam Ravel’s role in the story. Ravel was a well-known and well-liked merchant. He served in the City Council and made many charitable contributions to the needs of the poor in Columbus. His family remained friends with my grandmother after all of them moved to El Paso in later years. I remember him as a smiling man who always appeared glad to see my grandmother and exchange small talk.
The consensus in Columbus was that Sam had sold Villa some guns and ammunition while Villa was still believed to be a genuine revolutionist fighting for his country. Villa paid Sam in advance, as was the common procedure up and down the Rio Grande. However, shortly after their business deal, in a political turnabout, Venustiano Carranza as the de facto president of Mexico, declared Villa an outlaw. Villa had led so many raids on churches, haciendas, villages, farms, and banks that he had become an embarrassment to the more aristocratic and well-educated revolutionists. They wanted to be rid of him.
In October of 1915 President Wilson had ordered an embargo on shipments of guns and ammunition from the United States to anyone in Mexico but Carranza, making it illegal for Sam Ravel to deliver his order. But Villa, desperately in need of weapons, had decided to pursue his contract.
Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus changed the future of all the Ritchie survivors, as it indeed changed the future of the United States. Within days Gen. John J. Pershing began to organize an expedition into Mexico to punish Villa. The United States began to recruit and train a young and eager army.
On March 15, 1916, at 12:30 P.M. , I stood beside the road that led to Mexico. An enthusiastic yet subdued crowd waved flags, and a military band played. We watched hundreds of cavalrymen trot past in full regalia, swords flashing, campaign hats sitting squarely on their heads. Ironically, our great misfortune may have benefited the nation. A year later the United States had a hardened, well-trained force ready to send to the aid of our Allies in Europe for the greater challenge of the First World War.