Christmas With Pancho Villa
In the process of researching for my column I am always on the lookout for family members who served in the military. I have a Revolutionary War grandfather who served on General George Washington’s staff. He got to spend a Christmas at Valley Forge.
I came across the name Dr. Charles S. Harle (my family dropped the “e” before the Civil War) who had served as a surgeon in the army of Pancho Villa, the bandit General who led Mexican troops in the turn of the 20th century revolution in that country. Prior to the Civil War my Harle ancestors lived in Kentucky, then members headed to Texas and that is where Dr. Charles S. Harle enters the picture.
He was born about 1870 and attended medical school. It would appear he was not all that successful in his medical practice in the El Paso area or in his home town of Abilene. Dr. Harle spoke Spanish and apparently was comfortable functioning in the Mexican culture because he moved to Chihuahua City, in the northern Mexican State of Chihuahua, about 1901.
In 1913 Dr. Harle was sitting in the Chihuahua City jail having served ten years of a twenty year sentence for murder. He was originally supposed to be executed by firing squad, but money and legal pull by his family in Texas dragged the process out long enough that the Mexican legal system decided to commute the sentence. I find lots of Harles, many veterans of the Confederate army in that part of Texas at that time who were lawyers, judges and medical doctors, so I must assume that family interests were working to save the life of Dr. Charles S. Harle MD.
Life in the Chihuahua City jail was not pleasant. Dr. Harle’s family had to supply all of his needs to sustain him in prison. Nothing was provided and the fact that Dr. Harle was a “gringo” did not do him any favors with the prison guards, except for the fact that money talks in prison. Dr. Harle’s family money did talk to a point, but it could not get the man released.
As the revolution in Mexico went on for years, Pancho Villa’s name became know north of the border. Contact was made with the bandit General in reference to helping to get Dr. Harle out of the Chihuahua City jail. I could find no mention of payment by the Harle family to Villa, but I doubt a prison rescue was going to be attempted by Pancho Villa without some kind of deal being made.
In November of 1913 Villa loaded a train with 2000 of his men, snuck into Ciudad Juarez and captured the city. He had vowed he would celebrate Christmas in the capital city of Chihuahua and with the loss of Juarez City the opposing troops in Chihuahua City gave up and left. On 8 December 1913 Pancho Villa lived up to his agreement and freed Dr. Charles S. Harle from the city jail.
Now, to be honest, Villa let everyone out of that jail, just as he had done in every other town he captured. I am sure he did not take Chihuahua City just to release a convicted murderer from Texas. Christmas 1913 in Chihuahua City was one big fiesta for Villa’s men. They took what they wanted and bought with stolen money whatever had been hidden from them by the locals.
Dr. Harle agreed to sign on with the army of Pancho Villa as a surgeon in the rank of Major. Villa and his men enjoyed the good life of the victors, including the delights of the local "professional" women. Of course, Villa and his men suffered medical problems arising from these activities. Dr. Harle’s medical skills were needed in Villa’s army.
Rodolfo Fierro was one of Villa’s primary “enforcers” of discipline and he enjoyed executing prisoners. I found where a “gringo” doctor showed Fierro how to line men up front to back and use one bullet to kill multiple people. Dr. Harle had helped kill more than one person in Mexico in a plot to swindle money from the New York Life insurance company. He was not a very nice person and was not languishing in a Mexican prison on some trumped-up charge, as was alleged by family and friends in Texas. He should have been shot for his crimes, but instead he got to spend Christmas with Pancho Villa. Don’t you love a happy ending?
Copyright 2007 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.