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Pancho Villa's head — the story behind its disappearing

The head in a jar was a fake

People who believe the story feel that Pancho Villa will not rest in peace until his head and body are reunited.
  • People who believe the story feel that Pancho Villa will not rest in peace until his head and body are reunited.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Matthew Alice: I just watched a documentary on Channel 15 about the Mexican revolutionary bandit Pancho Villa, who was finally assassinated in 1923. A few days ago there was also a movie about him on the Mexican station, Channel 12, which, of course, was in Spanish. I was able to follow it a little bit, but not completely. My question is, in the beginning of the movie they were talking about him, and then the narrator and the camera brought us into what looked like a large, deserted warehouse with dusty furniture covered with cobwebs scattered here and there, or it could have been a crypt under a cathedral, or it could have been a deserted theater. I'm not sure what it was, but there was perched on a dirty chair or table what looked like Pancho Villa’s head in a jar full of liquid. I guess Mexicans go in for rather macabre and bizarre relics or mementos, so I suppose it really was Pancho Villa’s head. Is there somewhere in Mexico the head of Pancho Villa floating around in a jar of formaldehyde? If so, what’s the reason for it, and where is it? — Joe Gringo, San Diego

Now that’s my idea of entertainment. Pancho Villa’s dome bobbing around in a big jar, like some pale, bloated gherkin. When I first read your letter, Joe, I’ll admit I was ready to slide it into my “Body Parts” file to fester along with the inquiry about the rumor that Al Capone’s penis is in the Smithsonian Institution. But it’s occurred to me that maybe this is just the kind of thing the public is clamoring for, exactly what we need to make families part with more leisuretime dollars. Now be honest. Which would you rather see, one more plaster brontosaurus or an actual piece of pickled anatomy from a famous person? Hey, no contest. There’s a museum in Paris that includes a display of Napoleon’s socks. Most days you could lob mortar rounds into the place and inflict no personal injury. The joint is empty. But replace Napoleon’s socks with Napoleon’s feet and they’d have something, I’d say.

Anyway, Joe, don’t make any vacation plans figuring you’ll take the kids to some Mexican Cabezaland theme park to take a peek at Pancho. The head in the jar was a fake, a prop. My best guess is that you were watching the 1957 film Cuando viva villa es la muerte, a dramatization of certain incidents that are part of the bandit-hero’s mythology. Mexican film idol Pedro Armendariz plays the role of Villa (except, presumably, in the head-in-the-jar interlude). The film opens with the director’s statement that the stories he’s selected to dramatize are based on the rumors and folk tales about Villa that he believes are actually true. And most of them are at least plausible, with the exception of the jarred head.

According to that rumor, after Villa’s assassination someone removed his head, put it in a jar, and sent it to France, where they’d enlisted specialists to poke around in his cranium to figure out what made the guy tick. People who believe the story feel that Villa will not rest in peace until his head and body are reunited. But even the most outrageous myths sprout from a few seeds of truth, in this case, (1) Villa was a charismatic and contradictory personality and (2) the body in Villa’s grave in Parral, Chihuahua, is headless. In fact, Villa’s remains are headless because three years after his death, vandals raided his grave and made off with his skull. It’s never been found.

Villa has been the subject of many films, the best known probably Viva Villa!, a 1934 MGM fictionalized biography. According to a tiny blurb in the San Diego Union of November 2, 1933, there’s a local connection to Villa and the film. The Associated Press report says that one of Pancho Villa’s sons, 21-year-old Pancho Augustin Villa, had just been declared “violently insane” by an L.A. judge and was confined to a psychiatric hospital. Until September of ’33, he’d been a student in San Diego. He and his mother, Asuncion Villa, had moved to Los Angeles because Pancho was slated to play a role in Viva Villa! But ever since signing the contract, the younger Villa had been “acting strangely,” going around naked, and threatening to kill his mother. So much for Panchito’s acting career.

Though I’ve not yet checked any local school records, there’s no 1932 or ’33 San Diego City Directory listing for a Pancho Augustin or Asuncion Villa. They also don’t appear in biographies of the famous man; but he had “wives” and children stashed all over northern Mexico, and few biographies mention more than one or two.

If the A.P. report about Panchito’s odd behavior is accurate, Viva Villa! seems to have attracted more than its share of nude loonies. About two weeks after young Pancho’s encounter with the L.A. law, actor Lee Tracy, alcoholic and popular Hollywood “bad boy” slated for a co-starring role in the film, staggered unclothed onto his hotel balcony in Mexico and peed on a contingent of the Chapultepec Military Cadets, who were marching by in an independence day parade. The international insult prompted MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to fire Tracy, cancel his studio contract, and send a humbly apologetic letter to the people of Mexico via President Abelardo Rodriguez. That was 60 years ago; amazing how little our South of the Border behavior has changed, except for the apology part, of course.

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