Head Case

Dear Mexican: What do Mexicans think about President Bush's grandfather having a hand in getting the guy that robbed 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 United States stole half of its land, that's saying something. Here are the accepted facts about Pancho's purloined pate. On February 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 soon spread on both sides of la frontera.


Pancho Villa

Flash forward to 1984, when 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 received $25,000 for the deed. Williams said he'd 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 had sold them Villa's skull. Two years after Williams published his book, Skull and Bones members (among 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 had stolen the skull of Geronimo from his burial grounds in 1918.

Still with me? Gracias. Now, refry this: Around the time George 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.

Problem is, the Bush-Villa conspiracy is as flimsy as a swap-meet T-shirt. For one thing, Williams's memoir marked the first time anyone had publicly tried to connect the Skull and Bones with Villa's remains, and the book never mentioned Prescott Bush. 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 Times of Pancho Villa, called the Skull and Bones claim "the latest story to surface" among dozens of similar yarns.

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 unites 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.


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