The Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs made a statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday April 22nd 1914 about the brutal murder of Keig man at the hands of Pancho Villa. A telegram from a citizen of El Paso was read out in the US Senate stating that Benton was murdered like a dog.
This was slap-bang in the middle of the Mexican Revolution and Pancho Villa (General Villa of the revolutionary army) was in charge of Mexico’s northern area of Chihuahua. William Smith Benton had lived in Mexico for over twenty years and grown immensely wealthy on his cattle ranch of over 100,000. It is said that revolutionaries had relieved him of his ranch and it was from Texas that he travelled south to demand he be allowed to move 400 head of his cattle from his estate north into the US.
Benton was either a highly respected and honoured citizen of the region, according to the New York Times, or a man who disrespected and abused native Mexicans, according to supporters of the Revolution.
Both he and Villa were hot-tempered and when Villa refused Benton’s request or demand on grounds that Mexico had need of the beef and that Benton was a cattle thief and murderer Benton accused him of being a bandit and desperado. One version of events reports that Villa launched at Benton with a dagger and would have killed him on the spot but for the intervention of the Mexican’s wife, Maria Luz Corral.
On his way to Villa’s home Benton had met up with an American railroad engineer called Gustav Bauch. Both men waited to see Villa at his home. Benton was said to be armed with a pistol.
William S. Benton was the son of James Benton of Airlie at Keig in Aberdeenshire, born in 1860. Several Bentons lived in the northeast, having moved to Scotland from Long Benton , near Newcastle Yorkshire in England at the invitation of a laird of Newe during the early 18th century. As farmers they cultivated land in west Aberdeenshire, including Meikle Endovie and Tonley, “the holdings of the English immigrants.” Bentons moved to Keig – Old Balgowan and Airlie at Keig, above Alford, to Crookmore at Tullynessle and others to Banffshire to Sheriffhaugh.
But the Aberdeenshire Bentons were not for settling down for long and migrated abroad both east and west in search of careers and fortune –
“while several have won wealth and honours, others have merely left their bones to bleach in the foreign land which they chose as the means of gratifying their ambitions.”
A cousin of William S. Benton, James Thomson Benton, was murdered in Texas in 1875 – I haven’t checked out the circumstances of that killing and it must be said the Benton’s are not easy to trace for they suffer from a sever dearth of variety of names – if it’s not William then it’s James. Texas, however, was a lawless place and disputes were often ended by pistols. The year James Thomson Benton was murdered the young William, a lad of fifteen, finished his elementary education at Aberdeen Grammar School and in England and enrolled at Aberdeen University. By 1877 he had left university and emigrated to Texas, to join his cousin’s family.
Stateside there were banking Bentons, transport Bentons and silver mining interests Bentons. And, of course, ranching Bentons.
The events of the 17th February 1914 are much disputed and those witnesses that were around were said to have been moved away to other parts of Mexico on orders from Villa.
Villa accused Benton of reaching for his six-shooter during their loud altercation in an attempt to assassinate him at which point Villa’s guards arrested Benton. It was claimed Benton was summarily tried and admitted his guilt and knowing he was to be executed requested his ranch was given over to his widow, a Mexican, and that his grave was dug deep to prevent coyotes from feeding on his body.
Whatever went on in the room, Gustav Bauch waiting in the hall outside noticed everything went suddenly quiet and when Benton failed to reappear he asked about his whereabouts, at which point Bauch was arrested by Villa’s merciless right-hand man, Fierro.
Rumours abounded that Benton had been taken out and clubbed to death by Fierro then set on fire to destroy evidence of the crime. Meanwhile Bauch, an American, was ‘fitted-up’ with accusations he was a spy for the anti-revolutionaries and jailed. Quickly the men’s disappearance was raised with Benton’s widow, although she was unaware she was a widow then, who asked the American government to look into her husband’s disappearance. The Americans went along with Villas version of events that Benton was tried and found guilty and at the time of their enquiries he still lived, in jail despite Benton’s widow’s belief he had been killed.
Then Pancho Villas declared Benton had been executed and thinking he could cover up what was clearly violent murder ordered a posthumous case against Benton be prepared to satisfy the man’s widow, and the Americans on her behalf. Forging documents is one thing but forging a signature when you don’t know what it looks like is something else. The search was on for a document bearing Benton’s signature and his original complaint about the movement of his cattle was tracked down bearing a signature which could be copied. There was still the small issue of Bauch being a witness to the sudden disappearance of Benton – and given that Benton’s body had been disposed of things were becoming complicated. It was decided therefore to execute Bauch – in Benton’s place so to speak -and once his body decayed it would be presented as Benton’s.
When news of Benton’s death leaked out the Los Angeles Times headline read:
Blame Tequila for Execution: Benton Victim of Villa’s Lust for Liquor
and went on to demonise Villa in an all-too-familiar racist tone accusing him of being high on drink and drugs. The contrary view among many Mexicans was that Villa was a national hero and Benton the villain. Villa was also destined to die violently by firing squad a few years later.
For a time in Britain there was continued hope Benton was alive and in custody with the government content to channel enquiries through the Americans. As the mystery deepened Villa told the Americans Benton had been executed but the American State Department did not inform the press of this and somehow became implicated in covering up the Benton affair. The British government was reluctant to make much of the matter but for a time newspapers pushed for answers which didn’t come.