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Writing History with Picture Postcards
Revolution in Tijuana
1. A garrison of only 27 federal soldiers guarded the border at Tijuana. which was not considered to be an important customs port. Here four soldiers pose at the ready-wait with their Mauser rifles. Mausers, model 1907, had been ordered at $18 apiece from Germany and carried a clip of five bullets. Soldiers normally carried 60 to 75 rounds into action, although they often posed with many more. The rifle weighed nearly nine pounds and advertised an effective range of up to 1,000 feet. The bayonet was Spanish model 1893. Mausers killed more game in North America than any other rifle of the time.
The army of the dictator Porfirio Díaz was in 1910 undersized at some 18,000 men, many of whom had been consigned to the service as vagrants or trouble-makers in their hometown communities. Once the fighting began throughout Mexico, there were some desertions, but in the main the soldiers fought steadfastly, often in the face of difficult odds. Military events at Tijuana were more or less typical of the early flow of the Mexican Revolution: the federal unit assigned to guard the town was too small and under-equipped to resist an initial assault. The rebels gained a temporary victory. But the federals regrouped, were reinforced from other army posts, supplied with modern automatic weapons and in a counter-attack recaptured the position. Military needs elsewhere soon drained the victorious garrison. When the insurgents knew it could be overwhelmed, they attacked - and the cycle tended to repeat itself.
2. Battle-watching was a favorite spectator-sport all along the border, Tijuana included. Stray bullets claimed some of the curious, although none here, because the actual crossing was a mile or so from the major scene of the fighting. San Diegans arrived by the hundreds at the U.S. Customshouse on the international line, and in this photo they are watching the federal troops retake Tijuana.
The well-dressed crowd is predominantly male, but with a noteworthy sprinkling of women wearing their huge hats secured against the wind by veils tied beneath their chins. Children can also be seen, as well as horsemen on the mountain in the background. In the center of the crowd there appears to be a large head, like that of a dummy common to today's holiday parades. For a long time that image puzzled scholars armed with magnifying glasses. It made no sense, and they could not decipher it. Finally, it was decided that it was. . . This is part of the fun of doing research with photo postcards.
3. "Land and Liberty" -- the battlecry of the anarchists - is stitched on to their flag which flies over the post office in Tijuana. The banner left no doubt about the political and social direction intended by the rebels. This was to be a revolution with a capital "R." Next door was one of the village's biggest and most patronized curio shops: A. Savin's Mexican Bazaar. It featured (as can be seen by the prominent signs out front) Tarjetas postales, or in plain English, photo postcards. Relatively few cards reviewed for this study were postmarked "Tijuana." The senders may have lacked faith in the Mexican mail system, which forwarded cards to San Diego via Mexico City.
4. A Welch freelance soldier, Ceryl Ap Rhys Pryce, led the original attack on Tijuana. He had fought for the British imperialists in India and during the Boer War in South Africa. Then he became a Canadian Mounted Policeman. After the debacle at Tijuana, he quit the movement, beat charges of neutrality law violations in the U.S. and went on to a minor movie career in Hollywood. He then returned to England, won medals for his military service during World War I, and there his trail disappears to historians. Some good biographer ought to study and recreate this remarkable human being.
5. All of the junior officers in charge of rebel contingents were Anglos, which proves the paucity of Mexicans in the movement. And it could help to explain why it failed to excite Mexicans in other parts of Baja California and the republic, and why it ultimately failed. Masses of Mexicans who soon followed Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morelos and Pancho Villa in the north were by and large unimpressed by the radical leftists, even less so by North Americans enveloped in rumors of annexation. Besides, the Mexican Revolution soon developed a nationalistic bent of its own.
6. Insofar as can be judged, only nine Mexican nationals were among the more than 200 rebels who attacked Tijuana. Unfortunately, their names, backgrounds and motivation have been lost to history. They have simply become "the Mexican presence" in a small facet of the Mexican Revolution dominated by gringos. Maybe just as well; in other mixed contingents battling elsewhere the "gringos" and "greasers" did not get along well. The Red Cross worker at the right has a quirt around his wrist, an ornamental "whip," a kind of swagger stick, sold at the curio shops in Tijuana. Ceryl Pryce in the photo above also sports a quirt.
7. A few Blacks joined the rebels. These two may have been deserters from U. S. military units along the border - at least, one of them wears a military shirt with a sergeant's stripes on the sleeves. Desertions of military personnel along the border certainly were not uncommon at the time. Individual reasons for desertion undoubtedly differed, but some were hired away for relatively good daily wages by revolutionaries who needed their skills as machine gunners, artillerymen, and other specialists.
8. Jack Mosby (left), seen here with his adjutant, Bert Laflin, was a deserter from the U.S. Marine Corps who assumed leadership of the insurgents when Pryce quit. Like Pryce, Mosby had fought in the Boer War. He then participated in the Panamanian uprising against Colombia, which led to U.S. control of the Panama Canal. Finally, he joined the IWW. Mosby and Laflin conducted their organization's correspondence with the Spreckels brothers of San Diego. Simply put, they said that if the Spreckels ferried Mexican federals on their railroad, they would destroy their rail holdings in and around Tijuana. The Spreckels got the message; no troops used their line - but rebels did.
9. The insurgents enjoyed posing with visitors from San Diego and vice versa. Those pictured here could have been San Diego businessmen who sympathized with the movement (a number did so), or perhaps IWW officials inspecting their military arm; Joe Hill and Frank Little, two well-known and flamboyant Wobblies visited their compatriots in Tijuana. The man in the center is holding something; he is obviously displaying it. But what is it? Another research mystery yet to be solved. The so-called "experts" -- professional historians and photographers -- subjected the object to study under a variety of magnifying glasses, but could not label it with any confidence. As a guess, it looks like a slab of beef, ribs and all. And the rebels did talk of redistributing among themselves and others Tijuana's material goods, including cattle from nearby ranches. So the slab of meat -- if that is what it is -- could be meant to symbolize the political intentions of their rebellion. Or it could have been beef lifted from a San Diego and Arizona Railroad supply train; such goods were fair game for the rebels.
10. Some 20 federals, plus the mayor of Tijuana, and at least nine rebels were counted among the dead after the battle of May 8-9. The corpses were normally covered with oil-soaked rags and burned, or buried in a common grave. In this case, one corpse is covered by cheap carpets taken from a souvenir shop. Photo postcards showing Mexican corpses were among the best-sellers, which addresses U.S. attitudes toward Mexicans and their revolution.
11. Throughout the occupation of Tijuana, the U.S. Red Cross tended to the sick and wounded. Several doctors volunteered their services to do Red Cross work, including Harry M. Wegeforth (marked by an "X"), a surgeon only recently arrived in San Diego from Baltimore. Wegeforth quickly fell in love with his new hometown, and in 1916 he founded the San Diego Zoological Society which became the inspiration and support group for the establishment of the now-famous zoo.
12. Read the title printed on this postcard: "The attack on the insurrecto outpost: firing on the advance." Of course, not. It is a patently posed picture set up by an enterprising photographer for use as a picture postcard. He probably paid the "actors" for their services. These photographers were not the daring war correspondents who succeeded them. The postcard photographers normally avoided combat, but aimed to make up for it by staging individuals in a battle stance. On some other cards, "actors" have their rifles pointed aimlessly, or even in the wrong direction, but the cards sold anyway. Senders - especially U.S. soldiers and militiamen bored with their inactive duty - wanted to give the impression that they were in the thick of a fight.
13. With a revolution on their doorstep and radical, fiery-tongued Wobblies in their streets, San Diegans paraded their patriotism with special vigor, especially on national holidays such as Memorial Day, 1911. In fact, spectators noted a special jingoism in the celebration, for it was about this time that the U.S. military began to come into its own, to evolve from Indian fighters to a position of world military authority. Continuing troubles along the Mexican border helped to speed up the process and to ready the army for the First World War.
14. Navy recruits in San Diego were included in the general military alert during the border troubles. These Navy boys are getting set for a swimming lesson. Judging by the overhang at their waistlines, some of them could have used some shaping up. All along, the invasion of Mexico, ostensibly to protect U.S. interests, remained a strong option of American foreign policy. Magnates on the West Coast, such as Harrison Grey Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler of Los Angeles, and San Diego's Claus Spreckels, all of whom had substantial financial investments in Baja California, threatened the radical liberals with just such a possibility, should the rebels touch any of their property. The U.S. district military commander, Trasker H. Bliss, also added his personal touch of aggressive bombast.
15. With their leaders in Los Angeles as indecisive as they were, the Liberal army in Tijuana spent a lot of time milling around waiting for orders. They thought they were headed for Ensenada, but word arrived that federal troops had reassembled to the south and were on their way toward the border, determined to recapture Tijuana.
16. The insurgents commandeered a train from the S.D. & A. line which ran south from San Diego, through Tijuana and then east toward Tecate and on to El Centra. The line from south of Tijuana east was then being constructed, but this locomotive and flatcar carried rebels outside the city to the battlelines of their enemy. This time the federals were ready; more than 500 soldiers and several companies of machine guns. The result on June 22 was quick and decisive; the insurgents were decimated, perhaps as many as 30 killed, and the rest fled. for the relative safety of the U.S. side of the border.
17. Some defeated rebels followed the railroad tracks right into the waiting arms of the U.S. military, which had constructed its camp on the American side. For the rebels, it was either internment there or a firing squad in Tijuana. So far as is known, no insurgent was captured south of the border. Just as well for Mexico, for U.S. expansionists were looking for any pretext to invade and hold Mexican territory.
18. Temporary internment along the border: among those who fled to the U.S. were a dozen or more American military deserters who had joined the rebels (it would be interesting to know why -- for ideology or money). They were transferred to the security of Fort Rosecrans and then sentenced by military court martial to terms up to 25 years at Fort Leavenworth. Mosby, remanded to Leavenworth, was killed enroute, purportedly while trying to flee his military escort.
19. For most of the Wobblies, internment at San Diego proved to be temporary; the U.S. Government did not press very hard for convictions on neutrality law violations. It did take Ceryl Pryce to court, but he beat the charges and went on to his career in Hollywood and finally to become a decorated hero of the British army in World War I. As for the Wobblies, they were back in town in force in 1912, on the street corners, making their impassioned speeches, which led to ugly incidents with the authorities and a good portion of the general citizenry. In these circumstances, the Wobblies became an important part of the IWW nationwide free-speech movement:
Out there in San Diego
Where the Western breakers break
They're jailing men and women
For speaking in the street.23
Jailing: indeed the police were doing just that. The turmoil marked a critical moment in San Diego history, for it inclined the city's political posture to the right, where it remains.
All of these picture postcards may be found in the Research Archives of the San Diego History Center. Many of these were recently placed there on deposit by Andreas Brown, the New York City manuscript and bookdealer who is a native San Diegan and an internationally recognized postcard collector.