The Tampico Affair - Carl Wanderer in Mexico

Part 10 can be read here if you missed it...

A quick note on the Mystery of the Ragged Stranger Podcast- our first episode will be available here at The Ragged Stranger blog on ChicagoNow Monday, July 2.


U.S. Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, published the War Department Annual Report for 1911. Part recap, part prognostication of the future, the report laid out the current state of the United States Military. Following the passing of the Act of February 2, 1901, the U.S. President was limited to an armed services that was not to exceed 100,000 men and Stimson reported to President William Howard Taft that as of the writing of the report, the present strength of the Army was 4,848 officers and 77,523 enlisted men for a total force of 82,371 men. He went on to report that after subtracting the amount of men stationed in permanent defensive positions at forts on our borders he was left with a mobile force of only 31,850 men that could be sent to conflict areas to defend and protect our interests. On the health front, Stimson reported promising news on the new practice of inoculating troops with a Typhoid vaccination. Unfortunately there was not any promising news on the venereal disease front; the numbers of cases of VD were more than the number of cases of all other contagious diseases combined.

On August 23rd, 1912, after running away from home, seventeen year old Carl Wanderer forged his mother’s signature on his three year Enlistment Contract to join the army. Carl was assigned to Troop I of the Sixth Cavalry and began his training in Columbus, Ohio before being sent for Cavalry training at Fort Meade in South Dakota.

As many of Wanderer’s new brothers in arms were not overtly religious Wanderer “shed my religion like an old coat and I didn’t have any qualms about it.” Wanderer would soon be swearing like a sailor but drew the line at colorful language. Booze was still not of interest to Carl nor was the company of the types of women some of the men kept. The army’s anti-VD talks had registered with Carl. And he was too bashful to talk to those types of women.

Their cavalry training complete, Wanderer’s unit, the 2nd Division, was sent south to Texas City, Texas. Skirmishes along the border had been flaring up and the army was mobilizing their few mobile troops. The Cavalry would conduct border patrols along the Rio Grande and act as a deterrent from any cross-border excursions of the revolutionaries down south.

The U.S. government protects her interests both home and abroad, especially when the interest abroad is oil.  In 1914, while Mexico was several years into a bloody revolution and civil war, U.S. interests included oil wells in the Tampico region along the Gulf of Mexico. Oil had been struck in Tampico several years prior and Tampico was one of the largest oil fields in the world at the time with several U.S. companies such as, Texas Oil and Standard Oil, working those fields. With American companies, comes American workers and to protect her interests, the U.S. maintained a flotilla of naval ships anchored off the coast as both deterrent and potential rescuer.

One night a comedy of errors nearly mushroomed into a war. An accidental foray into unauthorized territory while looking for gasoline led to the arrest and detainment of a handful of U.S. sailors. The Mexican guards spoke no English, the captured sailors spoke no Spanish and it would be hours before news of the incident made its way up the chain of command and once it did, the Mexicans, not wanting to provoke the Americans, released the men at once and apologized for the misunderstanding. The local Mexican General was so concerned that the incident not become more serious that he arrested for negligence the commanding officer of the soldiers that made the initial arrest.

Rather than end the matter, the U.S. demanded reparations of a sort. There was little in the way of U.S.-Mexico relations at the time as President Wilson had ended diplomatic relations with Mexico shortly after taking office in 1913. The Mexican Presidente at the time, General Victoriano Huerta, had seized power in a military coup that included the execution, of the previous Presidente, Francisco Madero. The U.S. President reasoned that he refused to recognize, “a government of butchers.”

Knowing that such sentiment was held in Washington, U.S. Naval Admiral Henry Mayo refused the verbal apologies of the local Mexican officials and demanded a written apology and that the Mexicans raise an American flag in Tampico and fire off a 21-gun salute to the flag. The local officials could not, or would not, make the ultimate call to raise a foreign country’s flag on sovereign Mexican soil. They passed Admiral Mayo’s request to Mexico City where the Huerta government also declined but did offer a compromise; both Mexican and American flags would be raised and saluted simultaneously.

April 11, 1914 front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

April 11, 1914 front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

President Wilson rejected the offer and went before the U.S. Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Mexico; Wilson believed the invasion party would be received warmly as liberators of the Huerta oppression. The following day, after receiving Congressional approval, but still awaiting approval from the Senate, the U.S. sent an invasion party ashore a couple hundred miles south of Tampico in Veracruz.

While Tampico was where the affair started, Veracruz was rumored to soon be receiving a shipment of machine guns and ammunition from Germany for delivery to Huerta’s army. Not wanting those guns and bullets making their way to Huerta, Wilson decided to block the port of Veracruz as it was the closest major port to Mexico City and would hopefully help choke the flow of goods to Huerta’s government.


April 16, 1914 front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune.

April 16, 1914 front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune.



April 17, 1914 front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune.



A force of near 800 marines and sailors went ashore on April 21st, 1914 and met with sporadic pockets of resistance; one unit, after facing no resistance coming ashore, soon marched in parade fashion down a main avenue before several soldiers in the parade would be killed by Mexican snipers.  A total of 19 Americans would die in the operation.




Rather than welcome the U.S. soldiers as liberators as Wilson had imagined, the population of Veracruz fought fiercely to defend their city and homes even going so far as throwing bricks from their flat rooftops down at soldiers below. Hundreds of Mexicans, the majority civilians, would die.  The dead included young and old, men and women with many still remembered to this day as national heroes.

The ‘war zone’ Wanderer thought he was getting into entailed more civil service than uncivil actions. A Mexican law held that any public servant would face the death penalty for working against the Mexican government. With threat of death awaiting them whenever the Americans left and ended the occupation, those that held such civil service positions in Veracruz simply stopped showing up to work. With no civilians to pick up garbage, operate the utilities or police the city, the job fell to the occupiers. Wanderer was likely to have been told to pick up a broom.


June 28th, 1914, outside a small café half a world away two gunshots rang out that would change the course of civilization for all on the planet. The first heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg had arrived in Sarajevo so that the Archduke could observe military maneuvers in the area. The Austo-Hungarians were seen as occupiers and oppressors by most people in the Slavic republics and an underground militia planned to assassinate the Archduke with the end goal of a union of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia into a united Yugoslavia.

One of the would-be assassins was able to throw a grenade at the Archduke's motorcade but the time delay on the bomb was longer than he had anticipated and the grenade fell short of its intended target and instead went off beneath one of the vehicles trailing behind the Archduke. Several bystanders were injured by the shrapnel as well as two members of the Archduke’s party in the vehicle when the grenade went off below it.

The Archduke’s driver sped away and took evasive maneuvers that left another of the would-be assassins, 19 year old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip, with his grenade still in his pocket unused.  Knowing he had missed his opportunity, the hungry man set off in search of a sandwich.

Archduke Ferdinand continued on to the town hall where he would brush off the welcome speeches by saying, “What is the good of your speeches? I come to Sarajevo on a visit, and I get bombs thrown at me.  It is outrageous.”  Having set the tone for the luncheon as such, the Archduke would soon be ready to leave so that he might visit the hospital to see those injured in the prior, unsuccessful assassination attempt.

While his motorcade was underway, confusion of following the original route or on an alternate route, ultimately, led the Archduke’s driver to make a wrong turn. They would need to turn around and in the course of reversing and making a multi-point turn, the 1910 Gräf & Stift open air motor car stalled in front of a café.  The very café that Gavrilo Princip had stopped at for lunch.  The fortuitous Princip approached the car to a distance of about five feet before he fired his nine millimeter pistol striking the Archduke in the throat and the Duchess in the abdomen.  The car sped off but the royal pair would both soon be dead.

The Archduke and Duchess would be the first two deaths out of over 17,000,000 killed in the Great War. For a sense of scale that number is roughly equivalent to the current, combined population of Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas and San Francisco. 


The 1910 Gräf & Stift.


The U.S. Occupation of Veracruz and battles with other revolutionaries had forced Mexican Presidente Huerta into an unwinnable position and in July of 1914 he resigned his presidency and went into exile.  Soon after, U.S. General John J. Pershing hosted Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon at Fort Bliss in Texas so Villa could be celebrated by the American government officials for his part in overthrowing the unpopular General Huerta. Nearly one year to the day after meeting with Pancho Villa, General Pershing received a telegram that reported a fire had broken out at his residence in the Presidio in San Francisco and and taken the lives of his wife and their three daughters. One of the letters of condolence the general received was from none other than Pancho Villa.

Pancho Villa was still viewed as a revolutionary Robin Hood of sorts, by the U.S. government, up until about 1916, and was even considered an ally. It was the U.S. government’s decision, to back a different horse, in the race for Mexican independence, that led Villa to feel betrayed by those in Washington, and to retaliate. Villa’s ensuing raid on Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, left 23 Americans dead. It was after that attack, that the Mexican Punitive Expedition was formed to track down and capture Pancho Villa and put in charge of his old ally, John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing.


By November, while war raged in Europe, the powers to be in Washington determined that they had accomplished their mission in Mexico. After about six months patrolling the streets and performing civil service duties, the occupation of Veracruz came to an end. Wanderer boarded the steamship Kilpatrick and sailed back to Texas City.

Despite his frequent letters in correspondence with his pen pal Ruth Johnson back home in Chicago, Carl still intended to re-enlist, this time for a four year stretch. Less than a week before his enlistment was up, a storm packing 135 mile per hour winds and a 20 foot storm surge made landfall with Galveston on August 17th, 1915. The Texas City encampment Carl was stationed at was nothing more than that; an encampment with the emphasis on camp. While some of the officers with multiple stripes on their sleeves had actual brick and mortar housing, the enlisted men bunked in hundreds and hundreds of canvas tents less than a mile from the bay. The camp was devastated by what would be known as the Galveston Hurricane of 1915.

Carl lost all of his clothes and personal effects. The army lost nearly all of its personnel files that were on the base. With the camp decimated, the men were to be sent to other bases. All soldiers were told that if they had a release date coming soon it would not be honored until such files could be found elsewhere to prove such was the case. What angered Carl even more was that the army would not pay him for his clothes that were lost in the storm.

After confirming that Carl’s enlistment was indeed complete he was given the option to re-enlist.  Despite having intended to so as recently as a week prior, Wanderer remained upset over his loss of personal items and declined to re-enlist.  With his three year commitment to the Army up, Carl was given an honorable discharge as a private. He was discharged in Texas City and soon made his way back home to his family in Chicago.

Before Carl left a final letter was written to Ruth letting her know he would see her soon. While war was raging in Europe, romance was soon to be blossoming back in Chicago.


Part 12 coming Friday, July 6- Jack London in Veracruz

Podcast Episode #1 coming Monday, July 2- A Prelude to Murder


This project aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct false narratives that have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.


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  • Wow! I've found Carl Wandered's bio. But your article is more informative, of course.

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