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PAST TIMES: Hostage in the foot hills – Part 2

T.G. MacKenzie
T.G. MacKenzie - Contributed

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series by John Ashton recounting the kidnapping of a Pictou County man by a Mexican bandit.

The Mexican bandit Hipolito Villa was well known in the world for his kidnap and ransom demands and was usually successful.

Unsuccessful were some of the captured victims – if the money was not paid, they were murdered.

River John-born, T.G. MacKenzie, wife Ethel Maude and son Franklin happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. With the sudden refusal of not asking his Canadian company for the ransom, the entire MacKenzie family was escorted back to their assigned small adobe at the Las Adargas mining camp. Armed guards were stationed around the house for the entire night. T.G. stated, “clearly the pressure was on, but neither my wife nor I openly speculated on the prospect for the morrow.”

The next day brought more uncertainty, no discussion, no breakfast, no lunch… The bandit army had eaten and taken everything at the camp just before they mounted their chargers and went on to the next revolutionary mission.

In the early afternoon the River Johner was summoned to the open public square to confer with the Mexican Rebel leader. Hipolito Villa courteously invited T.G. to sit “in full view of the seventy-five sombreroed revolutionaries.”

He opened with the question, “For the last time, will you seek from your company the $200,000?” T.G. replied, “In the circumstances, I simply could not get any money whatever.”

The Rebel became angry and accused the Canadian of “treachery against his dead brother Pancho Villa” and. T.G. immediately contested the accusation against Hipolito’s famous family member. “Produce the men who made these false charges, and I will suitably answer them.” The Mexican General quickly retorted “For my refusal, I will send you off to the sierra, where I would remain until hairy as a bear.” Hipolito had also thoughts of “executing the Canadian but changed his mind.”

T.G.’s mind quickly thought back to the years he had known Pancho Villa and became “fast friends” with the assassinated Mexican leader. Pancho would often stay with General Manager MacKenzie, at the Boquillas hydroelectric plant when he was in the field as a bandit. T.G. called Pancho Villa “an amassing character, but few have understood the fundamental nature of the man. He was crafty and cunning as a fox, bull headed at times, soft hearted and other times with the naïve simplicity of a child.”

But know, T.G. was dealing with Pancho’s younger brother “a feeble candidate” of the older dead sibling, well known as a cheat, gambler and philanderer. The River Johner did respect Hipolito and thought this reverence might help in securing safe passage for his wife and son from the Las Adaragas mine camp. “I ask only to be allowed to take them to our home in Parral and I will return to join you.” The Mexican General snarled, “You should have thought of your family before you gave me your answer.”

T.G. MacKenzie quickly stood up from the face to face with the bandit leader, looked around at the gawking silent entourage and gathered his manly thoughts. Hipolito immediately barked an order and four mounted horsemen trotted forward, one of whom was leading a black mare, saddled and bridled, the seat empty. T.G. knew what this meant. He turned his back on the rebel leader, quietly walked over to the mare, boldly sized up the horse and stirrup and climbed into the crude ranch made saddle and off the five riders went at a smart trot.

Ethel Maude’s last words to her husband as he left for the meeting with Hipolito that day was “Don’t let them take you.” She had an unpleasant feeling; just before T.G. parted, he packed his traveling bag and put on his finest hat. Many thoughts raced through her mind as she paced the adobes veranda. “What if they abduct and kill him, should I chase after Hipolito and appeal or contact Toronto Head for assistance.”

Peering blankly over the immense desert plain, something caught her eye leaving Las Adargas: a small band of mounted men moving south through the chaparral (tangled shrubs and bushes). Ethel Maude strained to look and saw one of them with arm upraised in a form of salute. It was her husband. The captive Canadians wife stood motionless, she was transfixed on the moving horse troupe some distance from the house. The stare seemed forever. A bolt of anxiety broke her hypnotized gaze. “Should I follow and plead to Villa, what could I do now?” The prospect seemed hopeless indeed.

Fright and flight panic erupted at the entire mine camp. Most of the management staff at the mine were American and hastily gathered themselves to make a run for El Paso, Texas some 400 miles away. An offer was made to transport Ethel Maude and son Frank back to the American town. The kidnapped River Johner’s wife decided to stay within the State of Chihuahua to be near her husband.

The family were headed to their home base of Parral, where T.G’s. Mexican office and the MacKenzie family’s home base was located. As they jostled through the rough terrain in an “dilapidated Ford,” the passengers kept a wary eye on the dusty road for any signs of hoof tracks made by groups of bandits. After hours of driving, the fugitives finally reached the old town of El Valle, where they were stopped by heavily armed bandits. Ethel Maude pleaded with the guards to let them pass. To no avail.

However, with luck or fate, General Hipolito Villa had his headquarters set up in the town. This was a chance for Ethel Maude to confront the bandit leader and demand release of her husband. She made arrangements to meet with Hipolito with one of the colonels that had befriended T.G. many years before, during Pancho Villa’s revolution.

Ethel Maude explains her encounter with the bandit general. “I entered the house, and there stood a repulsive little man, with small eyes and a sun burned face, calmly caressing a small moustache, which failed to cover a disgusting full-lipped mouth.” She didn’t realize that the infamous Hipolito was standing there before her. “I want to speak to Villa, the general,” snapped Ethel Maude. “I am Villa,” countered the General.

Kidnapped T.G. MacKenzie’s wife didn’t expect what would happen next from the unpredictable bandit general. Her thoughts were for and with her husband, but T.G. was having his own problems surviving in the hot dry sierra under the care of his bandito adductors.

Part 3 – Hostage in the Foot Hills - The Escape

Historical research

Viva Chihuahua- My sojourn in Northern Mexico from 1911-1929 - T.G. MacKenzie

Impact of the Mexican Revolution on foreign investment in Chihuahua and Coahuila, 1910--1920 - Donald Charles Hatcher

In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914 By Heribert von Feilitzsch

The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1946 Jürgen Buchenau

Dr. Alan Knight, professor and researcher of Latin American history, Oxford University, England

Dalhousie University Archives-Dianne Landry

Julie Windebank – Grand Niece of T.G. MacKenzie

The River John Reader – Janice Murray Gill

River John and Area Historical Society

Beulah Wright

Mary Beth Sutherland

Pictou Antigonish Regional Library

Pictou Advocate, April 14, 1924,

Washington Evening Star Feb. 24, 1924, Feb. 2, 1924

Los Angeles Times April 27, 1924

Houston Post Feb. 10, 1924


TAGLINE: John Ashton is a self-employed historical author and visual/graphic artist and lives in Bridgeville, Pictou County. He may be reached at

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