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Charles Morris

The Assassination of President Madero

The beginning of February, 1913, President Madero had much reason to believe that he had overcome his enemies and established his administration on a sound and safe footing. He had been a year and a quarter in the presidency and had baffled the efforts of his opponents, Orozco and Zapata having sunk out of sight as revolutionists and turned back to their true vocation of brigandage, while Reyes and Diaz were safely locked up in prison and apparently rendered incapable of causing further trouble. He had also taken decided steps in the line of the reform legislation promised in his platform. All looked clear and promising, there was not a cloud visible on the sky of his presidential career, and although he knew that Congress did not favor his views as to reform, and that many adherents of the old administration were abroad, he had no evident reason for apprehension.

But a physical earthquake had attended his entry into Mexico City in June of 1911, and a political earthquake, as sudden and more severe in its effects, was now gathering beneath his feet, its purpose being his overthrow. Surrounded by enemies; Huerta, the leader of his forces, disloyal; Diaz, his captive, in secret negotiations with his enemies through the collusion of the authorities of the penitentiary; the seemingly solid ground under his feet was, unknown to him, on the point of a sudden and ruinous outbreak. This came on the 9th of February, 1913, to the astonishment and dismay of the people and the alarm of all the friends of good government.

On the night of the 8th General Mondragon, a leading spirit among the conspirators, and probably acting under the inspiration of Felix Diaz, held a meeting in one of the suburbs of the capital, at which plans were laid for an insurrection against the government. Efforts were made to keep their proceedings secret, but a rumor of what was afoot leaked out, and the leaders were forced to immediate action as the only hope of success. The prison officials were evidently in sympathy with the conspirators, for during the night Diaz and Reyes were set free. A section of the Federal troops had also been won over to support their cause, and on the morning of the 9th it was evident to all that an insurrection against the government had broken loose in the capital city.


A dramatic moment in front of the National Palace in Mexico City. The late president Madero is endeavoring to make a speech but tthe crowd will not listen, for the word has gone out that Generals Reyes and Diaz are about to begin a mutiny which resulted in Madero's overthrow.

News of what was afoot quickly reached the ears of President Madero, and he lost no time in taking measures for the suppression of the outbreak. He filled the National Palace with troops, took command of them in person, and made preparations for a vigorous defense. General Huerta, apparently loyal to his cause, took part in these defensive movements. Daybreak of February 9th found the city suddenly converted from a peaceful capital into a beleaguered city, its palace into a fortress, and its people into a terrified mass.

Diaz lost no time. Only by quick and vigorous action could he hope for success. Early in the morning he sent a force under General Reyes to make an attack upon the palace fortress. This proved a failure. Madero met the insurgents with a murderous fire of machine guns, which made havoc in their ranks. In this opening engagement the leader, General Reyes, fell dead, scores of his men perishing with him, and the others being decisively repulsed. Diaz meanwhile had won over the garrison of the arsenal to his cause and taken possession of that important building, thus gaining an abundance of ammunition and the most effective artillery possessed by the government. He also seized Belem Prison and the Penitentiary, setting free their multitude of inmates. He had thus gained a number of important strategic points in the southwest of the city. But the men under his command were much outnumbered by those that remained faithful to the government, and after the failure of the attack upon the palace he was obliged to act upon the defensive.

Thus passed the opening day of the insurrection. Fighting of a desultory character took place in the Zocala, the great central square or plaza in the center of the city upon which the National Palace fronts. But the insurgents found themselves much too few to dislodge the government forces, and the first day ended with the opponents firmly intrenched in their strongholds and the result of the insurrection very doubtful. The President was fully confident of his ability to put down the revolt and assured the people to that effect, saying that the situation would be soon under full control. Yet despite such assurance the terror in the city must have been extreme and many of the people in a pitiable state of panic. War in the heart of a crowded city is at the best a frightful event, and the apprehension of the citizens, especially those with anything to lose, was undoubtedly very great.

The following day passed with no important change in the situation. No one was abroad, for life was not safe in the streets and the inhabitants kept closely under cover. As for business, it had utterly ceased, the places of business remaining closed. Henry Lane Wilson, the United States ambassador, warned all Americans to seek places of safety, and the embassy was crowded with American and other refugees. President Madero and General Diaz were alike hopeful, or professed to be, Diaz occupying himself with drilling his troops in the arsenal and strengthening his defenses, while Madero made preparations for an assault upon the rebel strongholds. Such was the situation at the close of the second day. Up to this time the losses had been about 200 in killed and wounded, the rebels having suffered most severely.

This waiting situation was broken on the 11th, both sides coming vigorously into action and desperate fighting taking place. Diaz and Madero had alike extended their lines, with the result of bringing their forces into collision, while the heavy guns came actively into play. Balderas Street, one of the main avenues of the city, was the scene of the heaviest fighting, a fierce artillery battle taking place here and cannon balls sweeping the street. The two forces were only a few blocks apart and the exploding shells did terrible damage alike to life and property. The loss of life was not confined to the fighting forces, many non-combatants being killed, while some of the finest buildings in the city were ruined by the incessant and deadly shell fire.

Apprehension was not confined to Mexico, but extended to the United States, in view of the fact that many American citizens resided in the Mexican capital. President Taft held a midnight session of the Cabinet, orders were issued for the immediate despatch of warships to Mexican ports, and troops were sent in haste to Galveston, to be ready in case of need. Intervention by the United States was widely debated by press and people, but the President announced that no such drastic action was contemplated and publicly declared that no extreme measure would be taken or considered unless special hostilities against Americans should be threatened.


The Mexicans are very expert at the sort of guerilla warfare shown here, and are well supplied with arms and ammunition, so that it is very difficult to gain a decided advantage over them.

During the succeeding three days the cannonading continued at frequent intervals. Yet though the firing was at times incessant there was little loss of life, the troops acting from points of vantage and the people remaining in concealment. The damage to property, however, continued serious, and immense injury in this direction was done. Step by step the rebel lines were extended. Diaz finally took possession of the building of the Young Men's Christian Association, a point of vantage which enabled him to open fire with his heavy guns on the National Palace, about a mile distant. His marksmen also appeared to be more skilful than those of his opponents, and this aided him greatly in making the gradual advance above mentioned. Yet Madero, though he had so far failed to dislodge the rebels, continued hopeful of final success. To those who suggested that it might be advisable for him to resign, he replied that before he would give up the office to which he had been elected by the free votes of the people he would die.

An attempt was now made by the diplomatic corps of the various powers to bring about an armistice, on the ground that the peaceful inhabitants of the section under fire were in imminent danger of death, while the damage to property by artillery fire in the heart of a thickly-built city was immense and disastrous. These efforts proved temporarily successful on the 16th, a cessation of fire for thirty-six hours being agreed upon. But the truce was quickly broken, fire being resumed at the end of a few hours. It continued all day of the 17th, but without any evident advantage to the combatants on either side.

The government meanwhile had endeavored to bring in reinforcements from a distance, and on this day a force of 1,200 men under General Blanquet reached the city. They had been stationed at Toluca, sixty miles away, the indication thus being that their movement had been purposely delayed. There had been rumors of disloyalty on the part of Blanquet, but his response to Madero's orders now seemed evidence to the contrary, and his entrance to the city restored general confidence. His troops were marched to and stationed in the National Palace, their presence apparently making Madero's position impregnable. Yet concern was felt when it became known that the revolt had spread beyond the city limits and was extending through the northern states. A party of insurgents had taken possession of the city of Matamoros, and in many other sections armed rebels were in the field. The reign of anarchy which had so suddenly broken out seemed likely to become general.

On February 18th the crisis came. The rumors of Blanquet's disloyalty were suddenly confirmed, and the same was the case with Huerta, who had hitherto seemed active and loyal in the President's cause. Both these men suddenly turned traitor to their chief, joined their forces to those of Diaz, and all was at an end. In all probability they had been in sympathy with the insurgents from the start. Madero was put under arrest by the palace insurgents, and Huerta was proclaimed Provisional President. To justify himself for this act of treachery he issued a declaration to the effect that he deemed it necessary to take this course to prevent further and useless sacrifice of life and property in support of a man whom the people were not willing to sustain. This, of course, as affairs stood, was a trumped-up excuse to defend his treason, as there was nothing to show that the people at large were hostile to the Madero administration, while had Blanquet and Huerta continued loyal Diaz could not have maintained his rebellion.

His supporters having turned traitors, President Madero's cause at once became hopeless. Treason had possession alike of palace and city, the influential friends of the President were arrested on all sides, among them his brother Gustave, who had been associated with him in the government, and the Madero regime was at an end. Assassination quickly followed, Gustave Madero being shot on the following day. It was asserted by the soldiers who shot him that he had attempted to escape, and that they had only applied the law governing such cases. This, however, was generally looked upon as an excuse. A brief street turmoil had arisen, but there was nothing to show that the captive had sought to flee, or his friends to rescue him. The Law of Flight, under which any one who seeks to escape arrest by flight, whatever the charge against him, may be summarily shot down, has long served in Mexico as a convenient method of disposing of many men obnoxious to the party in power, and the feeling was general that the soldiers were acting under orders in the present instance.

On the 19th the parties in power, Diaz, Blanquet and Huerta, called Congress into extraordinary session to act upon the critical situation. The first step taken by the obsequious members was to make Huerta Provisional President, in consonance with the proclamation issued by him on the previous day. The compact generally supposed to exist between the conspirators was thus inaugurated, Huerta agreeing to act in this capacity pending an election in which Diaz was to be the candidate of the revolutionists for the presidency, no opposition to his election being contemplated. Some writers assert that Huerta had been secretly hostile to Madero for months, even while acting as head of his army in the north, and that what had taken place had long been in contemplation. Under this view the three arch-conspirators, Diaz, Huerta and Blanquet, had simply bided their time until the critical moment to come out in their true colors should arrive. Whether this view of the case has any real warrant, however, only those familiar with the secret understanding of the conspirators were in position to assert. It might seem as if the Federal soldiers of Mexico would not consent to be so readily shifted from one to another chief, but the Mexican army is made up of such elements that no one could look for much independence of action in the rank and file. As an example of its status, we are told that some soldiers who were standing outside one of the legations during the Diaz-Madero conflict, were asked "From which side are you protecting us? Are you for Diaz or Madero?" "Pues, senor," they replied, "our officer will be back soon, and then we shall know."

With these general considerations, let us now return to the open current of affairs. It is known that Felix Diaz had frequently declared that he had no ambition to become president, and that it would fully satisfy him to be the agent of Madero's downfall. The choosing of Huerta to fill the vacant office was therefore evidently an understood matter, though Diaz was afterwards to discover that Victoriana Huerta was not to be trusted either by friends or enemies.


A sharpshooter of the Constitutionalist army.

The new President hastened to notify President Taft of his election, and to assure him that he would quickly restore law and order in Mexico. In reply the United States government, through its ambassador, requested that the deposed President should be dealt with leniently, a promise to this effect being made. Meanwhile Madero was held a close prisoner in the National Palace, Vice-President Suarez being similarly held. On the night of the 22nd the two eminent captives were taken from the palace and sent under guard to the Penitentiary, to be held there until the Senate should decide upon what action was to be taken in their cases. In this short journey a tragedy occurred that shocked the civilized world, and which led to subsequent complications of a very serious character. As the prisoners and their escort neared the Penitentiary a degree of confusion arose in the street through which they were passing, a brief struggle following in which shots were fired. When it was over both captives lay dead. They had been shot during the disturbance. The report of the tragic affair made by Huerta was that an effort had been made to rescue them and that this had led to their death.

This explanation was not received as satisfactory. The whole affair appeared to have been managed in a way as if intended to bring about this result, and the civilized world was shocked by and indignant at the news of the tragic event. That a premeditated assassination had been committed was the general impression, and Huerta was widely accused of the murder of his predecessor in office. The foreign diplomats in Mexico apparently entertained the same view, and refused to acknowledge the new government until the death of Madero should be fully investigated. A special committee was appointed by Congress for this purpose, and a report was quickly made corroborating the explanation made by Huerta. But this report embraced no convincing facts, and the world at large remained unsatisfied. That the late President and Vice-President were victims of assassination continued the general verdict of civilization, and no evidence to the contrary of a convincing nature was adduced.

This sentiment was felt in many parts of Mexico as well as in foreign countries, and several of the state governments refused to acknowledge the authority of the new ruler, holding him responsible for the murder of his predecessor. Huerta took hold of affairs with a strong grasp that brought most of these centers of disaffection into harmonious relations, but hostility continued in several quarters. Governor Carranza, of Coahuila, especially maintained a hostile attitude, refusing to acknowledge the rule of an assassin, and opposition also existed in the State of Sonora. This hostility was soon to develop into a new series of warlike actions, more desperate and energetic than had been seen in Mexico for a long period of years.