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E. Kosterlitzky

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The following was also background research for a 'Hollywood Type.' It's largely drawn from the book Emilio Kosterlitzky, Eagle of Sonora by Cornelius C. Smith Jr. It is a book that I highly recommend for those wanting to get a feel for the 'adventure' of the time and period.


Although most Americans have never heard of this Russian-Mexican cavalry commander he achieved the status of genuine legend on both sides of the border and in his own lifetime. Kosterlitzky was a unusual combination of both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham crammed into one larger than life personality, and he liked to wear spiked helmets with his dress uniform. Throughout his 40 year military career (1873-1913) he fought Yaqui Indians, arrested bandits, chased Apaches, and finished by defending Mexico against rebel generals.

Emil Kosterlitzky was born on November 16, 1853 in Moscow, Russia. At the age of ten his family moved to Charlottenburg, just outside of Berlin, but by 1867 they had returned young Emil to St. Petersburg so that he could attend a military school there. This suited the lad just fine as his grand design seems to have been to become a dashing officer of Cossacks.

Things didn't quite work out as young Emil had planned. For some reason Kosterlitzky's family decided that his interests would be better served in the Tzar's navy and he was subsequently transferred to the imperial naval academy. By December 3, 1872 Kosterlitzky was aboard a Russian training ship visiting sunny Puerto Cabello, Venezuela. At the first opportunity he was over the side and hiding in the mountains faster than you could say light cavalry. Having successfully deserted he bummed around the Caribbean for some three months, somehow ending up in Guaymas on the west coast of Mexico by April 29th. From the rail of his tramp steamer he spotted a troop of Mexican dragoons, the first cavalry he'd seen since being shipped off to the Russian naval academy. Kosterlitzky couldn't restrain himself and had enlisted as a private in the Federales by noon May 1st.

Perhaps hastened by his cultured poise and European manners private Emil, now Emilio, Kosterlitzky's progress up the promotional ladder was pretty quick, more like a rocket for the 19th century. He made corporal in 1874. He was a second sergeant in 1876, then a first sergeant, and an ensign by the end of the year. In 1883 he made captain in the National Guard and by 1885 he'd been transferred to the 'Gendarmeria Fiscal'.
From now on he was in the bizarre situation of holding two different
ranks simultaneously, one in the National guard and one in the 'Gendarmeria Fiscal'. Starting out as a 'captain/corporal' he eventually made it to 'colonel/colonel' by 1912.

An example of the Kosterlitzky style of law enforcement was witnessed in the small border town of Ronquillo by an American employee of the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company. As the noble colonel led a troop of 20 rurales through town a knock down, drag out, Hollywood-Western style bar fight erupted from a local cantina. Kosterlitzky looked down his nose disapprovingly at this disturbance to civil order,

then nodded at the last two men in the patrol. Those two troopers, and only those two troopers, peeled out of formation, rode over to the cantina, and stopped the fight all by themselves. A task they accomplished through the simple expedient of shooting one quarter of its participants, apparently at random. They then rejoined the patrol, which hadn't stopped for anything as insignificant as a common bar brawl. The American witness was suitably impressed.

One of the most popular stories about Kosterlitzky, and in wide circulation during his active military career, recounted how he once captured Geronimo through an exceptionally clever ruse. However, after interviewing Geronimo, or drinking with him, or playing cards with him - depending on who was telling the story - Kosterlitzky decided that the Apache warrior was an honorable opponent and then released him. Dozens of versions of this story circulated in northern Mexico, but none ever included an exact description of the clever ruse Kosterlitzky had used to capture his wily adversary. When asked to explain which version of the story was correct Kosterlitzky exclaimed, "Released him! I never caught him. I chased him for years and I never even saw him." Despite his repeated denials the Geronimo story and Kosterlitzky's legend just kept growing.

Kosterlitzky was an enthusiastic supporter of Mexico's President Diaz (1884-1910) in his efforts to improve the country's economy through foreign investment. Diaz balanced the budget by selling off huge chunks of Mexico's assets to American, and later European investors. He increased efficiency by handing the government over to the so-called 'cientificos' who administered the country through purely logical scientific means. By 1910 the Mexican economy had increased to ten times its size when Diaz had taken office and Americans owned 90% of all mining operations with 75% owned by just two companies, Guggenheim and U.S. Smelting. Mexico was the world's largest sugar exporter, and none of the peons had enough to eat. The Diaz economic strategy produced a strong economy, but a population enduring such suffering and privation that the country was simmering on the brink of violent revolution. Kosterlitzky's repeated, and enthusiastic, suppression of civil unrest earned him the title 'The Mailed Fist of Diaz'.

Kosterlitzky's official position gave him the opportunity to show support for Mexico's economic policies in his own unique fashion. Once, while visiting wounded rurales in a local hospital, he discovered an American miner groaning with pain over an unset broken leg. The gringo had been brought in late at night and all doctors from the hospital were asleep. Enraged by what he viewed as impolite treatment of a foreign investor Kosterlitzky sent his orderly out to find a doctor, any doctor, and inform him that if he didn't come to fix the American then he would be shot trying to escape. When a doctor was finally produced Kosterlitzky instructed him to, "Set that leg properly and quick, or you will need much more than bone setting." Despite his early departure from the motherland Kosterlitzky remained very, very Russian.
Another story, this one supported by Mexican government documents, that attests to Kosterlitzky's rough and ready approach to bureaucratic matters centered around his efforts to help the governor of Sonora recruit troops for the federal army. Upon hearing of the manpower shortages experienced by his federal associates Kosterlitzky and his men went to the nearest prison, handcuffed 25 inmates, pinned the appropriate paperwork to the shirt front of the first 'volunteer', and packed the unfortunates off to boot camp. At the bottom of the enlistment forms Kosterlitzky had written, "Here are 25 patriotic men; please return my handcuffs and I'll send you another 25."

Kosterlitzky retired in 1912, at the age of 59, shortly after the collapse of the Diaz regime and the beginning of Mexico's 'Great Revolution'. He had been temporarily blinded fighting rebels at the Battle of La Dura by what he referred to as a, "damn fool handgrenade."

Kosterlitzky genuinely liked President Diaz viewing him as a tough, fair, manly, law and order president. He considered Diaz's successor Francisco Madero (1911-1913) to be weak and effete. Better suited to the role of opposition leader than president. Madero was an avowed intellectual who displayed nervous ticks when under stress. He just wasn't Kosterlitzky's type of leader, but when the new president begged Kosterlitzky to return the old war horse couldn't resist the call to duty.

Colonel Kosterlitzky had just settled in as commander of 'Military Zone 3' on the US Sonoran border when Madero was murdered and replaced as president by General Huerta (1913-1914). Kosterlitzky may have disliked Madero, but he hated Huerta. Only Kosterlitzky's sense of personal honor kept him at his post, supporting what he thought was the barely legitimate government of Mexico. By March 1913 he found himself in the service of Huerta, a man he loathed and despised, defending Nogales from a rebel army led by Alvaro Obregon the best, most modern general produced by the Mexican Revolution. Early in the revolution Kosterlitzky showed nothing but respect for Obregon. However, after his defeat at the Battle of Nogales Kosterlitzky had very few good things to say about the rebel general. A bit of sour grapes there perhaps.

On March 5 General Pedro Ojeda, who commanded the entire state of Sonora, began receiving worried telegrams from Kosterlitzky. As the week progressed Kosterlitzky's concern grew. Rumors had Obregon recruiting whole battalions of Yaqui Indians. Obregon was traveling around Sonora inspecting railway bridges. He was massing troops for an attack on Nogales, the only border town still in the hands of government troops.

Ojeda remained supremely confidant. He had 4,000 army regulars, plus numerous irregulars spread over the entire state. Where ever the rebels attacked they would encounter fierce, and successful, resistance giving him enough time to concentrate overwhelming force by train. Should the rebels be foolish enough to attack Nogales, Kosterlitzky's 280 men would surely hold out behind their complex fortifications until reinforcements arrived. Besides Obregon wasn't a trained soldier, he was some sort of teacher or engineer or something.

Kosterlitzky's doubts about General Ojeda's grand strategy were well founded. First Obregon, following something he read in a book about European warfare, moved his forces along interior lines and concentrated 1,000 men outside Nogales. He blew up three strategically placed railway bridges, insuring that the overconfident Ojeda was unable to provide any reinforcements to Kosterlitzky. Then Obregon kept moved his units around rapidly, having them appear in so many places that the defenders of Nogales thought there were at least 2,500 rebels besieging them. It was hard for Kosterlitzky's men to remain confident when they thought they were outnumbered ten to one.

Finally, during prolonged but futile surrender negotiations, Obregon 'accidentally' let slip that more than half his troops were Yaqui Indians. And not just Yaqui Indians, but Yaqui Indians equipped with German rifles - and plenty of ammunition. This couldn't have been encouraging for the rurales, who had spent much of their careers patrolling Yaqui territory. By now the Yaquis had plenty of scores to settle with the Gendarmeria Fiscal. Kosterlitzky himself had participated in the compulsory deportation of 10,000 Yaquis to enforced labor in the Yucatan peninsula. The shaken garrison of Nogales Mexico began to gaze wistfully across the border at the safety of Nogales U.S.A.

Actual fighting began at 7:00 AM March 13th and lasted until around 5:00 PM. Kosterlitzky's later description of his troop deployment suggested a professional thoroughness, but one gets the impression that even he knew he never had a prayer. He deployed five men and a corporal here, 20 men and a captain there. Meanwhile Obregon was digging emplacements for his field artillery and passing out handgrenades to the assault troops. The Yaquis, 60% of Obregon's force, were never even committed to combat. Held in reserve they were kept in plain sight of the defenders, but just out of range, in massed formation standing in front of the Salazar home. Jose Salazar, age ten at the time, remembered their light khaki uniforms and big mauser rifles, and that some of them were actually in breech-clouts, carrying bows & arrows, and singing war chants. One wonders if General Obregon encouraged them in this as a sort of psychological warfare directed against Kosterlitzky's already jumpy men.

By 5:00 PM the rurales had been pushed back to their last line of defense and Lt. Col. Daniel C. Tate of the US Cavalry had taken just about enough. Tate had been brought out from Ft. Huachuca with two troops of the 5th cavalry to make sure nothing 'unfortunate' happened. The federal defenders and rebel attackers in the Battle of Nogales had displayed erratic marksmanship all day, and when private Umfleet (5th cav) was wounded Tate decided that he had to do something. He had his bugler sound the Mexican retreat call, which was picked up by both rebel and federal buglers across the border. Shooting gradually died off and the rurales drifted out of their trenches down to the town square in front of the Mexican customs house. Kosterlitzky formed up his men and led them across the Bonillas Bridge into the U.S. where he surrendered his command and his sword to Captain Cornelius Smith. The American captain congratulated Kosterlitzky on surviving. The defeated Mexican colonel replied, "I wish it were otherwise."

Kosterlitzky and his survivors were interned at Ft. Rosecrans in San Diego, where events took a strange turn. Kosterlitzky and his officers had offered their parole so they were allowed to live in rented houses in town. Later some of their families joined them from Mexico. However, the enlisted men were kept under canvas behind barbed wire. Meanwhile the US and Mexican governments argued about who was responsible for the pay, clothing, and feeding of the internees. Mexico was now being run by the former rebels who had chased Kosterlitzky out of the country and the new government didn't see why it should be paying for his upkeep. The US government felt uneasy about increasing the number of refugees by suggesting the possibility of American handouts. American papers had a field day editorializing about "paid vacations courtesy of Uncle Sam" for every "gun toting thug" who could sneak across the border. The career of camp commandant F.W. Benteen was badly damaged when he bought new uniforms for the internees out of his own pocket. There was a prolonged outcry over his "mollycoddling" the Mexicans.

Things got so bad that 60 of the frustrated rurales tunneled out and escaped. Kosterlitzky was shocked and offended. He felt that since he had given his parole the escape of the enlisted men had broken his word. He mounted up with the American troops and helped run down most of the escapees. And when he caught up with his men he talked them all in, insuring that force would not be needed.

Eventually the new Mexican president Carranza (1914-1920) declared a general amnesty and Kosterlitzky's command returned home, but not Kosterlitzky. He decided it would be safer to stay in the US He moved to Los Angeles where he had no visible means of support until March 26, 1917 when he was hired by the US Justice Department as a 'Special Employee'. As a counterspy Kosterlitzky seems to have spent most of his time wandering around Los Angeles, making incendiary comments, pretending to be an anti-American agitator, and luring German agents into revealing themselves. Once a secret policeman, always a secret policeman. In this work he was helped by the fact that he read, wrote, and spoke: Spanish, French, English, Russian, German, Italian, Polish, and Chinese (!)

After World War I the Justice department wasn't quite sure what to do with him until 1922 when they assigned him to their 'prohibition team'. He spent the next four years running down bootleggers and rumrunners up and down the California coast. After a long, and certainly varied career, Kosterlitzky died in 1928 and is buried in the Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

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