The Bath Riots: Indignity Along the Mexican Border

January 28, 2006

<>John Burnett


Contract Mexican laborers being fumigated with 
the pesticide DDT in Hidalgo, Texas, in 1956.
Leonard Nadel, Courtesy National Museum of American History


Author David Dorado Romo stands near the site of 
the old Santa Fe Bridge, where the Bath Riots 
occurred. The bridge was torn down in the 1920s.
John Burnett, NPR

For decades, U.S. health authorities used 
noxious, often toxic chemicals to delouse 
Mexicans seeking to cross the border into the 
United States. A new book tells the story of what 
happened when a 17-year-old Mexican maid refused 
to take a gasoline bath and convinced 30 other 
trolley passengers in 1917 to do the same.

A Horrible Experience


Jose Burciaga
C. L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department, 
University of Texas at El Paso Library

At the customs bath by the bridge... they would 
spray some stuff on you. It was white and would 
run down your body. How horrible! And then I 
remember something else about it: they would 
shave everyone's head... men, women, everybody. 
They would bathe you again with cryolite. That 
was an extreme measure. The substance was very strong.

Jose Burciaga, a janitor in El Paso in the 1920s

The maid, Carmelita Torres, crossed every day 
from Juarez to El Paso to clean American homes. 
The gasoline bath was noxious, but effective at 
killing lice, which carry typhus, says David 
Dorado Romo, an El Paso, Texas, author whose new 
book is called Ringside Seat to a Revolution. 
Before being allowed to cross, Mexicans had to 
bathe, strip nude for an inspection, undergo the 
lice treatment, and have their clothes treated in a steam dryer.

When Torres and the others resisted the 
humiliating procedure, onlookers began 
protesting, sparking what became known as the Bath Riots.

The Mexican housekeepers who revolted had good 
cause to be upset. Inside a brick disinfectant 
building under the bridge, health personnel had 
been secretly photographing women in the nude and 
posting the snapshots in a local cantina. A year 
earlier, a group of prisoners in the El Paso jail 
died in a fire while being deloused with gasoline.

U.S. and Mexican troops eventually quelled the 
riot, and young Torres was arrested. Though she's 
been compared to Rosa Parks, Torres' protest had little effect, Romo says.

The baths and fumigations (DDT and other 
insecticides were later used) continued for 
decades, long after the Mexican typhus scare 
ended. The practice was finally discontinued as 
health authorities realized the chemicals were dangerous.

Excerpts: 'Ringside Seat to a Revolution'

David Dorado Romo

Mexican contract workers undergo medical 
inspection before being sprayed with pesticides, 
ca. 1942. The disinfections along the U.S.-Mexico 
border continued until the late 1950s.

Courtesy Carlos Marentes, Proyecto Bracero 
Archives, Centro de Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos, El Paso


A telegram from El Paso Mayor Tom Lea to the U.S. 
surgeon general, calling for a full quarantine 
against Mexican border crossers.
USPHS, National Archives


Mexicans wait to be bathed and deloused at the 
Santa Fe Bridge quarantine plant, 1917.
USPHS, National Archives


Blueprints for the El Paso disinfection plant, 1916.
USPHS, National Archives


A steam dryer was used to sterilize clothing at the Santa Fe Bridge, 1917.
USPHS, National Archives

Ringside Seat to a Revolution

Cinco Puntos Press

The Bath Riots

MY INTEREST IN the El Paso-Juárez Bath Riots 
didn't start with something I read in any history 
book. Most historians have forgotten about this 
obscure incident that took place on the border in 
1917. I first heard of the U.S. government's 
policy that provoked these riots while I was 
still in high school. One evening, during a 
family dinner, my great-aunt Adela Dorado shared 
her memories with us about her experiences as a 
young woman during the Mexican Revolution. She 
recalled that American authorities regularly 
forced her and all other working-class Mexicans 
to take a bath and be sprayed with pesticides at 
the Santa Fe Bridge whenever they needed to cross 
into the United States. My great-aunt, who worked 
as a maid in El Paso during the revolution, told 
us she felt humiliated for being treated as a 
"dirty Mexican." She related how on one occasion 
the U.S. customs officials put her clothes and 
shoes through a large secadora (dryer) and her shoes melted.

Many years later, as part of my research for this 
book at the National Archives in the Washington, 
D.C. area, I came upon some photographs taken in 
1917 in El Paso. The pictures, which were part of 
the U.S. Public Health records, showed large 
steam dryers used to disinfect the clothes of 
border crossers at the Santa Fe Bridge. Here it was.

But I also unexpectedly uncovered other 
information at the National Archives that took my 
great-aunt's personal recollections beyond family 
lore or microhistory. These records point to the 
connection between the U.S. Customs disinfection 
facilities in El Paso-Juárez in the 20s and the 
Desinfektionskammern (disinfection chambers) in 
Nazi Germany. The documents show that beginning 
in the 1920s, U.S. officials at the Santa Fe 
Bridge deloused and sprayed the clothes of 
Mexicans crossing into the U.S. with Zyklon B. 
The fumigation was carried out in an area of the 
building that American officials called, 
ominously enough, "the gas chambers." I 
discovered an article written in a German 
scientific journal written in 1938, which 
specifically praised the El Paso method of 
fumigating Mexican immigrants with Zyklon B. At 
the start of WWII, the Nazis adopted Zyklon B as 
a fumigation agent at German border crossings and 
concentration camps. Later, when the Final 
Solution was put into effect, the Germans found 
more sinister uses for this extremely lethal 
pesticide. They used Zyklon B pellets in their 
own gas chambers not just to kill lice but to 
exterminate millions of human beings. But that's another story.

Our story, instead, begins with the account of 
the 1917 Bath Riots at the Santa Fe Bridge. It is 
the story of a traumatic separation, an event 
that perhaps best epitomizes the year that the 
border between El Paso and Juárez, in the 
memories of many of its citizens, shut down for good.



"The soldiers were powerless."
--The El Paso Herald

THE EL PASO TIMES described the leader of the 
Bath Riots as "an auburn-haired Amazon." She 
sparked an uprising against a policy that would 
change the course of the history in El Paso and 
Juárez for decades. Some even consider her a 
fronteriza Rosa Parks, yet her name has been 
mostly forgotten. The "Amazon" was Carmelita 
Torres, a 17-year old Juárez maid who crossed the 
Santa Fe International Bridge into El Paso every 
morning to clean American homes. At 7:30 a.m. on 
January 28, 1917, when Carmelita was asked by the 
customs officials at the bridge to get off the 
trolley, take a bath and be disinfected with 
gasoline, she refused. Instead, Carmelita got off 
the electric streetcar and convinced 30 other 
female passengers to get off with her and 
demonstrate their opposition to this humiliating 
process. By 8:30 a.m. more than 200 Mexican women 
had joined her and blocked all traffic into El 
Paso. By noon, the press estimated their number as "several thousand."

The demonstrators marched as a group toward the 
disinfection camp to call out those who were 
submitting themselves to the humiliation of the 
delousing process. When immigration and public 
health service officers tried to disperse the 
crowd, the protesters hurled bottles, rocks and 
insults at the Americans. A customs inspector was 
hit in the head. Fort Bliss commander General 
Bell ordered his soldiers to the scene, but the 
women jeered at them and continued their street 
battle. The "Amazons," the newspapers reported, 
struck Sergeant J.M. Peck in the face with a rock and cut his cheek.

The protesters laid down on the tracks in front 
of the trolley cars to prevent them from moving. 
When the street cars were immobilized, the women 
wrenched the motor controllers from the hands of 
the motormen. One of the motormen tried to run 
back to the American side of the bridge. Three or 
four female rioters clung to him while he tried 
to escape. They pummeled him with all their might 
and gave him a black eye. Another motorman 
preferred to hide from the Mexican women by 
running into a Chinese restaurant on Avenida Juárez.

Carrancista General Francisco Murguía showed up 
with his death troops to quell the female riot. 
Murguía's cavalry, known as "el esquadrón de la 
muerte," was rather intimidating. They wore 
insignia bearing a skull and crossbones and were 
known for taking no prisoners. The cavalrymen 
drew their sabers and pointed them at the crowd. 
But the women were not frightened. They jeered, 
hooted and attacked the soldiers. "The soldiers 
were powerless," the El Paso Herald reported.



EL PASO MAYOR Tom Lea, Sr. used to wear silk 
underwear. This bit of privy information was 
passed on many years later by his son Tom Lea, 
Jr. to Adair Margo during an interview that is 
now at the Institute of Oral History at UTEP. The 
reason for the mayor's peculiar choice of 
lingerie was not extravagant dandyism, but 
rather, his deeply-rooted fear of contracting 
typhus from Mexican immigrants. The mayor's good 
friend, Dr. Kluttz, had informed him that the 
typhus lice does not stick to silk.

Tom Lea Sr.--silk underwear and all--represented 
the new type of Anglo politician during the 
"Progressive Era." Progressive didn't necessarily 
mean liberal back then. In Lea's case, "progress" 
meant he would clean up the city.

And Tom Lea was definitely obsessive about 
cleanliness. He would get rid of the old "Ring" 
of "dirty and corrupt" politicians, like the 
Irish Catholic incumbent mayor Charles Kelly and 
his Mexican supporters, who illegally paid the 
poll taxes for large numbers of both El Paso 
Mexicans and Juarenses. (The poll taxes were used 
to insure that most working-class Mexican 
Americans were excluded from the electoral 
process.) With the help of Pershing's troops, he 
would demolish hundreds of "germ-infested" adobe 
homes in Chihuahuita and substitute them with 
American-made brick buildings. Under Lea's 
administration, El Paso passed the first 
ordinance in the U.S. against Mexican hemp, or 
marijuana--a drug associated in the popular mind 
then with Mexican revolutionaries.


Tom Lea sent letters and telegrams to Washington 
officials for months asking for a full quarantine 
against Mexicans at the border. He wanted a 
"quarantine camp" to hold all Mexican immigrants 
for a period of 10 to 14 days to make sure that 
they were free of typhus before being allowed to 
cross into the United States. The local Public 
Health Service officials viewed the mayor's request as extreme.

"Mayor Lee (sic) wants an absolute quarantine 
against Mexico. When Mayor Lee gets excited he 
always wires some one in Washington. The last 
time this occurred he sent a message to the 
President," complained Dr. B. J. Lloyd, the 
public health service official stationed in El Paso.

"Typhus fever is not now and probably never will 
be, a serious menace to our civilian population 
in the United States," Lloyd explained to the 
U.S. Surgeon General. "We probably have typhus 
fever in many of our large cities now. I am 
opposed to the idea (of quarantine camps) for the 
reason that the game is not worth the candle."

Instead of quarantine camps, Lloyd suggested 
setting up delousing plants. Echoing the El Paso 
mayor's racist language, Lloyd told his superiors 
he was "cheerfully" willing to "bathe and 
disinfect all the dirty, lousy people who are 
coming into this country from Mexico." Lloyd 
added prophetically that "we shall probably 
continue the work of killing lice in the effects 
of immigration the Mexican border for many years 
to come, certainly not less than ten years, and 
probably twenty-five years or more." (If 
anything, Lloyd underestimated things. The 
sterilization of human beings on the border would 
continue for more than 40 years.)

From Ringside Seat to a Revolution, An 
Underground Cultural History of El Paso and 
Juarez: 1893-1923 by David Dorado Romo. Published 2005 by Cinco Puntos Press.

Fight Against Monsanto's Roundup: The Politics of 
Pesticides (SkyHorse, 2019), authored by Mitchel 
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Please click on link to learn more.