Claire Corlett

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The dark history of “gasoline baths” at the border

The dark history of “gasoline baths” at the border

Everything we know about Carmelita Torres is from a few newspaper accounts in 1917. They called her an “an auburn haired Amazon.” Just 17 years old. She led angry women in anti-American rioting and shut down the US-Mexico border. But hidden within her story…is something
much bigger than a single riot. It’s a story about American paranoia at
the border, about a toxic campaign of disinfection and
discrimination, and a US practice, that would go on to inspire
Nazi scientists. At the border between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad
Juarez, Mexico, thousands of people cross back and forth for work and school everyday. They line up in Juarez and often wait for hours to get through the US checkpoint. But the border, didn’t always look like this. Crossing this border used to be free and unrestricted. People would come and go without a passport. But after 1917, Juarez and El Paso became two separate communities.” It was a turbulent year at the border. The Mexican revolution was ongoing. And the US was about to enter World War One. All of a sudden you have the war hysteria created by World War I. People here in El Paso that are deathly afraid that the Germans are going to attack from Ciudad Juarez. The fear of invasion brought tensions to the border, while across the US, a different movement was gaining strength. The eugenics movement, based on junk science, aimed to create a genetically and morally superior population. That meant stricter controls on immigration… only allowing those deemed fit to enter. On Ellis island, one of the busiest ports
of entry at the time, US health officials were tasked with weeding out immigrants they thought were unfit, or disease carriers. And across the country, that process coincided with the stereotyping of Mexicans as inferior and unclean. Dozens of film titles included the word “greaser,” a derogatory term used to describe Mexicans. This racist sentiment was strong at the US-Mexico border. El Paso’s Mayor Tom Lea had developed an obsession with cleanliness, and it defined his political platform. This obsession with not only racial purity
but physical purity. He was going to literally clean up El Paso from all these ‘bad elements’ and by ‘bad elements’ he often meant racially bad elements.” One of Mayor Lea’s biggest fears was a disease called typhus, spread by lice. So under the pretense of “sanitary betterment work” he helped lead a campaign to inspect “every house” in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood. If the inspectors found lice “occupants were forced to take vinegar and kerosene baths, have their heads shaved and clothing burned.” Hundreds of homes were eventually destroyed. Lea also expanded the supposed ‘health measures’ to include inmates in the El Paso jail. They had to strip naked. Take
a bath inside a tub full of kerosene. And on one occasion, it seems somebody lit a match. 27 prisoners, majority Mexican or Mexican American, burned to death in the fire that the newspapers called “the jail holocaust.” But, despite the tragic fire, Mayor Lea pushed forward with even more aggressive plans. He sends a telegram, a Western Union telegram, to Rupert Blue who is the surgeon general up in Washington D.C. and basically — well let me just read it. “Hundreds. Dirty. Lousey. Destitute. Mexicans arriving at El Paso daily. Will undoubtedly bring and spread typhus unless a quarantine is placed at once.” The government didn’t agree to a full quarantine, because evidence suggested that typhus wasn’t a major threat in the area. But instead, they funded a new disinfection
plant at the border in 1916. In this facility — every immigrant considered a “second class citizen” had to strip naked. Their clothes were sent to a large
steam dryer, and then fumigated with toxic pesticides inside “the gas room”. An inspector would check each person’s body, including private parts, for lice. If they found lice, immigrants would have to shave their head and body hair, and bathe in a mix of kerosene and vinegar. Some even had their eyelids checked for things like pink eye. And many had to complete puzzles or simple IQ tests — to prove that they were fit for entry. After this process, they’d receive a ticket,
as proof that they were disinfected. But they would need to go through this every eight days in order to re-enter the US. So many people didn’t speak about it. They didn’t talk about this humiliating process. They kind of internalized it. It’s that psychology of shame. The toxic baths and dehumanizing inspections at the border set the stage for a revolt led by the 17-year-old maid from Juarez
who defied the order to bathe. So Carmelita Torres was, I’ve compared
to the Rosa Parks of the border. In the morning of January 28th, 1917. There’s this electric trolley full of mostly women that are crossing every day. She convinces the majority, if not all the women in that trolley, to just say no. And to refuse. And they start a spontaneous protest. There are accounts that in addition to the humiliating delousing procedures — for women, there was also sexual humiliation. There were rumors that you know when they entered the plant and then they were told to strip, the officers were taking their photos
and then posting them in bars. So I can’t even imagine the kind of feeling like the feelings of violation and the feelings of, you know, outrage. She was called an instigator, a ringleader. But she was just a young woman that was just sick of the injustice, the humiliation that other women had gone through. What started with just 200 protesters that
morning, slowly grew to a crowd of 2,000. Reporters said “the scene reminded one of
bees swarming”… “the hands of the feminine mob would claw at the tops of the passing cars.” When the American officers tried to disperse the crowd, they were met with bottles, rocks and insults. Protesters even laid down on the tracks in front of the trolley cars to create a blockade. They were joined by men — in what’s called the Bath Riots” — and they shut down this border for three days. And then all you hear is that, the ringleaders are arrested and a few of the men are publicly executed. As for Carmelita Torres — It appears like she was thrown
in prison. And as historians we don’t know what happened to her afterwards. We’ve lost every trace.” The fumigations didn’t stop after the riots. In 1917 alone, over 100,000 Mexicans were deloused at the border. That same year, an Immigration Law made border procedures even more rigid. Immigrants at all points of entry needed to have a passport, take a literacy test, and many would pay an eight dollar head tax. And later that year, the US Public Health Service laid down instructions for border agents about who should be kept out of the country. “‘Imbeciles, idiots, feeble minded persons, physical defectives, persons afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases.’” The discriminatory policies at the border resembled horrific events elsewhere in the world. In fact, while researching this — David stumbled upon a detail: The fumigation of Mexican immigrants wasn’t just reminiscent of Nazi Germany — it was directly linked to it. It’s not so much that that The United States was copying Nazi Germany. It’s the opposite. Nazi Germany was copying the United States. He found that in 1929, the US started using Zyklon B, an extremely poisonous acid gas, to fumigate clothing at the border. And In 1937, in a German pest science journal, a scientist called for the use of Zyklon B in Nazi disinfection chambers. He included two photos of El Paso’s delousing chambers, as an example of how effective Zyklon B had been at the US border to kill unwanted pests. The same scientist pushed to use it to disinfect concentration camps. And eventually, it was used in concentrated
doses to murder millions of people. People, rightly so, say you can’t compare what happened in Nazi Germany with other parts of the world. And that’s true. I mean and in terms of Zyklon B it was used on the border not to intentionally kill Mexican border crossings. But the history of something like the Holocaust doesn’t take place in a vacuum. A few decades after the Bath Riots, Mexico started sending men to work on US farms and railroads… as part of a new labor agreement
called the Bracero program. And through the program, the border disinfections continued. Here in this facility, some migrants were
sprayed with insecticides. This time, it was a substance called DDT. A toxic pesticide, which, decades later, would be banned for agricultural use by most developed countries. Repeated contact must be avoided. They were sprayed in the face. They
were sprayed in their private parts. And you know they were stripped naked and inspected and sometimes they’re inspected like you would inspect livestock. Firsthand accounts from immigrants in the program reveal how little they knew about the fumigations. So they talk about how humiliating it was. About ‘why do they think we’re so dirty.’ They all call it the “white powder.” I don’t
know if they necessarily were told we’re spraying you with DDT but they all call it
“el polvo” the powder. The miraculous white powder that is helping to win the war, against disease. Many of the employees who worked in the facilities weren’t given many details either. When I first started my role was a clerk,
I got the job mainly because I spoke Spanish. There was a hut in the area when they came in from the Mexican side that they would go in there. And they had some sort of, it was for lice they said. To you know, disinfect for lice. And we never gave it much thought but we did think, that’s sort of like what the Nazi’s used to do, you know to the Jews.” I had heard during lunch breaks that they would spray them. And sometimes there were comments from the men themselves that they would put a hose to them. I don’t know if they knew what they were doing to them, I certainly didn’t know. It was far-fetched from the world we lived in. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when the Bracero program ended, that health authorities acknowledged the chemicals were dangerous, and the baths and fumigations were finally discontinued. You want history to be about progress. about, everybody realizes how horrible it is and then it stops. Unfortunately you know that’s how it works in movies. But this was the border, right? And in the border a lot of things never become resolved. They just keep on repeating themselves. Decades after the disinfection campaign ended, the language, the strategy, and the dehumanizing politics of fear and exclusion still linger. It’s a health issue too because we don’t
know what people have coming in here. They’re coming in with diseases such
as smallpox, and leprosy and TB that are going to infect our people in the United States. It’s just a fact, you’re going to see disease outbreak. Apprehensions in the El Paso area specifically have spiked more than 600 percent. They are essentially being warehoused as many as 300 children in a cell. Without adequate food, water and sanitation. The United States is running concentration
camps on our southern border. I don’t like anything compared to the
Holocaust. Why can’t you compare it – his practices
– to what led up to the Holocaust? Do we have to wait for the actual Holocaust before we speak out?” At the border between Juarez and El Paso, the same space where the bath riots once happened, hundreds of migrants have been huddled
in makeshift, detention centers. They’ve been waiting, to find out if the US government, deems them fit for entry. As always, there’s so much information that we couldn’t fit into this video. But I wanted to leave you guys with one bit of information from David Romo’s book. So in 1918, the southern border region was hit with its worst epidemic in history. And it wasn’t typhus, it was the Spanish Flu. The best evidence we have suggests it was actually from Kansas, brought to the border by American soldiers. Just wanted to leave you guys that tidbit. Thanks for watching, and I can’t wait to share more episodes of Missing Chapter soon.

100 comments on “The dark history of “gasoline baths” at the border


  2. Nice try at a documentary, but he skips and jumps back and forth in time, and back and forth in place, etc. undermine the scholarly attempt

  3. If you want to enter America legally, you go through the process, whether it’s “humiliating” or not. If you don’t like it, don’t come here. That was true 100 years ago, it’s still true today.

  4. Americans get so angry when their country has their dark history brought up. All they wanna do is yell and scream about how great they think their country is.

  5. We used to use Kerosene to clean wounds. At that time perhaps it was the only way to insure getting rid of lice and such.

  6. Why can't we all agree to an island were we push 'survival of the fittest', it would all be volunteers… obviously have to past a physical and mental test, family history of disease… blah blah blah.
    It could be an experiment to see how we could have evolved by not mending to the weak…
    That way we still have a world where everyone is loved but we get to see the potential of our physical and mental capabilities.

    Example. Get the best physical and smartest people from around the world.
    Purely based on performance/genetic strength (some races can deal with some diseases better than others… If we blend we could be resistant to all…)

    The only downside is that in the case where one or more groups doesn't make the cut… the rest of the world has to grow up and not refer to them as lesser.

    Or we divide the world into, people that want to research, people that want to work, people that want to protect and people that don't care about contributing and just want to party/do whatever..
    Then we wouldn't get in each other's way and slow each other down.

  7. Mexico should of became allies with Germany after the Zimmerman letter was sent out, they could of took back New Spain territories. There would be no Castizos(white “Mexicans”) or Yankees just a perfect world with a brown complexion society and a first world economy. We would of also adopted the eugenics program to just stay within our own people that share the same genetic make up. Castizo futurism in Mexico has been a disaster, indigenous people are looked down upon and the media praises lighter complexion making most brown Mexicans self loathing in this case white worshippers. Our culture is poisoned by Catholicism which makes us not advance in science or engineering, it’s sad to see how your own people can so be so docile, because they live with an open arm mind set.

  8. Put the military on the border and prevent anyone from coming in illegally. We spend 700 billion on defense but can't defend our own borders

  9. I do believe this to be true however this happened during a time when all of the world, including the United States used to amputate arms and legs of soldiers without anesthesia, just a local numbing agent and straps to hold the patient down so that they wouldn’t thrash around during the procedure. It was a time of very limited knowledge of medical procedure and the human bodies ability to withstand the processes used. When my generation were but children the paint and coating industry were mixing lead agents into paint. We all now know what the consequences of that was too. Mans limited knowledge of chemicals and the affects it had on humans, no more than 50 years ago was just enough to be dangerous, let alone dating back to the time in history that this report is mentioning. Much of our medical and disease prevention processes at this time was little more than home remedies and trial and error. Unfortunately it was human beings that ended up baring the brunt of our ignorance and poor understanding of most of what the world knew at this time. Thank God and increased study in the medical community we now understand what these chemicals now do to humans and to use them irresponsibility today is labeled as just down right criminal.

  10. This is in poor taste. Why publish this at a time when there are already too many issues and open wounds. Hate invites hate. This is just rubbing salt in wounds. Yes America has done some wrong things. But, America has become wiser to it’s wrong doings. We need to move past this.

  11. Smh. We NEVER learn the history of Mexicans, Hispanic, or even a full detail truth for natives… Why are they Try It to his this… We only learn about slavery..

  12. I saw a meme the other day that said, why refuse Mexicans when we have a perfectly empty Wisconsin? And I kinda think like, why don’t we move these immigrants to towns of their own within America, but with professionally educated leaders? I get that California and Texas have amazing economies, but like there’s work available in these sleepy states, and perhaps they can make unique robust economies in the future? Especially with american education it could be very good

  13. Fit for entry?? Cross the border legally, apply for citizenship. Don't jump the border and expect to get treated like you did nothing wrong. They broke the law, if I go out and jump the border into another country and get caught in pretty sure I'm not going to get away with it. A world without laws is chaos.

  14. This needs more views, being a youngster I had no clue this was how Mexico immigration has been. Guess they don't tell you everything in history class

  15. DDT is and was harmless to mammals. I still have a supply to add to my bed when fleas get in from the cat. This is a pack of lies,

  16. And they wonder why so many colored people hate white people. They have always treated people of color like animals. Mexicans, Native Americans, Africans, Japanese, etc. This country has always been against us.

  17. Thank you so much for this doc-more important than ever. Having grown up along the border and even performed research on this time frame (Imperial German agents were active on both sides), this history was not known.

  18. I graduated high school 2 years ago from Socorro High School, and I used to be in the schools cross country team. Some weekends I would get up in the morning and take a run around the neighborhood. I would always pass around the same abandoned buildings every run i took. One day I decided to sneak in with a friend to take a look inside the abandoned buildings, we joked around at how maybe the place was haunted or some nonsense. I eventually stopped my running habits. Now I realize that the same place where my friend and I stood was the same spot my people have been humiliated and poisoned. I was in shock when I saw the same place i was in showned in the video. I was never taught about this and only heard rumors or stories from my family. A friend of mine also worked at the walmart where the shooting took place, he was supposed to go in at 1 so he wasnt there when it happened thankfully. It is just that the people and places I grew up in/with are now under the spotlight of the media/news/internet/politicians etc.

  19. Mass migration is toxic to the us.
    It's not about who they are, their race etc.
    It's about flooding the us with no . productive people, who will be a lifetime berdon on the US tax payers.
    We don't have unlimited wealth to hand out to the whole worlds population.

  20. Ngl tho if America doesn’t want to let in Mexicans, they should be allowed to do so, it’s their country

  21. Man, this is seriously F-ed up. I wonder how many people got cancer directly because they were dosed with DDT every day for years.

  22. Treating our own neighbors like this is bound to backfire one day. People hate the US all over the world because we do stuff like this to them.

  23. As humans, we never learnt, we go round and round on our hamster wheels, doing the same appalling things time and again!

  24. My God, I didn't know. We are hearing this same language now in 2019. I read Jeffery Epstein wanted to turn his ranch into a baby making factory, gene splicing for a better race.
    Sound familiar?

  25. It would be interesting to point out why it was called the "Soanish" Flu, which implies it came from Spain, when actually it was called like that becuase Spain's press at the time was the only one talking about the killing flu.

  26. They stopped the disinfection and now we have a huge bedbug problem we should go back to the old day methods with the Mexicans

  27. Great until you tried to imply that our current immigration issue is a matter of the government not deeming the migrants "fit for entry." That's just disingenuous, disgusting, and extremely manipulative especially considering your young audience.

  28. Did that guy on Fox News just say that migrants were bringing SMALLPOX into the US? That disease was eradicated by the late 70s, unless those Mexicans also work in the CDC I doubt they'd ever have access to it.

  29. America's denial of it's own cruel history ensures that it will repeat itself. And no one, anywhere around the world, is surprised by this.

  30. Eugenics is not junk science. Some claims from the 20th century are junk science. Basically eugenics says changing the biological basis of a population is possible by selective breeding. This simply is how animals got domesticated. You can see it as the bare acceptance, that humans are animals. The rules nature imposes on us are rather strict and very very complex, but in principle it is possible.

  31. The US-Mexico border looks and sounds like the israel-Palestine border??? Just coincidence? I think not, Border walls didn't work in Germany and they will not work anywhere in countries they claim freedom!

  32. so heartbreaking, thank you for highlighting events like this in this series… I wish we knew what happened to Carmelita Torres, such a hero

  33. A lot of play on words and snippets of info. If it's so bad here and so bad crossing the border, don't come. Stay at home and fight to make your country better rather than leaving.

  34. Way to fan the flames of racial division and hatred. Really doing the country a service with that, wouldn't you say?

  35. It's time for another round of everyones favorite game: "Something bad was done to a minority group several decades ago, in specific area, by specific people, thus proving that all of America is racist today!"

  36. So they were taking photos of naked women? So what did they had little kodak film cameras? Or perhaps it was news media?I mean early 1900s cameras were a uncommon thing

  37. i dont support mexican immigrants coming here nor am i against it, but i need some clarification. why are they crossing our border to come to our country? news channels always talk ab how thousands of immigrants are in poor conditions or whatever, but like, why come here in the first place? it doesnt make sense that thousands of mexican immigrants are coming to america in giant groups to be taken care of and we just dont have that much time and resources to do that. what they should really do is get citizenship, then get a plane ticket and fly over to the us. also the fact that they are getting checked for disease at detention centers is reasonable because obviously you don’t want people with disease to come. its also mot just mexicans, its pretty much everyone. the way they were checked back in the day is horrible and makes me sick, but like,,,,, yeah

  38. Vox forgot to mention that the detention centers were used by the last couple democrat presidents as well. I guess it only matters when it can be politicized.

  39. There's nothing wrong with pointing out that immigrants from 3rd world countries carry certain diseases. However on the political right the disease data is highly politicized, and on the left vox presents this video like there's no diseases coming in at all.

  40. People had no idea how dangerous DDT was at the time. Even kids in upper/middle class neighborhoods would follow the DDT trucks (spraying for mosquitoes) playing in the mist.

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