One of the more outlandish and remarkable stories about Ray Bourbon is that he rode with Pancho Villa. In drag.
But did he?
After Ray was put in jail for conspiracy to commit murder, his defense lawyer, William W. Bell, as taken aback by the eccentric old man he had signed on to defend. Ray told outrageous stories about knowing major figures like Bob Hope and Mae West – Bell was doubtful, but, at Ray’s urging, called them up and found out that Ray was telling the truth.
Something similar happened with Ray’s claims about riding with Pancho Villa. Eventually Ray’s lawyer became convinced there was something to the story. In a 1979 interview, Bell recalled talking with Ray about Villa.
The Pancho Villa thing — I thought the discussion of the invasion of Columbus, New Mexico, was interesting because he was apparently there, held by the United States authorities, and was going to be shot for gun-running. He knew a lot about Villa, apparently had known him for years.
This writer, Carlton Stowers, I think he’s with the Dallas Morning News. He interviewed him for Parade magazine. It was after this trial was over with that some authority first came out and said Villa used planes in the Revolution. Bourbon knew about that and told me about it. Villa visited the ranch in Texas, apparently knew his foster mother and father and they were on very good terms. I guess Bourbon was an actor of some sort even back then. He would dress up in women’s clothes.
Carlton Stowers heard about Ray’s claims on Pancho Villa and interviewed Ray in his jail cell about it. He wrote up the interview and it was eventually published in the Grain Producer’s News in April 1975 as “La Señora Diablo“. Stowers gave me permission to integrate the article into Ray’s autobiography – the style of the piece closely matches Ray’s own writing.
In an early part of Ray’s autobiography, he discusses Villa’s friendship with Ray’s mother and her helping Villa and his men at their ranch if they needed food, horses, or a bunkhouse for the night. Ray described the ranch as “near the Rio Grande in what is now Hudspeth County, 80 miles east of El Paso. There were 20,000 acres on the United States side and 75,000 on the Mexican side.”
Ray’s own encounter with Villa started when he returned from school in England, where he had broke into work on the stage.
I came home and told my mother that I wanted to help Villa in some way and after explaining to her that I felt with my knowledge of make up I could perhaps be useful as a disguised messenger, she sent a rider to tell him of my suggestion.
A few nights later he and about 40 riders carne to the ranch and I told him what I had mind.
I had several publicity photos of myself in all kinds of costumes, which I showed him. He sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee, seemingly not too impressed with my idea, so I excused myself and went to my room where I had my stage make up and a couple of wigs and some costumes.
When I returned to the kitchen, made up as a Mexican woman, he looked up at me and was speechless for a moment. Then he laughed, scratched his belly, and said, “Et weel work. We do et!”
I rode out with him that night, still in makeup. He also took Maria, telling her that she would be my constant companion.
Ray goes on to talk about his adventures running guns for Villa and almost getting killed by American troops. Ray became known as “La Señora Diablo“.
Actually, I suppose it was Pancho who gave me the nickname. I had told him about one of the men who was always getting drunk and said he was no use to us and should he exiled. I told Pancho I wasn’t going to be led into a trap by a drunk.
He grinned and said, “You are a she devil.” The next day the man was gone.
By those who knew me and my family it was generally believed that I had been in England during my ”absence.” Yet things were rather uncomfortable for me at home since I was aware that the U. S. government would like to find me.
I was anxious to get away from Mexico and Texas and wanted to get back into acting so I told my mother that I was going to Hollywood to see if I could find work in the movies.
I had a very exciting career in the entertainment business – but it never matched the days when I rode with Villa.
Ray gave a few more details about his time with Pancho Villa in a letter he sent from prison to his friend Jessyca on August 2, 1970 when he was discussing some other incidents in his memoirs.
I’ve seen history made. I was in Columbus, New Mexico when Pancho Villa raided the town! History says that it [was] March 9, 1916. It was not. It was March 8, 1916, and he raided Columbus, New Mexico because his top gun-runner had been caught in Columbus and was thrown in jail there. She was La Diabla!
The raid was supposed to have taken place after midnight. This is not true either. It was just a little after nine o’clock in the evening. Before they started to burn the town, “La Diabla” was rescued. Pancho made certain that she was on her big black stallion “Negro Noche”, and was well on the way to the border, which is about three miles from the town, and accompanied by eight bodyguards, three riding abreast in front, three riding arrest in back and one on either side of her. I know if you think real hard you’ll know who La Diabla is!
In a letter to his friend Brian Paaul, written from prison on November 29, 1970, Ray briefly discusses Villa and mentions, “I am a citizen of Mexico due to the honor conferred on me by the Mexican Government in 1922 – the outcome of my having ridden with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution.”
Terry Kaye, who worked with Ray at the Jewel Box in the 1960s, told me via email (December 22, 2007) that Ray once showed him an old yellowed photo of himself with Pancho Villa. “I have no idea if it was really Pancho Villa,” he said, “but it was Ray.” The photo would have been among Ray’s personal belongings that were tossed out when Ray was arrested for murder in 1968.
Ray’s stories about Ray have never really been examined that closely by Villa researchers. I’ve uncovered some documentation backing up Ray’s accounts of growing up on the ranch and of his step-parents, but nothing concrete about his encounters with Pancho Villa. For now, it remains a tantalizing possibility and a fascinating little highlight of Ray’s storied life.