Last Train from Cuernavaca


Listening to George Agogino spin a tale is much like listening to an adventure story that might involve a fictional character such as “Indiana Jones.”However, much of the “adventure” in Agogino’s life has been through his research and writing.

On one hand, Agogino’s writing interests include folklore and witchcraft, primitive religion and Paleo-Indian research.

On the other, he has extensively studies archaeology, in which he holds a doctorate, and ethnology (a branch of anthropology that compares the cultures of contemporary societies or language groups) of the Southwest and Mexico. He also is experienced in forensic physical anthropology and has worked for the U.S. government.

Agogino has written more than 400 articles, some of which have been published in magazines like National Geographic and True West. He did his post doctoral work at Harvard University and in 1970 received an honorary doctorate from the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Rome.

He has since the mid-1950’s, taught at a number of universities in the United States, most recently at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. It was here in 1991 that he was awarded emeritus status as a distinguished research professor.

One of the more interesting stories he has written is about the Mexican Revolution — a story he titled “Last Train From Cuernavaca.” It was co-authored by Agogino and a colleague, Lynda A. Sanchez, and published in True West in 1986.

The elements of the story are as old as war: A spy, deceit, a questionable friendship struck up under odd circumstances, a veiled warning, a pistol left for protection and the destruction of a town.

The revolution took place in 1910-11. Portfolio Diaz, a Mexican general and politically ruthless president and dictator, was overthrown and exiled to Paris. He died there in 1915.

History shows that Diaz’s policies and foreign investments during his reign brought stability and prosperity to some, but the lives of Mexico’s peasants were wretched.

Onto the scene comes Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Villa, a bandit, revolutionary leader and popular hero, helped Francisco Indalecio Madero gain power in 1911.

Madero, president of Mexico from 1911-13 and a democratic idealist, opposed Diaz in the 1910 election and was imprisoned. Madero escaped to Texas and there declared a revolution. Joined by Villa and Emiliano Zapata, Madero eventually deposed Diaz in 1911 and was elected president, only to be assassinated in 1913.

Zapata was a Mexican agrarian revolutionary. In 1910, he led his fellow Indian peasants of the state of Morelos in the south in revolt against Diaz and his landowners.

Agogino begins his story with commentary about the mystery of “Pancho” Villa, the “Centaur of the North” — . . . a cruel, violent man and an unquestioned womanizer”. yet, Villa brought to his side in the battlefield “some of the most cultured and distinguished people of his time,” Agogino writes.

The mystique of Villa and his appeal to the people was undeniable: “Perhaps they saw in him qualities that history has failed to discover. Or perhaps in periods of stress such as the Mexican Revolution, opposites are more frequently thrown together and find themselves mysteriously attracted to each other.”

This most certainly have been the case with Rosa King, a business woman, and Helene Pontipirani, a beautiful Romanian who posed as a journalist and doubled as a spy for Villa.

Agogino said that although little about her is known, Pontipirani — who could speak Romanian, Spanish and English with but a hint of an accent — was apparently one of the most successful spies in Latin American history.

“Most of the information about Pontipirani comes from Rosa King’s 1938 account, Tempest Over Mexico, augmented in part by official Mexican government records and research among informants in the Cuernavaca area,” Agogino wrote in the article.

King and Pontipirani met in Mexcico City in 1911. Pontipirani was in demand there as a “sophisticated young beauty” who was constantly invited to “all of the best homes of the elegant city,” according to the article.

“She was sort of dark-complected,” said Agogino, who further described Pontipirani as a classic beauty who had no qualms about trading sexual favors for military information.

“Very suave. Brought up as royalty. And she had manners, which impressed, I think, the members of the federal army,” he said.

Pontipirani claimed to represent a number of French newspapers covering the Mexican Revolution. Rosa King ran the Belle Vista Hotel, which was described at the time as Cuernavaca’s finest.

“Her (King’s) guests included President Madero and Huerta, as well as Gen. Felipe Angeles and most of the governors of the state of Morelos during the period,” Agogino writes in the article. “The famous revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and his fellow officers knew and respected the window King. She was also on speaking terms with most of the leaders of Mexico City during the conflict. The young correspondent fro Romanian aristocracy openly cultivated a friendship with the Englishwoman, Rosa King, for information and contacts.”

Agogino said that the young “Villista” spy’s motives for her life of danger remain unclear to this day. She was born to an aristocratic family — a birthright so apparently obvious that at one point Rosa King commented she could notice centuries of breeding in the woman’s looks and demeanor.

After she and King had struck up a friendship of sorts in Mexico City, the young spy escorted her to Cuernavaca. Once there, however, the vivacious woman changed her behavior somewhat and began to display strangely promiscuous behavior with the federal forces.

According to the Agogino article, the woman was “willing to exchange companionship, perhaps even sexual favors, for military information which might help the Villista cause.”

This “strange and seemingly out of character” conduct began after the spy reached Cuernavaca with King and apparently cooled the friendship between the two,” Agogino said.

Soon, Pontipirani was “with” the commander general of the area, Agogino said.

Then she abruptly secured a permit to depart for the north. She urged Rosa King to leave with her — to take the same train on which she could be departing. Pontipirani explained that doing so would be the only way King would be able to reach Mexico City in the near future.

King refused to go. Pontipirani presented her with a pistol for her protection, which King refused but which Pontipirani nonetheless left in her possession.

After the train left, the rails were destroyed by powerful a dynamite blast, Agogino said. This cut off Cuernavaca from Mexico City, leaving it at the mercy of Zapata.

“Anyway,” Agogino said, “the story ends up with her leaving — the spy — and Cuernavaca being completely burned to the ground.”

King survived the ordeal, which Agogino says historians believe was initiated through the actions of Pontipirani, only by her wits and impeccable reputation, he added.

Pontipirani wrote to Rosa King after her departure from Cuernavaca, the “centuries of breeding” apparently instilling her some sense of propriety.

In the letter, Pontipirani explained her position and begged King’s forgiveness for her part in the destruction of Cuernavaca. She reminded King that she had left a warning and even a pistol.

But King apparently was not in the forgiving mood. She never replied.

“The story doesn’t have any tremendous plot to it except the fact that it contains a great deal of intrigue and dishonesty,” Agogino said.

“The Belle Vista Hotel is now a store, something like a Macy’s, in Cuernavaca — made over completely.

Agogino — who actually met the wife of Pancho Villa –  said he picked the story up from “very good informants and friends” who worked with Rosa King.


From feature article by Ben Tinsley in the Clovis News Journal, Section C, Sunday, Nov. 6, 1994. Alice Agogino met the wife of Pancho Villa in Chihuahua in 1981. She lived to be 100 years old and her obituary was published in the New York Times in 1996.
Last updated by Alice M. Agogino, 29 Dec. 2015