Special to the Crier
Emilio Kosterlitzky was born on November 16, 1853 in Moscow, Russia. The son of a Cossack, Kosterlitzky dreamed of growing up to be a cavalry officer but for some reason his parents enlisted him in the Tsar’s navy. Kosterlitzky hated the navy and jumped ship in Venezuela. After bumming around the Carribbean, he ended up on board a tramp steamer pulling into Guyamas, Mexico. From the ship’s railing, Kosterlitzky could see a troop of Mexican dragoons – the first cavalry he had seen since entering the Russian naval academy. Kosterlitzky enlisted immediately as a private in the Mexican Federales.
Kosterlitzky, always impeccably dressed in full uniform, climbed up the ranks quickly. When told there was no budget to hire new soldiers Kostelitzky went into the Mexican prisons and came out with twenty-five new recruits. When they captured lawbreakers in the wilderness they often hung them on the spot. Some criminals were given the choice of being strung up or joining Kostelitzky’s soldiers. Always a stickler for uniforms, the men who rode under Kosterlitzky wore matching hats with black rope hat bands. Whenever someone was hung to death, the noose was always tied with a black rope. According to Marshall Trimble, “You could trundle a wheelbarrow full of diamonds from the border to Mazatlan without fear of molestation” while Kosterlitzky was patrolling the countryside.
His violent and enthusiastic suppression of civil unrest earned him the nickname “The Mailed Fist of Diaz,” a reference to Mexican president Porfirio Diaz whom Kosterlitzky defended loyally. Much of this violence was directed towards Native American communities such as the Yaqui. There was also one notable incident at a strike at a mine owned by the American company Cananea Consolidated Copper Company in a little town called Ronquillo on the Mexican side of the border. Kosterlitzky declared martial law within hours of arriving. As he and his twenty soldiers were marching through town, a barroom brawl broke out in the local cantina. Kosterlitzky ordered two of his soldiers to deal with the problem. The men rode over and fired into the crowd without ever dismounting. With about one quarter of the participants shot at random the fight broke up pretty quickly. Kosterlitzky strung up all the men he considered ringleaders from the same tree and the strike was broken.
There are many legends of Kosterlitzky and Geronimo, really several variations on the same story. Through some clever ruse, Kosterlitzky captures Geronimo and after a night of drinking and playing cards – Kosterlitzky decides to set his worthy opponent free. When asked which version of the tale was correct, Kosterlitzky exclaimed, “Release him! I never caught him. I chased him for years and never even saw him.” Despite his denials the legend persists to this day.
Once while chasing Pancho Villa, frustrated as the rebel chieftain pulled away on a faster horse, Kosterlitzky threw his saber at Villa. Next, with his pistol out of bullets, he threw the pistol and screamed in futile rage.
The Battle of Nogales took place in 1913. Kosterlitzky was defending Nogales with a force of 280 men when the border town was approached by rebel general Obregon who had over 1,000 soldiers at his disposal, many of them well armed Yaqui who had no fondness for Kosterlitzky. Kosterlitzky’s commander, General Ojeda said not to worry that he could send 4,000 troops by railroad at a moment’s notice to support Kostelitzky. Then Obregon blew up three railway trestles and no reinforcements were arriving. The Battle of Nogales began on March 13. Fort Huachuca had sent cavalry troops under the command of Lt. Col. Daniel C. Tate to sit on the American side of the border and make sure nothing unfortunate happened. The two sides exchanged fire all day long, often displaying erratic marksmanship. Civilian casualties included one man and one small boy. Around 5:00 p.m. a stray bullet killed an American private named Umfleet. Lt. Col. Tate had enough and ordered his bugler to play the Mexican retreat. Mexican buglers picked up the song and the battle ceased.
Prescott historian Budge Ruffner described what happened next. “Kosterlitzky with a small contingent of his troops, rode towards the Arizona border to seek asylum. They met a huge crowd revolutionists, jeering them in their defeat. Always the soldier, Kosterlitzky ordered a Cossack type saber charge through the taunting mob. He literally hacked his way through flesh and bone to reach the international border, then formally surrendered his bloody saber to the United States Army.
When he was commended for surviving the battle, Kosterlitzky replied, “I wish it were otherwise.” Kosterlitzky and his soldiers were imprisoned outside San Diego and when several of his men escaped, Kosterlitzky considered it a breach of honor, leading the search party which recaptured them. When Kosterlitzky and his men were offered pardons and the chance to return to Mexico Kosterlitzky declined and remained in Los Angeles. During World War I Kosterlitzky used his abilities to speak several languages to ferret out un-American sympathizers. After the war he was soon put to work enforcing Prohibition.