Thursday, March 30th 2023
Who Was Pancho Villa?
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Introduction to Pancho Villa
One of the most famed and ruthless figures in Mexican history, Pancho Villa is also one of the most polarizing. Mexican legend is riddled with stories of Pancho Villa—tales of his heroism, his brutality, and his genius.
It’s hard to pick apart the truth from the legend. Perhaps, looking to future historians, Pancho Villa purposely kept his roots vague. It’s not hard to imagine him taking some measure of satisfaction in the mystery shrouding him. I sure would.
As our series on figures in Mexican history continues, my goal in this article is to provide a basic understanding of the man and his role in the history for expats living in Mexico.
Early Life of Pancho Villa
The early life of Pancho Villa is perhaps the most mysterious, with many conflicting and embellished stories. Even the date of his birth is under speculation.
Pancho Villa was born José Doroteo Arango Arámbula on June 5th, 1878. He grew up on one of the largest haciendas in the state of Durango: Rancho de la Coyotada. Perhaps, for this reason, he would later adopt “Villa”, which was his paternal grandfather’s last name.
By most accounts, his father was a sharecropper named Agustín Arango, and his mother was named Micaela Arámbula. However, even this has come into question. Pancho Villa himself claimed to be the son of the famed bandit Agustín Villa (who just happened to share the same name as the man most historians regard to be his biological father), but not all historians agree. Some historians assert that we don’t know who Pancho Villa’s real father was.
As a boy growing up, Pancho Villa went to a small, local school run by the church, though he only stayed long enough to learn the very basics of how to read and write. As the oldest of five children, Villa quit school to provide for his family when their father died.
In that time, he worked as a butcher, a muleskinner, a bricklayer, a foreman for a U.S. railroad company, and as a sharecropper like his father. At the age of 16, he left the hacienda for Chihuahua. He would only live there for a short time.
In his memoirs, Pancho Villa tells that he returned to Durango to avenge the rape of his sister by—as you probably could have guessed, another man named Agustín—the landowner of the hacienda where he grew up, Agustín López Negrete. According to his memoirs, Villa tracked the man down, shot and killed him, and then stole a horse and fled to the mountains of the Sierra Madre in Durango, where he would live as a wanted bandit by the name of “Arango”.
Some accounts have him joining a group of gavilleros under the command of Ignacio Parra—a raiding party with ties to Heraclio “El Rayo de Sinaloa” Bernal. From these two figures, he would gain impetus and ideology, giving birth to the man who would become Pancho Villa.
In 1902, a rogue police force under the direct authority of then-Mexican-President Porfirio Diaz caught Pancho trying to steal mules. Because he was then affiliated with an influential gangster named Pablo Valenzuela (who was likely to be the eventual recipient of the mules in the first place), Pancho Villa wasn’t executed. Instead, as punishment, he was forcibly conscripted into the Mexican Federal Army.
The following year, in 1903, he would kill an army officer, steal his horse, and flee—adopting the name “Francisco Villa”, (the name Pancho is short for Francisco). Some historians say that he chose the last name of his paternal grandfather, Jesús Villa. Other historians claim that he appropriated the name from a bandit in the small Mexican state of Coahuila. One thing is certain, he was known to his friends by the nickname of “La Cucaracha” (meaning “the cockroach” in Spanish).
He would continue his outlaw lifestyle for the next seven years—engaging in both acts of simple banditry, as well as more noble, revolutionary pursuits (the legends of which tend to paint him as some romanticized, Robin-Hood figure)—until 1910, when he was convinced to change his ways.
A local representative of Francisco Madero (the presidential candidate who started the Mexican Revolution) was a man named Abraham González. Gonzalez convinced Pancho Villa that with his skills in banditry and his knowledge of the countryside, he could make a difference fighting the rich hacienda owners.
At the time the Mexican Revolution broke out, Pancho Villa was 32 years old.
Pancho Villa’s Role in the Mexican Revolution
The seeds of the Mexican Revolution had been lain in early October, 1910, when presidential candidate Francisco I. Madero published his Plan de San Luis Potosí. In response to a rigged election, Madero called for an agrarian revolution to rise up against the oligarchy—and for it to take place on November 20th of the same year.
When the 20th of November came around, Abraham González called on Pancho Villa who succumbed to the call to revolution.
Pancho Villa and his forces captured a large hacienda near the town of San Andrés, which had been used as a station to train soldiers for the Mexican Federal Army. He won a series of victories in Naica, Camargo, and Pilar de Conchos, until finally losing in Tecolote, when he was recalled to meet with Francisco Madero—in person—in March of 1911.
At this meeting, Madero discussed with Pancho Villa a group of anarcho-syndicalists named the Mexican Liberal Party: radicals who saw Madero as too centrist, and thus, had challenged his right to leadership of the insurrection. Madero ordered Pancho Villa to send his army to deal with these radicals, which he did. He defeated them in battle, disarming and arresting them. For this act, Francisco Madero, the leader of the Mexican Revolution, awarded Pancho Villa with a promotion to the commission of colonel in the revolutionary army.
After this victory, Pancho Villa and fellow revolutionary general Pascual Orozco were sent to lay siege to the border city of Ciudad Juárez. However, as the siege dragged on, Rebel President Madero began fearing American involvement, so he ordered Orozco and Villa to call off their siege.
Instead of following Madero’s command, the two armies decided to engage in a full-scale attack of the city. Ciudad Juárez fell after two days of fighting. This recent loss—and others scattered across Mexico—forced Porfirio Diaz to surrender, and a peace treaty was drafted.
Pancho Villa after Porfirio Diaz’s Defeat
In the end, Madero showed his true colors as a moderate and signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, which failed to establish the sweeping reforms that Villa’s men had fought for. The previous power structure of Porfirio Diaz’s regime was maintained, and even the defeated Federal Army was allowed to keep its position. The only difference was that Francisco Madero would take Porfirio Diaz’s place.
Madero, head of the insurrection, called for the peasants to quit fighting and return to their homes.
Pancho Villa was furious. He demanded that the land seized by his army (as well as fellow revolutionary general Pascual Orozco’s seized land) be distributed to the revolutionary soldiers who had been fighting the last seven months. Madero refused, stating that the Mexican government would purchase the lands and then offering empty promises that they would be given to the revolutionary soldiers at some later date.
Villa would later recall that, at a formal banquet for the signing of the peace treaty in Ciudad Juárez, Pancho Villa accused Madero of selling out the revolution. Villa recalled saying to Madero:
“You, sir, have destroyed the revolution. . . It’s simple: this bunch of dandies have made a fool of you, and this will eventually cost us our necks—yours included.”
Pancho Villa’s words proved to be prophetic. Madero turned out to be a terrible politician. Content to be the figurehead of the Mexican Republic, he made no major changes. He relied heavily on the infrastructure of the Porfiriato, while disregarding the demands of his revolutionary supporters. He never enacted land reform policies, and he failed to promote his revolutionary generals to positions of power and influence.
Indeed, Madero would only be in power for a couple years until he was killed in a military coup d'état in February of 1913. During these two years, fellow revolutionary general and comrade, Pascual Orozco, rebelled against the Madero government. Alas, Pancho Villa was sent to defeat the other general.
Orozco pleaded with Pancho Villa to join in his cause, to overthrow the Madero government and enact real change to the Mexican government. Pancho Villa refused and led his army to several key victories over his former comrade’s army.
Pancho Villa against General Huerta
After several victories against Orozco in the north of Mexico, Pancho Villa joined his forces with President Madero’s Federal Army under the command of General Huerta. They met in the city of Torreón.
Pancho Villa proved unsuited to life under a strict military hierarchy. He was difficult to control. At first, Huerta sought to reign him in by offering him the title of Honorary Brigadier General. When that failed, Huerta thought to ruin Villa’s reputation by accusing him of horse thievery. Pancho Villa simply punched Huerta.
In response, General Huerta ordered Pancho Villa executed by firing squad for thievery and striking a superior officer. Villa appealed to President Madero’s brothers who managed to delay the execution until they could reach Madero by telegraph. President Madero commuted Villa’s death sentence, instead commanding him to be imprisoned.
Pancho Villa in Prison
Pancho Villa was first imprisoned in Mexico City at Belem Prison. There he was tutored by a follower of Emiliano Zapata in reading and writing. While in prison, he was exposed to the revolutionary ideas of Zapata’s Plan de Ayala, which called for land reform throughout Mexico.
He was then transferred to Palacio de Lecumberri, also in Mexico City, where his studies continued in the field of civics and history under the tutelage of another Federal Army general, named Bernardo Reyes, who had also been imprisoned.
Reyes was also involved in a planned coup d'état against Madero—a plot that involved Madero’s nephew and U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson. While Villa was in prison, he discovered the plot to overthrow Madero—a man who (for all intents and purposes) had been legitimately elected by the people, one who Villa seems to have supported time and time again, despite Madero’s overwhelming and undeniable flaws as a leader.
On Christmas Day of 1912, Pancho Villa escaped from prison with the help of a loyal court clerk. He fled north, crossing into the United States through Arizona on January 2nd, 1913. In the coming weeks, he would travel to El Paso, Texas in a desperate attempt to get word to Abraham Gonzales (the man who had recruited Villa to support Madero when he was just a bandit living in the mountains)—who was now the governor of Chihuahua—about the plot to overthrow the government.
In what has come to be called the Ten Tragic Days—a period in February of 1913, where the sitting President Madero was assassinated, General Huerta switched sides from the Federal Army and assumed power under questionable circumstances. Pancho Villa was exiled in the United States unable to stop the ensuing events. The shady nature of the coup d'état was so evident that the newly-elected President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, refused to formally recognize the government of General Huerta.
General Huerta moved quickly to consolidate power, and by March, 1913, he had Abraham Gonzales—still the governor of Chihuahua—arrested and killed. Villa had always considered Gonzales his mentor, and he even went so far as to recover his friend’s remains and give them a proper burial in Chihuahua. Needless to say, Villa stood in the way of General Huerta’s solidifying of power.
In April of 1913, Pancho Villa—armed with only seven men, a handful of mules, and even fewer supplies—crossed the border from the U.S. back into Mexico to fight the man who had tried to have him executed, the man who had killed his mentors: then-President Victoriano Huerta.
President Huerta faced opposition from all sides: Zapata in the south (fighting for a modified version of his Plan de Ayala) and then Governor of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza, (who fought under his Plan de Guadalupe). Pancho Villa joined the latter, his ire for Huerta casting Carranza as the lesser of two evils. Carranza’s forces were known as the Constitutionalist Army of Mexico (a stab at the fact that Huerta had never been elected).
The ensuing year between 1913 and 1914 was a chaotic tumult. However, this period is when Villa makes the biggest impact on Mexican history. He spent this time building an army by requisitioning assets from wealthy hacienda owners—and also robbing trains. In one particularly famous escapade, Villa robbed a Wells Fargo train for 122 bars of silver, then held the employee hostage until Wells Fargo helped him sell the bars for cash.
As his army grew, he fought and won major battles at Ciudad Juarez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua, and then Ojinaga. During this period, Villa gained so much attention that famous American journalist Ambrose Bierce—who was now in his 70's—followed Villa throughout these military engagements. The American journalist would never be seen again. Though some verbal accounts have Bierce dying by firing squad, these accounts were never substantiated (even with a high-profile American investigation taking place in the following months). By all accounts, it seems Bierce survived the campaigns listed above and died in Durango months later.
One thing is certain, Bierce was alive to record the Battle of Tierra Blanca—which most historians and Villa himself considered to be his greatest victory.
Another journalist, a Harvard-educated man named John Reed, also followed Villa and was integral in solidifying his legendary status in the minds of the American population. He wrote accounts of Pancho Villa robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, to where even President Woodrow Wilson knew of Villa’s reputation.
Furthermore, Hollywood struck a deal with Villa whereby they would follow Villa around, the United States Army would study his tactics, Hollywood would make a film, and Villa himself would gain half the profits from the endeavor to fund Villa in his efforts during the Mexican Revolution.
Pancho Villa as Governor of Chihuahua
While still fighting Usurper-President Huerta, Pancho Villa was granted the governorship of Chihuahua—the position held by his former mentor Abraham Gonzales who was assassinated by Huerta.
As the Governor of Chihuahua, Pancho Villa printed his own currency, and he used his military might to give it legitimacy on par with the Mexican peso. He forced wealthy hacienda owners to give loans to fund himself and his army. He requisitioned the gold from multiple banks, and even held one prominent banking family hostage until their reserves were also confiscated.
As Villa’s coffers overflowed, Pancho Villa took steps to redistribute the funds to causes he felt were worthy. He allocated funds to family members of citizens who had fallen in the revolutionary fighting. He also decreed that after the revolution, huge swathes of the state of Chihuahua would also be redistributed among the people. He also gave the people outright gifts, as well as cost reductions for the poorest demographics in his state. His governorship would only last four weeks—replaced at the behest of Carranza himself—but during that short span, he had already gained a huge support from the peasant population.
Pancho Villa also used his newfound wealth to modernize his army, purchasing new livestock, draft animals, and horses. He also bought new arms and ammunition. He was even able to procure mobile hospitals in train boxcars and mobile ambulances drawn by carriage.
To secure his army’s mobility, he rebuilt a railroad leading south from Chihuahua. And to stock this army, he recruited from Chihuahua and the nearby state of Durango by offering to pay the soldiers one peso per day—which was uncharacteristically high for a soldier’s salary. This would become the greatest fighting force of the Mexican Revolution, the famous División del Norte.
Pancho Villa’s Victories as General
His first victory was to the south, along the newly completed railroads to secure Torreón from Huerta and his forces. Then his plan was to continue to drive onward—to stab at the heart of Huerta’s forces in Zacatecas.
At this point, Carranza ordered Pancho Villa to stop his attack deeper into the lands south of Torreón and instead capture the city of Saltillo on the Gulf of Mexico. Clearly, he wanted the forces invading from the west—from Guadalajara—led by Álvaro Obregón to take Mexico City, for he saw those forces to be more loyal to him. The División del Norte was only loyal to Pancho Villa.
Diverting the attack on Mexico City cost the Northern Division thousands of pesos per day—all on Pancho Villa’s tab. Despite this, Villa did as he was ordered and took the less important city, in hopes of appeasing any enmity between Carranza and himself.
Despite these efforts, conflict between Carranza and Villa could not be averted. When a Constitutionalist general attacked Zacatecas and defeated the army that was sent to take it back, Carranza ordered the División del Norte numbered at 5,000 members to join in the attacking army, without Villa. Pancho Villa protested.
Villa was adamant that the army wouldn’t be victorious unless he led the assault. Carranza, also feared Villa would get the credit for conquering Zacatecas—and thus bolstering Pancho Villa’s loyalty. When news of Carranza’s order that only the men should join the army, and that Pancho Villa was not to lead his own men, Villa resigned.
However, instead of joining Álvaro Obregón in his march on Mexico City, Pancho Villa decided to still lead the attack on Zacatecas. This city was an important railway station and also a hub of the silver trade. Unfortunately, Zacatecas was held by federal forces, and at the time it was considered impregnable.
Pancho Villa’s staff advised him to cancel his resignation, but he led the charge on Zacatecas himself. Villa took Zacatecas in one of the bloodiest battles of the revolution. With casualties numbering 7,000 and over 5,000 wounded—as well as countless civilian casualties—Pancho Villa had overtaken Zacatecas and its rich wealth of silver.
With the fall of Zacatecas, and the influence and riches that the city held in Pancho Villa's hands, Huerta’s federal government collapsed almost immediately. Within a matter of weeks after the battle, General Huerta had fled the country.
The American Controversy that Followed
Villa’s División del Norte sought to move from Zacatecas to the capital, Mexico City. However, a coal embargo issued by the United States halted Pancho Villa’s progress.
There’s debate among historians as to why this happened. The simple fact is that, though Carranza explicitly spoke against the United States employing anti-American rherotic, Pancho Villa openly condemned his speeches and loudly supported American intervention in the Revolutionary War. American support would have fallen to Pancho Villa—especially considering his strong diplomatic ties with the Wilson Administration in the US.
Instead, the Wilson Administration issued a coal and weapons embargo on Mexico, which effectively halted Pancho Villa’s advance on the capital itself. Historians say it’s likely that the Americans also feared Pancho Villa’s rise to power, and sought to curtail his progress in order to solidify their own political hold on the nation.
Pancho Villa Breaks with Carranza
It came as no surprise then—as it likely doesn’t to you readers—that Pancho Villa’s tentative relationship with Venustiano Carranza fell apart shortly after. Despite all the political disagreements, one of the main factors in their pact dissolving was that Carranza ceased supplying Villa’s División del Norte. This served as the straw that broke the camel’s back and broke the alliance between the Northern Division and Carranza’s other armies.
Here, a three-pronged disagreement ensued. Álvaro Obregón went to meet with Pancho Villa and his newfound renegade army. During the meeting, General Obregón was able to agree with Pancho Villa that Carranza should be the interim president of Mexico. However, that would have meant that Carranza would be ineligible to run for president in the coming election. The two generals—Villa and Obregón—also agreed that land reform was sorely needed throughout all the Mexican states. They even agreed that Mexican politics should be separated from the military might of whomever was in power, thus seeking to create a secular constitution that would be less susceptible to a military junta.
A second meeting between Villa and Obregón took place a couple of months later in September, but this parley went far worse. Álvaro Obregón sought to lure soldiers from Pancho Villa’s División del Norte (who were fiercely loyal to Villa) because some were opposed to Villa’s predisposition toward violent atrocities. The meeting took a turn for the worse, and Pancho Villa ordered Álvaro Obregón to death by firing squad.
Álvaro Obregón talked his way out of it and was allowed to board a train to Mexico City. And though Pancho Villa changed his mind afterward, ordering the train to be rerouted back to Chihuahua, the order was either was ignored (or never received) and Obregón arrived safely in Mexico City. Upon meeting with Carranza, despite their differences, both Obregón and Carranza agreed that Pancho Villa was a threat that had to be opposed.
At this time, Pancho Villa issued a manifesto in September of 1914 and officially broke with Carranza’s government.
Pancho Villa Breaks with Carranza
Turning his back on the Federal Army, Pancho Villa sought out an alliance with Emiliano Zapata—his like-minded and successful counterpart to Mexico’s south. They met in Aguascalientes and found they had much in common ideologically. They both adamantly agreed with Carranza gaining power in Mexico. Part of their alliance was that neither would take the Mexican presidency for themselves, instead nominating Eulalio Gutierrez as the interim president. They named their newly formed force The Army of the Convention.
This new army, led by Villa and Zapata, defeated Carranza’s army and forced them from Mexico City to retreat to the port city of Veracruz. However, Obregón’s response to the defeat was multifaceted. Using a propaganda campaign via the media, Álvaro Obregón was able to paint Villa as a blood-thirsty brigand—a campaign that was hugely successful in the United States. This newfound reputation would come to bite Pancho Villa in the buttocks later.
Obregón’s Vengeance against Pancho Villa
Though Álvaro Obregón and Carranza’s army had been pushed back to Veracruz, they were not fully defeated. They took the northern port of Tamaulipas, solidifying control over the two most important ports in Mexico at the time.
From there, Álvaro Obregón took back the capital of Mexico City from Pancho Villa’s forces, then chased Villa’s Army of the Convention through the north of Mexico. Pancho Villa lost at Celaya, and then again at Sonora, where Villa’s loyal followers soon turned on him, accepting the amnesty offered by Carranza and his government.
Pancho Villa, left with a scant 200 loyal followers—and still unable to procure American weapons due to the United States' embargo—was forced to flee into the mountains. To make matters worse, the U.S. officially recognized Carranza’s government as the legal authority in Mexico.
Pancho Villa’s Guerrilla War
The next five years were waged on a less-conventional battlefield. Pancho Villa was an experienced tactician waging guerilla attacks against a superior force from his earlier days as a bandit.
One of the major condemnations of his approach was that, when Pancho Villa would attack small towns in the area with his small force, any civilians who opposed his attack were slaughtered, and the systematic rape of the women there was sanctioned by Villa. Word of these atrocities spread throughout Mexico and the US, souring the name of “Pancho Villa”—especially among the American population.
These atrocities finally forced the United States' hand and they began providing Álvaro Obregón with electric searchlights capable of deterring night raids. In addition, the American government sold Pancho Villa defective cartridges that further diminished Villa's dwindling forces.
Pancho Villa and his small force—at this point only numbering 500 men—decided to seek vengeance and took on the insurmountable military might of the United States.
Pancho Villa’s Attacks the United States and Beyond
Pancho Villa led his small army into American territory where he took a small detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment in New Mexico. He razed the town, confiscated 100 pack animals, and commandeered numerous American supplies. He would go on to wage a small terrorist campaign against other American strongholds, mostly in Texas in May, June, and July of 1916.
In response, the United States sent 5,000 American soldiers under the command of General Frederick Funston to capture Pancho Villa. In addition, the American force would receive the aid of transportation trucks and aircraft—the first time in history that these types of vehicles were employed in warfare on American soil.
Pancho Villa unsurprisingly suffered catastrophic losses and fled back onto Mexican soil, where the American army pursued him. Curiously, Carranza, the now Mexican president, condemned the foreign force operating on Mexican soil. Still, Carranza’s own Mexican force joined in the hunt for Pancho Villa, and even managed to capture one of his top generals in June of 1916.
By 1917, the dispatched United States army had given up on capturing Pancho Villa, and returned to American soil.
*NOTE: There is some historical evidence that Pancho Villa was aided and supplied by the German army (which was in opposition to the United States in the First World War). Though at this point, there wasn’t open warfare between the two nations, the Americans were openly selling weapons to both sides. However, because of a British embargo on Germany and the Central Powers, American weapons only reached the Allies. This resulted in many German plots against the United States, culminating in the Black Tom bombing of 1916 that destroyed much of New York harbor, whose explosion was felt all the way to Pennsylvania and Maryland. To this day, due to damage from the explosion, the stairs to the torch on the Statue of Liberty remain closed and unsafe for human visitation. The US would officially enter the war within a matter of months.
Pancho Villa’s guerilla days proved unsuccessful, and he would wage few military campaigns of note between the years of 1916 and 1920. He would suffer the personal losses of minor generals close to him in the coming years.
However, Pancho Villa himself would outlive President Carranza. Over the course of those five years, Álvaro Obregón would become disillusioned with Carranza, and on May 21st, 1920, men loyal to Obregón assassinated Carranza and his followers.
In the ensuing chaos, Pancho Villa was able to negotiate peace and amnesty (his entire reason for rebellion supposedly being the removal of President Carranza). In the agreement, Pancho Villa was granted a plot of 25,000 acres of land in the Mexican state of Chihuahua where he retired from political and military life.
Pancho Villa had officially become a haciendero like the men he had battled all his life.
Pancho Villa’s Assassination
Álvaro Obregón never forgot the time in 1914, when Pancho Villa had tried to execute him via firing squad, let alone tried to divert the train and have him killed—despite having come to a peaceful diplomatic settlement.
On Friday, the 20th of July, 1923, Villa was assassinated on a short trip running banking errands between his hacienda to the nearby town of Parral. This assassination is almost universally attributed to Álvaro Obregón.
In the plot, a pumpkinseed vendor acting as a lookout man saw the car that Pancho Villa and his men and shouted the watchword Viva Villa!. Seven riflemen then fired over forty rounds into the 1919 Dodge’s cabin killing everyone within. Bullets took Villa in the head and torso and he was most likely killed instantly. A rumor nonetheless spread that dying, VIlla had spoken the words "This cant be how it ends. Tell them I said something."
*NOTE: Villa had built himself a grand mausoleum in the city of Chihuahua, where his body now lays buried. However, legend has it that an American treasure hunter named Emil Holmdahl beheaded the corpse, removing the skull, which is now in possession of Yale University’s Skull and Bones Society. *
Pancho Villa’s impact on Mexican history cannot be overstated. Perhaps his tale is one of brutal and violent pragmatism, striving for what he always considered best for the majority of Mexican people.
The author of this article, Rafael Fernando Bracho Treviño VIII—a descendent of the Mexican aristocracy overthrown by Pancho Villa in their hacienda El Labor de Guadalupe—would tell you all of a family legend whereby Pancho Villa, laying siege to his family’s hacienda in Durango, ordered the death of every male that could grow a mustache.
Rafael Bracho VI, this author’s paternal great-granduncle, was of age, and was thus slaughtered in the ensuing violence. However, his paternal great-grandfather, a boy of twelve named Jesús Bracho, was warned of Pancho Villa’s decree—and was able to shave the wispy hairs he had grown.
His life was spared, though he was condemned to exile—the child of a prominent aristocratic family kicked to the streets. He would say until his dying day, “They can take everything from you but your education.”
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