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.

Comments 100

  • Careful Vox, someone in the current administration might see this video for nefarious intent.

  • God bless Carmelita ♡

  • Not a fan of lighter fluid either!

  • LOOL Vox is really stretching to say trumps hitler, let’s be honest that’s all this is.

  • Where can I get the sources for this video?

  • Where can I get the sources for this video?

  • Where can I get the sources for this video?

  • Where can I get the sources for this video?
    I want to do more research on it for a project.

  • I was part of a bath riot when I was 8 years old.

  • Smallpox?!

    Do people not know we eradicated smallpox?

  • I'm disgusted by my history

  • Yes, this was bad. Woodrow Wilson a known racist democrat was president at the time. The racist Democrats controlled congress. The eugenics movement took root in the United States in the early 1900s, led by Charles Davenport (1866-1944), a prominent biologist, and Harry Laughlin, a former teacher, and principal interested inbreeding. In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island “to improve the natural, physical, mental, and temperamental qualities of the human family” (Norrgard 2008). Laughlin was the first director. Field workers for the ERO collected many different forms of “data”, including family pedigrees depicting the inheritance of physical, mental, and moral traits. They were particularly interested in the inheritance of “undesirable” traits, such as pauperism, mental disability, dwarfism, promiscuity, and criminality. The ERO remained active for three decades.

  • Anyone who crosses the border must go home in a wooden coffin

  • Never knew this happened .. sad says …

  • We have a beautiful park in El Paso that is named after Tom Lea, we should rename it after Carmelita Torres

  • It wasn't just done in the US it was done everywhere. People need to get off their high horse. Disease is and viruses are a real problem everywhere especially in third world countries. Trying to keep that out is a real problem. There is a process that everyone needs to go through to come into the country. If that makes me a bad person for wanting to keep Americans safe from diseases and viruses then so be it. Go to these third world countries and tell me you dont want to jump into a tub of bleach afterwards. When kids playing in raw sewage is normal then we must create steps to help them and ourselves.

  • I'm not condoning some of the practices but this video tries to make out that there is no reason to think that Mexicans might be carrying infections. I'm sorry but how many jabs are you recommended to have before you visit Mexico? Just why is that do you think?

  • The only problem i have with this video is that the title says "Gasoline Baths", but nowhere in the video do you say "Gasoline".
    They used Kerosene and vinegar, why change it to Gasoline in the title?

  • Alexandra ocascio Cortez was exactly right a o c

  • I was following till you brought up the "modern comparison"

  • If we forget history it will repeat itself. This is feeling eerily familiar.

  • Vox did this story based off of wiki info

  • If they’re so afraid of diseases, TAKE YOUR F***ing VACATIONS 👿🤬🤬

  • in a country calling itself the guardian of democracy and freedom, racism against minorities and coloured exists in USA from beginning to now. what a shame. this is why the world hates USA

  • I saw a trump ad before this Ooop


  • 13:25 Vox vs Fox

  • Good. Americans and European should learn genocide and human right violence they did in past and currently doing in other part of world

  • What were the health risks implications of white powder ‘baths’? To be entirely honest this does not surprise me, the US is founded on racism, is part of its culture, it’s in the white Americans DNA.

  • It's the survival of the fittest! That's what we are taught in schools from Darwin's theory. Why all the moralism all of a sudden?

  • Oh my heart, that conclusion. I wish only for the best outcome for those people.

  • @vox please don’t turn into vice.

  • Wow I was literally brought to tears watching this. I’ve lived in Texas my entire life and never heard about this until I clicked on this video. I didn’t even know that I would learn this sad and shocking piece of Mexican-American history through this video. My grandpa was in the Bracero program and it hurts to even think he might have been one of those men in the images. I wish you were still alive abuelito so you could tell me all about your life and the hardships you went through.

  • I’m from Cd Juarez and this is the first time EVER i hear about this! I had no idea, how come no one has talked about this before?

  • Why did I not learn this in history????

  • This makes me so disgusted !!!!

  • America's long romance with racism.


  • I live in the border and these stories are so important to tell specially in this political climate. Thank you so much!

  • Good old america

  • I had a coworker who had 2 boys with what sounded like terrible respiratory issues. They passed away young. She worked in the fields I believe. I didn’t really know it was like this though. Wow. This is why we learn history, so we don’t repeat it. We all know we don’t want this in our hands now. Pray this never happens again. Whether it’s against white Mexicans or blacks. 👏

  • Trump's ancestors were also migrants

  • Very informative. Thank you ☺️

  • Can you have an informative story without including a bash to a political party. What they did then is no where near what they are doing now. Your amazing story became rhetoric by including AOC’s rhetoric, which lead to a death by a terrorist. Fortunately the he death was of the terrorist who was stopped from bombing a facility because he thought they were running real concentration camps. That’s a disgrace to the memory of those in the holocaust and your story adds to that rhetoric. So if that terrorist watched this, your story was responsible for a death. How do you feel about that?

  • American hypocrisy, brutality.

  • I'm inspired to do something about What's going on now. To be a human rights lawyer or immigration lawyer.

  • 13:29-31 "coming in with diseases such as small pox, leprosy". That segment right there reinforces my already low opinion of Fox Faux News. The last case of smallpox in the WORLD was in 1977 in Somalia – declared eradicated by the UN in 1980! Leprosy, so rare that I don't know of any country that has it in huge numbers – including the poorest African and Central American ones!

  • It’s funny cause now we have typhus breakouts from the border

  • Greaser is a term that was used to describe Italians and Hispanics actually

  • America sure does have a lot of "dark history."

  • It figures this would be produced by VOX, who put out another video about MS-13 being just great people being discriminated against.

  • Monsanto does it again

  • 😯🤯 Mexicans suffer so much! Wow!

  • I would love to hear what Vox considers a good solution to the current immigration crisis.

  • everyday I think humans can't succumb much lower, but everyday I'm proven wrong.

  • DDT was later used in Vietnam war

  • Ah yes, another historical ill that Vox decries even though nobody alive can be blamed for it…..

    The uselessness of this channel continues unabated….

  • Trump supporters: So what's the problem?

  • This gets me so mad honestly.

  • Must show this to my students

  • Americans are just terrible people

  • Mxm this makes me upset even though I’m from South Africa. White people did this to our ancestors just because we were brown or black!

  • great video but i wish she‘d talk a bit faster and not like she reads everything from a piece of paper at school

  • Build The Wall

  • this is horrible. we have to make sure nothing like it happens again. we should build a wall

  • At world war one, we needed to protect our flank, to do so we built defense on our borders. Oh well. Kerosene back then was a killer of insects, they didn't have chemicals that we use today, and nothing similar was even close at achieving the same degree as chemicals today. I like the lady saying "there were rumors" like there aren't any rumors against authorities today too, laughable that that's considered "evidence". Using gas is horrible, doesn't matter who uses it. And I completely agree with the IQ tests at the border… Who cares that these people are in camps, when they KNOW what will happen and STILL come racing to the border. total idiocy.

  • I'm mind-blown! Hoping Ranjani gathers more accolades with this masterpiece like she did with her IBM video. It's surprising how so many events derive 'inspiration' from ones in the past.

  • And I thought we blacks were treated badly. Man, the US really don't like minorities.

  • "Good" "Genes" is still happening in the labs. The other stuff is just bad humans.

  • I love this channel 🖒

  • 😭😢

  • Why did they scratch out her face?

  • How do we know all of this is true. The pictures and snipits are cropped so much, you can’t see where they are coming from.

  • Sounds like Trump talking about Detroit.

  • Come to Australia , its happening here

  • I hate the fact that I've learned more from Vox about my culture then I ever did in high school.

  • good times

  • This stuff is what comedy is made of. VOX's serious videos are always so comical hahah

  • Don’t show this to Trump
    Lol 😂

  • I thought this was fascinating and was enjoying the video greatly until you started comparing today's conditions as the same as what has been done in the past at the border. I agree spraying pesticides or bathing people in chemicals is wrong, but it is NOT the same as what is going on today. Today people are exploiting children to get through the border and to make exceptions to laws. It's twisted. We can't just get rid of immigration laws because people are exploiting them. We need to have a backbone and uphold immigration laws, which help protect our country.

  • Very good to learn about this but the Vox spin leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  • You didn’t even mention the Zimmer Telegram

  • If they were treated so bad at the border why did they keep coming into the US?

  • Irony Europeans did the same with actually diseases that wipeout tribes, Natives in America. But laws weren’t created to stop white Individuals entering America. Why do white individuals believe their skin color is superior? Why do racist white individual believes they never acting on inhuman behavior towards others, they love to criticizes other countries of inhuman behavior but yet ignoring their behavior.

  • You don’t hear people talk about the Eugenics movement in the US very often, bravo VOX!

  • Isn't it ionic that White history is full of darkness?

  • There’s always been racism. There’s racism towards white people and even Mexicans who are “white passing”. It’s a huge misconception that everyone on the right is racist. There’s a ton of violence on the left toward anyone who disagrees. The only person trying to light immigrants on fire lately was the Antifa guy in Tacoma.

  • What began as a great documentary, ended with political statements concerning the Current Climate in the United States. I'm guessing you just could NOT help yourself to try to make our President look bad!


  • Lol with those immigration regulations back then the Trump would have been sent back to where he came from he fits the criteria on that list!😂
    The way this migrants are treated at the border WILL create sanitary problems! & Who is the government going to blame of a possible outbreak????? Immigrants!!!!!!!.

  • an absolutely BEAUTIFUL INFORMATIVE video.. historical knowledge like this proves how important it is to tell it to entire populace so it is not repeated again… but then again there are Americans who continue to support Trump, humanity can never really ever be triumphant can it.

  • We all knew (I hope) that the US had a lot of racism in its history. This just further proves that. And the racism isn't just history.

  • Latinos are still not getting equal treatment and we never have. It’s absolutely ridiculous

  • Sounds like a great policy

  • Why the boggyboggy stank got cleaned

  • Mexicans are not white! Mexicans are not Spanish! North Mexicans are Native American descents! South Mexicans are Aboriginal Americans! No one is Indian because this is not India! Learn geography!

  • If you dont like the USA`s border check-up process then dont go there. Its that easy. BTW dont say its a race thing. These procedures was done to ALL migrants that came to the US. In Sweden we were taught about this since a major size of the population of Sweden during the 19s and 20s moved to USA.

  • I’ve lived in El Paso all my life and had no idea this happened to my people. Thanks for sharing this!😭❤️

  • Ive watched like 3 of these documentaries already and I'm ready for 3 more. Great journalism

  • Vox is a lie, I hope this company goes under and learns to code

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