Ran Runnels - The Hangman of Panama!
By Robert N Apold
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Ran Runnels, a former Texas Ranger, was hired by the Howland and Aspinwall Company, which was building a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. His services were need to rid the area of a ruthless band of cutthroats who were robbing and murdering countless gold seekers crossing the Isthmus on their way to and from California. Runnels was given a free hand in dealing with the problem.
Ran Runnels - El Verdugo de Panama
When gold was discovered at Sawmill on the American River in California on January 24, 1848, the news spread rapidly and the rush to California was on. There were three basic routes for the gold seekers living in the eastern part of the United States to get to California. The Overland Route, required crossing the great plains and deserts of the West. Another was the Cape Horn Route and involved sailing around Cape Horn and the Straights of Magellan in South America, which took 6 to 12 months and covered a distance of over 13,600 miles
The easiest alternative was the Central American Route, which entailed sailing from cities on the eastern coast of the United States to Central America, crossing overland to the Pacific Coast and then continuing by ship to California. This was the quickest and easiest of the three routes with distances of about 5000 miles and taking between 1 to 2 months to complete.
There were three primary ways to accomplish the Central American route. The most difficult and longest was the Tehuantepec Route. This route started on the Gulf of Mexico at the town of Barra and required crossing by foot, mule or horse through Mexico.
Another was the Nicaragua Route. This required sailing from the east coast of the United States to the San Juan River on the Atlantic coast, up the river to Lake Nicaragua at the town of San Carlos and then to the Pacific Ocean. The Nicaragua Route was about 4,900 miles and took from 2 to 3 months to complete.
The third alternative was the Panama Route. This route required sailing from the east coast of the United States to the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama, proceeding by boat up the Chagres River to the town of Cruces, traveling overland to Panama City and catching a ship bound to San Francisco. The total distance for this trip was about 5,200 miles, with about 50 of them in Panama. This trip would take about 1 week to get to Panama from New York, 1 week crossing Panama, and another 2 weeks sailing from Panama to San Francisco. Once the Panama Railroad was completed in 1855, the trip across the isthmus would take less than a day, and the whole trip, from New York to San Francisco, could take as little as 30 days.
During the first years of the Panama Railroad construction, efforts were plagued by Panama’s remoteness and tropical climate, diseases that decimated the work crews and highway robbers who preyed on his passengers. William Henry Aspinwall, a well-known capitalist and member of one of New York’s leading mercantile families, was one of the founders of the Panama Railroad. Aspinwall realized the completion of the railroad depended on establishing law and order. He needed a forceful individual to rid the area of the criminal element. He asked the sheriff of San Francisco, California, Colonel Jack Hayes, to recommend someone. Hayes said he had just the man to deal with the highwaymen - Randolph “Ran” Runnels.
Runnels had been a Texas Ranger, the Texan rough rider group famous for establishing law and order over the Indians and outlaws who controlled that part of the U.S. Wild West. He had a reputation as one of the toughest of the Rangers and had served under Colonel Hays as the head of a pack train, using horses and mules to haul supplies during the war with Mexico.
In the fall of 1850, Runnels, was visited at his ranch near San Antonio, Texas, by an official of the Howland and Aspinwall Company. The official told Runnels that his company was attempting to build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. He had come to offer Runnels a unique proposal and had been recommended by Colonel Jack Hays. According to Hays, Runnels was highly qualified for a mission of great importance on the Isthmus of Panama. The Yankee Strip, as the Isthmian crossing was called, was ten miles wide and 40 miles from sea to sea and it was one of the worst, miserable pieces of jungle wilderness on the face of the earth. To cross from the Atlantic side to Panama City on the Pacific, one had to travel several days by native canoe up river, a river full of snakes and crocodiles. Life-threatening diseases were also a serious danger. Runnels was also told that the company was trying to transport gold across the Isthmus by pack train and at the same time was attempting to build a railroad. To make matters worse, the company’s efforts were being harassed by the fiercest group of murderous cutthroats and highwaymen ever to confront travelers. The company needed a man with Runnels qualifications who had the courage, confidence and ability to deal with these rogues.
Outwardly, Ran Runnels didn't appear to be a tough enforcer. A writer who had met Runnels while visiting Panama provided the following description, “The casual observer would not mark anything very formidable in the delicate organization of the bold Ran. He is of short stature and of slightly-built frame. His hand is small and looks better suited for a lady's kid glove than to handle a bowie knife or revolver. His boyish, well-combed head and delicate features indicate little of the daring spirit of the man, but there is a close resolute pressure of the lips, a commanding glance of the eye, a sinewy wiriness of the limbs, and an activity of movement, all of which are in character with his bold determination and lively energies.”
Although Runnels was considered a Godless man in his youth, he changed dramatically one night while listening to a sermon by the Reverend Jesse Hord, a famous preacher, and made a clear, Pentecostal conversion. No matter what violent acts he performed later, he did them in the sure knowledge that he was saved.
For the next two years Runnels farmed the family acres and waited for a new adventure. He was asked to lead a party of settlers to California during the gold rush, but he was not interested. When the Howland and Aspinwall official approached him with his Isthmus proposal, Runnels agreed, immediately packed his belongings and kissed the tearful womenfolk goodbye.
In 1851 when Runnels journeyed to Panama, there were five United States Mail Steam Line vessels plying regularly between New Orleans and Chagres--the Alabama, Falcon, Mexico, Pacific and Philadelphia. Eight other steamers operated from New York to Chagres. These 13 ships, boasting a total capacity of 5,000 passengers, were in constant movement to and from the Isthmus.
Runnels arrived in Panama aboard the 891-ton steamer Falcon and he and his fellow passengers crowded into longboats which rowed them to the railroad company dock. Once ashore, they tried making arrangements for transport to Panama City.
Through the influence of the railroad company agent at Yankee Chagres, Runnels obtained a prized seat in one of the new lifeboats of the Isthmus Transportation Company, which had just begun service on the Chagres. The lifeboats, imported from the States, carried a dozen or more passengers and were easier to handle and offered a faster, more comfortable ride than the bungos which the other passengers had to settle for.
At Gorgona, Runnels left the lifeboat in exchange for a mule. His party met with no mishap on the jungle trail, but most of the members were apprehensive of outlaw attacks and test-fired their arms often, to make sure they were in operating condition.
As darkness fell on the second day after leaving Gorgona, Runnels and his party entered Panama City. After turning in the mules, the group scattered to seek lodgings. Runnels went at once to the American Hotel.
After settling in the hotel, Runnels made a visit to the United States Consul, William A. Nelson. The American consul told Runnels what he knew of the lawless exploits of the highwaymen and murderers on the Isthmus and gave him a secret commission to punish them by any means whatsoever.
Runnels' orders were to enter into the mule express business on the Isthmus and while using this enterprise as a cover, he was to secretly organize a force to wage war on the band of cutthroats known as the Derienni. New mule express companies were formed almost daily, so the formation of Runnels cover company aroused no suspicion. To drum up business and appear legitimate, Runnels ran advertisements in the Isthmus newspapers. Mules were a scarcity on the Yankee Strip but Runnels appeared to have a knack for finding them. However, the general public was unaware that arrangements had been made for each of the major express carriers to donate mules to Runnels' Express Service.
With his Express Service operating successfully, Runnels chose approximately 40 of his employees and swore them into the secret organization called the Isthmus Guard. These men were a mix of Yankees, Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans and other individuals whose true nationality was difficult to identify. The forty men of the Guard were not very impressive in appearance. They were a bare-footed, coatless, harum-scarum looking lot and resembled more Ali Baba's forty thieves than the honest guards they were. However, with Ran Runnels at their head, they would soon rid the Isthmus of robbers and keep thousands of unruly laborers in wholesome subjection.
Runnels was fluent in Spanish and had no difficulty in communicating with the men. Between trips along the trail, he and his men hung about the cantinas and plazas of Panama, Gorgona, Cruces and Yankee Chagres, listening to gossip and identifying known highwaymen. Identifying them was relatively easy because their criminal actions were so flagrant. In his office, Runnels received information gathered by his agents and compiled a list of names and descriptions of the Derienni in a big black ledger that he kept locked in his safe
During this time, the highwaymen continued their activities. At night, the sound of gunshots could be heard in the nearby jungle and the next day mules without riders or packs would turn up at Gorgona or Cruces. The Derienni massacred boatloads of travelers on the Chagres and looted their dead bodies. Buzzards circling overhead indicated where the massacres had occurred..
The highwaymen harassed the gold trains with such impunity that several of the large shippers threatened to transfer their business to the Transit Route through Nicaragua. As a result, the US Consul sent Runnels a two-word, unsigned message that said, "Strike soon.".
One spring evening in 1852 Runnels and his Isthmian Guard descended on the towns of Cruces, Gorgona, and Panama City and began arresting members of the Derienni in saloons, gambling houses, brothels and imposing residences. The vigilantes were masked and made no explanation for their actions and quickly captured 37 of the Derienni.
Later that night, the Isthmus Guard hanged the entire group on the inner side of the sea wall known as the East Battery. The bodies of several wealthy and prominent businessmen dangled alongside those of highwaymen.
Runnels' dramatic and swift justice brought sudden peace on the Isthmus. Most of the ringleaders of the Derienni had been eliminated with this one dramatic stroke. The trails grew quiet. The gold trains traveled safely through the steamy jungle, no longer harassed by the highwaymen.
The employees of Runnels' Express Service continued the business but in their spare time they frequented the bars and gambling halls of the Isthmus. At the docks at Panama City and Yankee Chagres, they scrutinized new arrivals closely, occasionally selecting names from passenger manifests, which they reported to Runnels for inclusion in his big ledger.
Although William Nelson and the other businessmen on the Yankee Strip were confident that the crime wave on the Isthmus had been broken, Runnels was not as optimistic because he knew of at least fifty men still at large who had engaged in murder and banditry in the past. Runnels had no reason to believe they would not resume their banditry.
That summer a cholera epidemic broke out. As a result, many travelers died on the Isthmus trails. The mule trains, guarded only by scanty crews, made the crossing without armed interference and even single travelers could walk the entire way unharmed as long as they did not contract the cholera.
With the arrival of the dry season, the cholera epidemic subsided but at the same time banditry and murder along the trails began to increase. At first only the single traveler or the pack train straggler on lonely stretches of the trail had to be worry about being robbed, but then the armed attacks became more daring and overt. Gunfire flashed from the jungle thickets and masked riders harassed the main bodies of the pack trains. Even the towns were not safe. In the fall of 1852, bandits stormed into a crowded barroom in Gorgona, robbed the gambling tables, and withdrew under a hail of gunshots that killed four patrons.
In October of 1852, a paymaster for the Panama Railroad Company was attacked as he walked along the tracks near Bohio Soldado and was robbed of a gang payroll amounting to $300. Wounded seriously and left to die, he was able to reveal the identity of his assailant before expiring. The paymaster's killer was a recent arrival on the Strip from Cincinnati named Timothy Copeland. This outlandish attack on a railroad employee on company property called for immediate action and the US Consul ordered Runnels to apprehend and punish Copeland.
On his arrival in Aspinwall, Runnels learned that Copeland had also robbed and murdered a prostitute at the Maison del Vieux Carre, a house of ill-repute. Runnels found out that Copeland, “a tall male with a white, cadaverous countenance and pale eyes staring from under the brim of a misshapen black hat,” had not left town. He was still swaggering around the streets and drinking in the saloons. Copeland, on hearing that there was some talk of lynching him for the murder of the prostitute, reacted by brandishing an evil-looking dirk and challenged anyone to try.
Runnels and two members of his Isthmus Guard found Copeland in one of the saloons. The three were carrying blunt, double-barreled buckshot guns and as they entered the saloon, most of the patrons scrambled for exits. The buckshot guns, the size of small cannons, could sweep the room clean of practically everybody.
Copeland asked Runnels with drunken bravado, "What are you going to do with me?"
Runnels, after taking Copeland's pistol and dirk, told him that he must accompany them to the Maison del Vieux Carre . Copeland protested, but Runnels insisted. With his arms bound, Copeland was marched to the house of prostitution where he was identified as the man who had gone upstairs with the murdered girl. Some jewelry found in Copeland's pockets was identified as having been the property of the girl.
Copeland again asked Runnels what he was going to do with him and Runnels told him in a matter of fact manner that he was going to hang him.
Copeland then broke down and begged for his life, saying that he had come from a good home in Cincinnati and asked for mercy in the name of his elderly parents. Copeland was marched by his captors from the Maison to the railroad area behind the long shed-like wharf. They were followed by a growing crowd. Runnels fashioned a hangman's knot and looped it about Copeland's neck. He attached the other end to a derrick-like hoist operated by a steam engine that was used to raise heavy pieces of equipment.
Copeland fell to his knees and begged the crowd to prevent Runnels from taking his life. The onlookers responded with jeers and catcalls.
The Reverend Isaiah Cranston of Providence, Rhode Island, who had arrived in Aspinwall that very day on the schooner Mary Ellen, stepped forward to intercede, but after being shown evidence that Copeland was guilty he realized it was useless to plead for mercy for him.
Runnels then grasped the lever that operated the steam engine and Copeland was hoisted slowly into the air and slowly strangled to death. Copeland's legs were not bound and one of the crowd remarked that he did a fancy fandango.
Not long after Copeland's execution there was a hastily called meeting of the Isthmus Guard in the back room of the Runnels Express Service in Panama City. News had just been received that seven miners returning home from California had been brutally murdered and robbed on the jungle trail between Cruces and Panama. A vote was taken and a decision reached. Runnels brought the ledger from the vault, consulted the list of names and made assignments. That night another mass roundup was in progress. When the sun rose over the Panama City sea wall next morning it revealed the bodies of 41 men hanging by the neck from the timbers projecting from the wall. This time no prominent individuals were included in this group. These were the riffraff swept up from the back alleys of the towns and the thickets of the jungle trails.
The second mass execution was applauded by the Star & Herald, an English newspaper, as “a work of civic merit and even as a manifestation of the Monroe Doctrine.” The native-born Panamanians were not quite so enthusiastic. As Runnels rode by, they avoided his gaze and kept their distance. Behind his back they referred to Runnels as El Verdugo - The Hangman.
Railroad construction and the arrival of gold rush travelers launched the town of Cruces into a center of activity again. The builders recognized that they needed the Las Cruces Trail for access during railway work and began building an improved the road. George Totten, the engineer in charge of construction, paid laborers 80 cents a day with a backpay promise of and additional 40 cents a day to each who stayed on to work on the railroad.
Observing all the new activity around him, the mayor at Cruces sought an opportunity to enrich himself. He decided he could use his official authority to force the railroad company to pay the workers the full $1.20 a day from the very beginning. He would make a profit by receiving an honorarium from the workers. He collected one dollar from 150 workmen based in Cruces and waited for Totten to arrive on one of his regular inspections. When Totten showed up, the mayor threw him in jail and sent word to railroad headquarters on Manzanillo Island that he would release Totten when the pay raise was announced.
Two days later, Runnels and his armed riders galloped into town to take control of the situation. As he reigned in his horse at the construction foreman’s shack, Runnels shouted out that the workers had 60 seconds to get back to work. As the men scrambled for their picks and shovels, Runnels grabbed a sledgehammer and headed for the jail. While his men held the soldier guards at gunpoint, Runnels smashed the lock and released Totten. They proceeded to the mayor’s house, found him cowering under a bed and dragged him to the main square, where Runnels publicly flogged him and left him tied there with a note in both English and Spanish saying: “This man was punished for interference in the peaceful and legal business of road building. Next time, he and anyone who helps him will get killed.” That ended the labor dispute at Cruces.
By the time that Runnels and his Isthmian Guard had accomplished their mission of ridding the isthmus of the dreaded Derienni and establishing order among the work force, the Panama Railroad was finished and thereafter crime very rarely affected the railway. The last thing that is both well and definitely known about Runnels in Panama was his role in the 1855 Watermelon Slice Incident. That anti-American riot that began when a gringo named Jack Oliver refused to pay for a watermelon slice he ate. When the vendor insisted that he pay, Oliver pulled a gun, a third person tried to disarm him and the pistol went off. All Hell broke loose and at least 15 people were killed. The riot was racially oriented, which grew into a series of mob attacks on white people in general and Americans in particular. The violence subsided when Runnels and his men arrived on the scene and those who might have acted otherwise in his absence concluded that it wasn’t such a good day to die after all. As a result of that incident the US Marines invaded Panama some weeks later. It would be the first of many American military interventions in Panama.
Not much is know of the activitiies of Runnels in the ensuing years. He did marry a niece of the governor of Panama. On March 30, 1859, he was appointed U.S Consul to San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. He left the post on October 15, 1861, some say because of Confederate sympathies during the American Civil War. He became U.S Comercial Agent at San Juan del Sur on December 21m 1874, and retired on Mar 26, 1877. He died of consumption on July 7, 1877 at Rivas, Nicaragua, and is buried there.
Note: Much of the material for this story was derived from a variety of sources on the Internet and are far too numerous to list. Many thanks to all those who made this information available.