Panama Railroad

Randolph Runnels:

Ran Runnels
Ran Runnels


The Mission.

In the Fall of 1850 a stranger rode out on a mule from San Antonio, Texas, to have words with Randolph Runnels, the famous Ranger and Indian killer abiding under his own vine and fig tree on the Colorado River. The man was guided by a young Mexican boy riding a burro, "scarcely larger than a large dog," Runnels' sister Octavia recalled. "We children gawked at the stranger because he wore black store clothes and a stiff black stovepipe hat. We had never seen anyone like him before. Our mother made us go up the ladder to the cabin loft, but she remained below and stared through the chinking at the man as he sat on the gallery talking with Randolph."

The stranger was an official of the Howland and Aspinwall Company. He sat in a cane-bottomed chair, sipped a cup of mustang grape wine, and told Runnels the purpose of his visit. Colonel Jack Hays, Sheriff of San Francisco, had sent him, the stranger said. According to Hays, Runnels was highly qualified for a mission of great importance on the Isthmus of Panama.

Because the man had been sent by Jack Hays, a lifelong friend, Runnels allowed the stranger to speak his piece, even though the talk brought back unpleasant memories of a time of darkness and blood when he had pursued violence for the sinful excitement of the senses.

"The place of passage across the Isthmus--called the Yankee Strip--is ten miles wide and 40 miles from sea to sea as the crow flies," said the stranger. "I have not seen it myself, but I have it on good authority that it's the most terrible wilderness on the face of the earth, sir. To cross from Chagres on the Atlantic side to Panama City on the Pacific, you must travel several days by native canoe upriver.... The river is full of snakes and crocodiles, I understand. The fever is hellish, sir. When it strikes, you may not wake in the morning. We are trying to transport gold express by pack train and are attempting to build a railroad. We are sorely harassed by the fiercest group of cutthroats and highwaymen ever to walk the earth. We need a man there who has the courage and ability to deal with them."

Randolph Runnels nodded. It was as his preacher Jesse Herd had prophesied: a great river full of demons and monsters and a pestilence that walked by darkness. The stranger in the black store suit and hard hat was the searching wind sent by the Lord to seek him out. "I have been waiting for two years," said Randolph Runnels. "I am ready to go."

"I take up my pen to write this down in an earnest effort to leave behind a small chip or leaf on the Shores of Time 'ere the small river of my life wends its way to the sea and is forever lost in the Bounding Main."

These are the words of Octavia Charity Marsden, nee Runnels, written in her old age while living her last years as a resident of the Confederate Home in Austin, where, as the surviving widow of a sergeant major of Hood's Texas Brigade, she had every right to be. The "small chip or leaf" left behind is a thin bundle of pages covered with handwriting in ink that has turned brown with time. The penmanship is angular and sometimes staggers into incomprehensible snarls. In places religious exhortations break in. "The Kingdom is nigh!" she will say, or, "Yea, I know my Redeemer liveth!" These happen when an irresistible manifestation of the Almighty Presence comes suddenly upon her. But mostly the thoughts of Mrs. Marsden are clear, lucid and unbroken, and her script is as delicate and strong as strands of fine brown wire.

The Prophecy

"My brother Randolph from his early youth, she wrote, "though a fond and loving brother, was skilled in the tricks and arts of sin and the modes of predatory warfare." This was written in 1930. Octavia Marsden, living out of one time and into another, had found the peace of God. Gone was the bitterness of being left a childless widow at 19 and forsaken by her only brother, who had not chosen to return from the wilderness of Central America to stand with the righteous and contribute his considerable talent for warfare to the Lost Cause.

"I must set down first the manner of my brother's appearance, wrote Mrs. Marsden. "He was slight of stature and sensitive to any mention of the subject. None the less he was handsome, with a fair complexion, brown eyes and brown silky hair. He was graceful of his walk and vain of his hands, which were as swift and sure as hummingbirds. My first memory of him is as a youth returning from campaigning against the bloody Comanche with Colonel Hays.

Mrs. Marsden, having been born about 1839, was a small child during the 1840's when the group of Rangers under Colonel Jack Hays fought the Comanches at Plum Creek and Uvalde Canyon, using the huge five-shot Walker Colts against the red men for the first time. The weapons effected many casualties as the Rangers stood firm and fired methodically into the dusty swarm of yelling attackers. Later Randolph Runnels went with Colonel Hays to the Mexican War, serving at Vera Cruz as a pack train leader. He was one of the riders clad in their underwear who swam the barebacked horses in, from the transports and brought them, grunting in protest, splashing through the surf to Collado beach to follow Worth's Brigade inland for the siege of the city.

"Although my brother was considered a Godless man in his youth," said Mrs. Marsden, "there came a time when he changed, the occasion of which I shall describe. We were visiting our relatives at Big Caney Bayou in East Texas. The Reverend Jesse Hord, a famous preacher, gave a sermon one night and it was as though Randolph were touched with a tongue of fire. He made a clear, pentecostal conversion. No matter what violent acts he performed later, I know that he did them in the sure knowledge that he was saved and washed in the blood of the Lamb."

Reverend Hord, with the flames of a huge log fire casting fearful shadows and flickerings across the faces of his listeners, preached of hell and the eternal burning torment awaiting sinners there. At the end of the sermon when he dropped to his knees, arms outstretched, and begged the sinners to flee the Lord's wrath by professing Christ as the Son of God, many of the onlookers were so moved they fell to the ground and cried aloud for mercy. Several, twitching as though stricken with the St. Vitus Dance, began mouthing the Unknown Tongue.

Randolph Runnels did not fall to the ground, cry aloud or weep, but it was evident that he had undergone a significant spiritual experience. Later, in the privacy of a family gathering in a cabin, Reverend Hord summed it up, "Brother Runnels, I know you have spent your life in folly and the haunts of wickedness-- horse-swapping, gambling, racing and the pursuit of painted women."

Here, even in the religious convictions of great age, Mrs. Marsden allowed a sisterly loyalty to creep through. "Sometimes I feel that those men chosen to spread the Lord's word are prone to imagine too much vice in their fellow men. If my brother Randolph ever experienced a carnal thought, he never expressed it to my memory. In the presence of ladies he was always a courteous gentleman."

Reverend Hord went on to say that he knew that Runnels had shed blood, not only that of the painted savage but also that of white Christian men.

In regard to that statement, Mrs. Marsden recalled, "I know of two white men, strangers and rough-looking, who had the temerity to steal a horse that belonged to my brother. My brother followed them and returned later leading his horse. I heard still later that these two men were found shot dead in the woods. This was never discussed in our family."

"The Lord chooses his own agents from among mankind in his own mysterious way," said Reverend Hord, "even as he did on a street called Straight in Damascus. And it is not for mortal men to gainsay Him or His ways. You are young in years, Randolph Runnels, and your initiation period in this life has been painfully severe--yea, man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward--but the training will be apt and suitable in the end, for the Lord has planned it so."

Reverend Hord dropped to his knees, a hand raised to shield his eyes. "Randolph Runnels, you have been a sinful man and the days of your atonement will be many and full of pain. You will feel the dark wings of death, but fear not. You shall not come to your grave until you are in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in its season. I see you offered a mission in a strange land ... a long journey by water... a great river full of demons and monsters ... a pestilence that walketh in darkness...." Then the vision faded and Jesse Hord rose. "When the mission is offered, Brother Runnels, you must not refuse. To go is the Lord's will."

"From that time onward, my brother was a changed man," said Mrs. Marsden. "He abided under his own vine and fig tree at our family home on the Colorado River, ate his own grapes and drank from his own cistern. The saloons and gambling halls of San Antonio and Austin City knew him not."

For two years Randolph Runnels farmed the family acres and waited. The rifle and handguns, hanging from a peg on the wall by the rock fireplace, were taken down only to shoot game, or when owl hoots at dusk from the dark line of trees along the river held an ominously human quality. The news of the gold discovery in California swept through Texas late in 1849. Many of the settlers boarded up their cabins, packed their families and possessions and headed west. One group of men formed a company to ride to California on horseback, carrying their gear on pack animals. They hoped to reach the diggings fast, get their gold and be back with their families in Texas within a year. A delegation asked Randolph Runnels to lead the party. "He was not even faintly stirred by the proposal," said Mrs. Marsden.

It was not until the Howland and Aspinwall official appeared on his mule with his Isthmus proposal that Runnels stirred himself, packing his belongings for a long journey and kissing the tearful womenfolk goodby.

"And thus our brother left us," said Mrs. Marsden, "never to see his kith and kin nor his old home place again in this life. All at the behest of a stranger, because of a preacher's prophecy. But I know that I shall see him again on the Other Shore, where Mother and Father will dry every tear."

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 Philadlelphia. 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 boarded the Falcon, the veteran of the Panama run. An 891-ton steamer built in 1848, she was a single-decker with a round stern and three masts. She had regular accommodations for 60 first-class passengers and 150 in the steerage, but during Gold Rush days she regularly carried at least 150 in the first-class cabins and 250 below decks, in addition to the crew. "We are crowded in very much like the Army transport to Vera Cruz during the war," Runnels wrote his mother. The main dining saloon of the Falcon was a long, narrow room extending two-thirds the length of the ship. The walls of the dining saloon were lined with the doors of the first-class cabins--tiny, crowded compartments. A long table, with a bench bolted to the deck on each side, ran the length of the dining room. Light and air entered through skylights and ventilators. Between meals the table was always crowded with passengers playing cards or writing letters.

The bulkheads and woodwork, once painted a soft gray, were now stained with greasy spots from lolling heads, and marred with the idle writings of those who had gone on before: names and addresses, humorous sayings and scraps of verse. The unswept deck was filthy with cigar butts, orange rinds and other garbage. The open deck was crowded still further by the pens of livestock. The lack of refrigeration made carrying livestock a necessity to provide the passengers with fresh meat. Stephen H. Branch, a correspondent for the New York Herald traveling to the Isthmus on the Falcon, described them: "Hens, sheep, goats, cattle and pigs--all destined to find their ways into the capacious pots of the galleys." In the early mornings of the voyage the passengers might be awakened by the crowing of roosters, and during the hot, windless days on the tropic sea they became used to the smell from the pens, which added its quality to the odor of coal smoke and unwashed humanity which enveloped the ship.

The nature of Runnels' mission set him apart from the other travelers. Their destination was California, while his was the Isthmus of Panama. They would push on to their dreams of finding golden hoards in California, while he would seek his destiny on the Yankee Strip. We see him, a small calm man, not unhandsome, walking alone and silent through the groups of excited Argonauts burdened with their money bags, miracle gold washers and unfamiliar weapons--a small man with an air of authority, journeying to the Isthmus on a dedicated mission.

Yankee Chagres during its heyday in 1850.

The Falcon could approach to within only two miles of Chagres-a heavy sea was running under black clouds laced with bright tendrils of lightning. Runnels and his fellow passengers, crowded in the pitching longboats, neared the alien shore as thunder rumbled ominously behind the jungle-covered hills. Debarking at the railroad company dock, they went at once to the Irvine House to eat their first meal ashore and try to arrange transport to Panama City. They stared curiously at the crude signs of Yankee Chagres-"Jack of Clubs," "Davy Crockett," "House of All Nations"--the gambling halls, billiard parlors and brothels. Even though it was early in the day, most of the establishments were crowded with customers.

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. This unique company had been formed by Captain Abraham Bunker, until recently shipping-news reporter of the New York Herald. The lifeboats, imported from New York and New Orleans, carried a dozen or more passengers and were easier to handle and offered a faster, more comfortable ride than the bungos.

On his way upriver Runnels saw his first live alligator--an ugly snout full of jagged teeth yawning suddenly from what appeared to be a gray log on the river bank. Truly it resembled one of the "monsters" mentioned in Jesse Hord's prophecy.

At Gorgona Runnels left the boat for the more familiar seat on a mule, "whose back was so narrow and sharp it almost cut up to the chin before the city of Panama was finally gained," Runnels wrote to his mother. 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. "They expended almost as much powder and ball on the ride as Worth's Brigade during the siege of Vera Cruz," Runnels commented.

As darkness fell on the second day after leaving Gorgona, Runnels and his party entered the ancient gate of Panama City, the hoofs of their mules clicking on the cobblestone streets. After turning in the animals at the mule barns of Hurtado y Hermanos, the group scattered to seek lodgings. Runnels went at once to the American Hotel.

Panama City in the 1850s.

The post of United States Consul at Panama City was no sinecure during the Gold Rush period. William A. Nelson, the incumbent, was called upon to hear an endless variety of complaints, charges and countercharges in the controversies arising between passengers and representatives of the steamship and express companies. Nelson wielded power unknown to consuls of modern times. When charges were made by passengers against ship captains or express agents, he instituted inquiries and held hearings. When it was shown that the United States statutes had been violated, Nelson meted out the prescribed punishments. He could, and did on occasions, remove incompetent captains from their commands, levy fines, order mutinous sailors sent home in irons and force ship brokers and passenger agents to provide supplies and services necessary for the health and safety of their passengers.

A rotund, balding man whose countenance was pitted with smallpox scars, Nelson had been a resident of Panama City for years, surviving innumerable bouts with fever and other tropical afflictions. In addition to his official post as U. S. Consul, he was a successful businessman in his own right--a partner in the express firm of Zachrisson and Nelson--and a large landowner. He knew the Isthmus and its people as no other foreign resident. Now, during the stress and confusion brought on by the Gold Rush and the building of the railroad, he was the keystone of the small English-speaking community of the city and next to Governor Aniņo was acknowledged to be the most powerful governmental official on Yankee Strip.

"The American council (sic) at Panama told Randolph of the unholy exploits of the highwaymen and murderers on the Isthmus and gave him a secret commission to punish them by any means whatsoever," reported Mrs. Marsden.

The Isthmus Guard

Runnels' orders were to enter the mule express business on the Isthmus and, while engaged in this "cover" occupation, secretly organize a force to wage war on the criminal element. These orders led to the founding of the vigilante group known to Panama history as the Isthmus Guard. During its brief history it injected a form of legalistic terror into life on the Isthmus--a terror directed mainly against the group known as the Derienni.

New express companies entered the field almost daily, so the appearance of another one did not excite curiosity. Small advertisements began appearing in the Isthmus newspapers: "Runnels Express Service. Panama-Gorgona or Ocean-to-Ocean. Prompt. R. Runnels, Prop."

Success in the express business on the Yankee Strip lay in obtaining pack animals. Mules were so scarce they were almost worth their weight in gold. Runnels, it appeared, had a gift for finding them. Soon his barns in Panama City and Gorgona were full of the snorting, cantankerous animals. Unknown to the general public, each major express carrier had donated animals to put him in business.

The Runnels Express Service, "Panama-Gorgona or Ocean-to-Ocean," was now operating. Approximately 40 of the employees of :this company were sworn into the secret organization called the Isthmus Guard. This was an era when secret organizations were widespread among American men. They were fascinated by "lodges" with cabalistic oaths and secret rituals, especially those dedicated to exacting violent retribution from evil-doers.

Runnels' men were a mixed crew of Yankees, Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans and other individuals whose true nationality was difficult to classify. Fluent in "border" Spanish, Runnels had no difficulty in communicating with them. 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.

Because the actions of the bandits were so flagrant, identifying them was not difficult for people conversant in Spanish and the ways of the Isthmus. In his office behind his mule barn in Panama City, Runnels received messages from his agents and wrote down names and descriptions in a big black ledger which he kept locked in his safe. In this book he was compiling a secret list of individuals regularly engaged in violent crime on the Strip.

Meanwhile the robberies went unchecked. Guns would bark in the 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 wheeled in the skies above the green jungle, marking the endings of these little dramas.

Runnels spent most of his days and evenings gambling with local businessmen at the La Vista Hotel--a known Derienni hangout in Panama City--and racing his fleet, blooded horses at the Juan France race track.

Strike Soon!

The highwaymen harassed the gold trains with such impunity that several of the large shippers spoke seriously of transferring their business to the Transit Route where Commodore Vanderbilt promised to hire units of the Nicaraguan army as guards.

Consul Nelson sent Runnels a two-word, unsigned message. "Strike soon," the message said.

There was a night early in 1852 when the horse stalls of the Runnels Express Service all were empty. From ocean to ocean during that night, in Cruces, Gorgona, and Panama City, men were arrested in saloons, gambling houses, brothels and imposing residences. Their captors were masked and made no explanation for their actions.

The Isthmus Guard hanged the entire group -37 in all--on the inner side of the sea wall known as the East Battery, where the Argonauts liked to stroll.

Next morning crowds gathered to stare at the dangling bodies. Monroe Polter, a lawyer from New York en route to California who witnessed the spectacle that morning, reported: "It seemed to be a democratic hanging, as all races on the Isthmus were represented." Certainly the Guard had not drawn class lines. The bodies of several wealthy and prominent businessmen dangled in the breeze alongside those of highwaymen.

Hugo Elfenbein, another traveler, reported in a letter to his wife in Boston: "It is said to be the work of a local vigilance committee headed by a Texan named Runnells (sic). No explanations are offered, and I hasten to say, no questions have been asked. Silently the citizens survey the appalling spectacle and then go on about their business."

That the executions were evidence of divine retribution was the opinion of many of the American onlookers. "The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire," wrote one. "This is an omen of the wrath to come."

Years later, Charity Marsden commented upon the affair as it related to the character of her brother. "Before enlisting in the good cause of Christianity, my brother went about like Goliath of Gath, full of heaven-defying wickedness, to defy the hosts of God's conquering army. He suffered a similar defeat. After his conversion, like Saul of Tarsus, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter and made havoc."

Runnels' havoc on the Isthmus, however, brought sudden peace. Most of the ringleaders of the Derienni had been eliminated at one stroke. The trails grew quiet. The gold trains traveled through the steamy jungle undisturbed by any noise except the chattering of the monkeys and the raucous voices of the parrots.

The employees of Runnels Express Service carried their share of freight and in their spare time still frequented the bars and gambling halls of the Isthmus. Standing on the docks at Panama City and Yankee Chagres, they scrutinized new arrivals closely. Occasionally they selected names from passenger manifests and reported them to Runnels for marking down in his big ledger.

William Nelson and the other businessmen on the Strip were confident that the mainspring of crime on the Isthmus had been broken. The Wells Fargo agent wrote his New York office expressing this view and gave himself a light pat on the back by saying this benign situation had been brought about by "instituting actions in which your obedient servant played a part."

Runnels was not so optimistic about the future. "There are at least fifty men still at large on the Isthmus who have engaged in murder and banditry in the past," he wrote Consul Nelson, "and there is no reason to believe they will not do so again because a leopard does not change his spots nor a tiger his stripes."

Runnels spent most of his time on the Pacific side of the Isthmus, but his men continued their survellance of ships arriving at Manzanillo, ever on the alert for leopards and tigers who were hiding their spots and stripes. His mass hanging of the 37 evil-doers on the sea wall at Panama City in the spring of 1852 had, it seemed, paralyzed the activities of the Derienni. The summer had brought the cholera epidemic, a democratic affliction wreaking its toll on the criminal and law-abiding population equally. Many travelers died on the Isthmus trails that summer, but not because of the Derienni. The pack trains, guarded only by scanty crews, made the crossing without armed interference and even single travelers could walk the entire way unscathed, if they successfully eluded the cholera.

Then, slowly and insidiously, with the return of the healthier dry season, banditry and murder began again. At first only the single traveler or the pack train straggler on lonely stretches of the trail had to be wary, 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. During the fall of 1852 a Group of bandits stormed into a crowded barroom in Gorgona, robbed the gambling tables, and withdrew under a covering fusillade of shots which left four patrons sprawled dead on the floor.

Henry Tracy, the Wells Fargo agent in Panama City, a gloomy oracle in criminal matters, wrote to his home office, "It seems that more bloodshed and funerals is in the offing for your humble obedient servant on the Isthmus. Please send me by urgent express four (4) additional buck shot guns, with ample powder and ball for same."

The Copeland Execution

In October of 1852 John McGlynn, a paymaster for the Panama Railroad Company, was attacked as he walked along the tracks near Bohio Soldado and robbed of a section gang payroll amounting to $300. Wounded seriously, McClynn was left to die, but before expiring he revealed the identity of his assailant, a recent arrival on the Strip from Cincinnati named Timothy Copeland. This attack on a railroad employee on company property called for immediate action. After a conference in the chambers of Consul Nelson, Runnels was dispatched to apprehend and punish Copeland, "In a manner," said Nelson, "calculated to be the most immediate, effective and exemplary that you can devise to insure that this flagrant attack on a railroad employee not be repeated."

On his arrival in Aspinwall, Runnels learned more information derogatory to Copeland's character and conduct. Just after the robbery of McGlynn Copeland had appeared at the Maison del Vieux Carre, a house of prostitution. The Maison, which specialized in French girls, was the most expensive house in Aspinwall. Copeland had displayed a large roll of currency and offered to pay a young prostitute $50 for her company that evening. The girl accepted the money and led him upstairs to her chamber. Next morning she was found strangled in her bed. The $50 was gone, as well as her savings and some jewelry from under the mattress. No one had seen the girl or Copeland come downstairs again after they had gone up together. The window of the room was open, and foot tracks below showed that someone had dropped to the ground. Copeland, described as "a tall mall 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. He claimed to have ridden with the highwayman Murrell on the Natchez Trace and openly bragged of the number of men he had killed. On hearing that there was some talk of lynching him for the murder of the girl, Copeland had reacted by brandishing an evil-looking dirk and challenging anyone to try. This brought much applause and adulation in the Bottle Alley saloons where such as he had many admirers.

Runnels and two members of his Isthmus Guard found Copeland in one of these same saloons. The three were carrying blunt, double-barreled buckshot guns. Most of the patrons scrambled for exits. The buckshot guns, the size of small cannons, could sweep the room clean of practically everybody.

Copeland is supposed to have asked 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. Copeland protested, but Runnels was adamant. 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--a diamond ring and "an ormolu bracelet set with small green stones"-was identified as having been the property of the girl.

Copeland, still wearing the cloak of bravado, again asked Runnels, "in a tone both bold and insolent," according to the newspaper account, what Runnels was going to do with him.

Runnels answered, "I'm going to hang you."

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

"He had decided that to be a living dog was better than a dead lion," Runnels wrote, according to his sister. "But his crimes were too grievous for him to he allowed mercy."

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, which 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. "Captain Runnels then told me what the man had done," reported Cranston in his journal. "Captain Runnels displayed a small canvas bag which had been in Paymaster McGlynn's possession when he was shot, and some pieces of jewelry, formerly the property of the murdered harlot. These, Captain Runnels said, he had found in the pockets of Timothy Copeland. I knew from this evidence that the wretched prisoner was guilty and that it was useless to plead for mercy for him."

After his conversation with Cranston, Runnels grasped the lever which operated the steam engine.

"I have stood upon Gallows Hill and have seen my share of the spectacles there," wrote Reverend Cranston. "I can truthfully say that I have never seen an execution conducted in such a bizarre and extended manner. The man, Copeland, hoisted slowly into the air, was in truth strangled to death by a puffing steam engine! Such is the progress of man that machinery can now be made to perform this grim but necessary work. They had not tied his ankles together and, indeed, he danced a grisly fandango."

The Reverend Cranston was as appalled by the ferocity of the crowd as by the sufferings of the condemned man. "They, who had broken bread with him, who had sipped of the evil cup with him, who had been his friends and admirers, they all now vied with each other in howling with laughter at the terrible plight of his death struggles. Never have I seen the Devil in such absolute control of a group of civilized men. Yea, it is a blessing that our days on this earth are as a shadow, and that the true meaning of the life of Man lies in Eternity, after he has been judged by God."

Departing from the scene of execution, Reverend Cranston made his way to Barbacoas by train, and then to Panama City by bungo and mule. He arrived feeling feverish, listless and dejected in spirit. Rather than stroll the sea wall with other sober-minded travelers, he chose to lie all day on his cot in the crowded hotel room, staring at the ceiling, his Bible clutched to his chest.

When his ship finally arrived, his companions could not prevail upon him to stir from the bed, gather his belongings and board the ship. They had to leave him in the American hospital in Panama City. In the hospital Cranston ate barely enough to stay alive and refused even to speak or look after himself. His frame became emaciated and his beard grew long and tangled. One night he disappeared from the hospital, barefooted and wrapped in a blanket, leaving all his earthly possessions behind except his Bible. It was a relief to be rid of him because his hospital bed was badly needed. A clerk from the consul's office collected Cranston's belongings and placed them in storage.

Several days later travelers found what was left of his body on the Gorgona trail, a few miles from Panama City. His Bible and a crude cross fashioned from tree branches lay on the ground beside him. No one knew where he intended going when he left the hospital. Perhaps, wrapped in a ragged blanket, bearded like a patriarch and carrying his cross, he had been seeking his Redeemer in the wilderness.

When the consular clerk packed Cranston's belongings to send back to relatives in Rhode Island, he noticed that the last rational notation in the clergyman's journal had been written just after viewing the execution of Timothy Copeland. The event seems to have unhinged him. The sins of mortal men, too enormous for Isaiah Cranston, had hastened him into eternity.

The Hangman

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 the company stables again were empty and there were hoofbeats, snorting horses and the creak of saddle leather on the trails. 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. Among them were five named as the murderers of the seven Californians. 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 as a work of civic merit and even as a manifestation of the Monroe Doctrine. "We have said before and we say again that the sooner the Isthmus becomes completely Yankeeized, the better it will be for everyone," said the newspaper. "We rise to say that if the work of Mr. Runnels is allowed to continue, and bear its deadly fruit--if we may assay a bit of grim humor--we may soon see the dawn of a new era when the rights of God-fearing, law-abiding, civilized citizens will be fully protected according to the principles laid down by the late President Monroe."

The native-born Panamanians were not quite so enthusiastic. As Runnels rode by, they avoided his gaze and kept their distance. "El Verdugo," they called him - "The Hangman."

Totten Jailed!

Construction work on the Cruces road bred some of the first labor unrest on the Isthmus. Totten paid the road laborers a regular wage of 80 cents a day, and promised a bonus of 40 cents a day extra to every laborer who would sign up to work on railroad construction after the highway work was finished. The alcalde at Cruces, whose name does not survive in any known record, decided to exploit the situation for personal gain. He told the work crew that if 150 of them would give him a dollar apiece, he would use his official authority to force the railroad company to pay them $1.20 a day starting at once, regardless of whether they chose to stay on with railroad after the highway work was finished. The workers agreed, took up a collection, and presented the $150. A few days later, when Totten appeared in Cruces to inspect the repair project, he was arrested by local soldiers on order of the alcalde, manacled and hustled through the streets to the jail. The alcalde sent word to railroad headquarters on Manzanillo that Totten would be released when the pay raise was forthcoming.

Shortly before noon on the second day of Totten's confinement, the hoofbeats of a dozen heavily armed riders clattered across the plaza in Cruces. The sweating horses had obviously been ridden hard. Randolph Runnels had heard of the affair in Panama early that morning and had come at once. He reined in his mount at the construction foreman's shack and looked over the idle group of workers. Runnels said quietly, "You men have sixty seconds to get back to work." There was a sudden, energetic movement for picks and shovels. Arming himself with a 20-pound sledgehammer, Runnels headed for the jail. A jingle of spurs sounded as he strode across the damp stone floor to the barred door, and then came a violent crash of steel against iron as he smashed the lock with the sledgehammer. While this was going on, the barefoot soldiers stood in the street under the drawn guns of the riders.

On Runnels' command two of the riders went to the alcalde's home, found him cowering under a bed and dragged him, kicking and struggling, through the dusty street to the whipping post in the plaza. There he was triced up by the wrists and his shirt torn off. Runnels gave him twenty lashes with a drover's whip, the blows sounding out solidly, followed by grunting screams of pain.

After the beating, Runnels left the official hanging on the post and wrote a message in both Spanish and English on a piece of paper which he nailed up in a public place. "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." The notice was signed with a flourish, "R. Runnels." Then with Totten bobbing uncomfortably in the saddle of one of the horses, the group rode out of town. That ended the labor dispute at Cruces, but work on the road had been delayed two days.

The Watermelon War

The completion of the Panama Railroad caused some unpleasant economic effects on the Isthmus, especially among the poverty-ridden native-born residents. Most of those formerly employed as guides, muleteers and boatmen were thrown out of work. This encouraged internal disorder. Riots, generally directed against the Yankees, broke out on occasions. Of course, there had been anti-Yankee riots long before the railroad line was finished. The first one occurred as early as May of 1850 when the road was barely begun. A Negro boy on the street in Panama City snatched an American's wallet and fled through the crowd. After a hot chase the American and his companions caught the boy, retrieved the wallet, and gave the boy a thrashing. A mob of angry pedestrians gathered and a riot ensued. Two Americans and several Negroes were killed. This was probably the worst riot on the Strip until April 15, 1856.

On that morning nearly a thousand passengers disembarked from the U. S. Mail steamer Illinois at Aspinwall to make the train connection with the Pacific Mail Steamer John L. Stephens at Panama City. It was a clear, beautiful day and the passengers were happy to be on dry land again, even briefly. While waiting to board the train, they strolled through the Mingillo, the native market place near the rear of the freight house, where half-naked vendors sold fish, cassava, bananas, plantains and steaming bowls of the fragrant sancoche, a native stew. Everyone was in good spirits as they boarded the train, although several men in the group were unusually boisterous, having purchased bottles of whiskey and brandy. One of these was a loud-voiced American named Jack Oliver.

The ride, lasting almost five hours, was pleasant. The train stopped briefly at several stations to pick up passengers, and at Matachin pulled off on a sidetrack to allow an oncoming train to pass. They arrived at the railroad station on the Panama City water front about 7 p.m. where the steam tender Taboga, one of the several 100-ton steam tenders recently put into service, waited to carry them out to the John L. Stephens. Since the tide was out, the tender was not scheduled to depart until 11 p.m., so loading the craft with passengers and freight proceeded at a leisurely pace. At 8 p.m., over 50 passengers, including women and children, were aboard the Taboga, while 50 yards away that many more were lined up in front of the ticket window in the railroad station waiting to have their tickets stamped.

Down the street about a block from the railroad station Jack Oliver, now riotously drunk, snatched a slice of watermelon from a Negro peddler and refused to pay the requested price of ten cents. Oliver staggered on his way with his companions, eating the melon and continuing to ignore the demands of the peddler. The peddler then drew a large knife and waved it in a threatening manner. One of Oliver's companions contemptuously tossed the peddler a dime and told him to go on about his business. Infuriated, the Negro continued cursing and threatening and waving his knife. Oliver drew a pistol and pointed it drunkenly at the peddler as his companions scattered. Another Negro grappled with Oliver, taking the pistol away from him. In the altercation the pistol was discharged, wounding a bystander in the crowd.

Other shots broke out as a large mob of Negroes charged into the hotels, kicking in doors, breaking lamps and furniture, and attacking the whites.

On observing the outbreak from the deck of the Taboga, Captain McLane sent an urgent message to Colonel Garrido, the chief of police, that he was afraid the mob was about to attack the railroad station. Captain McLane loaded and fused a small cannon aboard the Taboga and several of the passengers drew revolvers. When the squad of police arrived, they went aboard the Taboga at once and confiscated the cannon and the pistols of the passengers. On seeing the Americans disarmed, the native mob attacked the railroad station.

At the time there were 3,000 Americans in the town bound for California and several hundred more eastbound, having just disembarked from the steamer Golden Gate in Panama harbor. During the next few hours many were beaten, their hotel rooms looted, and several were killed. A large group took refuge in the railroad depot, a brick building with heavy doors which made it easier to defend than many of the other buildings. They barred the doors, barricaded the windows and prepared for attack. Joseph Stokes, the freight agent, sent an urgent telegraph message to Cruces for help. Randolph Runnels was known to be at Cruces with several members of the Isthmus Guard.

After completely disarming the Americans aboard the Taboga, Colonel Garrido led his constabulary force toward the railroad depot with bayonets fixed, apparently to disperse the mob besieging the building. There was a hot battle in progress. Armed members of the mob were peppering the building with rifle fire and the Americans inside were shooting back. When the mob parted to allow the soldiers to go through, gunfire from the railroad station killed one of the soldiers. At this point, according to the subsequent official U. S. report of the affair, "the police joined the people and began firing on the Depot."

Attack on Yankee passengers in the Panama Railroad Station during the Watermelon War,
April 15,1856.

Encouraged by the action of the uniformed troops, a large section of the population began an insurrection. Mobs ransacked the city for arms with which to kill the hated Yankees. Finding the military arsenal locked and barred, one group rushed to the Governor's Palace and seized Governor Aniņo, threatening him with death if he did not turn over the arsenal keys. The governor, in the official U. S. report, said his words at the time of peril had been--"I know that you would murder me. I know that you have long wished for a chance to do so. But listen, all of you: before I would issue arms for any purpose except to disperse this infamous mob, I would suffer myself to be torn limb from limb."

The mob released the governor without obtaining the keys and resumed the attack on the railroad station.

The situation inside the station was becoming desperate. The howling mob beat on the brick walls with clubs and spears and fired rifles and pistols through the crevices of the barred windows. Then Stokes, the freight agent, and Robert Marks, the depot watchman, utilized the only heavy weapon they had, a rusty mortar from the old Spanish days which had been kept as a historical relic in the waiting room. They loaded this antique with black powder, bolts and rivets, and trained the muzzle on the main door of the building. Outside, the mob had appropriated a mahogany telephone pole which they were using as a battering ram, smashing the barred door with great blows. When the door seemed about to burst from its hinges, most of the Americans retreated up the staircase to the second story, and the two railroaders lit the mortar fuse.

As the station door crashed inward, there was a terrific blast, killing one of the attackers and wounding several more, but the mob poured into the building. They fought their way into the telegraph room, killing Stokes and Marks, and then dragged several men and women from hiding places under desks and in closets whom they also killed. When the mob tried to rush the stairs, they were met with such a deadly fire that they were forced to withdraw. Retreating outside the building, they cut the telegraph wires to silence the chattering key, and brought a barrel of whale oil from the dock to set fire to the stairway. But the telegraph had done its work.

The incendiary endeavors on the stairs were interrupted by the sudden piercing shriek of the whistle of an approaching locomotive. It pulled a string of gondola cars loaded with armed railroad workers from Cruces, led by the white-hatted Ran Runnels. Attacked from the rear by this force, the mob took refuge inside the depot, where its members began to be harassed by gunfire from outside and the floor above. Fearing for the lives of the besieged Americans on the second floor, Runnels called out in Spanish for those who wished to surrender to lay down their weapons and come out with their hands over their heads. The rioters inside the building, recognizing the voice of El Verdugo, the Hangman, hastily complied, but in the confusion most of them escaped into the sympathetic throng of bystanders, and disappeared. Only a handful were taken into custody.

Amos B. Corwine, a U. S. citizen residing on the Isthmus who had experienced the horror of the rioting and observed the scene in the railroad depot shortly after fighting ceased, was appointed to make the official U. S. investigation of the affair. "In examining the railroad office afterward," he wrote, "a horrid sight presented itself, many dead and wounded, horribly mutilated lay about; the floor was covered with blood, all of the furniture, books, papers, etc. of the company were destroyed ... the telegraph wires cut and an attempt was made to fire the Depot, but ... it did not succeed ... 15 lives were known to be lost, all passengers except two. ..."

A week later Governor Aniņo made an official report listing the dead as 15 Americans and two natives, and the wounded as 16 Americans and 13 natives. He denied that the police had taken sides with the rioters and maintained that the Americans inside the railroad station had been heavily armed and had fired indiscriminately at everyone outside the building, military or civilian.

Corwine's report contradicted the governor. "All of the arms in the office were a double-barreled gun, a pair of pistols, a sabre, and 14 old flintlock muskets, which were given out and loaded. An old cannon belonging to the company was dug out of the sand and loaded with rivets, but all who had authority gave positive orders it was not to be fired unless an advance was made by the mob. In the meantime most of the persons inside the station sheltered themselves as well as possible from the bullets that now flew about fast.... No attempt was made by the police to restrain the mob; but on the contrary, they joined the mob and began firing on the Depot." To explain why other Americans had not come to the aid of their beleaguered fellow countrymen in the railroad station, Corwine said, "Colonel Garrido had sent a force aboard the Taboga, disarmed the passengers and taken the ship's gun. ..."

Corwine insisted that "the dispute relative to the slice of watermelon was seized upon as a pretext by the colored population to assault the Americans and plunder their property ... but the assault on the railroad station was deliberately planned by the Police and mob."

Corwine's report stated that the animosity of the Panamanian population had been stirred because of widespread unemployment, caused by completion of the railroad construction work and the replacement of native rowboat service in the harbor of Panama by the Taboga and other steam launches, but that it did not justify the riot. The Corwine report ended with these words, "The Government of New Granada is unable to enforce order and afford adequate protection to the transit.... I recommend the immediate occupation of the Isthmus, from Ocean to Ocean, by the United States, unless New Granada can satisfy us as to her ability and inclination to afford proper protection and make speedy and ample atonement."

This report, issued in Washington in July of 1856, three months after the riot, caused a strong wave of public resentment against New Granada. President Polk had forcibly restated the Monroe Doctrine in 1845, and since then militant forces in the United States had used the Doctrine to justify all sorts of military adventures in Central America. Public opinion, whipped to a high pitch of excitement by heated newspaper editorials, demanded an invasion of Panama if retribution was not made immediately. Two small U. S. Navy warships, Independence and St. Mary's, were ordered to Panama City. They arrived in the harbor on September 19, 1856, six months after the Watermelon War--as the riot was called--had occurred. An armed military detachment under the command of Commander William Mervine landed and occupied the railroad station. By then the population had lapsed again into its usual sullen lethargy. All was quiet. The force occupied the station for three days and then returned to the ships. Not a shot was fired. This was the first official armed intervention on the Isthmus by the U. S. The Secretary of State justified the action under the Treaty of 1846 between the U. S. and New Granada, which said in part that the U. S. would guarantee the neutrality of the Isthmus only if "the free transit from one to the other sea is not interrupted or embarrassed."

President Franklin Pierce, after having made the token occupation of the railroad station, sent James B. Bowlin, the U. S. Minister to New Granada, and Isaac Morse to Bogota as plenipotentiaries to demand indemnity. Heated discussions were held during February of 1857. The New Granadan government produced several foreign witnesses to the riot--other than Americans--who refuted the Corwine report by testifying that the Americans had been the aggressors, not the native population.

Ignoring the testimony of these foreigners, the U. S. plenipotentiaries made the following demands:

1. Panama City and Colon would be free cities under New Granada sovereignty and would jointly control a 20-mile-wide belt stretching from sea to sea, using the railroad right of way as the center line.

2. New Granada would cede to the U.S. the islands in Panama Bay for use of naval installations.

3. New Granada would transfer its rights in the Panama Railroad to the U.S.

4. New Granada would pay full damages for loss of life and destruction of property in the riot.

5. When the above conditions were fulfilled, the U.S. would pay New Granada $2,000,000.

New Granada rejected all the demands. The U.S. finally gave up its attempts to gain control of the railroad, but insisted on the payment of damages. Finally, in 1860, after years of recriminations, and haggling, New Granada paid $412,394; but the payment was a source of continuing bitterness.

From the excellent book: "Rails Across Panama" - by Joseph L. Schott
Related story: A Panama Riot



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