Reprise: Ran Runnels, The Hangman of Panama

They’re still trying to figure out if Randolph Runnels really was a Texas Ranger before he was hired by the builders of the first transcontinental railroad (forty-seven miles across the Isthmus of Panama connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific) to solve a nasty bandido problem.

Runnels didn’t fit the physical image of a Ranger, according to historian David McCullough in his 1992 book Brave Companions, but he acted the myth well enough: he hanged seventy-eight men in two separate incidents in 1852 and, lo and behold, the banditry stopped. The Texas Rangers Association apparently has no record of Ran’s Ranger service, but their records admittedly aren’t complete.

But at least one railroad historian found sources crediting the Ranger tale, and there was a Runnels who had to do with the Rangers in the 1850s, Texas Gov. Hardin Runnels who took office in 1858. He was a champion of the Indian-fighting Rangers and he may have been Randolph’s brother.

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