The Isthmian Guard

After gold was discovered in California, a large number of the gold seekers, traveled to California's gold fields, via the Isthmus of Panama. The Forty-niners, or Argonauts, as they were called, would sail from the east coast of the United States to Nueva Granada (Panama). They would cross the Isthmus, and than sail from Panama to the San Francisco and then the gold fields. There was also a flow of people that had already found their gold, and were on the way back to the East Coast. 

From 1849 to sometime in 1851, those going to California, would land at the mouth of the Chagres River, at a community called Yankee Chagres. Yankee Chagres was an out growth of the old Spanish town of Chagres, which was the Caribbean Terminus of the Cruces Trail, the Spanish Treasure Road. It was made up of cheap hotels, bars, gambling halls, brothels, and transport companies. Its population was made up of those that had legitimate jobs, in those industries and prostitutes and a large assortment of highway men, robbers, cutthroats, thieves and killers. The collection of criminals could also be found on both sides of the Isthmus, and all points between. They tended to aggregate at the terminal ports, so that they could scout the passengers for potential marks. 

The Argonauts traveling Panama route, across the Isthmus on what was called the Yankee Strip (this was a 10 mile wide strip, about 50 miles from Caribbean to Pacific), had to contend with the elements (heat, high humidity, insects, mosquitoes, alligators, snakes, etc.), diseases (malaria, yellow fever, cholera epidemics, dysentery) and the highwaymen and cutthroats. 

The situation in Panama had gotten so bad, that the newspapers on the east coast were beginning to warn people of the hazards associated with the Panama Route, and some travelers were beginning to us the Nicaragua Route, where Vanderbilt was establishing a transport company, to carry passengers across the Isthmus of Nicaragua. 

The merchants in Panama were becoming fearful of their loss of business, if the flow of travelers shifted north to Nicaragua. The citizens banded together with the newly created, Howland and Aspinwall Company, that was starting to build a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. They all agreed that something had to be done to control the lawlessness that was running rampant on the Isthmus. They knew that the government of Nueva Granada, was not going to help, and had no interest in reinforcing the police force in Panama. In light of the situation, it was decided that they would hire an experienced lawman to come to Panama, organize and administer a group of vigilante lawmen, that would be called, the Isthmus Guard.

In the Fall of 1850, a representative of the Howland and Aspinwall Company went to San Antonio, Texas, with the purpose of recruiting Randolph Runnels for an important mission on the Isthmus of Panama. Randolph, called Ran, was a man with much experience. During the 1840's we was a Texas Ranger, that fought the Comanche. During the Mexican War, he was with the Rangers when they at Vera Cruz. When visited by the Howland and Aspinwall Company official, he was retired as a lawman and was farming the family homestead.

In 1851, Randolph Runnels sailed from New Orleans to Chagres, on the steamer, Falcon. This was a single deck with three masts. When he arrived in Chagres, he went up river by boat, to the town of Gorgona. From Gorgona, he went by mule, across the jungle to the city of Panama. While the group of passengers with him, were riding the Gorgona Trail, they were afraid that they would be attacked by highway men. They were all armed, and continuously firing into the jungles, just to warn anybody with intensions of attacking, that they were armed and prepared.

In Panama City, Runnels met with the United States Consul, William A. Nelson,  who gave him his secret instructions which included the commission to punish the highwaymen and murderers, that preyed on the travelers, by any means whatsoever. He was instructed to go into the express business and secretly organize a force to wage way on the criminal element. This group was called the Isthmus (or Isthmian) Guard, and was made up of a collection of Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Yankees, and others whose nationality was unknown.

Randolph Runnels
The Runnels Express Service, was up and running in a short period of time, and his employees job, besides the normal operation of an express service, included hanging around the cantinas and parks in Panama, Gorgona, Cruces and Yankee Chagres. keeping their ears peeled, and identifying the know criminal element in the area. This information was sent to Runnels, who logged it into a large back ledger, which he kept locked up in his safe, at the Express Service. The ledger, contained the list of the most dangerous criminals on the strip, and the gangs, the most violent and flagrant being called the Derienni's. Runnels, himself, spent his evenings gambling with the local business men at the La Vista Hotel and racing his horses. All along, the robberies were going on, and the Derienni would massacred boatloads of travelers on the Chagres River.

The United States consul, finally instructed Runnels, to strike. One night, during the Spring of 1852, the Isthmus Guard rounded up 37 of the criminals in the local cantinas, gambling halls, brothels and private homes. Those arrested included several wealthy and prominent businessmen. It also included citizens of many countries, including Panama and United States. They were all 37 were hanged on the inner side of the sea wall, known as the East Battery. Most of the ringleaders of the Derienni, were eliminated with this mass hanging. The next morning, the populace was able to see the bodies, and most were quite happy to see that the criminal element on the Yankee Strip, had met its end. Most believed that the criminals were all gone, and crime was gone for ever, in the Strip. After this event, the crime dropped off because those criminals that had escaped the mass execution, became so scared, that they behaved. Runnels wrote the wrote the US Consul Nelson, that there were still about 50 criminals still at large on the Isthmus, and that he believed that they would soon be back to practicing their old trade. He wrote "..there is no reason to believe they will not do so again because a leopard does not change his spots and a tiger his stripes.

During the Summer of 1852, a cholera epidemic struck the area, and was responsible for most of the deaths on the Yankee Strip. When the weather turned for the better, with the dry season, the criminal element, forgot about the mass hanging, and started up with their old habits.

In October, 1852, a paymaster for the Panama Railroad Company, was robbed and shot. Before he died, he was able to name his attacker. He identified his assailant as Timothy Copeland, a new arrival, originating from Cincinnati. Consul Nelson, dispatched Runnels and the Isthmus Guard, to take care of the situation.

Timothy Copeland, was in the new community of Aspinwall, and was now involved in another crime. When he arrived in Aspinwall, he went to a brothel, called Maison del Vieus Carre that specialized in French girls. He displayed a large roll of money, and hired a young girl, for $50.00, and went upstairs to her room. The next morning, she was found strangled in her room, and all of her money and jewelry were gone. After killing her, Copeland was on the streets, drinking and telling how he had ridden with a highway man victimizing the Natchez Trace in the US, and about how many men he had killed.

Runnels, with two of his men, captured Copeland in one of the bars. They were armed with sawed off, double-barreled buckshot guns, and the patrons scrambled when they walked in. Copeland was found with the jewelry from the dead prostitute (a diamond ring, an ormolu bracelet set with small green stones) in his pockets. At the brothel, the jewelry was identified has belonging to the murdered girl.

Copeland was then taken to the railroad wharfs, where a noose was tied around his neck, and the other end to steam crane. Runnels personally operated the crane, and Copeland hanged him by slowly hoisted him in the air.

Shortly after Copeland's execution, seven miners returning from the gold fields in California, were murdered and robbed, on the Cruces Trail. The Isthmus Guard and Runnels was called into a meeting, where the decision was made to avenge the miners. Runnels pulled out his black ledger, and everybody was given the names of those they had to get and another mass roundup was in progress.

The next morning, 41 bodies were found, hanged by the neck, by the sea wall in Panama city. Among them were five, named as responsible for the miners death. In this roundup, were no prominent individuals in group, since they had already been dispatched in the first mass hanging. Again, the merchants and business men were very happy with the elimination of more criminals. The local, native born Panamanians, were not as please, and they avoided Runnels, when possible, calling him "El Verdugo" (The Hangman).

The next time the Isthmus Guard was called upon to act, was when Col George W. Totten, Chief Engineer of the Panama Railroad Company, was jailed in Cruces. Totten had reached an agreement with the laborers on how much they were to be paid. The base wage was 80 cents per day, and a bonus of another 40 cents per day, for every labor who would sign a contract, that once the railroad was finished, they would continue to work for the company. The Alcalde of Cruces, came upon a plan to enrich his pockets, and meddle in railroad affairs. He proposed to the workers, that if they gave him $150.00, we would make the railroad pay them the $1.20 per day, without the laborers signing a contract to remain with the company, after the completion of the work.

Once the laborers had gathered the $150.00, he proceeded to put his plan to work. The next time that Totten passed through Cruces, he was arrested by local soldiers and put in jail. The Alcalde then sent word to Aspinwall, where the headquarters of the Panama Railroad Company was located, that once they started paying their laborers the $1.20 a day, the would release Totten from jail.

The following morning after hearing what had happened, Runnels and the Isthmus Guard charged into Cruces, after a hard ride. Runnels sent two of this men to pick up the Alcalde, while he ordered the laborers to get to work, immediately, or else. The laborers, quickly picked up there tools, and went to work. Runnels proceeded to the jail, and broke the lock to Totten's cell, with a sledgehammer, and released Totten. The soldiers that the Alcalde had protecting the jail, put down their rifles, when they were confronted with the Isthmus Guards, aiming all their guns on them. They were not about to be killed, for the Alcalde's folly.

When the men he sent after the Alcalde returned dragging him, kicking and struggling to the town square, he was tied up by the wrists. His shirt was torn off, and Runnels gave him twenty lashes with a whip. The Alcalde screamed in pain, from the lashing, and was then left tied up, hanging from a post. Runnels posted a sign, both in English and Spanish, stating that the man had been punished for interfering in the peaceful business of the construction of the railroad. That the next time the Alcalde or anyone else, interfered, they would be hanged. They then rode back to Panama with Totten on horseback.

On March 1, 1855, the Government of Nueva Granada, was finally able to protect the property and lives of the merchants and travelers on the Isthmus. Due to this, the Isthmian Guard was disbanded. Runnels kept his express company, and did not leave Panamá. We know that he was still doing business with the Panama Railroad Company, in 1856.

The last time Randolph Runnels was call to intervene in a major event, was during the Watermelon War of April 15, 1856. This occurred when a very arrogant Yankee, by the Jack Oliver, who was passing through, became involved in an incident. In Panama City, Jack Oliver, very dunk at the time, grabbed a slice of watermelon from a peddler and refused to pay for it. The peddler, pulled a knife, Oliver then pulled his pistol.. A bystander struggled with Oliver for the gun, it fired, wounding a bystander. All hell broke loose, and there was a riot, assaulting and robbing all foreigners. Some passenger barricaded themselves in the railroad station. The mod succeeded in breaking down the door and killed a couple of railroad employees, and rushed the second floor, where many passengers had barricaded themselves.

A train arrived in the terminal, loaded with armed railroad men, led Runnels. When the mob realized that El Verdugo had arrived with an army, and they were caught in a cross fire, they panicked. When Runnels issued orders to the rioters, to put down their arm, they did so. In the confusion, most of the rioters got away, but the riot was over. The death toll in this riot, later referred to as the Watermelon War, according the Governor Aniño, was 15 US citizens and 2 Panamanians. There were 16 US citizens wounded and 13 Panamanians. 

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January 29, 2002