Book review: ‘Cult of Glory’ corrects the record about the Texas Rangers

From a former investigative reporter, comes a long-overdue corrective to one of the most storied and brutal law enforcement agencies in U.S. The Texas Rangers, writes Doug J. Swanson, 'were the violent instruments of repression.'


When Walter Prescott Webb’s “The Texas Rangers: A Century of Frontier Defense” was published in 1935, J. Frank Dobie called the history “the beginning, middle, and end of the subject.” A review in the New York Times said it was “a bit on the patriotic side, perhaps, but far and away the best work of its sort ever to come out of Texas.”

Doug J. Swanson, a former investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News, begs to differ. In “Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers,” Swanson describes the history of the Rangers as follows:

“They were the violent instruments of repression. They burned peasant villages and slaughtered innocents. They committed war crimes. Their murders of Mexicans and Mexican Americans made them as feared on the border as the Ku Klux Klan in the Deep South. They hunted runways slaves for bounty. They violated international law with impunity. They sometimes moved through Texas towns like a rampaging gang of thugs. They conspired to quash the civil rights of black citizens. … They enforced racial segregation. … Then served the interests of the moneyed and powerful while oppressing the poor and disenfranchised. They have been the army of Texas’s ruling class.”

And if you think that sounds a bit harsh, then you should know that Swanson is just getting started. That quote comes from pages 4 and 5. And for the next 400 pages, Swanson goes into gory details, chronologically, with periodic detours to punch holes in the myths of various Rangers who have been gloried by movies and television.

The first targets of the Rangers, of course, were Indians who didn’t want to get out of the Anglos’ way. Early settler Stephen F. Austin wrote of the Indians he met in 1821 as “universal enemies to man” who would “frequently feast on the bodies of their victims.” He concluded: “There will be no way of subduing them but extermination.”

Two years later, Austin would unofficially create the Texas Rangers, and in 1835, the Rangers had formal approval to protect the Mexican border, among other things.

Swanson details various fights with the Karankawas and the Comanches, such as the March 19, 1840 killings in San Antonio, when a group of Comanches came to talk peace — and to deliver one of their captives, Matilda Lockhart. It was clear that Lockhart had been tortured during her 18 months in captivity, and Chief Muguara was asked to produce several other captives. He refused, saying they were being held in camps he did not control.

Texas officers did not like the answer. Soon afterward, 12 chiefs, including Muguara, lay dead. The fighting spilled out into the streets, leading Mary Maverick to write, “What a day of horrors.”

Swanson also goes into great detail of Ranger service during the war with Mexico, from 1846 to 1848, during which a young lieutenant named U.S. Grant wrote this to his fiancee: “About all of the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose upon the people of a conquered City to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark. And how much they seem to enjoy acts of violence too!”

The experience of the Rangers in Mexico led them to be considered as “crusaders on horseback,” Swanson writes. “They were, then, exceptionally tough. But more to the point, the Rangers operated as professional and merciless executioners.”

Throughout the book, Swanson maintains a wry sense of humor, despite the atrocities he piles up.

One such example is the chapter titled “The Strange Career of Leander McNelly.” A portrait of the captain shows him as the “literal picture of lanky power” who has dismounted from his horse. “With a Winchester rifle in his right hand and a pistol on his hip, he casts an intense, steely game across a broad desert gorge.”

In reality, Swanson notes, McNelly was “short, gaunt, thin of voice, and racked by tuberculosis.”

Still, as captain in the Special State Troops of Texas in 1875, he earned the allegiance of his company and was known to have bravery and guile. But he achieved stardom — and a place in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame — in part because “he had a writer” who knew how to birth a Texas giant.

He was Napoleon Augustus Jennings, who briefly served in the Rangers and returned to the East Coast, writing articles for newspapers in 1895 about the Texas heroes.

In 1899, Scribner published “A Texas Ranger,” a heroic first-person account of the years of Captain McNelly. It was hailed by various newspapers as being a thrilling and accurate account of the Rangers. But “Jennings had fabricated much of the story,” Swanson says.

“Jennings told, for example, of joining McNelly in his courageous charge against the rustlers at Palo Alto,” Swanson says. But “the fight took place months before Jennings became a Ranger.”

Never mind, “the McNelly saga took flight,” Swanson writes.

By 1914, Zane Grey published “The Lone Star Ranger,” a fictional treatment about gunslinger Buck Duane, who joins McNelly’s company. The novel was made into movies staring Tom Mix.

Meanwhile, Jennings’s McNelly book was still being praised. In 1930, J. Frank Dobie “wrote an enthusiastic introduction” for a reissue of the McNelly book, saying, “I defy anyone to read it without being engaged by its brightness and ranger-swift directness.”

One of the tragic episodes in “Cult of Glory” comes in a chapter titled “The Politics of Massacre.” In it, Swanson describes the January 1918 Ranger raid on the village of Porvenir, less than a mile from the border — in retaliation for a Mexican raid on an Anglo ranch nearby. Among the group was Army cavalryman Robert Keil, who described going into the village and watching the Rangers question the residents. The group found only one single-barreled shotgun, but Keil said the Rangers wanted to question some of the villagers without cavalrymen present.

“Fifteen men and boys, ages sixteen to seventy-two, were marched from the village along the river road, out of sight. Near a rocky bluff, perhaps a quarter mile away, they were bound together with rope.”

“The we heard shots, rapid shots,” Keil said, “echoing and blending in the dark.” Keil describes how he and others went toward the bluff. “As soon as we were close, we smelled the nauseating sweetish smell of blood, and when we could see, we saw the most hellish sight that any of us had ever witnessed.”

The Rangers’ actions at Porvenir eventually were exposed, but “no Ranger was prosecuted for his role,” Swanson writes.

The 1950s — the era of desegregation of public schools — brought the Rangers into the spotlight once again, as angry mobs tried to prevent black students from enrolling in what were then all-white schools.

Swanson weaves numerous tales of the Rangers — and how they earned the appreciation of the segregationists.

Other stories cast more doubt on the Rangers’ past, including the early 1980s saga of Henry Lee Lucas, who was touted as being one of the biggest serial killers in U.S. history. He wasn’t.

But to go into more detail would spoil some of the revelations of “Cult of Glory.” Let’s just say it’s a long-overdue corrective to one of the most storied law enforcement agencies in U.S. history. It is being released during nationwide protests over police brutality, and it couldn’t be more timely.

‘Cult of Glory’
By Doug J. Swanson
Viking: $28

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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