Baylor Law To Co-Sponsor 'Trial' Of 19th Century Texas Ranger

May 3, 2004

by Alan Hunt

Chasing cattle thieves, Confederate War hero Leander McNelly and his Texas Rangers caused an international incident 129 years ago between the U.S. and Mexico when they crossed the Rio Grande without authorization from the Mexican government.

Now, following research by law students and history students at Baylor University, that dramatic incident on the Texas-Mexico border in 1875 will be relived on May 8 when McNelly will be "tried" in what the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum describes as a "what-if" scenario from history.

The Hall of Fame's web site at TexasRangers.org says that McNelly will be charged at the imaginary trial by the U.S. Government with violating neutrality laws.

The program will be held as an Historical Dinner Theater at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, starting at 7 p.m. Those attending will serve as the jury for the dinner theater "trial," which is sponsored by Baylor Law School, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum and Uncle Dan's Barbecue and Catering.

Law Professor Gerald R. Powell, who is a history buff, and the Baylor law students have "painstakingly researched McNelly's incursion," according to the Hall of Fame web site. The trial will feature amateur actors in the roles of the witnesses: Ranger Capt. Leander McNelly, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Brig. Gen. Ord of the U.S. Army, Texas Gov. Richard Coke, cattle baron Richard King, several Texas Rangers and an official of the Mexican government.

The trial will not be scripted but will unfold as an actual trial does. The presiding judge will be U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade of Dallas, who will play the role of the U.S. District Judge in Galveston in 1876. Prominent trial lawyers will litigate the fictional case. The prosecuting attorneys will be Baylor Law Professors Jeremy Counseller and Bill Underwood and Tim Fults of Dallas. McNelly will be represented by Waco lawyer Ben Selman and Powell.

Historical consultants for the trial are Dr. T. Michael Parrish, who serves on the Baylor history faculty as The Linden G. Bowers Professor of American History; Chuck Parsons, McNelly biographer and Ranger historian; and Matthew C. Cordon, associate professor of law and reference librarian at Baylor Law School.

Powell, The Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence Law, said McNelly was recruited by Gov. Coke to restore order to the Nueces Strip along the border, which had deteriorated into an area where bandits and cattle rustlers roamed freely. McNelly formed a Special Force of Rangers, the Washington County Volunteers, to help him with the task. His controversial methods included the unauthorized crossing of the Rio Grande into Mexico as he and his Rangers prepared to attack cattle thieves who were holed up on the other side of the river.

The Ranger Hall of Fame web site takes up the story: "It went wrong from the start. Acting on bad information, McNelly attacked a village instead of the nearby bandit stronghold. Locals and Mexican authorities responded and a siege occurred that quickly escalated into an international incident involving the U.S. State Department, the Army and the Mexican government. When the War Department ordered him to return to U.S. soil, or be brought back by the Army, McNelly responded, 'give my compliments to the Secretary of War and tell him and the United States Soldiers to go to H---.' To end the stalemate, Mexican authorities delivered cattle and McNelly crossed the Rio Grande.

"In the aftermath McNelly was a legend in Texas and despised in Mexico. The border became quieter as both Mexico and the U.S. made an effort to avoid another such incident. McNelly was quietly relieved of his command shortly before his death of chronic tuberculosis."

For more information about the program, contact Powell at (254) 710-3611 or Gerald_Powell@baylor.edu, or Christina Stopka at (254) 750-8638 or e-mail trhf@eramp.net. Tickets are $35 including dinner and available from the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum at (254) 750-8631.

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