Book Review: Cynthia Leal Massey’s Death of a Texas Ranger

Don’t worry, my dozens of faithful readers! I haven’t forgotten about this blog. I actually finished this book last week, but I’ve been busy (and I’m still busy, really) so I haven’t been able to sit down and hammer out a review until now.

Picking up Fallout: New Vegas probably didn’t help much either.

Anyway, every now and again, I like to read a book that doesn’t have a rocket or a dragon on the cover. So, here’s a book with cowboys on the cover! Real ones! Not a painting like on a Louis L’amour novel!

Death of a Texas Ranger is about…well, the death of a Texas Ranger. The cowboy kind of ranger, mind you, not the baseball one. In this book, Massey lays out the events leading up to and spiraling out from the titular murder. In 1873, while on post to watch out for Indian attacks, Texas Ranger John Green was killed by one of his deputies, Cesario Menchaca.

Not this John Green.

As you can tell by the names, race was a major factor in how things played out. After killing Green, Menchaca fled to Mexico. Years later, John Green’s son Will Green became a deputy sherriff in San Antonio, at which point he tried to extradite Menchaca back to Texas. A lawman attempting to find the truth and avenge his father’s murder; it’s the stuff westerns are made of. But, in one of those ways that boring reality gets in the way of narrative structure, it was found that Menchaca was acting in self defense, and thus was acquitted.

Death of a Texas Ranger is a short book, just a little over 130 pages (not counting the citations and bibliography). This said, there’s a lot packed into it- Massey has meticulously researched everyone involved with the case. She presents a fascinating view of life in 19th century Texas, and the challenges it presented.

This said, the book’s biggest weakness is one particular gap. See, it was said that Green attempted to kill Menchaca first, in order to claim an illegal bounty that had been put on him by a man named Gabriel Marnoch. Marnoch, a hot tempered Scottish paleontologist and naturalist, allegedly placed a bounty on Menchaca when Menchaca literally lassoed him and dragged him to town in order to pay a fine for failing to register a horse.

The thing is, while Massey presents a thoroughly researched portrait of Marnoch’s history and personal accomplishments, there isn’t really anything to connect him to the bounty-placing story apart from some handed-down family lore from Menchaca’s descendents. Of course, it’s not as if Marnoch would have written ‘illegal bounty, $500’ in his checkbook or anything, but to have the book switch from well-researched first-hand sources to family folklore is a little jarring. This is really my only real quibble with the book.

All and all, Death of a Texas Ranger is a pretty straightforward little book. It’s right there on the fence between academic history and pop-history. Massey has a very specific focus in this book- but even then, it touches on many aspects of life on the frontier; Indian attacks, race relations, even an academic feud known as the Bone Wars (which I should read about more, since I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid). So if you’re in the mood to learn more about Texas history, or if you’d like to read a quick little true-crime story, go ahead and track this book down.

Or heck, if Hollywood still made westerns, they could do worse than to draw from Death of a Texas Ranger. Might have to fiddle around with the ending, though- those pesky ‘facts’ might get in the way of a proper finale.

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3 Comments

  1. Sarah

    Thank you for noticing there is nothing to tie Marnoch to the bounty. Also, there is nothing to indicate Green was a hitman.
    Massey’s facts on Marnoch are wrong on all aspects. Her statements that he was selling land because of financial troubles don’t hold up under scrutiny. At his death he owned 26 pieces of land, including the home and 700 acres of his father’s original property. As for the man he killed, it was ruled self defense by the court system. Marnoch stayed put and stood trial when he was accused of murder; Menchacha fled the country and abandoned his family when he was accused of murder.

  2. Sarah

    The Marnoch murder trial is documented in law books, since it was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court; the original jury was not told that Marnoch and the victim had an argument at the post office, the victim told the crowd that he was going to teach Marnoch a lesson; he took a rifle and his two brothers to Marnoch’s home and Marnoch killed him. The court ordered a retrial and the judge needed to permit the circumstances of the argument and the plea of self defense be allowed. The prosecutor decided not to retry the case.

    Marnoch’s land holdings are documented in Bexar County Clerk’s online website; however, there are numerous spellings of his last name – Marnoch, Marnock, plus misspellings.

    Although Massey claims to have done her research, she didn’t.

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