Friday, September 1, 2023

Follow Me To Hell: My Washington Times On Crime Column On Tom Clavin's Book About Captain Leander McNelly And The Texas Rangers

The Washington Times ran my On Crime column today on Tom Clavin’s latest book about Wild West history. 

You can read the column via the below link or the below text:

BOOK REVIEW: 'Follow Me to Hell' - Washington Times

I’ve read and enjoyed Tom Clavin’s earlier Western histories, such as “Dodge City,” “Tombstone” and “Wild Bill,” all of which I’ve covered here. So I was pleased to read Mr. Clavin’s most recent look at the Wild West, “Follow Me to Hell: McNelly’s Texas Rangers and the Rise of Frontier Justice.”


I contacted Mr. Clavin and asked him why he chose to write about Leander McNelly (seen in the above photo), who is not as well known as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday or Wild Bill Hickok.


“McNelly’s lack of fame — outside of Texas, that is — was appealing,” Mr. Clavin replied. “In a way, figures like Earp and Hickok are low-hanging fruit because of that instant name recognition. I was attracted to the idea of finding a character who has been overlooked yet has an exciting story. I wanted to do a Texas Rangers book because of the bicentennial but find a character and story a bit off the beaten path.”


Who was Leander McNelly? How would you describe him?


“He was the most famous and effective of company captains when the Texas Rangers in the 1870s were transitioning from a militia-like outfit to a durable law enforcement agency. Because of poor health, and dying at 33, McNelly led his men for only three years yet his courage and charisma and strong belief in law and order made a powerful impression.”


How would you describe the type of men who joined the early Texas Rangers?


“The first word that comes to mind is ‘adventurous.’ Maybe a guy made $40 a month, so even cowpuncher paid better. Some sense that law enforcement was a worthy endeavor. Curiosity. Mostly, I think, it was a way for young men to play at being lawmen, and some came to take it seriously, and while that was happening, they got to ride with like-minded fellows across swaths of Texas with the prospect of exciting adventures ahead.”


How did the leadership of McNelly change the Texas Rangers?


“He made use of embedded spies in opponents’ camps, which became an effective tool. He carried on the tradition of the best Ranger captains, like Samuel Walker and John Coffee Hays, of leading from the front. His personal integrity and fearlessness were inspiring not only to his men, but to future Rangers. He helped to make being a Texas Ranger a proud occupation.”


How would you describe the American and Mexican outlaws, the Apaches and the Comanches that the Texas Rangers fought?


“On one hand, you can sympathize with them. As the colony of Anglos in Texas expanded from 1821 on, Mexicans and Indians were being pushed aside and eventually overwhelmed by the increasing number of White Americans. Resisting made them ‘outlaws.’ However, the violence was fierce, and many settlers, whose only crime was establishing homesteads, met cruel fates. It is remarkable that Stephen Austin’s colony survived at all.”


How would you describe the Mexican-Texas border area that the Texas Rangers operated in?


“Too long to patrol effectively … which, of course, many people would say remains true. Ranger companies had to ride hard and fast to try to stop cattle rustling, horse stealing, and raids on settlements. There were plenty of places along the Rio Grande that were easy to cross and there often seemed to be more rustlers than Rangers.”


You also write about the notorious outlaw John Wesley Hardin in the book. How would you describe him?


“’Man-killer’ is the word most associated with him. He began killing as an adolescent and did not stop until he was sent to prison for many years. He loved his wife and children and probably his dogs but without hesitation would kill anyone who crossed him or his kin.”


What other especially bad men did McNelly come up against?


“One of my favorite characters in the book is John King Fisher, a young rancher who ruled all he surveyed in south Texas with a six-shooter and a Winchester and his gang of frontier toughs. Yet his life changed when confronted by Leander McNelly. Ironically, Fisher died while serving as a lawman.”


Why are you drawn to write about the Wild West and the histories of the people who helped shape the West?


“I’m like a kid who ran off and joined the circus and never came back. I grew up at a time when our popular culture was full of Western films, and it seemed like half the shows on TV were Westerns — “Gunsmoke,” “Rawhide,” “Bonanza,” Have Gun, Will Travel,” etc. In my mind, anyway, the Wild West was always a fun place to be. Today, decades later, through research and writing, I’m still there. Glad we’ve advanced from outhouses, though.”


• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s, 384 pages, $29.99

Note: Below is a photo of Tom Clavin:

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