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Incident On The Isthmus

July 2024
19min read

Back when Panama was a jumping-off place for Eldorado, a piece of melon became a symbol that led to a massacre. Its seeds of anti-Yankee resentment are still bearing fruit

In the telegraph room of the Panama Railroad station the operator was tapping out an anguished message to the company’s chief engineer in Aspinwall, miles away across the Isthmus: bullets were coming through the room, it said, and the telegrapher added, “I shall be shot. I must go.” But there was no place to go. It was no longer possible even to send a telegram; outside, a mob had just torn down the telegraph wires.

Downstairs, in the darkness, the battering of the doors continued. Men were piled in a human barricade against them, while scores of others crouched on the floor, trying to escape the bullets coming up from outside. At the back of the building a group of natives was bringing burning coals to set the building on fire.

White men, women, and children at the mercy of a mob of natives—either a scene from poor-grade fiction or, if true in fact, surely the by-product of long years of oppression. The scene was true enough in this case, but it came in 1856, early in the relationship between the United States and Panama (then a state of New Granada, which later became Colombia). The relationship had begun in the late 1840’s, when thousands of Americans first began hurrying across the Isthmus en route to the gold fields of California.

Earlier on this Tuesday, April 15, 1856, nine hundred and forty people, more than half of them women and children, had arrived at the port of Aspinwall (present-day Colon), the United States Mail Steamship Company’s Atlantic terminus. They had gone directly to the waiting coaches of the American-owned Panama Railroad, and four hours later—at about four-thirty—they were at the railroad’s depot on the Pacific.

They could go no farther for the time being. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s John L. Stephens , which would take them to San Francisco, was anchored in the bay, but the steamer Taboga , which would ferry them out to the Stephens , was stranded in the mud at the foot of the railroad wharf and would remain mired until the tide came in late that night.

The railroad terminal was situated along the beach three eighths of a mile north of the walled city of Panama. The station building was a split-level structure built of plain pine boards. The lower floor, seven feet off the ground, was primarily a freight room, with a baggage room and a railroad and ticket office at the eastern, or beach, end of the building. On that same end, stairs led up to three more offices and a telegraph room on the second floor.

It had not been built with passenger comfort in mind. Nowhere in the building, or anywhere else on the grounds, was there anything resembling a waiting room, unless one cared to sit on a trunk in the baggage room. The ticket office opened onto a four-footwide platform on the north side of the building; on steamer days the Pacific Mail line took over the office to process the tickets of its passengers as they filed past outside. Passengers could then board the ferry or wait on shore. Few of them went into the city of Panama; that derelict town of eight thousand or so people, ninety per cent of them Negro or Indian, was avoided by all but the most curious.

It had not always been that way. In the early days of the Gold Rush, before the railroad was finished and before the Pacific Mail had enough ships to accommodate the traffic, Panama had been transformed into an American city, with two and three thousand Americans at a time waiting—sometimes for weeks on end—for transportation to San Francisco. Panama City’s Galle de la Merced was lined with American hotels, saloons, and gambling “hells,” and filled with swaggering, insolent gringos. By the mid-fifties, however, the American-run establishments had disappeared from the city; nowdays, passengers usually went no farther than those hotels and saloons, owned by Americans and other white foreigners, which had sprung up along the beach between the fenced compound of the railroad station and the walled city. These establishments faced “Main Street,” which led to a gate on the south side of the compound.

On this particular Tuesday afternoon in 1856, one of the steerage passengers with time on his hands was an ill-tempered, hard-drinking man named Jack Oliver. He and a group of rowdy companions went first to the Golden Eagle saloon, about two hundred yards down Main Street from the railroad station. They left the Golden Eagle, fairly drunk, at about five-thirty. Some native vendors were gathered outside. As he wandered past, Oliver picked up a slice of watermelon from the tray of one José Luna; he ate part of it and walked on.

Luna followed him, demanding payment—a dime. (American dimes were the most common currency on the Isthmus.) Oliver ignored him. When the native persisted, Oliver pushed him away and told him, “Don’t bother me. Kiss my arse.”

José Luna, a strapping, twenty-nine-year-old mulatto, stood his ground. “Take care; we are not here in the United States,” he warned Oliver. “Pay me my money and let us be square.”

Oliver drew his pistol and snarled, “I’ll pay you with a shot.”

Luna had a dagger out just as quickly. Friends from both sides tried to intervene. One of the Americans offered to pay the dime but was ignored. Then one of Luna’s friends, a “light-colored” man named Miguel Habrahan, stepped in and grabbed Oliver’s pistol. It went off in the scuffle that followed, but no one was hit. Frightened, Habrahan broke away and, still clutching the pistol, ran up the beach toward the boatshed in front of the railroad station. The Americans ran after him, Oliver in the lead, his companions shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!” But as always when there was trouble between Americans and natives, Luna and the other blacks faded away.

For such altercations were not unprecedented; over the years there had been a number of incidents involving gunplay. Nor was there now, at six o’clock, anything else to mark the day as unusual. In the ticket office, clerks were busy stamping passengers’ tickets; about six hundred had filed past the windows, and most of them had boarded the Taboga to wait. But there were still more than three hundred—about seventy of them women and children—to be taken care of. Outside, the station grounds were crowded with people who had arrived from San Francisco on the Cortes and were waiting for the train to leave for Aspinwall, and with others who had come out from Panama City for the sailing.

On the railroad pier near the station, Captain Allan McLane, the Pacific Mail agent, was chatting with Alexander Center, the railroad superintendent, and William Nelson, another railroad employee. McLane was supervising forty Negroes who were unloading freight and baggage from the train to go aboard the Stephens . The scene was busy, crowded, and cheerful.

Meanwhile Oliver went to Ocean House, another saloon, where he had another whiskey and boasted loudly about the watermelon incident. Then, at his companions’ urging, he went back with them to the ticket office to have his steamer ticket validated. Miguel Habrahan, having gotten away from him, had doubled back along the beach toward town; what Habrahan did next is still unknown, but suddenly the bells of the Church of Santa Anna, a quarter-mile away in the parish outside the walls of the city, began to peal. Then the alarm bell in the cupola over Gorgona Gate in the city wall began to ring. Within minutes—almost as if by prearranged signal—crowds gathered at the edge of the city, and soon they were rushing toward the railroad station, shouting and waving their arms. They passed through the Cienega, a crowded slum of cane shanties that lay between Santa Anna parish and the station, stretching beachward as far as the saloons and hotels. In the Cienega they found arms and ammunition, and a great many more natives eager to join them.

The mob had learned somehow that Oliver had gone to Ocean House, so they headed there first. There were still a few Americans in the bar. (But not Oliver; his ticket validated, he had boarded the Taboga and had fallen asleep.) There were also some American families resting in the hotel rooms upstairs. The mob was headed for the barroom; some of the blacks were already firing into it. Inside, James Quinn, the Dublinborn bartender, and one or two armed Americans began to fire back.

All the more excited by the return fire, the natives—machetes and knives flashing, guns firing—forced their way into Ocean House, grappling with the men inside and smashing the rude furniture of the bar-room. Most of the combatants, black and white, were ignorant of the fighting’s immediate cause, but even if Oliver had still been there, his capture by the mob would not have slaked their anger. All the hatred and resentment against arrogant Americans who lit their cigars at candles in the cathedral, rudely disrupted religious processions, challenged local authorities and scorned local taxes, shoved natives out of the way in the streets, cursed and browbeat them, short-changed and refused to pay them—all this had coalesced into an easily fired determination to destroy. The Americans in the Ocean House bar, no longer masters, turned and ran out the back door, then up the beach to the railroad pier and the safety of the Taboga .

Having drunk most of the whiskey and made a shambles of everything else at Ocean House, the mob grew and spread. They looted nearby McAllister’s store, filling empty bottles from whiskey casks, and surged across the street to pillage another small store called the Triangle. Next were Pacific House and the Golden Eagle saloon, which they attacked with guns, stones, and bottles. Upstairs at Pacific House, two men jumped out a back window and ran to safety; the rest of the occupants, mostly women and children, cowered helplessly—but were still safer than a woman they could see running, screaming, in the street below, pursued by a Negro with a bar stool in his hand.

The closest the mob had come to the railroad station was Ocean House, about two hundred feet away; it appeared that the destruction would be confined to the commercial buildings facing the Cienega. There had been no indication that the station would be attacked, and there was good reason to suppose that it would not be, for the natives held the Panama Railroad in considerable awe: it possessed more power and authority than the local government, and, until fairly recently, it had done its own ruthless policing of the transit zone. The station, within the fenced compound, sheltered hundreds of people, who, the natives might reasonably suppose, would resist any attack.

This was hard for those in the compound to realize, however, and as it grew dark and the rioting continued outside, they began to panic. A drunken American at the head of the station steps began to fire his pistol into the air. Inside, those few who were armed had their pistols out and ready; others were demanding arms and ammunition from the railroad and steamship officials. Captain McLane tried to quiet them, urging those with pistols not to fire them for fear of inviting retaliation, insisting that the station would not be attacked. He told them that he had sent a messenger to Colonel Garrido, the chief of police, and that it was only a matter of time until he and his men would arrive and put an end to the riot.

But the minutes went by and the police did not come. A group of about fifteen men, unwilling to wait any longer, went out—unarmed—to try to rescue the women and children in the upper floors of Ocean House and Pacific House. They were met by twice their number of natives and were stoned and driven back; as they tried to re-enter the depot in the darkness, they were fired upon by their jittery fellow Americans. One was shot through the body as he came up the steps, and another through the leg as he went back to get the wounded man.

In the darkness inside the station (the ticket office downstairs and the telegraph room upstairs were the only rooms with lights), Captain McLane and William Nelson considered trying to organize a few men to preserve order and prevent any acts of provocation by the Americans, but by now organization was utterly impossible. Everyone who could possibly get into the station had crowded in—nearly three hundred men and women—and now that it was dark, they were hysterical with the fear that the natives would rush the station. They were as unreasoning as the mob.

Superintendent Center had distributed, reluctantly, all the weapons that could be found in the station: a double-barrelled shotgun, a pair of pistols, a saber, and fourteen old flintlock muskets that were rusty and barely usable. Thus armed, and well fortified with whiskey, some of the men began darting out and firing into the huts of the Cienega, and then rushing back. Inside, many were frantically searching for family or friends from whom they had been separated.

Shortly after seven, the United States consul, Colonel Thomas Ward, rode up on horseback with his secretary, Theodore de Sabla; they had ridden out from town along the beach to avoid the rioting mob in the Cienega. They found twenty or more Americans just outside the gate of the railroad compound. A cannon loaded with boiler rivets (for lack of any other ammunition) had been dragged up in front of the gate, in a position commanding the principal street of the Cienega. Pistols and muskets were much in evidence. Men, talking wildly of killing the “savages,” were firing reckless shots at the native huts. Every round fired brought more shots in return from natives in trees bordering the Cienega.

Colonel Ward was a grizzled old man with a wooden leg and a stump for an arm. He was not popular with the American residents of Panama; he was much too blunt and outspoken. He assessed the situation quickly. He considered Center’s distribution of arms weak and irresponsible. Angrily, he ordered the Americans to put away their guns, to go back inside, to avoid further provoking the natives in any way. His voice was commanding and his authority evident; they put down their weapons, and the man tending the cannon said he would fire only if directly attacked.

Ward was informed that the governor of Panama, Francisco Fábrega, had come out to the Cienega. He sent de Sabla to fetch him, while he himself rode toward the bands of Negroes drawing up to return the Americans’ fire. Impervious to the danger, he gave orders as brusquely as he had to the Americans; the natives grew quiet and began to lay down their arms. Firing had ceased on both sides. For a brief moment, it seemed as if the riot could be controlled.

De Sabla had entered the Cienega and located Governor Fábrega, who was as resentful of American arrogance as any other Panamanian; he did not care to be fetched to the Consul’s presence by the Consul’s secretary. And he had a still more compelling, though unvoiced, reason for being reluctant to act: he was a white man, a member of one of the few remaining Castilian families in Panama and the state’s only white official. The mob’s anger was now directed at the white Americans; he was afraid that any move on his part to restrain them would make them turn on the native whites as well. He refused to go.

De Sabla went back to tell Ward, who said that he would meet the Governor halfway, in Main Street. The Consul and his secretary rode into the street together and then de Sabla went on-to tell the Governor that Colonel Ward was waiting for him.

This time Fábrega agreed, with persuasion, to go, and they went back through the Cienega toward Main Street. There was more firing in the distance. As they reached the street, just below Pacific House, de Sabla suggested that it would be safer for the Governor to wait while he went on ahead. It seemed to Colonel Ward that he had been waiting too long for his secretary to come back. Impatient, he decided to go into the Cienega himself to look for the Governor, and so, as de Sabla and the Governor were emerging into the street just beyond Pacific House, Ward, together with William Nelson, was leaving the street and making his way through the cane huts of the Cienega.

In the dark, silent street the Governor waited as de Sabla rode ahead to where they were to meet the Consul. Ahead of him, in the shadows, the secretary saw a band of natives come out into the street. As he stopped for a moment to see what they would do, an American suddenly rushed to the compound gate and fired out at the natives. There was a roar of answering fire from the Cienega, then more fire from the Americans. De Sabla screamed with pain as a musket ball hit his thigh and another glanced off his knee. A third whistled through Governor Fábrega’s hat; he turned and ran. In the Cienega, William Nelson threw himself flat on the ground. Colonel Ward was caught in four separate lines of fire, his horse rearing as one ball after another—seven in all—hit it. The horse ran off as Ward, miraculously unharmed, tried his best to hang on with his one arm.

Nelson was a long-time resident of Panama and was well liked by the natives. As he picked himself up he was warned that he had better go home if he hoped to avoid being killed, for the mob was determined now to attack the station itself. He ignored the warning and slipped back into the station. There was now incessant fire from the Cienega on the railroad buildings and yard. As Nelson entered the gate a musket ball struck and broke the arm of a passenger beside him. He went on to tell Ward, who had managed to guide his wounded horse back into the compound, and McLane and the others that the blacks were about to attack the station. Ward had no hope of controlling the riot now; if Colonel Garrido and the police did not come, there was little anyone could do.

In the station the terrified people waited in darkness. They had few weapons, and most of their ammunition had been used up in the irresponsible firing into the Cienega. One plan after another was suggested for escape, but escape was impossible. It was dangerous to stay, but even more dangerous to go outside. And even if they could get to the Taboga , there was no assurance that the ferry would not be attacked too.

Shots were coming from every direction, as though the buildings were surrounded. All at once there was a burst of shots from the bushes behind the old blacksmith’s shop, a short distance from the station. Then a bugle sounded. Railroad Superintendent Center told those who could hear him that everything was all right: the police had arrived.

But instead of stopping, the firing grew heavier than ever—it was coming in volleys now—as the police bugle sounded again and again. Center ventured outside and, creeping along the side of the building, saw a mob of Negroes coming down the railroad track to attack from the rear. He ran up the steps and into the freight room. It was crowded with terrified people.

He could not even get back out again. The doors were blockaded by terror-stricken Americans. The noise was fantastic—musket balls crashing through the walls, the bugle sounding, the doors suddenly rattling as yelling rioters tried to force them open. Center managed to get from the freight room into the railroad office through a broken panel in the connecting door. As he stepped through, a man fell dead before him; another, hit, clutched his throat and fell.

Smoke filled the station office. Its doors too were blockaded with people. Center turned and went back into the freight room and, climbing up the wall, managed to get on a plank across the ceiling beams. From there he could see outside all too clearly: the police were firing at the building; Colonel Garrido, the Negro police chief, was urging them on.

There was no one left to appeal to but the Governor, and he had gone back into town. (It was later learned that, infuriated at being fired at by the Americans, Fábrega himself had ordered the police to attack the station.) At the mess house, next to the station, Ward, Nelson, and McLane decided to go after the Governor to plead with him to come back and use his authority to halt the massacre. They set out along the beach, sloshing through the mud flats at the very edge of the water in the hope of avoiding any natives. They had gone a few hundred yards when they were challenged by an armed band of Negroes. As they raised their guns, Nelson quickly told them who he was; the many years of good will and respect he had earned from the natives enabled the three men to pass safely.

At the station, the mob and the police, swarming within the compound, were trying to force their way in through one of the windows of the ticket office. Inside the building, a wounded man named Ewing rested his revolver on the edge of a counter and fired with deliberate aim whenever a head appeared at the window, until all his bullets were gone. There was no holding them off any longer. In possession of the window, they fired down on the passengers lying on the floor. The Americans scrambled wildly to escape, some into the adjoining baggage room and some upstairs, leaving behind ten of their number dead or wounded. The mob poured in through the window and began to strip the bodies of money, keys—everything of value.

At the other end of the building the door to the baggage room had given way too, and in rushed the natives, hacking indiscriminately with machetes. The Americans were completely defenseless, “open to the covetousness and barbarity,” as Colonel Ward later put it, “of as rude a people as exist upon the globe.” A man was killed trying to get away, and a woman with him was wounded; both were robbed. A minister named Sellwood was shot though the head as he tried to run through the door. Some managed to escape from the building and ran blindly down the beach into the muddy tidelands or back to hide in the trees, only to be found, attacked, and robbed by roving bands of natives.

In the city, Ward, Nelson, and McLane had found the Governor in San Juan de Diós Street, surrounded by a crowd of shouting, vengeful natives. He declined to help, insisting that he could do nothing, that he had no control over the police or the people. Colonel Ward doubtless reminded him that a U.S. ship of war would surely be dispatched to Panama immediately, as a result of the riot. What happened to the city and to the Governor, he intimated, might depend largely on what the Governor did right then.

Fábrega knew well enough what the arrival of the U.S. Navy could mean; he—and a great many other Central Americans—remembered that less than two years before, the U.S. sloop of war Cyane had destroyed the town of San Juan del Norte, the Atlantic terminus of the trans-Nicaragua route, in a much smaller dispute between natives and Americans. Reluctantly he agreed to go and do what he could, and he and McLane and Nelson set out. Ward stayed in town; he had done all the walking he could do on his wooden leg.

Nothing that had happened before equalled the horror that was going on in the station house now. Once the mob had gained entry there was little more shooting. The main impulse was to rob and loot. The only safety for the stranded passengers lay in pretending to be dead. Doing so, one man felt his clothing being ransacked again and again—ten times, he thought; finally his feet were lifted up and his boots stolen. Any resistance—any movement, even—met with a savage reply. A man seen to move was pounced on. He begged for mercy, but a machete and a club descended on his head simultaneously; a wounded man near him “seemed to hear his skull crash,” and the victim rolled over without a groan.

Colonel Garrido, satisfied that he had achieved his objective at the station, had gone to the pier with some of his adjutants and had boarded the Taboga . There had been no provocative action from the passengers aboard the stranded ferry steamer; nevertheless, the police chief informed its captain that he had come to disarm the ship. If they gave up their arms the natives would not attack; otherwise he would not be able to control them. The passengers watched helplessly as he collected two pistols, the only ones in evidence, while the ship’s cannon was dragged off. A short time later a remarkably similar cannon was set up on shore, loaded, and aimed at the Taboga .

It was to this spot that the Governor and the two Americans hurried first, when they finally got back to the station area at about ten o’clock. The Governor ordered the man with the cannon, a huge Negro named Dolores Urriola, to give it up. Urriola refused, insolently telling the Governor that he was going to fire it at the ship. McLane remembered suddenly and thankfully that when the riot first began he had sent two Panamanian women who had come to see the sailing, Señoras Ansoatique and Feraud, aboard the Taboga for safety. He quickly whispered to the Governor to tell Urriola that he would be killing his own countrywomen if he fired. That persuaded the Negro to hold his fire, but he would not surrender the cannon.

Nearby some natives were breaking open a black trunk they had dragged from the freight room. Tabrega made no effort to stop them; it was frighteningly evident that, as he had insisted earlier, he no longer had any control over the people. McLane and Nelson went on to the station without him.

Looters were still busy in the freight room and in some of the freight cars. Colonel Garrido and several of the police were drawn up between the station house and the mess house, about to fire a volley at the upper floor. Garrido blustered that they had been fired on and were going to retaliate, but he was disconcerted by the arrival of the two Americans, and he handed them a lantern when Nelson said they would go up and guarantee that there would be no further shooting.

There were four rooms on the second floor. The first, the small telegraph room, was locked and empty; the telegrapher had escaped without harm. A bloody corpse blocked the doorway to the second room. Nelson and McLane managed to shove the door open far enough to step over the body and into the room; its only occupant was a wounded man lying on a cot in the corner. The third room was crowded with cowering people (including Center), and so was the fourth, which looked down on the area where the police were gathered. One woman had been wounded here. The rest had escaped injury by lying on the floor; the police had been so close to the building, and their angle of fire so sharp, that they had been able to hit only those standing up. One of the men had a rifle, but he insisted that no one had returned fire from that room.

McLane and Nelson went back downstairs and asked Garrido to go up to see for himself. Garrido, now very much on the side of law and order, did so, and was easily convinced; he returned below to hold back the crowd while the passengers were sent out to join the others on the Taboga . He had all he could do, as did McLane and Nelson, to keep the mob from attacking and to keep his own policemen from bayoneting the Americans as they passed. Nevertheless, the riot was over. It was a little more than four hours since Jack Oliver had refused to pay a dime for a piece of watermelon.

There remained only the dreadful task of cleaning up. McLane, Nelson, and Center went back inside, turning grim and white at sight of the carnage. Among other horrors, they found a man’s body with more than thirty wounds in it and a woman’s body, naked except for her corsets, with the front of her thighs blackened with powder burns from a musket fired into the groin at close range. The mutilated bodies of several others lay in the freight room and on the railway tracks that led up to it. In all, there were fifteen dead, another who would die two days later, and more than fifty wounded. There were also at least three natives dead and a number wounded.

The John L. Stephens sailed the next morning. The natives of Panama were proud of their “victory,” openly displaying the money and valuables they had stolen, bragging of the women they had raped. It was rumored that they would attack again when the Golden Gate arrived on Saturday, but they did not. Gradually the Isthmus sank back into lethargy; when the U.S. warships inevitably arrived at Panama and Aspinwall later that spring, it did not seem necessary to land troops to protect American interests.

The United States quickly set an official inquiry in motion under Amos Corwine, who had formerly been a consul in Panama. He found that it was “the universal opinion of respectable foreigners residing in Panama” that Miguel Habrahan was “notoriously a bad character”; more than that, he concluded that the massacre, “in view of the evidence,” was the result of Habrahan’s “rashness.”

It was Corwine’s recommendation that the United States take over and occupy the Isthmus. That opinion was shared by most of the American residents of Panama and by popular sentiment in the United States. The New York Herald said, “We can see no reason why the United States should not garrison Panama, Aspinwall and the line of road;… if the precaution is neglected we may hereafter rue the neglect.”

The United States did not find an appropriate way to do that until 1903, when with a show of force Theodore Roosevelt helped set up the Republic of Panama and extracted from it a permanent lease on a strip of the Isthmus suitable for a canal. In the meantime, passage across the Isthmus had to be kept free from interruption; “for this purpose, as well as for the ends of justice,” wrote Secretary of State William L. Marcy, “exemplary punishment should be inflicted upon the transgressors.” He did not mean Jack Oliver, of course, and certainly not the railroad management (although it was Colonel Ward’s opinion that “had the railroad managers … been a little more circumspect this unfortunate slaughter of our people would not have taken place”); and it was impossible to punish Miguel Habrahan, because he had prudently fled the country shortly after the riot. New Granada must be punished, and it was: it was ordered to pay an indemnity of $160,000.

The indemnity was eventually paid, the Panama Railroad armed all its white employees, the transit was kept open, and, for the time being, the situation simmered down. But if the periodic outbursts of the last hundred years—including the nationalistic riots in the Canal Zone in 1964—are accurate indicators, the seeds of antipathy that first bore fruit in 1856 have shown remarkable hardiness.

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