Mysterious disappearance at the King Ranch in 1936

Luther Blanton, left, and his son John, disappeared while hunting on the King Ranch in 1936.

The fabled King Ranch, long a symbol of wealth, power and the cowboy way of life in Texas, was once the scene of a sensational case that grabbed newspaper headlines across the country.

It was Thursday, November 18, 1936, during the rough and tumble years of the Great Depression, when Luther Blanton, 57, and his son, John, 24, walked 500 yards from their farm and squeezed through a barbed-wire fence to go duck-hunting on the vast King Ranch, hoping to bring home a duck for supper.

The King Ranch is located in south Texas. It was founded in the 1850s by Richard King and Capt. Mifflin Kenedy. In 1936, it was the biggest ranch in the United States, totaling 1.25 million acres, covering nearly 1,300 square miles, an area the size of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio combined.  King Ranch had 125,000 head of cattle and 500 employees.

Luther and John Blanton, who both eked out livings as beet farmers, were said to be expert hunters. They had set off that afternoon wearing denim overalls and carried two shotguns and three shells. They had no known enemies, but were known in the area to be trespassers and poachers, who had had run-ins with King Ranch game wardens and armed fence riders.

Just before dusk, Myrtle Blanton, the wife of Luther, said she heard the sound of three shots ring out from the direction of the King Ranch. The gunshots had also startled her daughter-in-law Gladys. Myrtle Blanton later told law officers she thought that her husband and son had killed some birds. When they didn’t return home by dark, she became worried. Luther Blanton had told his wife they would be home by six o’clock.

The next day, Myrtle Blanton went to the nearby town of Raymondville to see if they had been arrested for trespassing. But they were nowhere to be found. After two days, Luther and John Blanton still had not returned home. According to the book, “Justice Bought and Paid For” by Mona D. Sizer, Myrtle Blanton tried desperately to find her husband and son.

Myrtle Blanton with her daughter-in-law, Gladys in 1936.

Myrtle Blanton went to a local judge to try and get law officers to go onto the ranch. When that failed, Myrtle Blanton tried to organize her own small search party to go onto the ranch, even going so far as confronting King Ranch game warden Bob Miller. But they were blocked from entering the ranch by armed King ranch hands.

Angered, armed local civilians from the area organized an even larger group to force their way onto the King Ranch around the area where the Blantons were known to have gone hunting.  Texas Rangers arrived on the scene, “more to keep the peace between citizenry and the ranch than to find the Blantons or their killers.”

The Texas Rangers also sent Capt. William McMurray, to investigate. McMurray began questioning locals from Raymondville, as well as employees of the King Ranch. He also searched the King Ranch property for any sign of Luther or John Blanton.

On November 21, The Valley Morning Star, a daily newspaper out of nearby Cameron County, ran a front page story with the headline, “Willacy Hunters Feared Murdered.” The next day, through wire services, the same story was picked up by the Houston Post, the San Antonio Express, the Austin Statesman, and Corpus Christi Caller.

As the investigation into the Blantons disappearance continued, tracks were eventually found at a lagoon on the ranch, which matched the size and types of boots worn by the Blantons. A shotgun shell and cigarette stubs were found nearby.

McMurray, the Texas Rangers captain, told journalists, that “Two men, one a Mexican, the other a game warden, have I been arrested and jailed for investigation in the (Blanton) case Neither of their names nor where they were held was revealed.” [The Paris (Texas) News, November 1936]

Myrtle Blanton came to believe that her husband and son were killed for trespassing on King Ranch. McMurray, agreed. “The men were killed near the lagoon or taken away and killed,” he told LIFE Magazine in December 1936.

Another revelation that arose during McMurray’s investigation was that in addition to the Blantons, two local farm hands, Reyes Ramirez and Jesus Rivera,  also went missing at the King Ranch under similar circumstances prior to the Blantons’ case.

Mexican Consul Santiago Suarez told The Brownsville (Texas) Herald he received a communication from his government which discloses that the Mexican embassy in Washington D.C. requesting the American government to investigate the disappearance on the King ranch of Jesus Rivera, Mexican citizen who disappeared on the ranch along with his hunting companion, Reyes Ramirez.

“I feel confident that a federal government investigation of the case will be made ” Suarez said on Jan. 12, 1937, in The Brownsville Herald.

Texas Rangers Capt. William McMurray, who investigated the Blanton case, told LIFE Magazine, “the Blantons were killed and carried off the ranch or carried off the ranch and killed.”

Still, the local sheriff in Willacy County and local authorities seemed reluctant to investigate any further. The case only deepened the distrust and jealously between citizens and the King Ranch.

“Plain Texans hate the King Ranch, and its owners the Klebergs. The Klebergs refuse to let hunters onto their game-abounding land, refuse to let highways go through their vast acres and are politically a law unto themselves,” according to a LIFE Magazine article, December 14, 1936.

Robert Justus Kleberg Jr., the boss of King Ranch in 1936, told LIFE Magazine, “It looks pretty hard to hold us responsible for people who crawl through our fence. We can’t provide hunting for everybody. The whole thing is newspaper buildup.”

The case went cold and publicity slowly dried up over the missing Blantons. The Texas Rangers continued to chase down leads all over Texas, but nothing ever panned out.

Around a year later in 1937, a man named Luis LaMadrid began investigating the Blanton case. LaMadrid is a curious figure in the case. In some newspaper articles, he is identified as a Willacy County deputy constable. In other accounts, he is identified as a Texas Ranger or private investigator hired by Myrtle Blanton. One book even identified him as an imposter.

Who ever he was, by mid-1937 LaMadrid had announced to the public that he had solved the case. He said he was told by the Mexican ranch hands who worked the King Rand the Blantons were murdered. He was even told where to find the Blanton bodies. However, LaMadrid was suddenly  arrested on a charge of illegally carrying a gun by a Texas Ranger and a Texas Game Warden.

“Everyone down there in the valley knows what, happened to the Blantons,” Lamadrid told The Waxahachie Daily Light in July 14, 1937. “Of course, they don’t say now. That would ruin my case.”

A map showing the exact location of the bodies had been drawn by LaMadrid so that his information would not be lost if he were victim of a “silence playing,” stated the The Waxahachie Daily Light.

Waxahachie is a small-town near Dallas.

“They printed it. and it seems to me that the ones who killed the Blantons have probably had the bodies moved,” Lamadrid said. LaMadrid was so fearful that he too might be harmed or even murdered, he eventually left the area, ending his involvement in the case.

The Waxahachie Daily Light article from July 1937, also went on to state that “Bad feelings between cowpunchers of the huge King Ranch, and Willacy county farmers smoulder­ed. Many residents have singled out their “No. 1 suspect” in the Blanton case. When he walks the streets of Raymondville, friends surround him and people turn and stare solemnly without expression as he passes.”

But the article didn’t name who the suspect was. Myrtle Blanton died never finding out the truth about her husband Luther and son, John. What really happened to the Blantons? We will probably never know all the facts.

 

An article from the Chicago Tribune in 1936.

LIFE Magazine article 1936 “The Battle of the Fence” 

“A Willacy County Mystery,” The Raymondville Chronicle, Jan. 11, 2017 

“Texas Justice, Bought and Paid For,” By Mona D. Sizer, (Plano Press, 2001)

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