CLOSE

The Life and Times of Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves

Over his 32-year career as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Bass Reeves arrested 3,000 felons, killed 14 men, and was never shot himself. His reputation for persistence, his total fearlessness, his skills with a gun, and his ability to outsmart outlaws struck terror into lawbreakers in what we now call Oklahoma. Although other colorful characters made their way into our pop culture, Bass was the real badass of the Old West.

Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. His slavemaster, William S. Reeves, moved the household to Texas in 1846. When the Civil War broke out, William Reeves' son George was made a colonel in the Confederate army and took Bass to war with him. At the most opportune moment, Reeves escaped while George was sleeping and took off out west for Indian Territory. Accounts vary on whether Bass beat up George as he left, and whether his immediate aim was freedom or to escape punishment over a card game dispute. In any case, Reeves went to live among the Creek and Seminole Indians. He learned their customs and languages and became a proficient territorial scout. Reeves eventually procured a homestead in Van Buren, Arkansas, where he was the first black settler. He married Nellie Jennie, built an eight-room house with his bare hands, and raised ten children—five girls and five boys. Life was good, but it was about to change for Bass Reeves.   

Image credit: Kmusser via Wikipedia

The state of Oklahoma at the time was two different territories: Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory. Indian Territory was where the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw tribes who were forcibly removed from their homes were resettled following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. But they weren't the only citizens of Indian Territory. There were also former slaves of the tribes, freed and made tribal members after the Civil War, settlers from the East (both black and white) who sharecropped tribal property, and a good measure of outlaws fleeing from civilization. Indian territory was attractive to lawbreakers because of its peculiar judiciary arrangement: The tribal courts had jurisdiction only over tribal members. Non-Indians were under the jurisdiction of federal courts, but there were few marshals to supervise a very large area.

In 1875, “Hanging Judge” Isaac C. Parker was made the federal judge of Indian Territory. One of his first acts was to make James Fagan a U.S. Marshal and order him to hire 200 deputies. Fagan knew of Reeves and his ability to negotiate Indian Territory and speak the languages, so Reeves was named the first black Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi. As such, he was authorized to arrest both black and white lawbreakers. Reeves was well aware of the historic precedent, and took his responsibilities seriously.

Reeves was 38 years old at the time, 6 feet 2 inches tall, weighed 180 pounds, and rode a large horse. He cut an imposing figure as he patrolled the 75,000 square miles of Indian Territory. He quickly gained a reputation as a tough and fearless lawman who managed to bring in outlaws thought to be invincible. Reeves traveled the long circuit with a wagon, cook, and often a posse. He carried chains to secure prisoners to the wagon, as he sometimes had a dozen or more by the time he returned to Ft. Smith, where Judge Parker held court.  

In 1882, Reeves arrested Belle Starr for horse theft. Some accounts say that she turned herself in when she heard that the legendary Bass Reeves was looking for her.

In 1889, after Reeves was assigned to Paris, Texas, he went after the Tom Story gang for their long-term horse theft operation. He waited along the route Tom Story used, and surprised him with an arrest warrant. Story panicked and drew his gun, but Reeves drew and shot him dead before Story could fire. The rest of the gang disbanded and were never heard from again.

Reeves approached the three murderous Brunter brothers and handed them a warrant for their arrest. The three outlaws laughed and read the warrant, and in the split second they all took their eyes off Reeves, he managed to draw his gun and kill two of them, and immediately disarmed and arrested the third.

Although Reeves was a skilled frontiersman and spoke several languages, he had never learned to read. Once, when two potential assassins forced Reeves off his horse, he asked them for one last request - that someone read him a letter from his wife. When the outlaws were momentarily distracted by the piece of paper they were handed, Reeves drew his gun and turned the situation around. The second outlaw dropped his gun in surprise, and they were both arrested. Reeves used the "piece of paper" ruse several times in his career to distract felons to similar ends.   

Reeves was arrested himself in 1887, and charged with murder in the death of his posse cook, William Leach. Brought to trial before Judge Parker, he testified that he shot the cook by accident while cleaning his gun, and was acquitted.

The marshal was famous for fair-mindedness and was impossible to bribe or corrupt. In 1902 he arrested his own son, Benny, for murdering his wife (Reeves' daughter-in-law). Benny had fled to the badlands after the crime, and no other marshal was willing to pursue him. As distasteful as the task was, Reeves brought him back, and Benny served twenty years at Leavenworth.  

Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and Reeves' commission as marshal ended. He was 68 years old by then, but took on another position with the Muskogee Police Department, which he kept until his health began to fail. Reeves died of Bright's disease in 1910. In his 32 years as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, Reeves had seen bullets fly through his clothing and hat, but was never injured by an outlaw. His record of 3,000 arrests dwarfs the arrest records of better known Old West lawmen such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.

The story of Bass Reeves is sometimes cited as the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. It also may have been an inspiration for the film Django Unchained. The 2010 straight-to-video movie Bass Reeves is a fictionalized account of the lawman's life. In 2011, the bridge that connects Muskogee and Fort Gibson in Oklanahoma was named the Bass Reeves Memorial Bridge.

Once asked why he spent so much effort enforcing the "white man's laws," Bass reportedly replied, "Maybe the law ain't perfect, but it's the only one we got, and without it we got nuthin'."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
arrow
holidays
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios