Was an African American Cop The Real Lone Ranger?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 8/6/2013, 11:32 a.m.
More than a century before Johnny Depp wore a terrifying crow headpiece in new Disney film "The Lone Ranger," another ...
Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves Sketches

Bass Reeves Sketches

By Sheena McKenzie

CNN

More than a century before Johnny Depp wore a terrifying crow headpiece in new Disney film "The Lone Ranger," another hero of the Wild West was carefully arranging his own remarkable disguise.

Sometimes he dressed as a preacher, at other times a tramp, and occasionally even a woman.

But beneath the elaborate costumes was always Bass Reeves -- a 19th-century Arkansas slave who became a legendary Deputy U.S. Marshal, capturing more than 3,000 criminals with his flamboyant detective skills, super strength and supreme horsemanship.

Sound familiar? As one historian argues, Reeves could have been the real-life inspiration behind one of America's most beloved fictional characters -- the Lone Ranger.

"Many of Reeves' personal attributes and techniques in catching desperadoes were similar to the Lone Ranger," says Art Burton, author of "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves."

"He was bigger than the Lone Ranger -- he was a combination of the Lone Ranger, Sherlock Holmes and Superman," Burton told CNN. "But because he was a black man his story has been buried. He never got the recognition he deserved."

Legendary Lone Ranger

It's a world apart from the fictional Lone Ranger, who remains one of most the iconic Wild West heroes of the 20th century.

First appearing on a Detroit radio station in 1933, the masked man on a white stallion who brought bad guys to justice was hugely successful, with the series running for over two decades. It spawned novels, comic books and an eight-year TV show starring the most iconic Lone Ranger of all -- actor Clayton Moore.

Indeed, Disney's new film -- featuring Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as his trusty native American Indian sidekick Tonto -- is just the latest in a long line of films depicting the legendary lawman.

So what's that got to do with Bass Reeves -- one of the country's first African American marshals, who was born almost 100 years before the Lone Ranger made his radio debut?

Hi-Ho Silver!

Quite a lot, argues Burton, pointing to similarities such as their gray horses, penchant for disguises, use of American Indian trackers, and unusual calling cards -- Reeves gave folks a silver dollar to remember him by, while the Lone Ranger left silver bullets.

As for the iconic black mask, the link is more symbolic. "Blacks at that time wore an invisible mask in a world that largely ignored them -- so in that societal sense, Reeves also wore a mask," said Burton, a lecturer at South Suburban College in Illinois.

"When the Lone Ranger first started appearing in comic books he wore a black mask that covered his entire face. Why would they do that? There was deep physiological connection going on."

Then there's the Detroit link. Many of the thousands of criminals captured by Reeves were sent to the House of Corrections in Detroit -- the same city where the Lone Ranger character was created by George Trendle and Fran Striker.