Duty Above Else - American Cowboy | Western Lifestyle - Travel - People

Duty Above Else

Bass Reeves arrests his own son.
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Credit: Pavel Kisselev

Credit: Pavel Kisselev

The saying was, “There is no law west of St. Louis, and no God west of Ft. Smith.” Indeed, Indian Territory at the end of the 19th century was a wild and perilous stretch of land. For decades, it served as a safe harbor for every whiskey runner, horse thief, grafter, bank robber, highwayman, and murderer in the region. There was no one to pursue them but a staff of stalwart U.S. deputy marshals riding for Isaac C. Parker’s district court for the Western District of Arkansas. Known to history as the “Hanging Judge,” Parker picked tough and resilient men for the job, knowing well that many would not live to see old age. Stories of their exploits resound in the annals of the Old West, but few are as curious—or as inspiring—as that of Bass Reeves, and the time he arrested his own son for murder.

Among a band of professional lawmen highly regarded for their skills as trackers and shootists, as well as for their integrity, Bass Reeves stood out. He commanded attention wherever he went, as much for his broad-shouldered 6’2” frame, as for the fact that he was a black man, working in what was traditionally thought of as a white man’s job. Born into slavery in Texas in 1838, he accompanied his master, Confederate colonel George Reeves, into battle when the Civil War broke out. Bass supposedly gained his freedom after severely beating Reeves in a card game dispute, and then escaping into Indian Territory. He lived for a time with the Creek Indians, learning their language, as well as attaining a thoroughgoing faculty with weapons. He married and farmed in Arkansas before accepting Judge Parker’s appointment as one of his first deputy marshals.

During the 32 years in which he rode for the court, Bass Reeves arrested more than 3,000 accused felons and killed 14 men. His most difficult case, however, unfolded in 1902, when the unwavering peace officer was 64 years of age. Reeves’ son Benjamin—Bennie, to his dad—worked as a barber in Muskogee, and one day came home to find his wife, Cassie, in bed with another man. Bennie, less inclined to violence than his famous father, forgave them. Over glasses of whiskey, he asked Bass what he would have done. Without hesitation, the tough old lawman replied, “I’d have shot the man, and whipped the living God out of her!”

Bennie soon got his chance. Finding his wayward wife with yet another man, he beat the man senseless, and shot his wife to death. Bennie immediately went “on the dodge” into the Nations, as word of the murder spread throughout the city. Marshal Leo Bennett, Bass’s boss, was reluctant to give him the warrant. But none of the other officers wanted the job of bringing in Bass’ son, and when Reeves insisted, he was handed the assignment. 

According to the legend—and to Bennie’s sister, Alice—Bass gathered his gear, saddled up, and set off in hard pursuit. Two weeks later, after an arduous trek through the Oklahoma hills, he returned, with Bennie in tow. However, an article in the June 8, 1902, issue of the Muskogee Daily Phoenix states that Bennie surrendered to his father immediately after the slaying. Bennie was obliged to fill out a prisoner’s agreement after his arrest. In response to the query, “Where and by whom were you arrested?” Bennie wrote, “Muskogee by Bass Reeves my father who was Deputy Marshal.” There is nothing to indicate whether or not a chase occurred. There is no question, however, that Bass arrested his son for the murder.

One of Bass’s two biographers believes Alice’s version, while the other credits the newspaper account. Both, however, agree that the incident took a severe toll on the old deputy, both emotionally and physically. Bennie was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in Leavenworth Federal Prison. Bass stood by his son throughout the trial, and visited him regularly in jail. After nearly 12 years behind bars, Bennie’s sentence was commuted, whereupon he returned to Muskogee, and lived out his life in peace.

Bass left the Marshal’s Service in 1907, and served briefly as a Muskogee police officer. He died of Bright’s disease—a kidney ailment—in 1910, at the age of 71. In his obituary, the Muskogee Daily Phoenix wrote of Reeves’s “devotion to duty equaling that of the old Roman, Brutus, whose greatest claim on fame has been that the love for his son could not sway him from justice. [Bass] said, ‘give me the writ,’ and went out and arrested his son, [and] brought him into court.”

Ironically, despite his decades of selfless and often perilous service in the interests of law and order, Bass Reeves lies in an unmarked grave, its location unknown.

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