Who was the greatest Deputy U.S. Marshal of the Old West?
Wild Bill Hickok?
How about Bass Reeves? Bass who?
Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves was arguably the greatest lawman and gunfighter of the West, a man who served as a marshal for 32 years in the most dangerous district in the country, captured 3,000 felons, (once bringing in 17 men at one time), and shot 14 men in the line of duty, all without ever being shot himself.
He was also a black dude.
To understand the story of Bass Reeves, you first need to understand a bit of the fascinating history of Oklahoma. Let’s start there.
Before Oklahoma was a state, it was a territory. When the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Seminoles, and Chickasaws) were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in the Southeast, they were relocated to the middle of the country, to an area called the Indian Territory.
Because the Five Tribes sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, the federal government forced them to renegotiate their treaties and cede the Western half of Indian Territory for the settlement of other tribes. This was called the Oklahoma Territory, and it was opened in 1890 to white settlers. The two territories were referred to as the “Twin Territories.”
The Indian Territory boasted an unusual mix of peoples and cultures. It was the home of Indians, Indian Freedmen (the black slaves of the Indians who were emancipated after the Civil War and made citizens of the Five Tribes), white settlers and African-Americans who had formerly been slaves to white masters in the South who rented land from the Indians as sharecroppers, and finally, outlaws fleeing the law and squatting on the land.
The Indian Lightforce police and the tribal courts governed this diverse population. But the tribal courts only had jurisdiction over citizens of the Five Tribes. So if a crime was a committed by an Indian and/or it involved a fellow Indian, it was handled by these tribal courts.
Non-Freedmen blacks, whites, and Indians who committed a crime against a person who was not a citizen of the Indian nations had to be tried in the U.S. federal courts in Paris, Texas and Fort Smith, Arkansas. And so the only U.S. law enforcement officers or judicial figures in Indian Territory were the U.S. Marshals, who rode for miles over the prairies, for months at a time, looking for wanted criminals to arrest and bring back to Fort Smith or Paris.
This made the Indian Territory a highly desirable place for horse thieves, bootleggers, murderers and outlaws of all varieties to hide out and lay low. At the time, it was estimated that of the 22,000 whites living in Indian Territory, 17,000 of them were criminals. This was truly the Wild West, or as the saying of the time went, “No Sunday West of St. Louis. No God West of Fort Smith.”
“Eighty miles west of Fort Smith was known as “the dead line,” and whenever a deputy marshal from Fort Smith or Paris, Texas, crossed the Missouri, Kansas & Texas track he took his own life in his hands and he knew it. On nearly every trail would be found posted by outlaws a small card warning certain deputies that if they ever crossed the dead line they would be killed. Reeves has a dozen of these cards which were posted for his special benefit. And in those days such a notice was no idle boast, and many an outlaw has bitten the dust trying to ambush a deputy on these trails.” -Oklahoma City newspaper article, 1907
Indian Territory was the most dangerous place for a U.S. Marshal to work then or ever. In the period before Oklahoma statehood, over one hundred marshals were killed in the line of duty. It helps to put that number in perspective: Since the US Marshals Service was created in 1789, more than 200 marshals have been killed in the line of duty. 120 of those were killed in the Indian and Oklahoma territories before statehood in 1907. That’s right, half of all the U.S. marshals ever killed were killed in the Twin Territories.
A man really had to have true grit to be a marshal at this time and in this place.
Bass Reeves had that grit in spades.
Reeves was likely the first African-American commissioned as a deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River and was brought into the service by Judge Isaac C. Parker, aka the “The Hanging Judge.” Parker presided over the largest federal court district in U.S. history (74,000 square miles) and sentenced 88 men to be hanged during the course of his career. For more than half of his years on the bench, no appeals of his decisions were allowed. Reeves and Parker enjoyed a professional and personal relationship of great mutual respect.
It was a respect Reeves worked hard to earn.
Reeves stood 6’2 in a time when men were much shorter, and he had very broad shoulders and large hands. He was a giant among men. Such a large man needed a uncommonly large horse (“When you get as big as me, a small horse is as worthless as a preacher in a whiskey joint fight. Just when you need him bad to help you out, he’s got to stop and think about it a little bit.”). He rode the territories with two six-shooters, his trusty Winchester rifle, and a big black hat upon his head. Needless to say, Reeves cut an extremely imposing figure.
But it was his reputation more than his appearance that really struck fear in the hearts of the “bad men” of the territories. Contemporaries described Reeves as a “lawman second to none,” a man who was “absolutely fearless,” and a “terror to outlaws and desperadoes.” He was said to be the “most feared U.S marshal that was ever heard of in that country,” and his nickname was the “Invincible Marshal;” the undisputed king of narrow escapes, “at different times his belt was shot in two, a button shot off his coat, his hat brim shot off, and the bridle reins which he held in his hands cut by a bullet.”
Reeves was also know for his honesty, dogged persistence, and unswerving devotion to duty and the law. He always got his man; having arrested 3,000 criminals, he only once failed to nab the man he was after. He never shot a man when it wasn’t necessary and they hadn’t aimed to kill him first. And he never changed his policies or treatment of folks on the basis of race, ethnicity, or even familial ties; all were equal under the law. Not only did Reeves arrest the minister who baptized him, he also arrested his own son after the young man murdered his wife in a fit of jealously. None of the other marshals wanted the latter assignment, but Reeves simply strode into the Chief Deputy Marshal’s office and said, “Give me the writ.” Two weeks later, he brought in his son to be booked.
Oh, and he had an awesome mustache.
Reeves’ deeds and exploits are the stuff of Hollywood films, but they’re absolutely true and offer us several lessons in manliness.
Lessons in Manliness from Bass Reeves
It’s Never Too Late for a Man to Have a Second Act
Bass Reeves was born a slave in Arkansas in 1838. When the Civil War broke out, his white master joined the Confederate Army and took Reeves along to serve as his body servant. Reeves bided his time, until one night he saw an opening, laid out his master with his mighty fists, and took off for the hills a free man. He was taken in by the Keetoowah, an abolitionist sect of the Cherokee Nation.
When the war was over, he struck out on his own and settled with his family in Van Buren, Arkansas, making a good living as a farmer and horse breeder. He was the first black man to settle in Van Buren, and he built his family an eight room house with his own hands.
He started making some extra money by helping the U.S. Marshals with scouting and tracking and soon earned a reputation for himself as a man who knew what he was doing and could be relied upon.
He was commissioned as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in his own right in 1875, when he was 38 years old. During this time marshals were paid for the number of criminals brought in and the distance traveled in capturing them and bringing them back to court. With so many miles to cover in Indian Territory, and with his legendary effectiveness for tracking down wrong-doers, Reeves made a great living at his job. And so it was only as he was nearing 40 that he found his true calling.
Compensate for Weaknesses by Cultivating Signature Strengths
“My mom always said she heard that Bass was so tough he could spit on a brick and bust it in two!” -Willabelle Shultz, granddaughter of fellow marshal
Because he grew up a slave, Bass Reeves did not know how to read or write. Being an illiterate U.S. Marshal was highly unusual—the men needed to fill out forms and reports–but Bass got and kept his job by compensating for this weakness with other valuable strengths.
First, he could speak the Muskogee language of the Creeks and Seminoles, and he could also converse pretty well in the languages of the other Five Civilized Tribes. He took the time to get to know the tribes and their customs, and they respected him for it. His friendly and sterling reputation among Indians, blacks, and whites alike led folks to trust him and give him assistance and tips they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with other marshals.
Reeves knew Indian Territory like the back of his hand, and his scouting and tracking skills were second to none.
But his most notable strength was his prowess with firearms. He carried two big .45 caliber six-shooters and wore them with their handles facing forward. He employed the cross-handed draw, as he believed it was the fastest way for a man to grab his guns. And indeed, he was known as a man who could draw with lightning fast speed; numerous men tried to beat him, and 14 of them died in the attempt.
But unlike what you see in movies, cowboys in the West did not rely on their pistols; those were their back-up firearms. A cowboy’s weapon of choice was his trusty Winchester rifle, and that was the gun Reeves used most. But he was a proficient marksman with both weapons. Ambidextrous and always cool under pressure, Reeves could fire an accurate shot with pistol or rifle, with his left hand or his right. It was said he could draw “a bead as fine as a spider’s web on a frosty morning” and “shoot the left hind leg off of a contended fly sitting on a mule’s ear at a hundred yards and never ruffle a hair.”
Turkey shoot competitions were popular at territorial fairs and picnics, but Reeves was banned from entering them because he was too darn good. Once, when he saw 6 wolves tearing at a steer, he took them all out with just 8 shots from the back of a galloping horse.
The Mind Is Just as Powerful a Weapon as the Gun
“If Reeves were fictional, he would be a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Superman, and the Lone Ranger.” -Historian Art Burton
Nightfall in Minsk means Dmitry Naskovets begins working the phone. At 24, Naskovets is tall and skinny, and still looks like the college kid he recently was. He’s in his apartment’s kitchen, in a respectable neighborhood off the second ring road in the capital of Belarus. He starts around 6 p.m. and usually doesn’t quit until three the next morning.
On this particular winter night in 2009, Naskovets checks the online orders that have come in and sees a routine assignment. A client has tried to buy a MacBook Pro online with a stolen credit card, but American Express blocked the purchase. Now it’s Naskovets’s job to work it out with Amex.
He calls the toll-free number, using software that makes it look as if he’s dialing from the U.S. Any information the customer rep might ask for, Naskovets’s client sends him instantly by chat. The questions don’t usually get beyond the cardholder’s date of birth, Social Security number, or mother’s maiden name, but the woman fielding this call is unusually thorough. She notices that the phone number on the account has changed recently, triggering extra security. She puts Naskovets on hold while a colleague dials the old number and gets the actual cardholder on the line.
Thus begins an absurd contest: Naskovets against the man he’s impersonating. The agents throw out questions to distinguish the fake. When did you buy your home? What color was the car you bought in 2004? Each time Amex puts him on hold, he knows the legitimate cardholder is being asked the same question. At last, the rep thanks him, apologizes, and approves the purchase. Naskovets was even better than the real thing. (Amex declined to comment on the incident.)
Telling the anecdote years later, Naskovets is still amazed that Amex got it wrong. And he has a certain sympathy for the victim, who had to dredge up details from memory, while Naskovets just read off a screen. “This guy has his credit stolen from him in front of his eyes,” he says.
From 2007 to 2010, Naskovets was an identity thief—the voice on the phone that explained questionable purchases to banks and gave final approval for fraudulent wire transfers. He didn’t convince every agent; about a third of the time, the scam didn’t work, he says. Hang up, move on. But he was successful enough to smooth the way for more than 5,000 instances of fraud, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
If a bank employee got suspicious, Naskovets feigned impatience. “I don’t have time for this!”
The prefix “cyber-” evokes technological sophistication, yet cybercrime depends on legions of old-fashioned crooks. They’re foot soldiers with no particular computer skills who play the part of customers over the phone or cash out compromised accounts and send laundered money to superiors in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. As data theft has exploded, with hackers vacuuming up hundreds of millions of credit card and bank account records in recent years, so has this service sector.
“I understand it’s bad,” Naskovets says. “I understand that. But in the beginning, when you’re sitting in Belarus, and you’re very young and you need money … ,” he trails off. “You don’t see blood, you don’t see crying people in front of you. You’re just pushing the button.”
Naskovets grew up in Borisov, a small city an hour northeast of Minsk, raised by his grandmother and his mother, a nurse. He attended a public school with an intensive English program, with lessons six times a week from age 6 to 15, including classes in literature and translation, then studied finance in college. At 22, he was working for a Minsk car dealership when he ran into a former classmate named Sergey Semashko on the subway. He mentioned a job opportunity for someone with excellent English.
A few days later, Naskovets visited Semashko, whom he’d never known to be wealthy, in a mysteriously high-end apartment in one of Minsk’s better neighborhoods. Semashko left the details of the job vague. Get a headset and a Skype account, he told Naskovets, handing him $500—more than Naskovets earned in a month.
Whatever this new chance might be, Naskovets had reasons beyond greed for jumping at it. Selling cars wasn’t the career he’d planned. When he graduated in 2004, he’d gotten a job at a state-owned bank. But after joining a demonstration that criticized President Aleksandr Lukashenko, he was detained by Belarusian security agents. (They’re known by the initials KGB, as in the former Soviet Union.) The agents wanted him to snitch on his fellow demonstrators, he says. He refused. The KGB persisted. When Naskovets stopped answering his personal phone, agents called him at the bank, and the bank didn’t renew his contract. Finding a job became difficult. The KGB kept up its pursuit, detained him again, and then pressured the adhesive tape factory where he’d found work to fire him, he says.
It was late 2006, and as Naskovets struggled, a golden age of cybercrime was underway. TJX Cos., the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores, would shortly discover that hackers had made off with credit card data for 46 million customers—one of the first corporate megabreaches. Within a year, the Zeus Trojan, a piece of malware designed for bank robbery, would infect tens of thousands of computers. The new efficiency in harvesting stolen data created a bonanza of opportunities in the black market. This was the world Naskovets entered.
He set up an e-mail account, email@example.com, and began to get messages from strangers via Semashko. At first, they wanted him to check a credit card balance or change the billing address on an account. The requests quickly became more obviously illegal—impersonating bank customers and getting bogus wire transfers approved. To Naskovets, it felt almost like a game. “It’s crazy and every day something new,” he says. “You can do it from your kitchen in your underwear with a beer.”
By mid-2007, his business was thriving. Customers typically reached him via an order form on the website he and Semashko set up, CallService.biz. They advertised on CardingWorld.cc and other forums popular with data thieves.
His hacker partners did the complex computer work of stealing account data, logins, and passwords; Social Security numbers; and security questions and answers. They would then initiate fraudulent transfers or purchase expensive, easily resold items such as watches or Apple computers. With his conversational English, Naskovets provided the final piece, getting around the toughest security measures—if an outgoing wire required verbal confirmation, say, or a card company called to make sure it was really John Smith buying that $3,000 watch on EBay.
Naskovets did as many as 30 calls a day, charging about $20 a pop or a percentage of the transaction. For most jobs, customers provided the information he needed, usually culled from credit reports. If a bank asked for ID, Naskovets knew a guy who could e-mail a PDF of a fake driver’s license in seven minutes for $20. If he didn’t know the answer to a security question, or an agent got suspicious, he had a strategy: feign impatience or frustration. American financial institutions focus on customer service at the expense of security, Naskovets says. “Why are you asking me that?” he’d sputter. “I don’t have time for this! I need to get this done!”
His accent wasn’t much of a problem. Agents at banks followed a tight script. As long as he had all the answers right, he says, they weren’t going to risk going to a supervisor over a foreign accent.
Not that there weren’t hiccups. Once, when he was supposed to be someone named Thomas Jefferson, an agent pointedly asked if he knew who that was. He began to get threatening calls from bank security personnel and the FBI. “We’re going to get you,” they said. He’d tell them they had the wrong number.
He didn’t worry too much about those calls. He didn’t know who any of his clients were, and all they knew about him was his instant message account, or so he thought.
“It’s crazy and every day something new. You can do it from your kitchen in your underwear with a beer”
Naskovets is cagey about how much he brought in—sometimes $400 a day, sometimes $1,000, sometimes nothing. He avoided transactions involving millions of dollars, preferring smaller stakes, less anxiety, and greater freedom. “The bigger the money, the bigger the mental tension,” he says. Instead, he enjoyed himself. He could afford restaurants and nightclubs. He traveled for the first time, to Bulgaria, India, Paris, and Turkey. He married his girlfriend. “It was a good life,” he says. “The most important thing was a kind of freedom from anything.”
With his profits, he tried to start over outside Belarus. In 2009, Naskovets and his wife left for Prague with plans to start a pet supply store. But his old clients kept bringing him work. “I already understood I cannot do this business all my life,” he says. “It was so difficult to cancel—people are constantly messaging you.”
Naskovets was at home on April 15, 2010, in a six-story apartment building near Prague’s biggest park, when the power cut out. The doorbell rang; a man in a bright orange jacket with a company name on it waited outside—an electrician, Naskovets assumed. Naskovets opened the door and found a gun in his face. Shouting, the fake workman forced him to the floor, handcuffing him while more officers entered the apartment. A silent FBI agent stood watch. They put Naskovets in a chair and showed him a document. It said he could go to jail for 39½ years in the U.S. for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Then they bundled him off to Prague’s Pankrác prison, wearing a zip-up Fair Isle sweater and looking like an early ’60s Beatle with his floppy hair.
Belarus authorities arrested Semashko on the same day, and officials in Lithuania seized computers that hosted CallService.biz. Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, trumpeted the arrests: “Dmitry Naskovets’s website was essentially an online bazaar for dangerous identity thieves. ... Today, we have shut down that business and protected untold thousands of potential victims of identity theft.”
Naskovets didn’t know how the U.S. had found him. He suspected a former girlfriend had turned on him. Also, the indictment referenced a chat where he’d inadvertently sent personal information to a client. His first instinct was to fight the charges. He didn’t cooperate when U.S. authorities attempted to interrogate him in May 2010. But his lawyer told him to accept extradition and make a deal; by mid-September he was at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. He pleaded guilty in 2011. In March 2012, Judge Lewis Kaplan sentenced him to 33 months, most of which he’d already served, and ordered him to pay $200.
“I want to say thank you to the American government for giving me an opportunity to clean my hands in front of justice in such a humane and civilized way,” Naskovets told the judge, “for giving me the opportunity to accept responsibility for all unlawful and immoral deeds and to start a new part of my life with totally different ideas in my mind.”
He meant it. After a conversation with Naskovets, you realize quickly that he’s a relentless optimist. He paints his time in the U.S. correctional system as an adventure. “I get this philosophy probably from my grandmother. It’s like, ‘Life is good no matter what.’ ” He spent the biggest chunk of time in Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, working a 3-to-8 a.m. kitchen shift for 20¢ an hour and reading—the New York Times, Keith Richards’s Life, and Russian novels donated to the prison library by a previous inmate, Ukrainian hacker Roman Vega. Cybercrime, Naskovets discovered, commanded respect. He got more than one business proposal from fellow inmates for work when he got out.
“You can get life for two kilos of cocaine, but if you’re going to get some bank fraud, OK, you’re going to get 18 months,” he says. “And at the same time, the reputation you got, it’s like, ‘Oh, you are the most sophisticated.’ So this is crazy.”
Factoring in time served and a reduction for good behavior, Naskovets got out in September 2012. He faced a deportation order that would have sent him back to Belarus. Representing himself in immigration court, he argued that he risked torture if sent home, based on his run-ins with the KGB. As a signatory to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the U.S. cannot send someone back to a country knowing he’s likely to be tortured. An immigration judge sided with Naskovets. The government appealed.
Here’s where Naskovets’s optimism proved justified. While he was buffing floors in a county prison in Pennsylvania, his case had caught the attention of Stephen Yale-Loehr, a law professor who runs an immigration clinic at Cornell. With the help of Yale-Loehr and his students, Naskovets fought Immigration and Customs Enforcement in court for two years—and in October 2014 the agency decided to let him stay.
I met Naskovets two weeks later, at a Central Asian restaurant near Coney Island. He already had a job, doing office work for Arkady Bukh, the lawyer who’d represented him in his criminal case. He ordered fried Russian dumplings and coffee. He looked rough, dressed all in black, with unkempt hair, a deep pallor, and teeth chipped in a prison accident. He more or less matched my mental image of an Eastern European identity thief.
By February 2015, Naskovets was living in Far Rockaway, Queens. He picked me up in a friend’s white Audi sedan, wearing a long black dress coat and new shoes, with new teeth and a haircut. He’d been taking an online course on the art business through Sotheby’s. He’d also applied for a Discover card. “From the professional point of view, I’m analyzing how they work,” he says, unimpressed. “They ask very secure, very tough questions—they think—like, ‘What is your business address?’ ”
Naskovets and Bukh have since started their own company, CyberSec, which bills itself as “a different kind of cyber security firm.” Their website touts the skills of “hackers who are now using their knowledge of computers to do good.” They include Igor Klopov, who’s back in Russia after serving a sentence for identity theft in the U.S., and Vladislav Horohorin, formerly known as BadB, a notorious Russian hacker who’s still in jail in Massachusetts for credit card and wire fraud.
Not long after he got out of jail, Naskovets contacted the American Express security department to offer his help. “I was like, ‘Because of you, I’m here. I’m good, so let me pay you back a little bit,’ ” he says. The company didn’t take him up on the offer.
(Corrects the communication method Naskovets used.)