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Zane Grey, Fran Striker, and the Texas Rangers

Zane Grey, Fran Striker, and the Texas Rangers

by William H. Benson

June 25, 2020

     Zane Grey was a most prolific author who wrote more than ninety books, mainly fictional westerns, but also non-fiction books on hunting, baseball, and fishing. “His total book sales exceeded $40 million, and he became one of the first millionaire authors.”

     Grey’s books helped to shape the old West’s myths: a lone gunman, outlaws, cattle rustlers, lawmen who wore badges, horse thieves, hangings, battles over water rights, discovery of gold, and more.

     Grey’s 1912 book, Riders of the Purple Sage, became his best-selling book ever, even though it is a love story, set in Utah among polygamous Mormons. Its characters include an independent single woman Jane Withersteen, who owns a ranch, and a gunfighter named Jim Lassiter.

     One critic pointed out that sage is not purple. “For most of the year,” she wrote, “it is gray.” On the book’s first page, Grey writes the word “purple,” and then writes it multiple times thereafter. Ever since, critics have labelled Zane Grey’s forced and earnest writing style, “purple prose.”

     His 1915 book, The Lone Star Ranger, he set in Texas, and in it he featured Buck Duane, a good-hearted gunman, forced to “go on the dodge,” after killing a man in self-defense. In the book’s second half, Duane joins the Texas Rangers, to help the state’s police force nab a series of bank robbers.

     Zane Grey died in 1939, and was survived by his three children and his patient wife, Lina Elise Grey, who had remained at their home in Altadena, California, and raised their children, while Zane traveled for months on fishing expeditions, and carried on numerous affairs with a series of mistresses.

     Fran Striker was another prolific author, who began writing dramas for Detroit’s radio station, WXYZ. In late 1932, Striker created a new character, a single Texas Ranger, The Lone Ranger, that he adapted from Zane Grey’s book. It first broadcast in January 1933, and ran until 1956.

     Striker wrote 2,956 Lone Ranger radio scripts, plus numerous other radio scripts for Green Hornet, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. He also wrote eighteen Lone Ranger novels.

     Fran Striker built the story of the Lone Ranger around a posse of six Texas Rangers, led by Captain Dan Reid, who were in hot pursuit of Butch Cavendish and his band of outlaws. The outlaws ambushed Reid and the Rangers at Bryant’s Gap, and shot and killed five of the six Rangers.

     An Indian named Tonto arrived at Bryant’s Gap and discovered that Captain Dan’s younger brother, John Reid, although wounded, was still alive. Tonto helped this lone Texas ranger back to health, and from then on Tonto called him, “Kemo Sabe,” Native American words that mean “trusted scout.”

     The two then pursued Cavendish and a stream of other outlaws, bringing each to justice. John Reid wore a mask and assumed a mysterious identity, one who rights wrongs.

    ABC began to televise The Lone Ranger in the fall of 1949, and the show ran until 1957, a total of 221 half hour episodes. Clayton Moore played the Lone Ranger, and Jay Silverheels played Tonto.

     On occasion, truth is stranger than fiction, more grisly, more ugly. Doug J. Swanson, a historian of the west, has published in recent days a new history of the Texas Rangers, entitled Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers.

     In his account, Swanson reveals a tale of rampant racism, unlawful actions that included murder, and a refusal to investigate crimes when victims would dare to present evidence.

     For example, during the Mexican-American War, Second Lt. Ulysses S. Grant wrote to his fiancée, and said, “About all of the Texans seem to think it perfectly right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark.”

     During the Civil War, the Rangers sided with the Confederates, and then after the war, when racial hatred reared its ugly head, the Rangers looked the other way. Swanson writes, “Between 1865 and 1930, there were 450 lynchings in Texas, mostly of blacks, which the Rangers ignored.”

     Yes, they wore their Stetson hats, their cowboy boots, and their badges, and acted under the guise of a mid-twentieth century state police force, but at the same time, they worked to “’keep black children out’ of public schools, even though the federal courts had mandated that Texas must integrate.”

     Zane Grey and Fran Striker’s fictional tales of the Texas Rangers stand in stark contrast to that of Doug J. Swanson’s historical account, that he based upon solid historical evidence.

     The fiction entertains us because in the end, before the closing credits and a commercial, justice triumphs, and wrongs are righted, all done in a quiet, humble, unassuming way—“Who was that masked man?”—but the history disgusts us, because on occasion justice does not prevail, the innocent die, and the authorities fail to apprehend the bad guy.

     Take your pick: Zane Grey, Fran Striker, or Doug J. Swanson.