Wednesday, August 12, 2020


Al Jennings
Beginning with the radio broadcast of February 14, 1944, a new schedule of Lone Ranger stories was initiated whereby Monday broadcasts were devoted to a historical character and The Lone Ranger’s brush with historical fame, Wednesday broadcasts featured Dan Reid, and Friday broadcasts were general western type of stories. Officially Dan Reid was brought back into the series permanently on Wednesday, February 9, and The Lone Ranger met the famous Wyatt Earp back on the broadcast of January 3, but the new format was made official with the broadcast of February 14. Fans today refer to those Monday broadcasts as part of the “biography” series, with stronger emphasis of The Lone Ranger wearing a mask to suggest he was merely concealing a famous face known to many. During those broadcasts, The Lone Ranger fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Buffalo Bill against renegade whites and Indians. For young listeners, it was The Lone Ranger who helped Wild Bill Hickok tame the town of Deadwood. It was The Lone Ranger who sent a warning to General Custer who led a foolhardy attack on Indian forces. It was these broadcasts more than any other that helped establish the program’s opening catchphrase: “Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice…” The Lone Ranger even persuaded Pat Garrett to become a special lawman, assigned to track down Billy the Kid. 

The Biography Series eventually came to a close before the end of August 1944, after one of the broadcasts created a legal stir with The Lone Ranger, Inc. Al Jennings, an 80-year-old reformed trainer robber and one-time Wild West bad man, glamorously portrayed in an episode of The Lone Ranger, filed a lawsuit against The Lone Ranger, Inc., seeking damages for the way he was portrayed on the radio broadcast. To everyone’s surprise, including the script writer, Al Jennings was still alive at the time they depicted his criminal exploits on The Lone Ranger.

In 1899, Jennings was sentenced to life in prison for train robbery. Due to the legal efforts of his brother John, his sentence was reduced to five years. He was freed on technicalities in 1902 and received a presidential pardon in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt. After writing a number of semi-autobiographical books and stories based on his criminal escapades, Jennings moved to California and worked in the motion picture industry making Westerns. Throughout 1919 and the surrounding months, Jennings took up a professional acting career often portraying himself on screen perpetuating the myth of a “good bandit.” Jennings became a popular speaker, evangelist and writer – his life being serialized in The Saturday Evening Post

Al Jennings starring in his own silent film shorts.
On the evening of August 7, 1944, The Lone Ranger broadcast presented one of the usual weekly biography sketches in which the masked man brushed along a legend from the by-gone era. The Lone Ranger shot a gun out of the hands of an Oklahoma bad man, Al Jennings, who at the time was not only ravaging the countryside with his depredations, but who was in the very act of persuading a teenage boy to join his notorious band of bank and train robbers. When The Lone Ranger appeared on the scene and promptly took over, he unbraided Jennings in a stirring speech in which virtue and morality were given high due, and in which he added the punctuation by shooting the iron out of Jennings’ hand with the characteristic aplomb which only he could muster. But this was almost a costly mistake against The Lone Ranger entity.

As soon as papers were served against The Lone Ranger, Inc., George W. Trendle handed down diction to director Charles Livingstone to cease dramatizing exploits of The Lone Ranger that involved his encounters of famous outlaws and heroic figures. Jennings was the star witness as the trial of his $100,000 defamation suit, which ran two days, in September of 1945. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Jennings named the Don Lee Broadcasting Company and the Weber Baking Company (the local sponsor of The Lone Ranger in the area where Jennings lived), as defendants. 

“They made me mad,” said Jennings who, when he took the stand, appeared more like a cracker barrel philosopher than the terror of the West. “They had this Lone Ranger shootin’ a gun out of my hand – and me an expert! You can’t shoot a gun out of a man’s hand, anyway – except in the movies. Not without shooting his hand near off. Who is this Lone Ranger, anyway?” Jennings declared the program made him out like a bank robber, but confessed he never robbed one in his life. His complaint also alleged how the program called him a burglar, and depicted him as inducing a young boy to join his bandit gang, and let the masked Lone Ranger treat him like a common criminal. 

Eleven women and one man – a jury in Superior Judge Robert Scott’s court – sat for more than a week in fascinated silence as Jennings described how he became an evangelist for a time to “clear my conscience” and help others avoid a life of crime. “But I got a little tired of that,” he told Judge Scott, who was also a former minister. “Some of the preachers I found were worse than some of the outlaws, but some, of course, were marvelous.”

To clarify, the breath of the case was “defamation of character” and for Jennings to have won his case, he would have had to establish different rules for different citizens and to set the precedent for publicizing anyone’s life without his permission or consent. At least, this is what his lawyer, R. Ralston Jones, should have advised his client. Instead, Jennings chose to lodge his complaint against the defendants by emphasizing how the program damaged the reputation he built up since he was freed from prison and led a life of aspired morals.

The defendants contended Jennings had no right to damages because he was a real notorious train robber and once the head of a bandit gang. They contended he had publicized his life so fully that he had no privacy left regarding the matter. It was that very book that was consulted as reference for The Lone Ranger broadcast, in which the author described a similar episode in which a 17-year-old boy asked to join the gang and finally was admitted.

On the afternoon of October 2, 1945, a verdict was handed down and Al Jennings lost his suit. A jury in Superior Judge Robert H. Scott’s court returned a 10 to 2 verdict against the reformed train robber. The verdict upheld Defense Attorney Clarence B. Runkle’s contention that Jennings’ career was not private, because Jennings himself frequently wrote details of his deeds and glorified his crimes in a series of motion picture film shorts. 

The main reason for their decision, one jury member later explained to a newspaper reporter, was that Jennings wittingly or otherwise had spent the week on the stand convincing the jury that no one could defame his reputation. “Gentlemen,” he said on one occasion after describing a particularly violent gun battle in his hectic career. “I regret to say I had to kill three of those men!” The jurors gasped. “But would I encourage a boy to embark on a life of crime?” hastily countered the ex-bad man. “No!” The California court decided that Al Jennings was not entitled to his $100,000, and the jury’s esteem of Jennings had not suffered because of the disputed radio broadcast.