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Florida Sheriffs: A History 1821-1945 - A Book Review

By Spessard Stone

William Warren Rogers and James M. Denham have written the first complete history of Florida sheriffs in Florida Sheriffs: A History 1821-1945.

The stereotype of the Southern sheriff has been an evil figure-a bigoted redneck; however, the authors present the sheriffs in Florida as mostly ordinary men of integrity, who reflected and embodied the unique cultural and political characteristics of their counties. Throughout their prime focus has been and remains enforcing the law and protecting the public safety.

An overlay of territorial Florida documents the appointment of the first law enforcement officers, which included two sheriffs, eight police officers and their deputies by August 1821. Initially U. S. marshals held a superior status, but gradually the legislature curtailed their power and sheriffs supplanted them. We are introduced to numerous early lawmen, including federal marshal Joseph S. Sanchez, and to the southern penchant for violence, which often resulted in attacks on lawmen, including the murder of U. S. Marshal Leigh Read, in a personal political grudge in 1841. Explained in detail are their various duties and the system of fees and fines they relied upon for remuneration.

In the era from statehood in 1845 to Civil War in 1861, we learn that the sheriffs were almost entirely non-professional, had little training, and supplemented their meager incomes with other tasks, mostly farming. The office’s requirements were mainly reliability, honesty, good character, and a willingness to take on dangerous tasks. They too had to deal with increased administrative duties, including ex-officio collectors of county taxes, and meager per diems for inmates confined in inadequate prisons, which facilitated frequent jail breaks.

During the Civil War, the sheriffs occupied a critical position maintaining civil government and collecting taxes or assisting therein. Fifty-one sitting or former sheriffs, of whom at least thirteen died, engaged in active duty, primarily with the Confederate Army, although there were a few such as James D. Green, who served in the U. S. Army. Featured are many of their exploits.

Contemporary historians have reinterpreted and greatly clarified Reconstruction and “Redemption.” The authors continue this trend, but focus on the role of the sheriffs, who, overwhelming Republican political appointees, nevertheless, struggled to enforce the law and protect Florida’s citizens, black and white. Examined are the confrontation with various violent groups and the misuse of courts to regain Conservative control. The part played by sheriffs in the cruel and inhumane convict leasing system, established in 1868, is also featured, as is the task of tax collection, involving many wealthy citizens refusing to pay taxes.

With Sheriff A. U. Hilleary of Alachua County as the catalyst, the Florida Sheriffs’ Mutual Benefit Association, was established in March 1893 at Jacksonville with Sheriff (and future governor) Napoleon B. Broward of Duval County presiding. A vital step at united action in issues of statwide concern, the organization became in 1915 the Florida State Sheriffs Association, but soon dropped “State” to become the Florida Sheriffs Association.

A blight on the soul of the South, including Florida, has been extra-legal violence, i.e., lynchings, enacted by mobs and organized groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and “whitecappers.” The former especially posed a dilemma for some Florida sheriffs who condoned its ends, but other lawmen risked their lives to prevent lynchings. While blacks constituted eighty-four percent of all lynch mob victims, white males comprised over ninety-five percent of deaths. Often vigilante action was condoned or even led by leading citizens, e.g., Joseph B. Wall of Tampa. Presented are numerous cases, including the Mann brothers of Bartow, Catholic priest Father John Francis Conoley of Gainesville, Rosewood, Henry Patterson of LaBelle, and Claude Neal at Marianna.

Numerous sheriffs are profiled. Especially thrilling is the exploits of the notorious Ashley gang, and the heroic lawmen who pursued them, Sheriff Robert C. Baker of Palm Beach County and Sheriff J. R. Merritt of St. Lucie County, who ended their career of crime.

Florida Sheriffs reminds us that sheriffs are men of action, when action is necessary, and will continue to make Florida a place of security where all citizens can pursue their lives in peace.

Florida Sheriffs: A History 1821-1945 contains 351 pages, an appendix of county sheriffs, bibliography, index, and 78 photographs and illustrations. It can be ordered for $29.50, plus $3.00 shipping and handling and sales tax, payable to Florida Sheriffs Association, P. O. Box 12519, Tallahassee, FL 32317-2519, or call 1-800-877-2168.

Here is a flyer, which contains an order form:

See also Florida Sheriffs Association

Personal note: I received Florida Sheriffs from Mike Denham on December 21, 2001 and posted this review on December 27, 2001. The review was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of February 7, 2002.