Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff
One day a newly elected sheriff, a bachelor, asked the retiring sheriff if he could give him any advice on running the jail. The veteran sheriff replied, “Yes, get married as soon as possible.”
In its first 150 years, Reno County has elected thirty-two of its thirty-three different sheriffs. This book will introduce each one of the lawmen chronologically, in separate chapters, beginning with Charles C. Collins.
Running the sheriff’s office has always required a team effort. Even Collins, a United States deputy marshal, needed assistance. As sheriff, he worked with an under sheriff and at least one other deputy.
Unfortunately, the support and efforts of Collins’ wife, Loretta McMillan Collins, can only be imagined. (Lawrence Tribune, Feb. 8, 1886, p3)
I’m still learning how the roles of Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff changed over a century-and-a-half. In the broadest strokes, in the early days, Mrs. Sheriff was running both a personal household and a jail. In contemporary times, the spouse of a sheriff has never worked as a jail cook or matron, and never accompanied her husband on a prisoner trip. Instead, she’s been busy working a full-time job outside of law enforcement.
Unlike other county officeholders, the sheriff has always required dependable help 24 hours a day due to the responsibilities of running the jail. For many decades, Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff lived in the jail’s living quarters with their children—young ones and adults. Early on, the jail had a more welcoming name. It was the “jailhouse” because prisoners and the sheriff’s family (or jailer’s family) lived under the same roof and shared meals together. (The Secret Life of the Lawman’s Wife, B.J. Alderman, Praeger Publishers, 2007, xiv.)
The wife of a sheriff was his partner, not subservient to him. In the early days it took the married couple, and other family members, to run the jail properly. Mrs. Sheriff usually had the duties of cooking and supervising prisoners, especially females. Trusted inmates often assisted with the jailhouse duties. They peeled potatoes, washed dishes, mopped floors, and cleaned clothes.
There was about a 30-year period when Mrs. Sheriff (working as the jail matron) and Mr. Sheriff would take prisoner trips together, especially when a female inmate was taken to prison. Otherwise, it was common for the sheriff (or a deputy) to make the trip without a second employee unless there were multiple prisoners or one that required extra security.
In past Reno County elections, only men have run as candidates for the office of sheriff, but for the longest time, informed voters considered the sheriff and his wife a package deal. In the early days, if the sheriff’s wife served delicious meals to her incarcerated guests, her reputation helped in her husband’s reelection bid. Good food garnished votes from former prisoners who considered the possibility that down the road they might again run afoul of the law. If they had to spend more time in the bastille or jail, tasty food might help them survive their unfortunate circumstances.
Despite the heavy workload, once a sheriff and his family settled into the sheriff’s residence, they did their best to present themselves to the voting public as a capable bunch.
Early day sheriffs didn’t receive a salary. Instead, they earned money from multiple sources. Some of these streams of income were: collecting fees for serving civil papers, being awarded a percentage of the county taxes they collected, being paid a set amount for each day a prisoner was housed and fed meals, collecting rewards after catching wanted criminals and returning stolen property. Once elected, some sheriffs rented out their homes since they expected to have a county roof over their head for at least two, possibly four years. The financial incentives of the office could pay off, especially when at least a portion of the sheriff’s room and board was at the county’s expense. (Alderman, The Secret Life of the Lawman’s Wife, p12, p40)
The last Mr. and Mrs. Sheriff to live adjacent to the fifth-floor courthouse jail—in a one-room apartment—was Calvin Sheppard and Carol Weber Sheppard. Their front door was a heavily barred gate, always locked. The year was 1960. (Hutchinson News, Feb. 22, 1959, p10; Personal interview)
After 1960, a jailer and his wife might live in the jail, but elected sheriffs and their families remained home, sparred the day and night racket from prisoners. Eventually, shift employees replaced the round-the-clock live-in jailer.
During most of my research, especially in newspapers, a married woman was formally addressed by the first and last names of her respective husband. Instead of Cora Brown or Cora Phares Brown, the published article would identify her as Mrs. Fay Brown. (Example: Hutchinson News, Oct. 10, 1927, p2)
For generations, this etiquette has created research challenges.
I can imagine the confusion back in 1932 and ’33 when Sheriff Cunningham’s wife and ex-wife were each referred to as “Mrs. Edward Cunningham,” without the use of their first name. (Example: Hutchinson News, May 27, 1932, p10)
When I study past eras, I can be unfairly judgmental when I don’t understand the circumstances or see the big picture. Judging yesterday’s activities and events from today’s perspective isn’t productive.
For example, to me the formality of referring to a woman by her husband’s first and last name marginalizes the female, but it was a social custom considered respectful. Today in marriage it’s still widely acceptable among women to use their husband’s surname.
Future historians, no doubt, will look at the 21st century and shake their heads at our odd behavior. I’ve seen photos from 1900 where it was a standard practice for people to wear suits, hats, and long dresses to picnics and for camping. If I were to time-travel to 1900 and appear at a social activity wearing blue jeans, a tee-shirt, and no hat, I might be deemed a vagrant or an escapee from an insane asylum. Take a moment and consider what people from 1900 would think of us today. How would they react if they attended a church service and observed people worshipping while wearing sandals, cut-offs, and tee-tops?
I always have more questions than answers. I once spent three days searching for a woman’s first name. Newspapers, city directories, the U.S. Census, find.a.grave.com, and ancestry.com are amazing tools, but they all have their limitations when it comes to flushing out what a person was really like.
When I peruse “society news” in old newspapers, searching for clues about the wife of a sheriff, the information helps add a small piece to my picture, but too often I feel like I’m still missing important details of a secret life. I can read her name, but I cannot read her thoughts.
Fortunately, in my research, I’ve interviewed some former sheriffs, their wives, and children. Everyone has given me the impression that the years they were in office or working in the jail was a highlight in their life.
In 1986, Juanita Mae Chambers Ankerholz, 74, recalled the excitement of election season when she helped make political signs to support her husband’s campaigns for sheriff. Juanita even recalled how Guy won a landslide victory in 1940 when he captured all 56 precincts in the primary and again in the general election. (Personal interview)
At age 65, in 1986, Grace Margaret Wells Severson Wendler remembered when she and her husband, Al, were transporting a convicted murderer to Lansing in the sheriff’s car. When their automobile developed a low tire in the middle of nowhere, she got out of the vehicle to check it and dropped her purse, scattering its contents. Al was so worried about potential trouble, he had Grace return to the car before she had collected everything. (Personal correspondence)
I wish I had more stories to share about these dedicated, pioneer women. Instead, too often, my knowledge of them is severely incomplete, forcing me to lean on personal statistics of their birth, marriage, children, and death.
Even though I have fewer details on the spouses of the sheriffs than on the office holders, I’m well-aware that they were vital to the success of the elected lawmen. After all, the work was a group effort.
In my experience, after serving on the Reno County Sheriff’s Office for 33 years, I know that a strong woman helps make her husband a better deputy sheriff.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.