Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TIN STAR: The Men Behind the Badge by Tom Rizzo

The sheriff sat at his desk fiddling with a tin can, cutting, and bending the metal to create a temporary badge that would identify him as the law. 

Since the county never needed a sheriff before, it had no badge to provide the man citizens just elected.

The new sheriff began having second thoughts about the extent of his new duties and responsibilities. Enforcing the law was only part of the job. He also served as jailer and tax collector, and served warrants, subpoenas, and jury summons. 

For the most part, the small and isolated early settlements across the frontier did a good job of self-policing. The majority of those looking to establish a new life and career in the West were  honest and law-abiding. Most were friendly, hard-working, and trusting--willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Frontier families rarely secured their homes or businesses with locks. Businesses granted credit without seeking collateral.

Western communities took their time establishing a law enforcement arm, but with good reason. Many settlers who founded the towns were immigrants who previously encountered police abuse and harassment. They harbored a natural distrust for the law.

These citizens became the enforcers and often formed vigilante committees.

The need emerged for a formal entity to deal with issues of crime at the local level.

The men who wore the badges had to be diligent when it came to enforcing the law. Any communication about crimes and criminals was almost non-existent. The telegraph helped, but not every community had the service.

The U. S. mail provided lawmen with descriptions of criminals, their names and last known locations. 

Word-of-mouth helped, as did a crude likeness on a wanted poster. But, information traveled at a snail's pace. and often was unreliable and outdated by the time it got delivered.

The most effective kind of sheriff took a proactive role in the enforcement of frontier justice. A good lawman monitored the arrival of strangers in their towns. He kept tabs on who they were, where they were staying, and why they were visiting.

Sometimes, of course, the town’s sheriffs just happened to be criminals themselves. Some changed, went straight, and did their best to uphold the law, and were good at their jobs. Others used their position for financial and political gain, and influence.

It's no wonder some lawmen crossed to the dark side. The post of sheriff, although high in responsibility and visibility, proved a low-paying job.

As a general rule, some counties provided an annual salary of around $200, plus a percentage of any fees they collected. 

The fee system differed from territory-to-territory but, on average, generally reflected this schedule: 

Serving a warrant: $1
Summoning a juror: $.50
Summoning the grand jury: $5
Summoning witnesses: $.50
Attending court: $1.50
Calling each witness in court: $.05
Committing prisoners to jail: $1
Daily support of prisoners: $.25
Executing a death warrant: $15
Travel allowance: $.05 a mile 
Reasonable expenses for other services not specified. 

Sheriffs also functioned as the ex-officio tax assessor and collector. The many duties, low pay, and the risks involved often prompted good men to turn bad for the opportunity of more lucrative paydays.

The types of crimes lawmen dealt with were too widespread for just one person. 

The situation provided the perfect opportunity for the advent of bounty hunters. These individuals were in the hunt for the pay-off of reward money.

Enterprising individuals created profit-minded private companies to help fill the gap, too. The most well-known was Pinkerton National Detective Agency.

Little glamor was associated with role of sheriff.

In reality, they spent much of their time serving subpoenas, and issuing summons. Lawmen were also responsible for seizing property as directed by civil rulings. And, they often had to issue summons for a coroner’s jury. And, in some instances, they faced life-and-death situations.

Much of their daily work was mundane. As lawmen became more visible, daily life for the town's citizens improved for the better. Citizens began to recognize the need for a legitimate, organized enforcement process, leading to a more peaceful way of life.

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  1. Tom,

    Excellent and comprehensive post!


  2. Charlie, Joanne--Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the comments.

  3. The pay scale for lawmen in those days makes one wonder why on earth anyone would want the job. Some sheriffs and marshals collected bounties or kept a percentage of the bounties collected by manhunters when a wanted individual was brought in or otherwise disposed of, and that added a little to their income. As a general rule, though, badge-wearers risked their lives for very little remuneration. Maybe they were adrenaline junkies?

    Excellent post, Tom! :-)

  4. A most compelling post. We do tend to glamorize the old west lawman, but as is usually the case, there is more to the story. Thanks! Doris

  5. Excellent post, Tom. I think this will be very useful and it is definitely one I'll be referring back to.


  6. The federal lawmen seemed to get paid a little better than the locals, but they seemed to be not much more than glorified bounty hunters. And many of those, as you said, had dubious pasts. Still, many among them seemed to be principled men - Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, Bass Reeves, etc. Anyway, that's what much of the written history tells us.

    Town marshals and local sheriffs had to be a tough job, and it'd be naive to doubt that corruption came with most of the offices.

    Still, I like to think there were some of those steadfast, TV-clean town lawmen back then like Matt Dillon, Wyatt Earp, and Michah Whats-His-Name from the Rifleman.

    Thanks, Tom. The usual great post.

    - Phil

  7. Good point, Kathleen. Never quite thought of them as "adrenaline junkies" but this may be the perfect description. Heck, the best paying fee was executing a death warrant at $15--far and above a sheriff was paid for just keeping someone in jail.

  8. Doris, you're right, especially when glamor gives way to reality .

  9. Keith--great you find the post useful. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Phil, you make a good point about "corruption." When I think of the alleged high-life lawmen like Hickok led, it makes you wonder how they managed to pull that off so on such a meager income. Something else was working in their favor . . .

  11. With regards to the pay scale, what time period is represented?

  12. Alicia, the numbers were from around the 1870s.

  13. Tom, maybe some of those ole boys, perhaps more use to handling a beer schooner than a six-gun, were quite happy with the meager pay for sporting around town and doing little.
    I like the post.

  14. Great post, Tom! The fee schedule was really interesting. Hollywood--and fiction writers--tend to glamorize these types of jobs, but law enforcement has always (and probably WILL always) have that kind of appeal.

  15. Jerry-Your point is well taken. Probably much safer handling the beer schooner than the six-gun and staying out of harm's way.

  16. Glad you enjoyed the post, Cheryl. I guess without the glamor part, Hollywood would have little to do.

  17. Makes you wonder why anyone would ever become a lawman - we still pay our police less than they deserve for risking their lives to protect us!

    Thanks for an informative post