Early Lawmen Had it Rough
Navarro County, Texas


Law and Order Index || Corsicana Daily Sun



Early lawmen had it rough

(EDITOR’S NOTE: the Old City Jail in Corsicana built in 1908 is to receive a historical plaque today at 3:30 p.m. The following is the second of two articles written by Mary Love Sanders which contains portions of the material submitted to the Texas Historical Commission. Mrs. Sanders is a member of the Navarro County Historical Commission.)

Claude A. Patterson served on the Corsicana Police Force from 1914 until 1957, first as a police officer and later as chief of police for the last six months of his career and has been a valuable source of information concerning the building of the Old City Jail and of events connected with city laws enforcement in the early years of this century.

Patterson carries on an active life in retirement. At age 90 his clear memory for names and dates and his continued interest in good government and efficient law enforcement mark him as one of Corsicana’s most respected citizens.

Another well-known early law enforcement officer was the highly respected Chief Will S. Knight who had served as a deputy sheriff of Navarro County then had been elected city marshal before he was appointed Corsicana’s first chief of police. Originally from Robertson County, he came to Blooming Grove as a young man and worked for a time on the farm of Dr. I. N. George before becoming a law enforcement officer. Knight served as chief of police from October, 1906, until his death in June 1936.

Other police chiefs were Bruce Nutt, 1936-1954; Pete McCain, 1954-1956; C. A. Patterson, 1956-1957; W. A. Massey, 1957-1960; Glen Shepperd, two months in 1960; W. C. Onstott, 1960-1969; Doug Hightower, 1969-1971; and Don Massey, 1971 until the present.

PATTERSON’S RECOLLECTIONS about his decision to become a policeman offer a good deal of insight into community life during the era when the Old City Jail was built.

“I was working in a café on the east side of Beaton Street, cooking for a Mr. Walker,” he recalls, “and I was getting paid $10 a week. A man across the street name Sol Wadley offered me $14 a week to be his night cook, and well, I had to think about that. No woman ever went on the east side of the street-the ‘sawdust block,’ they called it – and no Negro ever went on the west side of the street. If he had, he’d been thrown out.

“Well I went to work for Mr. Wadley and I was taking a few days off when one Saturday evening a policeman, Jim Sheets, told me Will Knight wanted to see me. I though he wanted my street tax. In those days every man between 21 and 45 had to pay a street tax, so I said well, I’d see him in a few days, Jim said “There’s Will Knight right there, across the street. Why don’t you go see him now?” Well, I did, and Mr. Knight asked me to go to work for him in the Police Department. I stayed there until 1957.”

Law enforcement officers relied on their own ingenuity and initiative in their peace-keeping activities, usually arresting lawbreakers singlehandedly and bringing them to the jail on foot “or just about any way we could get them there,” according to Patterson.

“THERE WERE NO LIGHTS in the alleys in the early days and this afforded convenient hiding places for lawbreakers,” he notes. Ed Sheets, the man who ran the city pound, rode horseback and later on Bruce Nutt rode a horse when he patrolled several parts of town, but mostly the whole town was patrolled on foot. If necessary, police officers would walk several miles to answer a disturbance call or make an arrest. Our first patrol car was a Model T Ford.”

Sometimes private citizens would give a police officer a ride if he needed to answer a call in a hurry, as was the case when Patterson and a fellow officer went to investigate a complaint involving a broken Peace Bond. They arrived on the scene just in time to witness a murder, later ruled self defense.

AS FAR AS IS KNOWN, no member of the 1908 police force is still alive but Patterson is responsible for the following details on the jail, police department and associated activities at that time. Other more precise details are lacking since police department records and daily reports were destroyed by a former chief.

In 1914 seven men served on the Corsicana Police Force under Chief Knight. They were Jack Ricker, Ed Sheets, Jim Sheets, E. W. Hornell, Bruce Nutt, Louis Weaver and Claude Patterson.

The daily schedule for police personnel consisted of two shifts, a day shift (6 a.m. – 7 p.m.) and a night shift (7 p.m. – 6 a. m.) with a designated day jailer and night jailer. Until 1914 no itemized reports of arrests were kept.

THE POLICE UNIFORM at that time consisted of a blue serge suit with brass buttons and a white felt hat.

“We didn’t go into regular police uniforms until Will Knight died in 1936,” according to Patterson. “They had been times when they held as many as 80 persons at the same time. In cold weather there was a gas heater in the jail and the prisoners had cover.

“They were pretty comfortable in there,” Patterson recollects. “They had a mattresses but no springs to sleep on.”

Women prisoners were detained in one cell, men in another, while Negroes, Mexicans and drunks were incarcerated in yet another cell.

The daily jail menu consisted of sandwiches twice a day and all the water the prisoners could drink, but no ice water or coffee.

Once, when the jail was full to capacity and running over, security came very close to total disruption when a drunk man who had been picked up at the Southern Pacific Depot tore up the plumbing and flooded the jail, an occurrence which brought down the wrath of the chief on the whole department.

MOST OF THE PEOPLE brought to the jail in the early days were charged with misdemeanors such as drunkenness, unruly behavior or petty thievery, although quite a few arrests were made for the illegal distilling of whiskey, and several murderers were brought to the jail.

Other particular problems resulted from the discovery of oil near Corsicana which brought many new people into the community, although the reputation of Chief Knight as a no-nonsense peace officer acted as a strong deterrent to prolonged rowdiness or to any suggestion of lawlessness.

Chief Knight followed a policy of hiring local men as police officers rather than the transients who were following the oil boom who regularly applied to him for jobs. Knight’s men were well known to him and he was able to achieve continuity with a cohesive, well-disciplined force. His aim was not for personal popularity for himself but respect, for the police and for the community.

THE DEPRESSION DAYS of the early 1930’s created unusual problems for the Police Department.

“There were some good people that got in that jail, white and colored,” says Patterson. “Lots of things happened that I don’t ever want to see happen again. Grocery stores stayed open until midnight on Saturday nights and lots of good people hung around until the stores closed just to see what the grocers would throw out in their garbage.”

One jailbreak occurred during which a new and inexperienced policeman inadvertently allowed an inmate to retrieve a gun which was hidden in the prisoner’s coat pocket, and one “free-for-all” fight took place in the jail with several resultant injuries to policemen and prisoners.

THE CLOSE PROXIMITY of the City Jail to the Navarro Hotel, just across the street, was frequently the cause of complaints by hotel guests who during the spring and summer months could hear quite plainly the low and bawdy laments of the late hours of Saturday night and early Sunday morning.



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Edward L. Williams