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.)
By MARY LOVE SANDERS
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
“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
“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.