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THE TEXAS SHERIFF:
LORD OF THE COUNTY LINE

by Thad Sitton

University of Oklahoma Press
(February 13, 2006)


Review by John Troesser

We had already recommended Mr. Sitton's Texas High Sheriffs to our readers, although it has long been out-of-print. It sold out in its first year and only a buyout of the publisher prevented its second printing. We were happy to learn of this book, Mr. Sitton's Eleventh. Opening our copy, however, we were a little disappointed to find that there are only 213 pages. Relax and buy it. Mr. Sitton is an economic writer who makes every word count.

The book could be considered to be an anthropological study of rural behavior with the sheriff playing the role of "firm but fair" tribal leader and/or community father figure. Indeed, in our telephone interview with Mr. Sitton, he described himself as a Rural Social Historian. He also speaks as economically as he writes.

Rather than feature chapters on individual personalities, as he did in Texas High Sheriffs, Sitton uses a cross-section of Sheriffs from across the state. More than a few are from East Texas, an area Mr. Sitton knows well. Nothing is invented and the actions both benevolent and occasionally brutal show our society for what it was - frequently benevolent and occasionally brutal.

Many of the facts come straight from the [sheriff's] mouth. Sitton interviewed many of the subjects in person. Mr. Sitton has said "You didn't get to be sheriff by being an introvert." While that fact might not be surprising, many others are. The millionaire sheriff of San Augustine might surprise you or the fact that many of the sheriffs inherited obligations and responsibilities not covered in any law enforcement manual.

Loaning money, over-tipping the courthouse shoeshine boy and driving an elderly couple to the annual family reunion were things that needed to get done. Sometimes the Sheriff was the only one who could or would make things happen.

When Sheriffs served two-year terms, they were continually running for re-election. Frequently they were at odds with County Commissioners. As Wharton County's "Buckshot" Lane put it: "It's hard to get along with County Commissioners when you count the gravel trucks." This friction sometimes reached the point where Sheriff's salaries were cut, heat was turned off to county jails and in at least one case, the Sheriff threatened to put the prisoners up in a hotel if Commissioners didn't fund needed jail repairs.

This is not a Cops and Robbers book. The subject is interesting enough without embellishment or resorting to detailed descriptions of shootouts. It's a window open on a part of the 19th Century that in some cases lasted into the 1960s.

The book contains as many exceptions-to-the-rule as there are stereotypes of lawmen. Many wore boots, but in some cases they wore wingtips and loud hand-painted ties. This is an essential book for any Texas library, and can show other Rural Social Historians how Rural Social History should be written.

The book is rife with things you never thought of. The era of change from horseback to automobile was similar to today's resistance to computer technology. Sheriff Banister of Coleman rode his horse while his wife drove behind him to pick up prisoners. In other cases sheriff's sons were more than happy to drive the county-supplied car for their non-driving fathers.

Although this book won't be found in the humor section of your bookstore, there's plenty to laugh at. The sheriff whose jail was so easy to escape from that he'd load his prisoners into his patrol car when he'd go out on calls is a good one. So is the escaped prisoner who was spotted in Houston. The Houston cops called the East Texas Sheriff who put them on hold while he went to check on the prisoner that wasn't there.


John Troesser
August, 2000

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