William Warren Rogers, James M. Denham. Florida Sheriffs: A History, 1821-1945. Tallahassee: Sentry Press, 2001. 345 pp. $29.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-889574-11-0.
Reviewed by Jackson Maynard (Florida State University)
Published on H-Florida (July, 2002)
Given the already extraordinary past contributions of William Warren Rogers and James Denham to Florida history, it comes as no surprise that their latest work continues that tradition. Rogers is a well-published historian, whose recent works includes a comprehensive history of the Apalachicola and St. George Island areas of Florida titled Outposts on the Gulf: Saint George Island and Apalachicola from Early Exploration to World War II (1987). Denham's provocatively titled "A Rogue's Paradise": Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861 (1997) details the development of antebellum Florida's criminal justice system. When scholars of this caliber decide to collaborate, a work of outstanding value is sure to follow.
This time both scholars have focused on the legacy of Florida's sheriffs. Indeed, as Rogers and Denham note in their introduction, few works exist studying any southern sheriffs. The book is designed not only to fill this academic void, but also to redeem the media-painted image of the sadistic, gun-slinging southern sheriff as "largely overdrawn." The authors draw on a wide range of sources including newspapers, court records, and records of the meetings of the Florida Association of Sheriffs. Each chapter begins with some general description of national and state changes in various historical periods, and is then followed by vignettes that demonstrate how a particular national or state development uniquely impacted the sheriff. It is in these various vignettes that the book carries value outside of strict historical purposes. For laypersons, the book is extremely entertaining, as the classic good guy/bad guy drama is played out repeatedly over the years. In chapter 8, a particularly detailed account which chronicles the face-off between the Sheriff of Palm Beach County, Bob Baker, and a gang of outlaws encamped in the Florida Everglades during Prohibition, is worthy of a Hollywood script.
Despite its entertainment value, the book's mainstay is its solid historical research. Through a richly detailed description of the history of law enforcement in Florida from its genesis in the 1820's through the present day, the authors attempt to dispel the historical stereotype of the sheriff as sadist. Indeed, the authors describe the vastness of sheriffs' jurisdictions, their meager resources and the courage with which they faced bank robbers, bootleggers and swamp-dwelling gangs. The authors pay tribute to the daily heroism that the profession demanded then and now.
The book also describes the development of the Florida Sheriffs Association (FSA). Originally a fledgling social society in the waning years of the nineteenth century, this organization had grown by the 1940s into a politically influential powerhouse with the ready ear of policy makers in Tallahassee. The authors highlight the role the association came to play in getting more recognition and pay for sheriffs. The authors frankly acknowledge that the Association paid for publishing costs for the book. Nevertheless, the forward-thinking measures which the Association adopted in the form of resolutions and drafts of legislation is worth noting for its impact on law enforcement throughout the state today. For example, FSA resolutions calling for the repeal of the convict labor-leasing system and those advocating for what was viewed as the more humane method of execution--by electrocution instead of hanging--were years ahead of their time.
Amid these strengths, the reader leaves the book with some questions as to the authors' central theme about the stereotype of sheriff as sadist being "overdrawn." The authors in a few instances describe conduct that was clearly reprehensible and in fact in-step with the stereotype. Moreover, there are many enigmatic references throughout the book to similar behavior that is not specifically described. For example in a chapter addressing the occasional need for a governor to suspend a sheriff from office due to impropriety the authors state, "Some Florida sheriffs, like other persons in public and private life, were corrupt. Some escaped detection, some were caught and removed from office. The position itself and what it entailed made the sheriff a powerful man and put temptations in front of him. If a sheriff chose as some did to use his position in a criminal way, the opportunity was always there. A number of them took advantage of the situation" (p. 254). Rather than following up on these general statements with specific examples of misconduct, and noting their frequency, the authors instead list a couple of examples of sheriffs who were suspended but reinstated. The book's central theme may have been better served with specific examples instead of conclusory statements.
On a similar note, the authors' work may have benefited from more quantitative data. Obviously, the availability of primary source materials is a limiting factor, but in past works, the authors have succeeded in generating useful data to support their conclusions. For example, Denham, in "A Rogue's Paradise", provided an in-depth chart in which he analyzed numbers of criminal offenses committed over various decades county by county. Similarly, in Florida Sheriffs, data might have been compiled comparing arrests of whites to blacks broken down in terms of population and type of crimes. This type of information would have been helpful in evaluating Florida sheriffs' even-handedness, or lack thereof.
Another area for possible exploration would have been the sheriffs' active or tacit approval of, or even active participation in, lynchings. The authors, though acknowledging some sheriffs' complicity in extra-legal executions, do not go into much detail on this point. Yet according to Joel Williamson in The Crucible of Race: Black/White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (1984), in the 1890s South an average of 138 people were lynched every year, many of them in Florida. Given that the sheriffs had the constitutional mandate to ensure the legal and procedural safeguards of the accused, especially in capital cases, a more thorough study of this period and the role the sheriff and other criminal justice participants may be warranted.
One final note of critique is to say that in the latter chapters especially, the story of the sheriff becomes subsumed within the story of the Florida Sheriffs Association, the latter chapters detailing meeting sites, activities, and resolutions. As has been noted, clearly this organization was important, but other issues surely arose in the first half of the twentieth century that would warrant more academic exploration. For example, a future historian could study the impact of technology and population on Florida sheriffs. Another area of interest would be the impact on law enforcement of the state's shift from a largely agricultural economy to a tourist-based economy and whether that influenced a change in the types of crimes committed or created different challenges for law enforcement.
These questions aside, Rogers and Denham have produced a work that fills a significant void in the historical record and lays firm foundation upon which future scholars may build. The authors' main point is well-taken--rather than two-dimensional sadists, Florida sheriff's were men (and later, women) who, as complex individuals, collectively tamed the Florida frontier.
Jackson Maynard. Review of Rogers, William Warren; Denham, James M., Florida Sheriffs: A History, 1821-1945.
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