Work of Deputy Marshals

A New Look at the Work of the Deputy Marshals

The history of the deputy U.S. marshals that served Judge Isaac C. Parker is often veiled in myth and misconstruction. Tall tales of daring deeds are more frequently conveyed than the realities of the lives of the officers who served the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas. Films, popular histories and the media have painted a portrait of men larger than life and who, even if their methods were questionable, rarely strayed from the path of justice.

Fortunately, the federal court and Department of Justice left behind documents that provide a deeper understanding of the operation of the U.S. Marshal’s office in Fort Smith. In the holdings of the National Archives, both in College Park, Maryland and in Fort Worth, Texas, thousands of pieces of paper testify to the range of situations—from the mundane to the extraordinary--that deputy marshals experienced.

In particular, an 1886 investigation by the Department of Justice affords a professional assessment of the efficiency of the law enforcement operation in the Western District of Arkansas. In September of that year, the U.S. Attorney General asked David Fisher and Thomas Hardin to examine whether the great expense of this district was justified. The two men arrived in Fort Smith, which had served as the seat of the court since 1872, and conducted their interviews at the courthouse/jail complex. Jurors, witnesses, defendants, deputy marshals, guards and posse comitatus were all subject to questioning. Fisher and Hardin collected their evidence in nearly one hundred affidavits, all of which still exist in the National Archives.

From this material, the routine of deputy marshals becomes evident. They received writs (warrants) or subpoenas from the U.S. marshal or his chief deputy in Fort Smith. From that point, the deputy was solely responsible for the service of those court documents. Arrangements for traveling to the place of arrest or service were left to the judgment of the officer. He purchased supplies, hired guards or posse, armed himself and determined how to proceed in tracking down suspects or witnesses.

The affidavits collected by the Department of Justice agents specifically record how individual deputies prepared to arrest particular prisoners. These accounts are quite similar in the tasks described. For instance, Fisher and Hardin were able to summarize that deputies usually traveled on horseback accompanied by a “grub” wagon. The officer and his guards, posse and cook were called an “outfit.” They would stay out for weeks at a time, scouring the country in all directions in search of persons for whom they had previously secured warrants. The descriptions also became quite detailed at times, to the point of listing the food consumed on certain trips. We now know that bread, beans, coffee, bacon, beef, molasses, sugar, flour, potatoes, venison and ham were common purchases by the deputies.

The deputy also had to document what actions he took and how many miles he covered. The recording of this information was essential for the officer to receive his pay. Until the last years of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government compensated deputy marshals on a fee system. An arrest earned $2.00. Mileage rates were six cents per mile for traveling to the arrest and ten cents per mile each for the deputy and the prisoner while traveling to Fort Smith. Serving a subpoena garnered fifty cents and six cents per mile to the place of service but nothing for the return trip. The U.S. marshal collected twenty-five percent of these fees before paying his deputies.

The subject of fees consumed much of Fisher and Hardin’s attention and they found numerous violations of the policies of the Department of Justice. Some of these infringements can be explained as misunderstandings of complicated regulations. Others are less easily reconciled. The low fee rates and the freedom of deputies in the field certainly invited abuse of the system. Two particular accounts were subject to excessive charges. The first regarded the subsistence of prisoners. Officers were only allowed reimbursement for what they actually spent to feed prisoners. Fisher and Hardin stated that “great wrongs are committed” in this area. They found that the deputies, guards and posse all ate with the prisoners. “We are pretty certain that the ‘subsistence of prisoners’ includes the subsistence of guards, deputy and posse.” The recommendation was that a set sum, sixty-five or seventy cents per day, per prisoner, be allowed to the deputies for feeding prisoners en route from the place of arrest to Fort Smith.

The second exploited account concerned expenses accrued in attempting to arrest suspects. Fisher and Hardin found that “in a great many instances ‘expense endeavoring to arrest’ is charged, when there is no endeavor being made to make the arrest in [the] account it is charged, but, on the contrary, the deputy is somewhere else making service of subpoenas, and endeavoring to arrest other persons whom they do not get.” The evidence for this charge derived from the testimony of several prisoners. Both Thomas Carter and James Lamb remained at a camp in the Chickasaw Nation for about a month after their arrests. According to Carter, the delay was due to the desire of Deputy James Mershon to make additional arrests. He was “hunting for other persons for whom they had warrants. I am positive it was not because of high water or bad weather.” Yet, fees continued to accumulate on both Carter’s and Lamb’s cases. The Department of Justice strongly criticized the continuance of this practice.

Another common grievance by prisoners was the failure of deputies to have writs in place when making an arrest. While Fisher and Hardin allowed that there were times when it was necessary to make an arrest without a writ because of the degree of the offense and the probability of flight and escape, “this manner of arresting persons without warrants is carried to an extreme to which it ought not to be allowed to go.” William Medley, arrested by Deputy Frank Barling in 1885, echoed the complaints of many prisoners. “Barling did not at the time of my arrest, nor at any time afterwards read a writ to me….I do not think he had time to procure a writ, as the arrest was made on the day after the misdemeanor was committed. No writ or warrant for my arrest was ever read to me or shown me.” Fisher and Hardin recommended that when deputies arrested prisoners without proper writs that they write or telegraph the U.S. Commissioner or District Attorney to ask for the writs.

The thorough investigation of Fisher and Hardin resulted in a lengthy report to the U.S. Attorney General. While finding the “general affairs of the court to be in very good condition,” they did make numerous recommendations to improve accounting procedures in the Western District of Arkansas. The U.S. marshal in Fort Smith implemented these guidelines and made an effort to formalize operations. However, as the business of the federal court increased in the 1890s, it remains unclear to what degree his efforts were successful. What is certain is that the lives of those men who served as deputies were both more routine and more complicated than usually imagined. Their stories continue to offer lessons on the legacy of Fort Smith in the history of American criminal justice.

By: Juliet L. Galonska, Former Historian at Fort Smith National Historic Site

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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