The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office was formed in 1819. Thirty-seven men have held the office of sheriff, the first being Levi Reid in 1819. Sheriff Mel Bailey, who served from 1962 until 1996, held the office longer than any other Sheriff in the history of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office. The word, “Sheriff” comes from England, and originates from “scyre,” a Saxon word meaning “shire,” defined now as county, and the word “reeve” which means keeper.
In 1819 the state of Alabama and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office were created. The county spread out over a land of hills and forests called Jones Valley. The mode of transportation was by horseback or mule and wagon, and services rendered by the Sheriff were often days or weeks in coming. In the early days the jail was a crude building of wood or brick called the kalaboose. A prisoner in the kalaboose did not wish to return after once sampling its unpleasant and primitive conditions.
Small farms and a few larger plantations soon dotted the countryside. As Jefferson County grew people clustered together in small communities or towns. A Town Marshall or Constable, was deputized to assist the Sheriff in the enforcement of the laws within the county.
In 1871, the City of Birmingham was incorporated. Prior to that time, the County Seat had been located at Elyton. Birmingham quickly became the largest city in Jefferson County. It was also called the “Magic City.” The courthouse was built and an office was provided for the Sheriff to conduct his business. Years later, a second courthouse was built in the Bessemer Cut-Off. The sheriff maintains an office in both Bessemer and Birmingham.
The Sheriff’s Office has grown tremendously from its modest beginnings in 1819. Sheriff Levi Reid would be amazed to know that today there are 168 civilian employees and 573 sworn personnel, making the Jefferson County SO one of the largest and most modern departments in the state.
The Sheriff department prevents drug dealers, thieves and other criminals, from gaining a foothold in Jefferson County. Each citizen can be proud to share in that success. Now, as in the past, success is due to dedication and hard work.
History – The Ultimatum 1888
A Historical Account by E. Dan Jordan, Capt. Retired
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is the largest and one of the most modern in Alabama. Sheriff Mark Pettway is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the County. The deputies are trained to serve and protect the public. A civilized society respects law and order, but respect was lacking in 1888 as a huge mob, some said over a thousand people, gathered to storm the County Jail to lynch a murderer. Sheriff Joseph Smith weighed the pros and cons and made his decision. He would do what was necessary to protect his prisoner and maintain law and order.
On Saturday evening December 1888, Sheriff Smith had in his jail a prisoner named Richard R. Hawes. He was suspected of murdering his wife Emma, and their two little daughters, May and Irene Hawes. A riotous crowd gathered in the streets of Birmingham and planned to lynch Hawes. They had diverted back to the days when Alabama was a wild Alabama frontier.
Sheriff Smith issued shotguns and rifles to his Deputies and placed them in positions where they could protect the jail. He told them to fire into the mob if they came across the alley towards the jail door. Suddenly, the huge mob appeared near the alley. The sheriff ordered them to stop. Smith counted to five. When the leaders ignored his warning and pressed across the alley he gave the order to fire. Bodies fell onto the street and sidewalk. Some were dead; the wounded cried out in pain. Postmaster Maurice Throckmorton was one of those killed. He had pleaded with the mob to disperse.
Birmingham Police Chief O.A. Pickard, one of many who testified later about the shooting, testified that he heard Sheriff Smith give the order to fire. He ended his remarks by describing the mob as “madmen numbering about a thousand.”
On December 9, warrants were issued for Sheriff Smith, Chief Pickard and Lt. Joe Nix for the murder of Postmaster Throckmorton. Smith was arrested repeatedly, but he was never convicted. He stayed on the job and completed his four-year term of office.
Richard Hawes was convicted of the murder of his wife and children and sentenced to death by hanging. On February 28, 1890, a large audience was present when Sheriff Smith placed a black hood over Hawes’ head and the trap was sprung.
It is said that this terrible episode changed Birmingham from a wild frontier town to a burgeoning law abiding city of the New South. Hanging is no longer acceptable justice and no lynch mob has ever again stormed the Jefferson County Jail.