The Office of Sheriff Through the Centuries

By E.A. Smyk, Passaic County Historian

The office of sheriff can be traced to England, before the Norman Conquest. He represented royal authority in the shire, an administrative district somewhat equivalent to what are now called counties. Prior to 1682, the office apparently did not exist in New Jersey under British rule. Constables of the courts discharged some of the duties that later developed upon sheriffs. 


In 1682, the proprietary government adopted "An Act to Appoint Sheriffs," noting "that there be yearly a Sheriff constituted and commissioned for each county, and that each sheriff may have his under Sheriff or Deputy." In the same year, the sheriff was given the statutory authority to execute all processes, summonses, and writs of execution of the courts of sessions. The New Jersey constitution of 1844 increased the sheriff's term of office to three years, and provided that his selection was to be determined by public election.


The duties and responsibilities of the sheriff were gradually expanded by legislative enactment over the centuries. In 1688, the assembly directed the sheriff to summon grand and petit jurors; an act of 1797 required him to compile separate lists of individuals qualified to serve as petit jurors. In accordance with an act passed in 1798, the sheriff was authorized to sell mortgaged property on court order. As the county's chief law enforcement officer, the sheriff was given authority, in 1797, to disperse mobs and quell riots. The following year, and again in 1820, he was authorized to seize and sell vessels used in exporting slaves. A subsequent law passed by the legislature in 1826 gave him the power to apprehend escaped slaves.


As early as 1688, the sheriff could imprison debtors , and several years later, a law was passed enabling him to imprison persons who violated hunting laws. During the 17th cent ury, penal ties were severe for convicted felons. The general assembly authorized the sheriff to administer the punishment of whipping. In 1898, and again in 1907, the sheriff was authorized to execute condemned criminals by hanging. Gallows were erected at the jail, and the executions attracted hundreds of spectators. The laws remained on the statute books until 1930.


Before the county board of elections was established in 1898, the sheriff performed certain election duties. As early as 1725, he was charged with issuing writs of election.
Much has changed since 1722 when the sheriff was compelled, by law, to take a long oath of offtce, in which he pledged allegiance to the British Crown. Administration of the county jail has been one of his duties since 1778. The "Fees Act," passed by the legislature 21 years later, makes for amusing reading today. This law provided that the sheriff was to receive ten cents per day for "victualling a prisoner," twenty-five cents for receiving a prisoner, and finally, the sum of twelve cents for releasing an inmate of the county lock-up.


Passaic County was organized by an act of the state legislature on February 7,1837, and the law took effect on April 11th. The first sheriff of the new county was Rynier S. Speer, born in 1798 to a family that counted itself among the first Dutch settlers. Speer took his oath of office on October 17th. On the following day, the Passaic County Freeholder minutes record that Speer was "authorized to buy four pairs of handcuffs and four shades at the expense of the county."


Speer was a remarkable individual. William Nelson, the historian to whom we are most indebted for knowledge of Paterson history, characterized Speer as "tall, wellbuilt, and of commanding presence." Speer, no stranger to politics, was active in the Whig Party (a precursor to the Republican Party). He held various offices in what was then known as Acquackanonck Township. The plucky Speer, in the Sheriff's contest of 1837, had as his opposition Jonathan P. Hopper, also of Dutch ancestry and an adherent of the Loco Foco Party (a splinter group from the Democrats that took its name from a popular brand of matches). The county then had only 16,734 inhabitants, and the electorate was not too large. Hopper, like Speer, was known at the county seat. He was a veteran of the War of 1812, and according to William Nelson, operated a "fancy store" on Main Street for many years. Hopper was elected Paterson town clerk in 1831, became assessor in 1841-43, and held other offices. Speer managed to outpace Hopper in the general election, garnering 1159 votes in comparison to his opprs and x-ray machines are utilized at all public entrances to the facility, and a K-9 explosives detection team has been assigned exclusively to searching thonent's 934 vote tally.


Speer proved popular, winning reelection in 1839 and 1840. Nelson wrote that Passaic County's first sheriff was "a fearless man" and he based his opinion on a conversation with an Aaron Polhamus. Nelson had the good sense to make notes of his January 10, 1882 conversation with Polhamus. According to Paterson's indefatigable chronicler, Speer, before he was sheriff, served as town constable. As Nelson tells it, "Jerry Mitchell, another constable, had a warrant to arrest a man in White Alley and when he went there the man and his wife had barred the door and threatened to kill him if he entered. Word came to Speer, who went to the spot, and found Mitchell standing outside by a low window, while the man of the house and his wife stood inside, making dire threats. Without ceremony, Speer smashed in the window, and lifting up the astonished Mitchell, threw him bodily into the room; then putting his foot against the door, he broke it in and followed before the belligerant couple had time to do much damage to his fellow constable."


For relaxation, Speer was, as Nelson relates, "an ardent lover of horseflesh." He commanded a troop of "Light Horse" in the local militia, and seemed to enjoy a pleasant family Life. Speer married in 1825, and he and his wife Jane had seven children. Born at the end of the 18th century Rynier S. Speer provided he came from hardy stock. He lived to age 93.

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