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.


Prior Passaic County Sheriffs



Sheriff John W. Sturr (fourth from left, first row) is depicted with members of the Grand Jury, term, 1901. Sturr, a manufacturer and bottler of mineral water, was born in Paterson on July 22, 1862. He served on the Board of Alderman in 1894, then went on to the state assembly. Sturr, a Republican, was electe Sheriff for a 3 year term in November, 1900.

In 1929, Sheriff Thomas Carless relied upon these court officers to maintain and expedite the work of the judiciary. This photo was taken on the steps of the courthouse.


Sheriff Thomas Carless (first row center) posed with his staff and court attendants on the steps of the courthouse in this November 1927 campaign victory photo. Carless, a Republican, overwhelmed his opponent, Democrat (and later county judge) Salvatore D. Viviano. The final tally was 35,367 votes for Carless and 18,252 for Viviano.
old-sheriff-04-davenport old-sheriff-05-davenport

When Sheriff Frank Davenport Sr. was sworn into office on November 10, 1930, a large crowd of well wishers assembled at the courthouse. Four of his predecessors attended. Depicted in this rare photo are, from left to right, Frederick J. Tatterall (elected 1921), Frank Davenport Sr., John McCutcheon (elected 1918), Thomas Carless (elected 1927), and William B. Burpo (elected 1915).

Sheriff Frank Davenport Sr. (second on right), wearing his badge of office, was administered the oath of office on November 10, 1930. The photo was taken at the courthous. Holding the oath is County Cleark Lloyd B. Marsh, who was elected to office the previous year. History repeated itself in 1960, wehn Davenport's son, Frank Jr., was elected sheriff, reelected, and served until 1974.
old-sheriff-06-edell old-sheriff-07-englehardt
Sheriff Chris Edell, a popular Democrat active in Veteran's affairs, assumed office on November 10, 1948. The next year, his staff assembled at the courthouse for a loyalty oath ceremony. Edell, who liked wearing 10-gallon hats, left his headgear at home on this occasion. Edell is fourth from left, first row. In this photo, Sheriff Edwin Englehardt takes the oath of office for the third of nine consecutive terms on December 17, 1980. Swearing him in are, from left to right, State Senator & Undersheriff Frank Davenport Jr., the Honorable Peter Ciolino, and Undersheriff John Scancarello.


The Passaic County Courthouse 

Prior to the erection of a formal courthouse in Passaic County, the first courts were held in Paterson, as required by law, at the house of Ira Munn, on River Street. This house was subsequently changed to the Passaic Hotel. The courts organized there, with the first session for the transaction of business being held in the basement of the Cross Street Methodist Church, until a courthouse was ready for occupancy in 1839.

The first Court of General Quarter Sessions of Peace consisted of nineteen justices, where the principal business on most days was granting tavern licenses. The Circuit Court of Passaic County organized on April 25, 1837, but found no business awaiting it. 

courthouse-01On June 26 of the same year, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers presented the county with a tract of land on the southwest corner of Main and Oliver Streets, and a courthouse was erected immediately afterwards. Open for business, the Board of Chosen Freeholders met on May 8, 1839, and the structure was formally dedicated on July 10. 

In 1871 and 1872 the courthouse was greatly enlarged. In 1886, the Board of Chosen Freeholders purchased from the Society the property known as Colt's Hill. Situated at a considerable elevation from the adjoining property, the tract sat on Main Street, opposite the courthouse and jail, with the frontage to be reserved by the Society. It was the Board's intention to construct a new courthouse on the top of the hill in order to be far removed from the turmoil of Main Street traffic, which frequently interfered with the court's business transactions. Much to their dismay, a number of infuriated taxpayers protested the transaction, objecting to the cost and held the sentiment that such construction would threaten interference with the progress of Paterson by eliminating so much real estate from the center of the city. It was also argued that the Freeholders exceeded their powers, and the grand jury in session even threatened to find indictments! The Freeholders thus promptly returned the property to the Society and all investigations were subsequently suspended. The hill was eventually taken down and the county purchased a city block of the leveled territory, the current site of the main structure of our courthouse.

courthouse-02On April 27, 1898, the cornerstone of the new courthouse was laid; however, due to legal entanglements and delays in construction, the building was not ready for occupancy until November, 1903.

As laws evolve and change to adequately meet the needs and ever growing complexity of the criminal justice system, so too, do the courts and their actors. Today, the Passaic County Courthouse has expanded to several buildings, employing over 600 people, with 30 judges presiding in Superior Court. On any given day, the complex may have more than 3,000 people within its confines - a far cry from our humble basement beginnings!

Sheriff's officers (formerly called constables) assigned to the courthouse are responsible for maintaining security, transporting adult and juvenile prisoners, enforcing the law, investigating incidents that occur in the complex, and providing numerous support  services for the criminal, chancery and civil courts. The Sheriff also maintains a top-notch Civil Process Unit of select officers who process papers and serve writs throughout the county.

The passage of each new law, such as Megan's Law and the Grave's Act, for example, brings new activity into the complex that has a ripple effect, resulting in more responsibility for the assigned officers. With an increase in the number of high profile cases being adjudicated at the Passsaic County Courthouse, so too has the need for more sophisticated security systems heightened. 

courthouse-03In 1994, the holding cell capacity in the courthouse bullpen was 48 prisoners, well over peak capacity since over 15,000 prisoners are handled in the courthouse annually. Sheriff Englehardt directed that the entire prisoner holding facility be redesigned and renovated, utilizing state-of-the-art technology to ensure optimal safety and security. 

Upon completion at the end of the summer of 1996, the courthouse had doubled its holding capacity while totally modernizing intake procedures. Additional security enhancements were made, such as the installation of electronically controlled steel security doors, electronic sensor devices, observation cameras, video recorders, an elite communications station, advanced secure weapon storage, and a highly sophisticated alarm system. Furthermore, metal detectors 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 these properties. These security measures have contributed to the seizure of hundreds of weapons and a substantial amount of drugs attempting to be smuggled in each year.


The Passaic County Jail

The first jails were basically holding cells in the courthouses, but as the number of criminals increased, so too did the need for larger and more secure facilities.

The grounds on which the jail is currently situated were given to the county by the Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufacturers on June 26, 1837, and the following month the Board of Chosen Freeholders accepted plans for the building of the jail. On August 3 of the same year, contracts were awarded for the mason work at $5,845, carpenter work at $1,645, and the iron work at 11 cents per-pound.

Unlike current alarmingly high statistics of violent crimes and felonies, such was not the case in the early days; the majority of inmates in the county jails were short term offenders incarcerated for misdemeanors. According to Passaic County historian E.A. Smyk,

Murder was an infrequent crime. It wasn't until April
30, 1850 that the first public execution occurred in Passaic
County. John Johnson mounted the gallows for axing to death
County Court Judge John S. Van Winkle and his wife at their
Goffle Road homestead in Hawthorne.

No further executions took place at the jail until Tunis
Labee met the hangman for stabbing his wife many times on
February 28, 1889. Two Paterson men were brought to the
gibbet on April 14, 1905, for murdering Max Wollenberg, a
leather goods salesman. Arthur Laster and Joseph Miller were
convicted of fatally shooting Wollenberg in his store on Main
and Ward Streets. The motive for the crime was robbery. Hang-
man John Van Hise of Elizabeth conducted the executions.
The day before the hangings, he came to Paterson with his son
and they erected a crude gallows inside the jail. (His bill for
each execution was $250.)

The fifth man, to meet the hangman was John Lyons,
who killed night watchman John Christian in a Paterson dye
house two days before Christmas, 1903. Lyons died for the
crime on August 4, 1904.

Before a hanging, the sheriff would order the jail's
bell be tolled. Prisoners feared its sound. According to a Pater-
son Evening News article describing the removal of the bell in
June 1938, elderly residents of the city could 'recall its eerie
toll on execution day.' Hangings in county jails came to an end
April 4, 1906, when the electric chair way substituted as the
method for carrying out the death penalty in New Jersey

admittance-cardIn 1852 it was decided to rebuild the jail on a much larger scale and plans were accepted from Architect Nash of Connecticut at an estimated cost of $20,000. The building was ready for occupancy in the spring of 1855, though it was not completed until 1857. The entire cost was approximately $35,000. This attractive, Italian-style brownstone building, topped by a steeple-like bell tower, greatly enhanced the appearance of Main Street. Nearly 30 years passed before a new wing was added.

execution-bellIn 1880 the jail was enlarged at a cost of $25,000. Witness rooms, used as a meeting place for the Board of Chosen Freeholders, were also constructed. During this period, John E. Buckley was the warden of the jail and the institution was not in the custody of the sheriff as is the custom today. The warden and his family, rather than the sheriff, resided in the apartments connected to the institution. 

Buckley was referred to as perhaps the most colorful jail warden, with a lineage long rooted in Paterson. His father, Benjamin Buckley, was mayor of Paterson in the early '70s, and his four brothers were all prominent figures in the early building of the city. Warden Buckley came to be known for his lavish entertaining, and his annual dinner to the county officers and newspaper men became one of the most outstanding features of the year. 

When the new wing was completed and the witness rooms were made ready for occupancy, he and his family gave a lavish dinner dance. Lander's Orchestra, then the most prominent musical organization in New York, was hired for the gala which was held in the witness rooms and Freeholder's Meeting Room. At midnight, a buffet lunch was served to the guests, and when they finished, the prisoners were awakened and served with the luncheon and a supply of soda water that came from the W.S. Kinch factory, then located on Prospect Street.

After the death of Warden Buckley, a law was passed that put the Sheriff in charge of the prisoners and occupancy of the living apartment.

jail-01As the years passed and the inmate population steadily increased, many additions and renovations took place. In 1957, our current facility was erected, with a capacity to house 227 inmates. By 1975 the inmate population rose to 250, a figure considered overcrowded at the time. Soon after taking office, Sheriff Englehardt began making significant renovations, employing the latest technology and equipment in corrections. The Passaic County Jail was now holding more long term and state prisoners since the state prisons were equally overcrowded.

jail-02In 1983 a fourth floor was added to the jail, and in 1988 the Grand Street wings were completed, adding three floors with a capacity to house approximately 600 prisoners. This also afforded the opportunity and space to construct roof top gymnasiums for the inmates. The Passaic County Jail is one of the fewest county facilities in the country to house large numbers of state and federal prisoners, as well as problem inmates that can't be handled in other institutions. The Sheriff also tended to the sorely needed renovations of the administrative offices, ID Bureau, and the patrol squad room. 

jail-03In more recent years the Sheriff has utilized the skills of the prisoners in building a garage for the department's emergency vehicles and a much needed warehouse for supply storage. He has also made major renovations to the county pistol range and the motor pool. 

The Passaic County Jail undergoes a comprehensive inspection annually by the State Department of Corrections, and continues to receive high marks and much adulation on all accounts by the state.