Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Kentucky Sheriff Who Sold His Public Office

The rural community of West Liberty is nestled among forested hills in Morgan County, Kentucky. It's coal country. It was also home to my fourth great-grandfather Joseph Lumpkins (1800-1848) who was once the town sheriff and got caught up in allegations of wrongdoing that eventually landed on the desk of the state's governor.

A Man of Public Service

Research in Morgan County is hamstringed by a series of disasters that destroyed local records, including an 1862 Civil War skirmish that burned the courthouse to the ground, another presumed fire in 1925, and even a tornado in 2012 that leveled much of West Liberty - the county seat. 

Among the county's few surviving records is a court order book spanning the years 1823 to 1830. Digitized by FamilySearch, it provides a rare glimpse at Joseph Lumpkins' evolving role as a public servant.

On March 5, 1827, Joseph made his first appearance among the court orders, which named him and another man as "fit persons" to serve as a justice of the peace in what appears to have been a two-step nomination process.

First, was the general recommendation: "Samuel McClintic and Joseph Lumpkins is recommended as fit persons to fill the office of justice of the peace under the act of assembly of the last session allowing an additional justice of the peace in Morgan County - a majority of all the justices of the peace in commission being present and concurring in this recommendation."

Joseph Lumpkins named a fit person to fill the office of justice of the peace
Morgan County, Kentucky, March 5, 1827

Nearly one year later, Joseph appeared in the court order book for the second time. On February 4, 1828, "Joseph Lumpkins and Mashack Stacey is recommended to the Governor of this state as fit persons to fill the office of the justice of the peace (on [illegible] Creek) under the act of assembly allowing an additional justice of the peace for Morgan County - Majority of the justice of the peace being present and concurring in this recommendation." The recommendation to the governor appeared to have been the second step in the appointment process.

Joseph Lumpkins recommended to the governor to fill the office of justice of the peace
Morgan County, Kentucky, February 4, 1828

The nomination must have been approved. Three months later, on May 5th, Joseph Lumpkins Esqr. was marked as "present" during court proceedings. Over the next three years, his name appeared more than 20 times in the court order book.

There's a New Sheriff in Town

Regrettably, the court order books are missing after 1830 and we lose the county's official record of Joseph Lumpkins' public service. 

However, while conducting research I came across Joseph in an October 1970 article by University of Kentucky Professor Robert M. Ireland. Professor Ireland wrote in The Sale of Public Office in America how "the selling or leasing of certain local offices seems also to have been rather commonplace..." occurring in "...eleven states in all...or fully one-third of the states of the Union as of 1860." Joseph was featured as one of Professor Ireland's examples - an exciting yet scandalous continuation of his public service!

In Kentucky, the sale of public office was widespread during the antebellum period. Ireland noted that the most commonly sold offices were the sheriffalty, the deputy sheriffalties, the clerkships of the courts and the constabulary. The sheriffalty was the most prized because it "was the most influential."

Kentucky law technically did not allow for the sale of public office. According to Ireland, the state's second constitution (effective between 1800 to 1851) stipulated that the sheriff was to be appointed to that position. Ireland detailed the appointment process as follows:

"...a majority of the justices of the peace who formed the county courts recommended two persons of their number to the governor 'paying due regard to seniority,' and if the recommendation was timely the chief executive was bound to choose one of the two as the sheriff, who then served for two years. The governor normally selected the first choice of the county court, which was usually the senior justice of the peace. The system of rotation and seniority encouraged the farming or selling of the sheriffalty, since by the time a justice of the peace reached a position of seniority on the county court he was often too old and feeble to carry out the duties of office. These duties were normally onerous and, as one newspaper put it, unless the sheriff-designate was equipped 'to be moving continually on horseback, or on foot, in all sorts of weather, over all sorts of roads, and sometimes at night, as well as during the day...he is unfit for the office.' Many of them were unfit and hence did farm or sell the office." 

Professor Ireland then caught my attention with this eyebrow-raising example:

 "Quite often the sheriffalty was sold or farmed or partially leased to one of the sheriff's deputies, but this was not always the case. In Morgan County the clerk of the county court and the county attorney bought the sheriffalty from Joseph Lumpkins, who they thought was the senior justice of the peace. When Lumpkins' seniority was contested by another magistrate, the two county entrepreneurs nearly sustained a total loss. However, they prevailed upon the governor to commission their vendor, Lumpkins, and thereby salvaged their investment."

The Lumpkins example included a footnote citing a letter from William A. Ragland (a witness to the drama) to Kentucky Governor William Owsley. I contacted the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives - the repository holding the papers of Governor Owsley - to see if an archivist could help me locate the original letter. Four days later - after paying a nominal fee - I had in my inbox a scan of Ragland's two-page missive.

Petitioning the Governor

On November 23, 1844, Ragland wrote from West Liberty to "his Excellency the Governor of Kentucky" about "a contest that has grown up in this county...about who shall be the high sheriff..."

Ragland identified himself as "an eye witness to what took place in the county court when the court recommissioned the two gentlemen out of whom the choice [for sheriff] is to be made..." 

The two men were Joseph Lumpkins and Esqr. Cassity who, Ragland wrote, "...made proof from the record from the secretarys [sic] office that his commission was issued before that of Joseph Lumpkins and that he had been first recommend [sic] by the court..." As Professor Ireland noted, seniority was an important factor in ranking the candidates for the governor's appointment. Ragland acknowledged that Lumpkins presented his commission confirming he was qualified, but "Cassity's commission has been destroyed..." Despite his missing commissioning credential, Ragland assured the governor that "the county court of Morgan County named Cassity first in their order recommending them to be commissioned as high sheriff..."

As Ragland tells it, the county made its decision and ranked Cassity as its senior candidate for sheriff. You would think that the case was settled. Apparently not.

The details of the drama that must have precipitated Ragland's letter to Governor Owsley are now missing, but clearly there was a concerted campaign afoot to promote Lumpkins to sheriff instead of Cassity. Ragland decried "...the unusual and extraordinary effort on the part of Lumpkins now to be commissioned as high sheriff of Morgan County..." and alleged that "...the clerk of the Morgan County Court and the Attorney for said Court have bought the sheriffalty from Lumpkins and are determined to have him first commissioned."

Esquire Cassity asked Ragland to obtain a copy of the court's official order recommending the two men, which was bound to be delivered to the governor for his concurrence. However, "...the clerk refused to make out the copy of the record, said he would not do it until Lumpkins brought in some paper which he wished to copy in the record...and would not do it although I tendered him the money for the record."

Leaving nothing on the table, Ragland laid the plot bare: "Now from all I can learn on the subject and do verily believe it the clerk of the court and the attorney are endeavoring to have Lumpkins commissioned because they have bought the office from him and intend to controle [sic] the deputies if not act themselves. Wherefore I respectfully request that Cassity may be your Excellency commissioned." 

William A. Ragland to Governor William Owsley, November 23, 1844
Papers of Governor Owsley, Jacket 568. Page 1

William A Ragland to Governor William Owsley, November 23, 1844
Papers of Governor Owsley, Jacket 568, Page 2

The archives had no response from Governor Owsley or additional correspondence on the matter. However, Google Books provided a conclusion for this saga. A digitized copy of the Kentucky State Register for the Year 1847 provided the names of Kentucky's county judges, clerks of courts, justices of the peace, and sheriffs.

The Register detailed the men holding office in Morgan County, including "Sheriff, Joseph Lumpkins, commissioned April 4, 1845." Five months after Ragland's entreaties, Governor Owsley commissioned Lumpkins despite the accusations of wrongdoing. I suspect the governor erred on the side of the county's official recommendation, which the court clerk suspiciously refused to share with Ragland. Did the clerk manipulate the ranking of the two candidates and change the court's preference from Cassity to Lumpkins? Perhaps the county's written recommendation for the sheriffalty is elsewhere among the papers of Governor Owsley awaiting discovery. 

Curiously, the Register also included the names of the men serving as clerk and attorney (both accused of orchestrating the purchase of Lumpkins' sheriffalty): John W. Hazelrigg and Thomas F. Hazelrigg. Was the scheme a family affair?

Kentucky State Register for the Year 1847, Morgan County officeholders

Among the county's 22 enumerated justices of the peace, the first name listed - suggesting he had the most seniority (since the list was not in alphabetical order) - was John Cassity.

I've not come across any further details about the alleged improprieties. However, evidence suggests that Joseph continued to serve as sheriff into the latter 1840s. 

On February 29, 1848, the Kentucky General Assembly approved an act to allow Morgan County's sheriffs (plural!) further time to collect taxes. The act stated that "Joseph Lumpkins and Jesse Casaday, late Sheriffs of Morgan county shall have the further time of two years to collect the unpaid county levy and revenue tax due for the years 1845, 1846 and 1847; and, also, all fees due them under the laws now in force."

It's not clear to me what's meant by "late Sheriffs" and I'm left to assume that by February 1848, neither man officially held that title yet still had outstanding tax collection obligations. What's most curious is that Jesse Casaday is the other sheriff. Was Jesse and not John the name of the man up against Lumpkins for the sheriffalty in 1844?

If that's the case, I had one more piece of evidence.

Remember that very first court order from March 5, 1827 recommending Joseph Lumpkins as a fit person to fill the office of justice of the peace? The entry immediately preceding Lumpkins in the order book was for Jesse Cassity, recommending him "to the Governor as fit persons to fill the office of justice of the peace..." 

Morgan County, Kentucky Court Order Book - March 5, 1827
Jesse Cassity (left) and Joseph Lumpkins (right)

Cassity's recommendation to the governor appears to have been a step ahead of Lumpkins' who wouldn't be put forward to the governor for another year. It would seem this was evidence that Cassity's recommendation did indeed predate Joseph's. I suppose it was a small mercy that Cassity was finally deputized as sheriff, securing the position he had sought in 1844.

As for Joseph, he died in about 1848. The circumstances of his untimely passing remain unknown. With the alleged backdoor dealings to sell his public office, I can't help but wonder whether he made enemies who sought a sinister end. 


    My way of indicating a note of suspense.

    1. Apparently our kinfolk were up to no good. Makes me wonder if he was just greedy and corrupt or did life circumstances compel him to make a bad choice for financial gain.

  2. Such intrigue! I guess there has always been corruption in politics---going all the way back to Jacob stealing Esau's blessings from his father. Human beings...

    1. I suppose so! Honestly, while I don't condone the selling of public office, I'm not going to lie - it was fun to follow the scandal in the records. It's not often that my ancestors make such high profile appearances.