Sheriff Joe Perry: Law Enforcement In The 1800’s

Sheriff Joe Perry

Greens and beans, and if you’re lucky maybe a deputy will shoot a ‘possum. Wouldn’t it be nice to sink your teeth into a piece of real meat for a change?

Sitting in a jail cell where the space between the bunks is so small that most men are unable to turn around, well, it sort of spoils the appetite. But you know you have to eat to keep up your strength, because soon you’ll be out working on the chain gang for another twelve hours of ditch-digging or road-building. Still, those jobs are better than what the women prisoners do day in and day out—up before the sun rises, cooking for all the inmates and the sheriff and his family. Then there’s all the cleaning and dish-washing. In the evening it starts all over again, cooking supper and more dish-washing. Those poor women are lucky if they get in the bed before midnight. At least they don’t have to drag those heavy ball and chains around all day, though.

It was 1889 when Sheriff Joe Perry was sworn in as sheriff in St. Johns County, Florida, and he held the office for 26 years. Perry is the longest serving sheriff in Florida history.

Standing at 6’6″ and 300lbs., Perry was big enough and man enough to bring in the baddest of the bad. He thought nothing of traveling deep into Alabama swampland to capture a wanted suspect.

And, when Sheriff Perry or his deputies nabbed a bad guy, they brought them back to the jail located one mile outside of St. Augustine. There, inmates sat inside their cells, ticking off the days until their sentences were up. Those who were serving time on death row had the luxury of having a window in their cell. The downside of having that window was that it looked out to the gallows where they’d soon hang until they were dead.

A few inmates, the one’s whose time was short and crimes were minor, were made trustees. They worked around the jail, tending to the gardens and fixing whatever was broken.

The sheriff and his family lived inside the jail, in a wing separate from the area occupied by the prisoners.

Dining room where the sheriff and his family had their meals. Their food was prepared and served by female prisoners.


Sheriff’s bedroom

Sheriff Perry’s desk

Fingerprint kit

Life inside the early jails was tough to say the least.

Prisoners’ shower

Homemade weapons confiscated by Sheriff Perry and his deputies

Weapons confiscated during arrests

Various restraint devices of late 1800’s and early 1900’s, during the time Sheriff Perry was in office.

Sheriff Perry served split terms, for a total of 26 years (1889-1897 and 1901-1919). He died at the age of 56 while still in office. He was known as an expert in firearms, and he accompanied his deputies on even the most dangerous calls.


12 replies
  1. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Prisoners cook for law enforcement folks all the time, especially in facilities featuring staff dining privileges (prisons and jails). Some of the food is really good, especially in facilities with culinary programs.

  2. Karen Tintori
    Karen Tintori says:

    Stopped short at the female prisoner prepared meals! That was one brave sheriff. Thanks for sharing this, Lee. Very interesting piece and loved the abundance of photos.

  3. Julie Robinson
    Julie Robinson says:

    Too bad we can’t have jails like that for criminals again. Maybe then we wouldn’t have so many people committing crimes in a competition to get free residence, meals, gyms, libraries, and health care.

  4. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Thorne – I’m sure the county furnished the place as a means of compensating the family for having to live inside the jail, which was a 24-hour job, seven days a week.

  5. Thorne
    Thorne says:

    Great article. The sheriff looked like he was living a little above his means! Would have thought his living quarters would have been more sparse and rustic.

  6. Mo Walsh
    Mo Walsh says:

    I guess the jails got nicer about the time more politicians were being sent there. The Warren G. Harding administration?

    Seriously, a real contrast between the way the prisoners and sheriff’s family lived, but life then was a lot harder for everyone.

  7. Teresa Reasor
    Teresa Reasor says:

    I love your posts and read them every time. I also share them. I love the history of law enforcement. Wonder why they’ve never made a movie out his life like they did Buford Pusser?

    Teresa R.

  8. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    I read almost all of your posts, and I’m sorry I haven’t commented earlier. I really enjoy the historical posts.

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