In Search of the Lost Sheriff

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SheriffSheriff David Lemons and his family, circa August 1921.
Standing (L-R): Bernice Lemons (Hendrickson), Mary D. Lemons (Sweatt), and Will Lemons Seated (L-R): Bess Lemons (Tomlinson), holding Nettie Lemons, David Lemons and Halie Lemons (Price)

 

BY LISA TOMLINSONLisa Tomlinson

 

Family histories and knowing who your people are is a common thread among most cultures, but we Southerners tend to declare ourselves more readily in touch with the ghosts of our pasts. For me and my family, however, there has always been a missing portion of our family story. In June, 2013, thanks to a little investigative work on my part, what was once lost was found and after eighty years, we were finally introduced to Sheri David Lemons, my paternal greatgrandfather.

Nettie Lemons Tomlinson, my paternal grandmother, or “Grandma” as we called her, was born the fifth and final child of Elizabeth “Bess” Lemons and David Lemons on June 6, 1921. Some of my happiest childhood memories are intimately connected with the stories she would tell about her own childhood growing up in Tucker’s Crossroads. My favorite stories though were about her daddy. Her face would light up when she talked about him, and I was convinced from her tales that he was a giant of a man. His name was David for whom she named her only child, my daddy, David M. Tomlinson.

SheriffSheriff Robert Bryan, finally has the opportunity to include Sheriff Lemons to his place of honor, within the halls of Wilson County Sheriff’s OfficeDavid Lemons was the elected “high sheriff” of Wilson County and following his election, he moved his family from their home in Tuckers Crossroads to the living quarters in the county jail (which was then connected to the old courthouse on the Lebanon square) in keeping with the custom of the day. Grandma told me about coming home from school each day to her daddy’s oce in the jail, and she recounted how her mother, “Ms. Bess,” cooked and laundered for the inmates. I knew that her daddy had died shortly after her 16th birthday, but she never talked about his death to me, and even as a little girl I recognized in her a lingering grief with regard to his death.

I always wished I knew more about her father, and as luck would have it, earlier this year, while having a conversation with a friend, I mentioned in passing that my great-grandfather was a former sheriff of Wilson County.

Shortly thereafter Captain Kent Beasley reported there wasn’t a picture or any mention of “Sheriff David Lemons” on the memorial wall at the Sheriff ’s Department. Sheriff Robert Bryan, being the son of former Wilson County Sheriff, Cecil Bryan, expressed an interest in tracking down information and bringing a piece of county law enforcement history to light.

And with that…the investigation began and would uncover a history, a great-grandfather and a missing piece of our family puzzle and that of Wilson County’s as well. Within the halls of Cumberland University and the pages of an old 1934 Lebanon Democrat, we were finally introduced.

“Mr. Lemons is recognized by citizens of the county generally as a man of strict integrity and strength of character. It is generally conceded that Mr. Lemons will take office under unusual difficulties because of two diverse elements in his support. But there is general agreement that Dave Lemons is the kind of man who can overcome difficulties. Confidence in his ability to make a good sheriff is general, and quite as much so among those who opposed him as among those who supported him in the race.”

Intrigued to be sure, and after a few mishaps with the microfilm machine (none of which I believe to have caused permanent damage to Cumberland University property), my digging continued.

His first nine months in office went largely unremarked upon until an article appeared on May 9, 1935, with a front page caption entitled, “Sheriff May Not Feed Prisoners.”

According to the article, by Private Acts of 1923, inmate food and board payments were apportioned by the Wilson County Road Commission, and commensurate with this private act, the road commission paid at the rate of .60 cents per day per jail inmate, and then paid the elected sheriff on a monthly basis [about $600 per month in 1935] for the feeding (i.e. expenditures for groceries, supplies, labor in food preparation, etc.) and maintenance of workhouse prisoners (including salaries for deputies and jailors).

Wilson County Judge E.G. Walker (who was also superintendent of the county road commission) requested a letter of opinion from the state attorney generalSheriffPictured with Sheriff Bryan are Joe Price and David Tomlinson, both grandsons of Sheriff Lemons shortly aer Lemons’ election as to whose duty it was to feed the prisoners confined in both the jail and the county workhouse, and whether the county road commission was liable for feeding workhouse inmates at the actual cost rather than the day rate allowed the sheriff in feeding jail inmates.

Controversy immediately arose following the judge’s requested opinion letter.  The sheriff and his supporters declared the county had not previously made distinctions in the costs for feeding jail inmates and workhouse prisoners, and that it was improper for the judge to not only have the ability to sentence inmates to the county workhouse, but as chairman of the county road commission to also utilize unpaid inmate labor on county road crews.

Ultimately the attorney general ruled in favor of the county road commission, and on May 23, 1935, the Lebanon Democrat ran a response letter from Sheriff Lemons in which the sheriff said he did not recognize the authority of the county road commission to take over the feeding of inmates in the county workhouse, nor did he recognize a distinction between jail inmates and workhouse prisoners, and that any attempted assumption of control by the commission or its agents would be necessarily “resisted.”

Sheriff Lemons countered that in all of the sixteen years prior to his election, the sheriffs of the county had always fed all of the inmates as a collective group without “one word of protest” from either the county judge or the county road commission. He further challenged that nothing good could come from dissolving the month-to-month accounting of what, if anything, was actually spent on day-to-day care, maintenance, and food services for workhouse inmates.

Tensions went from bad to worse during the summer of 1935 leading to a Chancery Court complaint for injunctive relief led against Sheriff Lemons and his deputies. Among other things it was alleged that Sheriff Lemons had “stationed armed deputy sheriffs on the workhouse property, and that he continued to keep them on the premises and that they have occupied beds at the workhouse, and that the sheriff has frequently stationed himself there armed” in an effort to thwart the attempt by the commission to take over the feeding of workhouse prisoners.

On June 20, 1935, the Lebanon Democrat, reported that Chancellor J. W. Stout ruled against Sheriff Lemons, but obstinate in the face of that ruling, Sheriff Lemons took his case all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

On December 19, 1935, it was reported that the Supreme Court had affirmed the Chancery Court ruling and determined that the county road commission, and not the sheriff, was rightly charged with the “feeding” of county workhouse prisoners based solely upon the Private Act of 1923.

However, the court expressed doubt as to how the commission could “actually” feed the inmates without the oversight, cooperation, and supervision of the elected sheriff, and expressed interest as to why the Private Act of 1923 had not been followed by the road commission in the act’s previous years on the books. I was equally intrigued by the report that Sheriff Lemons was represented by Lewis S. Pope, of Pikeville, Tennessee, during the entirety of the litigation. I wondered what the draw of an attorney from East Tennessee would have been for him.

As it turns out Mr. Pope was a 1900 graduate of Vanderbilt Law School, state senator, assistant U.S. District Attorney for Eastern Tennessee, and two-time Tennessee gubernatorial candidate (1928 and 1932). In 1923, Pope was appointed by then- governor Austin Peay as the first commissioner of what would ultimately become the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Pope spent most of his career going after corruption in state government, and on March 13, 1934 (fourteen months before taking on Sheriff Lemons as a client), he was appointed as investigator of departments of state government by Governor Gordon Browning. Apparently Sheriff Lemons’ case against the local government was in keeping with Pope’s crusade against corruption, misuse, and marginalization within state and local correctional facilities.

On Thursday, March 27, 1936 Sheriff Lemons suffered a stroke after returning to his office from lunch. Chief Deputy R. L. Haralson took over following his illness, and Lemons never returned to work. He died on Sunday, August 30, 1936 at the age of forty-eight hours before the end of his term.

As a result of his death, Wilson County actually had three sheriffs in three days – Sunday (David Lemons – who remained sheriff until the time of his death), Sunday night through the following Tuesday morning (county coroner, Tal Major automatically became sheriff upon Lemons’ death), and Tuesday morning (newly elected sheriff, Perry Burnett). The article offered “probably no other county has had so rapid a turnover in chief peace officers.”

Time has a way of moving itself forward. Some stories fall away with the passage of time, while others wait to be recovered and told once more.

As a young attorney whose office sits in the shadows of the original “old” courthouse, I find a particular sense of comfort in knowing that nearly eighty years before, my great-grandfather served the people of this county, and fought for what he believed to be right and just, and I am happy to share his story…no longer living in the past.

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