180 years of law and order in Fulton County

Our Fulton County Jail, built by Sir William Johnson and fortified as Fort Johnstown during the Revolution, from an image probably taken in the 1850s, courtesy of the Fulton County Historical Society Collection. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

When Sheriff Richard Giardino mentioned to me last March that 2018 marks the 180th anniversary of Fulton County, I hadn’t remembered this, nor apparently has anyone else, as no celebration has taken place.

Sheriff Giardino was interested in the history of his own office and the sheriffs who’ve served it since the legislative act of April 18, 1838 established Fulton County. I shortly supplied him with a list of former sheriffs and decided to research the early sheriff’s department history.

I initially assumed all the new county’s officials would have been chosen directly after the April 18 county birth date, but upon consulting early newspapers, I discovered that instead of holding immediate elections, a period of lengthy controversy ensued, due apparently to state-level political gerrymandering.

Our first sheriff, Ephratah Supervisor Daniel McMartin, was elected in November 1838, but from April 18 to election day, there was great confusion: a Feb. 12, 1839 newspaper oddly named “New York For the Country” summarized what occurred, stating, “There soon began a difficult to understand wrangle over whether the judges and sheriff of Montgomery County would also be appointed judges and sheriff of the new Fulton County, simply because they all happened to live in places that were still part of Montgomery County.”

The previous day’s Albany Evening Journal also derided a legislative act passed by the Senate Jan. 15, 1839, observing, “In the opinion of the Senate, Abraham Morrell is first judge and Samuel A. Gilbert associate judge of the County of Fulton.” Yet these same people were already judges in Montgomery County.

This politically-motivated attempt to avoid appointing new judges was vilified in many newspapers. Schenectady’s Freedom’s Sentinel, for example, stated in part, “We deem and we denounce the resolution of the state senate creating two judges for Fulton County, as an assumption of power, an infraction of the law, and a violation of the constitution.”

The sheriff’s office was also involved.

The Evening Journal related, “The sheriff of the old county, elected before the division, William J. Sammons, at the time of the division resided within the new county of Fulton, and yet the Legislature, in the act of erecting the new county, provided that the Sheriff, County Clerk, etc., be elected in the county of Fulton in the next annual election, to hold their offices three years from the first day of January next. Here then was a legislative construction, that the sheriff holding the office under the constitution for three years, was not sheriff of the new county of Fulton in which he resided, but was the sheriff of the old county of Montgomery for which he was elected, but by the legislative act erecting the new county, he no longer resided in the county of Montgomery.”

While wrangling over the question of how sheriffs, clerks, and judges of Montgomery County could be recognized by the Senate, even temporarily as holding identical offices in Fulton County continued, Sheriff Sammons artfully dodged the issue by moving, according to the Journal, from his real home within the border of what had just become Fulton County into an upper room in Fonda’s Montgomery County Courthouse, remaining there for the rest of his 1837 to 1840 term, wisely leaving the question of which county he was sheriff of to others.

The July 4, 1838 Bath Farmer’s Advocate had earlier informed readers, “The new county will not be organized before the 1st of January 1839 and until then, all public transactions for both counties must be at Fonda in Montgomery County, and all communications for the sheriff or county clerk should be directed to the Fonda post office.”

It therefore appears Fulton County was Fulton County in little more than name from April 1838 until its own sheriff was elected in November and its own judges appointed even later.

When Daniel McMartin was elected Fulton County’s first sheriff, his term ran from 1839 through 1841. A sheriff’s term was three years then, and sheriffs couldn’t succeed themselves, although they could hold office again after their successor’s term expired. It wasn’t until 1937 when voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing sheriffs to serve consecutive terms.

Another form of law officer, the constable, aided sheriffs indirectly by serving within individual towns. A constable’s main asset was in being that town’s resident: he knew the people of his town well, knew which ones were naughty or nice, and how to handle them. Constables also assisted sheriffs as jail keepers, writ servers, and transporters of felons. Although the office of constable legally still exists, Fulton County’s last constable was Perry Vickers of Perth.

Sheriffs also conducted hangings. Sheriff Michael Thompson, our third sheriff, conducted the hanging of Mrs. Elizabeth Van Valkenburgh in the jailhouse yard in January 1846, the last hanging in our county. An undated 1895 Daily Leader article, “Sheriffs of Fulton County” profiled the first six sheriffs. Of first sheriff Daniel McMartin, the writer remarked, “He belonged to an extensive, aristocratic family, wore good clothes and made an impressive appearance. His opponents called him “the silk stocking candidate.” Sheriff Thompson, on the other hand, was described as, “A Johnstown blacksmith and former stage coach driver; a strongly-built man of still stronger opinions.”

Sheriff Richard Giardino is Fulton County’s 41st sheriff, and continues a 180-year tradition of protecting the public as chief county law officer.

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