Shawnee County's First Sheriff
by Doug Mauck
Shawnee County was formed by the 'Bogus' (Pro-Slavery) legislature in 1855. At that time, Shawnee County borders were entirely south of the Kansas River and extended south to include Osage City and Carbondale. The legislature later desired to make Topeka the county seat and moved the borders of the county to their present locations to make Topeka centrally located in the county.
George Washington Berry (pictured above), a farmer from what is now the Berryton area, was appointed the first Sheriff of Shawnee County. Mr. Berry was notified of his appointment a few days later as his commission was delivered by a messenger on horseback. As 1855 was during the period when the Kansas Territory was known as 'Bleeding Kansas' because of the violence between pro-slavers and free-state people, Mr. Berry wrote on the back of the commission: "To the Governor: I consider that my hair is too precious to hazard by taking such an appointment" and instructed the messenger to return the commission to the Governor.
In the early days of the Shawnee County Sheriff's Office, the Sheriff usually had only one or two deputies. James A. Hickey (third from left), a founder of Topeka, served as a Deputy Sheriff for twenty years under various sheriff's. Hickey ran for sheriff on one occasion and lost the election.
Jailbreaks and escapes were common in the
1800's. A story in The Topeka Tribune of August 3, 1866 describes the escape of a prisoner who merely ran away from the deputy who was charged with guarding him. The newspaper excused the deputy's inability to capture the escapee by saying, “…the prisoner is a young, active and strong man, and was wholly unencumbered, while the deputy was encumbered by a heavy revolver and heavy boots.”
One prisoner, a Dr. Samual Ashmore was convicted of poisoning his wife and sentenced to hang. Dr. Ashmore escaped from the Shawnee County Jail no less than three times. He was recaptured once in Mexico and twice in Texas after, on all three occasions, 'imbibing too much sod corn'. According to newspaper accounts, Dr. Ashmore escaped through the pit-toilet system in the courthouse, which later became the old Norva Hotel. Dr. Ashmore's death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and he was eventually released from prison.
In the Independence Day Parade of 1868 in Topeka, included the following elements of the parade: "Twelveth Element: Deputy Charles Whiting with six prisoners that he has in jail … Eighteenth Element: sheriff Sherman Bodwell, accompanied by the three escaped prisoners who returned for this occasion."
The history of the Shawnee County Sheriff's Office is a rich history with many humorous stories as well as stories of valor and courage. The Kansas Historical Research Center and the Topeka Public Library contain many of these records.