The Secret Life of the Lawman's Wife
by BJ Alderman
November 2006, 240pp, 6 1/8x9 1/4
1 volume, Praeger

Hardcover: 978-0-275-99305-4
$95, £74, 83€, A131
eBook Available: 978-0-313-08720-2
Please contact your preferred eBook vendor for pricing.

Until the 1960s in many areas, the wives of county sheriffs and local jailers were as important as their husbands in taking care of prisoners and serving their communities, even though their work was often unpaid and dangerous.

During an era when many women concentrated on hearth and home, thousands of women quietly and without pay served in law enforcement. They organized, administered, presented reports to county commissioners, prepared for inspections, comforted victims, disciplined unruly inmates, fought with escapees, rode shotgun with their husbands as backup, and raised children, tended gardens, and kept house. They risked their lives every day and some paid the ultimate price. This is their story.

The office of county sheriff has existed in America since 1634. Between 1800 and 1960, families of the sheriff lived in or near the jail. All family members, young and old, worked alongside the lawman to fulfill the required duties, without additional pay. The mom and pop jail was truly a family business. After the middle of the 20th century, fewer families carried on this tradition as counties modernized and jails became professionalized.


"For more than two centuries, county jails in the US operated as family businesses. Sheriffs had to be elected, but once in office, wives and children made the system work with their unpaid and often unrecognized labor. Wives provided cooking, cleaning, and backup security. Alderman seeks to correct this oversight by writing this book on the wives and families of county sheriffs. The author gathered stories from 65 informants, utilized county archives and newspapers, and mined local jailhouse records. She includes a helpful alphabetical index of the 158 jailhouse family members referenced in the text, and another index organized by state and county. The information is excellent. Interestingly, some wives took over for deceased husbands, ran for office in their own right, and won the right to serve as female sheriffs. More attention could be paid to class and gender in analyzing the experiences of the lawman's wife, particularly when the wife was the lawman (lawperson?). Alderman organized her book topically and collapsed all space and time, so that an incident in the early 19th century stands next to a story from the mid-20th century. This ahistorical quality makes the volume more useful as a coffee table book than as professional historical analysis. Recommended. General readers/public libraries."—Choice, October 1, 2007

"Until the 1960s, the typical American jail was a small unit operated by the local sheriff and his wife. While the sheriff functioned as the lawman, the day-to-day management of the jail was overseen by his wife. Although neither paid nor recognized for their efforts, these Mrs. Sheriffs fed and disciplined the inmates, comforted the victims, fought with escapees, and served as backups for their husbands while keeping house, raising children, and tending gardens. Although volumes have been written about the lawmen, their wives have been almost totally ignored. Now, Alderman, a journalist whose specialty is the American West, has gathered interviews, snippets of local histories, letters, and diaries to come up with stories about the secret, or, more aptly, overlooked lives of the lawmen's wives....These stories, captivating, and sometimes incredible, should appeal to history buffs, women's studies, and people who simply want a good read. All public libraries should consider."—Library Journal, March 1, 2007

"One night in 1853, you are jailed for shooting at your neighbor. You are taken to jail by the sheriff your particulars are written down in a ledger by the sheriff's wife, who also locks you in and brings you a home-made meal. Unbeknownst to you she also takes a statement from your intended victim and comforts his children, prepares the report on your arrest, cleans the empty cells, tidies her own home in the corner of the jail building, feeds her husband and children, and settles down to repair the jail linen. You are not being paid for your time in the jail, and neither is she. Alderman accounts for the lives of these hitherto largely unknown women, whose work sustained the law enforcement system of the US for generations and whose work was eliminated as the enterprise stopped being a cottage industry."—Reference & Research Book News, February 1, 2007
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