Since 1791, a sheriff has kept the peace in Mathews

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on May 16, 2018 - 11:30 AM

For more than 225 years, Mathews County has had a chief law enforcement officer to make sure that its residents were safe and law-abiding.

There is no known comprehensive history of the sheriffs of Mathews County, current Sheriff Mark Barrick said, so he asked Mathews Memorial Library’s head of genealogy and family research services Becky Barnhardt to come up with that information.

To that end, Barnhardt has compiled a list of the Mathews sheriffs all the way back to the county’s founding in 1791, when the area known as Kingston Parish separated from Gloucester County. The list is incomplete, but Barnhardt will add to it as information becomes available.

The first sheriff to serve Mathews County was Thomas Tabb, who was appointed in 1791. He most likely responded to disturbances from his home, said Barnhardt. In 1792, “the sheriffry passed from Thomas Tabb to Thomas Smith, and George Guthrie, a tavern-keeper, became the deputy sheriff,” according to “Mathews County Virginia: Lost Landscapes, Untold Stories,” a commissioned book written by researcher Martha McCartney.

This sharing of the sheriff’s office was in accordance with a requirement that the duties of the sheriff rotate among the county justices.

Also in 1792, two jails were most likely built, said McCartney. That year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring that each county have a sturdily constructed courthouse on two acres of land. The court complex was required to have a common jail (or debtors’ prison) as well as a prison for criminals, which was to be “well secured with iron bars, bolts and locks.” There also had to be a whipping post, stocks (for securing the ankles and wrists), and a pillory (for securing the arms and neck). If he so chose, the county justice could also have a ducking stool built (a chair placed on a long wooden beam, used to duck people in the water).

Barnhardt said that the debtors’ jail is still located on the Mathews Court Green. It’s the one-story brick building that served as the Mathews County Sheriff’s Office from 1933-1982, and was subsequently used as the county registrar’s office from 1982 to 1983 and then again from 2005 to 2007. It is situated west of the current building official’s office. There was once a jail on the lot where Tompkins Cottage is now located, she said, but it was torn down sometime in the 1800s.

Barnhardt has information that the criminals’ jail was constructed in the second half of the 19th century, and that it’s the two-story building that now houses a furnace room and utilities for the administration building. She also has a description from the 1835 Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia by Joseph Martin that says “The public buildings are a very neat, new courthouse, two jails, one for criminals and the other for debtors, and a clerk’s office. These houses are all well-built of brick.” These disparate pieces of information could not be reconciled for this article.

In 1794, John Humphries became sheriff, followed by an unknown justice in 1795. The next three years, 1796-1798, saw the office filled by Richard Billups, Richard Gregory, William H. Hudgins, and Milton Glasscock, in order.