‘Crooked work’ at the sheriff’s office in 1888

A woodcut likeness of Daniel Sutliff that appeared in the 1887 Fulton County Republican. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Since Fulton County was created, many sheriffs have faithfully served our populace — all except one. When whispers of “irregularities” in the sheriff’s office began circulating in late 1889, an investigation began.

The Dec. 26, 1889 Richfield Springs Courier printed an early account of alleged administrative funny business, as orchestrated by none other than Sheriff Daniel E. Sutliff and accomplices.

“Crooked work has been going on in the adjoining county of Fulton in which Sheriff Daniel Sutliff, Justice Hugh Christie and Constable Charles Smith have been defrauding the county in a systematic manner for some time. It seems from a confession of Deputy Sheriff Ecker that a conspiracy existed between Sheriff Sutliff, Justice Christie, Constable Charles Smith and himself by which fictitious arrests, convictions and commitments to jail were reported. The Sheriff would furnish a list of fictitious names to the officers who would then secure commitments from Justice Christie. The justice would docket the convictions and the officers would then deliver the commitment orders to the sheriff and take the receipts. This enabled the justice to charge his fees, the officers to do the same, and the sheriff to then charge jail commitment fees, board, washing, and other expenses for hundreds of men whose existence was on paper only.”

Apparently several supervisors became suspicious when, by simply comparing earlier billings with those provided after Sutliff took office, they noted serious discrepancies. Forming a committee, they paid a surprise visit to the jail and, as the Mercury’s account explained, “found only one prisoner instead of 12 as were listed by the number of commitments.” The Mercury’s first account concluded, “The Supervisors will investigate, and it looks like Sheriff Sutliff must settle.”

When he ran for sheriff in the fall of 1887, Daniel Sutliff, Fulton County highway superintendent and a successful building contractor, was the anointed darling of the Fulton County Republican Election Committee, even though six other candidates also sought the party backing. The Fulton County Republican newspaper also backed Sutliff, editorializing, “As a man and a citizen, Daniel Sutliff is generally esteemed. He possesses in a remarkable degree all the qualifications for discharging the duties of the office of sheriff with credit and honor.”

Further laudatory paragraphs heaped piles of unctuous praise on Sutliff’s shoulders for what were claimed to be his stellar virtues; that he was always kind to the poor, was a self-made man who “arose from pinching poverty,” was a true friend of the working man and, as everyone claimed to be in that day, an unerring champion of the people, incapable of doing wrong.

As it turned out, Sutliff was not only capable, but willing, and perhaps if he hadn’t padded his billings to the supervisors quite as heavily, his nest-feathering activity might have succeeded, but on Jan. 15 1889, the Republican informed readers, “After a protracted term of 10 weeks, a good portion of which was devoted to investigation of Sheriff Sutliff’s bill, the annual session of the Board of Supervisors was brought to a close.”

The embarrassed supervisors, however, already knew the facts, because on Dec. 28, the Republican had already headlined, “Hugh Christie Confesses.”

“Justice Hugh Christie this morning handed to the Committee of Sheriff’s Accounts a written confession fully corroborating the testimony given by Deputy Sheriff Ecker and Constable Smith concerning the conspiracy of these three pubic officials, together with Sheriff Sutliff, to defraud the public.”

Christie, a well-known Johnstown house painter, couldn’t paint this situation white.

A trial was inevitable, but didn’t occur until March 1893. The prosecution, using names listed on the bills Sutliff submitted to the supervisors for payment, called those named to testify, and those named who were real people testified that neither they, nor any relatives, including dead ones, (some of whose names were also listed), were ever jailed.

It looked bad for Sutliff, but on March 24, 1893, the Glens Falls Times reported, “The climax in the Sheriff Sutliff case in Johnstown was reached yesterday when the defendant was put on the stand. During four hours of cross examination, he was not once confused.”

The Glens Falls reporter indicated Sutliff made a good impression on the jury and declared, “Many who unhesitatingly declared him guilty are now undecided. It is believed the jury will at least disagree, if it doesn’t bring a verdict for acquittal.”

The reporter was right. The March 30, 1893 Richfield Springs Mercury, far enough removed from Fulton County to be an unbiased observer, briefly announced the results.

“The jury in the case of ex-sheriff Sutliff of Fulton County was unable to agree. They retired Friday and deliberated all night up to 11 a.m. Saturday when they were discharged. Six were for conviction and six for acquittal. District Attorney Wright is not discouraged, saying he will pursue the case another year.”

But he never did, perhaps influenced by Republican supervisors who wanted this embarrassing malfeasance of their tarnished darling forgotten: earlier on, they’d attempted to handle Sutliff’s difficulties administratively, but newspaper editorials and public outcry for a trial precluded successfully sweeping the situation under a political rug.

Ex-sheriff Sutliff, emboldened by his acquittal, struck back, demanding payment for at least part of his jail expense bills. He got it too. On Feb. 1, 1895, supervisors, anxious to close the matter forever, inexplicably cut Sutliff a check for $4.000 after which he shortly moved to Massachusetts.

By Patricia Older

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