The U.S. Marshals...What Exactly Is It That They Do? A New Book Spells It Out.

A story recently made the news that the U.S. Marshal’s service was providing protection for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. This is the first time since 2009 that a cabinet-level official has been provided security by the Marshals. My first question was, why doesn’t the secret service run that detail? Of course my second question was why do I care so much? But I am a history buff and I need to know these things! Well I asked that question of official historian to the U.S. Marshal’s David Turk and boy did I receive...

If you don’t have the pleasure of calling up Mr. Turk for random law-enforcement related historical questions fear not...for he has written an encyclopedic history of the U. S. Marshals, Forging the Star: The Official Modern History of the United States Marshals that spells out way more about this branch of law enforcement than I ever thought to ask. My hunch is that when most people think of the U. S. Marshals Service they think of the Tommy Lee Jones movie or perhaps some of the mythologized Marshals of the Old West.

The United States Marshal’s office was actually created clear back in 1789 by the First Congress. George Washington signed the Judiciary Act into law on September 24th, 1789. The purpose of the Act, which provided the creation of the United States Marshal. The law created marshals as officers of the courts. Their primary function was to provide federal courts with actual law-enforcement functions. Many of the first U.S. Marshals were veterans of the American Revolution. John Adam’s son-in-law Congressman William Stephens Smith, Congressman Thomas Morris and Henry Dearborn were among the first.

If you are a Baby Boomer (or you spent a lot of time with your Baby Boomer parents like I did ) then you grew up watching bad westerns with Marshals putting together rag tag posses and deputizing yokels. My cousin and I had fake Marshal’s stars that we got at Knott’s Berry Farm as kids that we would wear to solve imaginary crimes around our grandparents’ ranch. One of my fondest childhood memories involves watching “Bonanza” reruns with my dad. I lost track of how many times Joe, Hoss and Adam were deputized as Marshals to bring in some ruthless bandit. I joke but there was some element of reality there. Marshals were allowed to recruit deputies as needed locally or as temporary transfers to the Marshal’s Service from other federal law-enforcement agencies. Marshals could also pull in people to join their posses (sigh...if only I had lived in the 19th century).

Federal Marshals are known for their law enforcement work just like the Secret Service is known for protecting the President. However, the Secret Service was originally created to combat counterfeiting just after the Civil War when at least a third of the money in circulation was bogus. They didn’t start protecting the president until decades later. The Federal Marshals are equally misunderstood. The bulk of their business was paper work such as serving writes and other such tedious documents issued by the courts. They executed the arrests and handled all federal prisoners. But like any job the cool part comes with a lot of administration. They also got tasked with disbursing funds, oversaw payments and expenses of the county clerks, U.S. attorneys, jurors and witnesses and they were even responsible for renting out courtrooms and jails. They hired the bailiffs, criers and even the janitors and made sure the jurors, witnesses and prisoners were in court on time. If they had had K-Cup machines in courts back in the 18th and 19th centuries they probably would have had to maintain those as well and place the orders for the flavors.

The Marshals’ primary purpose was to provide local representation for the federal government within their districts. They even conducted the national census every decade through 1870 (and if you are a user of Ancestry.come then you undoubtedly owe them a hearty thank you for that). But it was during the settlement of the American West that the Marshals more than lived up to their reputation. They were the day-to-day law enforcement in areas that had no local government or infrastructure. They were the ones assisting in bringing in outlaws such as Bill Doolin, Ned Christie and in 1893 the infamous Dalton Gang.

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Dallas Stoudenmire and Bass Reeves are examples of well-known marshals. Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas and Chris Madsen formed a legendary law enforcement trio known as “The Three Guardsmen” when they worked together policing the vast, lawless Oklahoma and Indian Territories.

Probably the most famous incident occurred on October 26, 1881 when Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers, Special Deputy U.S. Marshals Morgan and Wyatt Earp and their buddy (also a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal) John “Doc” Holiday took out Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clinton in the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.

In the 1960s the Marshals were often on the front lines of the civil rights movement, mainly providing protection to volunteers. In September 1962, President Kennedy ordered 127 marshals to accompany James Meredith, an African American who wanted to register at the segregated University of Mississippi. Their presence on campus provoked riots, but the Marshals stood their ground, and Meredith was registered. They then went on to provide continuous protection for him during his first year at Ole Miss and many other African American school children integrating into public schools in the South.

In my opinion, one of the coolest moments was captured in the iconic Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” which depicted a tiny Ruby Bridges being escorted by four towering U.S. Marshals in 1964.

This is just a brief summary of the highlights of the Marshal’s Service David Turk has assembled in his book. If you have a long flight ahead of you or just the general interest in knowing how our tax dollars are put to use in the administration of justice this book is a great read.

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