Madera County Historical Society
Jasper Lewis and his wife, Adelia, posed for this photograph in 1896. Eighteen years later he was elected sheriff of Madera County.
Jasper Franklin Lewis was as tough as they come. He ran for sheriff of Madera County on a get-tough-on-crime platform. He was elected, but the people only let him serve for one term. During that time, however, he showed he could not be pushed around — quite the contrary, he did the pushing.
In 1914 Lewis ran for sheriff against Samson Westfall, the incumbent, and won. When he took office, he set out immediately to “clean up” the dozen saloons that lined Yosemite Avenue, especially the Cottage saloon. This particular watering hole was the scene of much revelry at the turn of the 20th century.
The merrymaking could often be heard on both sides of Madera’s main street, and while the patrons relished the good times, the tee-totalers in town objected vociferously to the goings-on.
As fate would have it, they found that Sheriff Lewis had a sympathetic ear. He was as straight laced as a lawman could be. Throughout his tenure at the head of the county’s law enforcement team, he earned the reputation of being especially hard on those saloon-keepers who allowed their establishments to become public nuisances. Therefore, when the complaints about the Cottage Saloon continued, it came as no surprise that Lewis stepped in to put a stop to the offensive, nighttime behavior.
On the evening of May 3, 1915, Lewis, accompanied by the city’s night watchman, paid a visit to the saloon. True to the reports, the noise emanating from the bar was almost deafening, so the sheriff decided to tone down the party just a bit. Upon entering the front door, Lewis was confronted by D. Ricci, the bartender who contended that the lawman had no right to curtail anyone’s attempt to have a good time. Ricci had reckoned, however, without Lewis’ reputation for sternness.
As the bartender vigorously made his argument, he made the mistake of pressing his point right up in the sheriff’s face. Without any warning at all, Lewis slapped Ricci to the floor and followed that action with a few swats on the head. Needless to say, this put a stop to the argument and the noise as well. At the same time, however, it put a strain on the ingenuity of the local legal machinery.
Ricci rose from the floor, called the town constable and demanded that the sheriff be arrested. With more than a little embarrassment, Lewis was taken before Justice of the Peace Raburn where he pleaded guilty to the charge of assault and paid a $5 fine. Beyond that, there was not even a hint of reprisal against the sheriff. The community was more than satisfied.
Ricci, however, was not satisfied, as his feelings had been severely injured. What he wanted and demanded was a public apology. This the sheriff could not bring himself to do, whereupon Ricci informed Lewis that he had 120 days to make the necessary public obeisance or face a lawsuit for damages.
All of Madera waited as the weeks melted into months while Lewis remained unmovable. He may have technically broken the law, but in his own mind, he was morally correct. Ricci had received a brand of justice that the courts could not administer, and Lewis did not regret it one iota.
Just when everyone thought the matter had been forgotten, Ricci walked into the county courthouse and filed his threatened lawsuit. He made the complaint shortly before noon on October 13, 1915. In his $25,000 action, the bartender alleged that the sheriff had “entered the saloon on the date mentioned and wrongfully, illegally, violently, and maliciously assaulted the plaintiff by striking him and beating him with his fist upon the head and body without any provocation whatever; that the plaintiff did then and there suffer great pain and his body and feelings were greatly injured and remain injured, and he was compelled to suffer great humiliation.”
For a moment, things looked bleak for the sheriff, He had pleaded guilty and had been sentenced for his part in the fracas. If it ever got to court, Ricci stood a good chance of winning. Then a brainstorm struck Lewis!
When Constable A.J. Russel arrived at the jail to serve papers on the sheriff, Lewis asked him upon whose authority he was acting. Russel, although a Lewis supporter, responded that he was acting in the capacity of his own position as constable. At that juncture, Lewis pointed out that Russel could not legally serve papers that were not signed by the sheriff. With that Russel retreated to consult with the district attorney. The D.A. agreed with the sheriff and informed the constable that if the papers were to be served, he would have to perform the duty as a private citizen. This was just the opening for which Russel was looking.
“If that is the case,” said Russel, “they will have to hunt somebody else. I will do my duty as an officer, but when it comes as a private citizen, I will not be dictated to.”
Ricci’s case never got to court, and Lewis finished his term as sheriff. He was defeated in the next election, but not over the affair at the Cottage Saloon. In that particular case, the people had risen to support their sheriff, much to the consternation of the “saloon crowd” of Madera County.