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Madera sheriff was a hard hitter

By 1915, Madera had divided itself into two camps. A minority led by the saloon owners wanted a wide-open town as far as booze and prostitution were concerned. The majority, however, opposed demon rum and all for which it stood. In the election of 1914, the anti-liquor crowd got Jasper F. Lewis elected sheriff, and he quickly showed his prohibitionist supporters that he was their man.

When Lewis took the oath of office, merry-making was the order of the day — or rather the night — on both sides of Yosemite Avenue. While patrons of the saloons relished these good times, the town’s teetotalers went running to the new sheriff for relief, especially from the goings-on in the Cottage Saloon.

Now, Sheriff Lewis was as strait-laced as a lawman could be, and when the complaints concerning the Cottage Saloon continued, it was no surprise to anyone that he stepped in to put a stop to the offensive 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 place was almost deafening, so the sheriff decided to tone down the party just a bit. Upon entering the front door, Lewis was immediately confronted by the bartender, who contended that the lawman had no right to curtail anyone’s attempt to have a good time.

The barkeep had reckoned, however, without Lewis’ reputation for sternness. As he contended vociferously, he made the mistake of pressing his case right in the sheriff’s face. Without any warning at all, Lewis slapped the saloon man to the floor and followed that action with a few swats to the top of his head. Needless to say, this put an end 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.

The battered bartender rose from the floor, called the town constable, and demanded that the sheriff be arrested. With more than a little embarrassment, Lewis had to appear before Justice of the Peace Raburn, where he pleaded guilty to the charge of assault and paid a fine of $5. There was not even a hint of disapproval among the man on the street against the sheriff. The community was more than satisfied.

This did not satisfy the bartender, however, as his feelings were severely injured. What he wanted and demanded was a public apology. This the sheriff could not bring himself to do, whereupon the bartender informed Lewis that he had four months to make the necessary public obeisance or face a suit for damages.

The entire town waited as the weeks melted into months. All the while, Lewis remained firm. He may have technically broken the law, but in his own mind he was morally correct. The bartender had received a brand of justice that the courts could not administer, and Lewis did not regret it one iota.

Just when everyone thought that the matter had been forgotten, the injured barkeep walked into the county courthouse with his threatened lawsuit. The complaint was filed shortly before noon on Oct. 13, 1915. In his $25,000 action, the bartender alleged that the sheriff had “entered the saloon on the date mentioned and wrongfully, unlawfully, violently, and maliciously assaulted the plaintiff by striking and beating him with his fist upon the head and body without any provocation whatever and that the plaintiff did then and there suffer great body pain and his body and feelings were greatly 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 civil court, the bartender stood a good chance of winning. Then a brainstorm hit Lewis.

When Constable A.J. Russell arrived at the jail to serve papers on the sheriff, Lewis asked him by whose authority he was acting. Russell, although a Lewis supporter, responded that he was acting in the capacity of his own position as constable. At that point, it was determined that Russell could not legally serve the papers unless the sheriff signed them. With that, the constable retreated to consult with the district attorney.

The district attorney agreed with the Sheriff and informed Constable Russell that if papers were to be served, he would have to perform the duty as a private citizen. This was just the opening for which Russell was looking.

“If that is the case,” said Russell, “they will have to hang somebody else. I will do my duty as an officer, but when it comes to a private citizen, I will not be dictated to.”

The bartender’s case never got to court, and Lewis finished his term as sheriff of Madera County. He was defeated in the next election, but not for the affray at the Cottage Saloon. In that particular case, all of Madera had risen up to support their sheriff, much to the consternation of the town’s “saloon crowd.”

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