Ask anyone what United States Marshals do and chances are you'll get a perplexed look, followed by a bolt of recognition identifying them with John Wayne or James Arness. The guys with the stars, right? Gunning down badmen, making the world safe for schoolmarms. I'll be moving on now, Mary, this town don't need men like me anymore.
But hold on. Although it's true that marshals pursued villains on the Western frontier, those also were marshals getting pelted with bullets and bricks when James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Deputy marshals tracked down Christopher Boyce, the `Falcon,' after the young man who sold highly sensitive secrets to the Soviets escaped from a federal prison in 1980. Nowadays marshals protect federal judges and provide new identities for frightened witnesses in organized-crime cases.
So who are these guys? `People know we're some kind of police force,' says Stanley Morris, director of the U.S. Marshals Service. `They know that you `call in the marshals.' But they don't really have a fix on us. We're still a bit of a mystery.' The mystery extends to the spelling of their name; the service dispatches a standard letter to errant journalists pointing out that the word `marshall' has one l like `angel,' thanks, not two like `hell.'
The perplexity has persisted because marshals have always operated as the general practitioners of American law enforcement. Empowered to represent federal authority and enforce federal court orders, they became all-purpose local lawmen available for any nasty job that came up. For more than a century, they were the only civilian force, albeit a decentralized one, that Presidents could summon. They chased mail robbers, counterfeiters and moonshiners; they bird-dogges the Dalton Gang and Billy the Kid, and helped derail the Pullman Strike. They seemed to be in on just about everything.
But in this century marshals began to suffer. Lacking a specialty, they fell out of step in an age of specialization, and their star faded as the FBI flourished. By the 1950s they were little more than politically connnected bailiffs tending federal courts. Then they found new vigor as enforcers of court-ordered racial desegregation in the 1960s, and they've taken on several other important jobs in the years since. If their image still remains a bit blurred in the year of their 200th anniversary--it was George Washington who appointed the first marshals in 1789--their hard-won confidence now seems equal to their rich and varied history. `America's Star,' a traveling bicentennial exhibit commemorating marshals, opened at the Supreme Court building in the nation's capital last December and stops off this month in Oklahoma City before moving on to 11 other cities.
Even in Washington's day, marshals were the shock troops who enforced unpopular federal laws. The first organized defiance of the national government's authority flared after a tax was imposed on whiskey distillers in 1791. Farmers in western Pennsylvania, where booze was a major cash crop, tarred and feathered several tax men who showed up to collect. When a federal court issued orders in 1794 demanding to know why 75 distillers had ignored the tax, an intrepid marshal named David Lenox delivered the papers.
Lenox had the misfortune to blunder into a mob that had surrounded the home of a local tax official. He was taken captive, then escaped into the woods. President Washington, viewing the Whiskey Rebellion as a direct challenge to federal authority, called out 13,000 state militiamen to put it down; it would be the first but not the last time that troops would finish what marshals began.
From train robberies in the late 19th century to airplane hijackings in the 20th, the crimes that captured the attention of marshals reflected the evolving state of the nation. In the years just before the Civil War, when hundreds of banks printed their own currency and as much as one-third of the cash in circulation was funny money, the modish crime was counterfeiting. Its artful operatives were known as `coneymen.' Marshals, throughout the 19th century the only federal officers with arrest power, were assigned to pursue coneymen.
Counterfeiters were notably shewd and elusive as outlaws go, and it took both imagination and perseverance to bag one. A particularly wily coneyman named James Burns became the obsession of Ohio marshal Daniel Robertson in the 1840s. As described by Marshals Service historian Frederick S. Calhoun in his forthcoming book about marshals in U.S. history, Burns was both a lecturer--on `phrenology, education and morals'--and a manufacturer of bogus coins. Robertson and his deputies found plaster coin molds in Burns' house and gathered other evidence, but still they couldn't track him down.
A Robertson deputy finally zeroed in on Burns by persuading his wife that he was a business associate of her husband's. Thus disarmed, she let drop the fact that Burns was visiting a friend in Virginia. The deputies secured a warrant, assembled a posse and went to Virginia. They surrounded the house and shouted to Burns to surrender, nailing him as he tried to flee out the back door, and carried him triumphantly back to Ohio. Congress belatedly acknowledged the need for a special agency to combat coneymen by creating the Secret Service for that purpose in 1865.
Though nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, marshals were local men, usually with good political connections. They picked their own deputies and eked out a living on fees and expenses parsimoniously doled out from Washington. (Regular salaries weren't authorized until 1896). When the laws they enforced clashed with local sentiment, as often happened, they were caught between their sympathies and their duty. With few exceptions--many Southern marshals resigned when the Civil War broke out--they hewed doggedly to duty.
The struggle over slavery put marshals under great pressure. After a law defining the banned African slave trade as piracy was passed in 1819, marshals were assigned the responsibility of enforcing it. That meant working with the Navy to intercept slave ships off the Southern coast. Though vessels were seized occasionally, Africans taken into custody met with an uncertain fate. Some were auctioned after a judge declared them confiscated property. And marshals who tried to bring the slavers to justice often met with local opposition.
The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850 as a concession to the South, propelled Northern marshals into the middle of a series of violent imbroglios. Massachusetts marshal Watson Freeman, serving in a state where abolitionist sentiment ran high, tried to maneuver quietly when pursuing escaped slaves, but it didn't always work. In 1854 his deputies seized a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns who was working at a secondhand clothing store in Boston. The marshal placed Burns under guard at the courthouse while abolitionists launched a legal delaying action to keep him in Massachusetts. When the court moves failed they decided to kidnap him.
The abolitionists stormed out of a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall and laid siege to the courthouse, finally breaking through a wooden door with a battering ram. Shots were exchanged and deputy James Batchelder fell dead, but Freeman and several others managed to repel the mob. Boston police and militiamen arrived and arrested 18 of the rioters. Freeman then deputized a detachment of troops to guard Burns, who was ordered back to Virginia.
The poor fugitive was marched to the docks and onto a Norfolk-bound ship the next day, in the midst of an escort party including 60 volunteers, militiamen, two companies of marines and a cannon. Eventually the arrested rioters were released, prompting a howl from the U.S. Attorney that `fanaticism is so rampant here that murder of a U.S. Officer is held justifiable.'
But it was the West that was the real killing ground for marshals--the films have that much right. `The movies all follow the same pattern,' says historian Calhoun. `First the marshal pins on his badge and explains the law. Then he straps on his guns, raises a posse, has a shoot-out, wins it, quits, and rides off.' The reality was that the good guys sometimes lost the shoot-out, and that they often spent ragged, underpaid weeks and months in chases that produced nothing but saddle sores. At one time or another marshals hightailed it after Jesse James in the Midwest, Billy the Kid (who killed three deputies) in New Mexico, and Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall Gang in Wyoming, but all escaped federal justice en route to the violent ends we've seen on film.
Fact and fiction came closest to coinciding in the Indian Territory, which later became Oklahoma. A total of 103 deputies were killed there between 1872 and 1896, roughly a quarter of the number slain throughout the marshals' history. Deputies operated like local sheriffs in the Indian Territory. Other territories, such as Arizona and Wyoming, acquired local lawmen when they organized themselves as a step toward statehood; until then the marshals were the law. One source of confusion, especially for today's audiences, is the fact that Western hamlets often had town marshals, local policemen who lacked federal authority.
Indian Territory justice was dispensed in Fort Smith, Arkansas, by U.S. District Judge Isaac Parker, the celebrated `hanging judge' who sent 88 men to the gallows. The deputies who `rode for Parker' and who later policed the new Oklahoma Territory became frontier legends, as did the outlaws they pursued--the Daltons, Belle Starr, Bill Doolin, Ned Christie. With its surprise canyons and unpeopled prairies, the country patrolled by single-minded lawmen like Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen and Uncle Billy Tilghman was described by a Fort Smith newspaper as the `rendezvous of the vile and wicked from everywhere.'
Heck Thomas was the prototypical Western marshal. He was a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-ground sort who wore a droopy mustache and two ivory-handled pistols. Since deputies were paid a fee for each suspect they caught. Thomas often brought them in wholesale. He once rode into Fort Smith with 32 prisoners in tow, 9 of whom were later convicted of capital crimes. The penny-pinching Justice Department nickel-and-dimed him to distraction. It ignored his request to transport fugitives by train instead of wagon even after he showed that the faster rail trip would save money overall; the clerks saw only the higher fares. If a deputy delivered a corpse instead of a live captive, he forfeited both his $2 fee and his mileage allowance.
Thomas went after the marshal-killer Ned Christie, wounding him in a shoot-out, and pursued the train-robbing Dalton brothers, two of whom had served as deputies before turning to crime. Deputies caught up with Christie in his hideout where they blasted him with a barrage including cannonballs and dynamite, which drove him outside into a blizzard of bullets. The lawmen then propped the defunct Ned on a board, his rifle still resting in his arms, for a postfight group photograph (p. 120).
Bob and Grat Dalton were killed after robbing a bank in Coffeyville, Kansas, but their ex-partner Bill Doolin stayed ahead of Thomas for four years. Thomas finally got him in his sights after diligent legwork led him to the outlaw's prairie hideout. Doolin came out of the house in bright moonlight and walked warily toward the spot where Thomas and a posse of deputies hid. Heck shouted out, demanding his surrender, but the desperado spun and opened fire with his Winchester. Thomas matter-of-factly reported that he then `got the shotgun to work and the fight was over.'
Calhoun awards the prize for the most overblown reputation among frontier lawmen to Wyatt Earp. `He was a bum,' the historian says, `not a crook but a gambler. The Earps were greedy, and they saw law as a way to make money.' Wyatt's brother Virgil was a deputy marshal in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Wyatt became bitter when he lost out in a bid for sheriff of Cochise County. He apparently secured a commission as a deputy marshal after Virgil was wounded in an ambush, and wheedled $3,000 out his boss on the pretext that he was pursuing bandits. He spent the money avenging Virgin and their murdered brother, Morgan, and settling personal scores, killing two men in the process, then fled to Colorado. He managed to avoid accounting for the money despite years of bureaucratic hounding.
Marshals played a conspicuously unheroic role in the tumult that marked the emergence of the American labor movement. With the government usually allied with management, marshals were frequently transformed into strikebreakers. Confronting what they viewed as anarchy, members of the executive branch also ignored the separation of powers principle by joining forces with federal courts to suppress strikes. Marshals were their weapons.
The ragtag `army' of unemployed men that Jacob Coxey led to Washington in 1894 wanted a public works program, not a revolution. Coxey's followers numbered only about 500 in the capital and around 10,000 nationwide, but the government response was raw force, albeit with an occasional comic overtone. When 500 Montana Coxeyites hijacked a train, the local marshal hastily deputized about 75 men and gave chase in another train. When the federals' express finally overtook the renegades, the Coxeyites refused to surrender, and the chase resumed. After the two trains chugged into Billings, a melee broke out and shots were fired, but the protest train steamed off once again. At that point President Grover Cleveland dispatched six infantry companies who found the train stopped, its passengers exhausted, in the little town of Forsyth, Montana. The troops arrested 331 men, 43 of whom served short jail terms.
The Pullman Strike a few weeks later was an uglier demonstration of federal muscle. Led by Eugene Debs, the newly formed American Railway Union stuck the Pullman rail car company in Pullman, Illinois, to protest wage cuts and other grievances. The government, citing interference with the movement of mail (through the strikers were boycotting only Pullman cars), obtained an injunction against the union. Five thousand men, many of them thugs in the employ of the railroads, were deputized as temporary marshals to break the strike. When they proved ineffectual, federal troops were ordered into action over the protest of Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld. The sporadic rioting was quelled and the union was eventually forced to capitulate.
By the turn of the century, marhals had proved their versatilty but they were still a force without a center; each marshal dealt individually with the Justice Department and ran his own office. The post remained a patronage job in an age with professionalism and specialization were on the rise. After the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) was created in 1908, its agents became the glamour boys of law enforcement. Shorn of frontline duties, the 20th-century heirs of David Lenox and Heck Thomas became bailiffs and process servers. Howard Safir, associate director for operations at the Marshals Service headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, grew up thinking of marshals as `guys in size 48 Short coats from Sears.'
It was the civil rights movement that ultimately restored the luster to the marshal's star. When the courts and Congress decreed an end to segregation in schools, polling places and public facilities, the marshals returned to the front lines, this time to enforce those orders. Between the late 1950s and late '60s, marshals were present at many of the landmarks of the civil rights drive; they escorted black first-graders to school in New Orleans, rode with `freedom riders' and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protect Martin Luther King jr. And it was marshals who stood off a mob of segregationists at the most explosive confrontation of that era, the riot at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, on the night of September 30, 1962.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy had ordered a detachment of 122 marshals, supplemented by specially deputized Border Patrol officers and federal prison guards, to the Ole Miss campus to guarantee the enrollment of James Meredith as the school's first black student. Several previous attempts to register Meredith had been blocked by state officials, led by Governor Ross Barnett. Marshals were assigned to keep the peace, with soldiers and National Guardsmen to be held in reserve. Many of the marshals, Southerners themselves, had their doubts about forcing desegregation on Mississippi, but as deputy Al Butler put it, `We all thought that when you took the oath and put on the badge you did the job.'
Clad in prison-made orange vests and white helmets, and equipped with side arms, tear gas and clubs, the marshals stationed themselves around the university administration building, called the Lyceum. Meredith, unbeknownst to the crowd that began to gather in early evening, was already in a dormitory room in the company of several marshals. The crowd began taunting the marshals, calling Butler `Smiley'--`and a lot of other things'--for his good-humored expression. `I figured smiling would worry them more than anything else,' he recalls.
By 8 p.m. the mob's mood had turned menacing. More than 1,000 whites--the number eventually reached 3,000--surged toward the line of helmeted men and lobbed rocks and bricks at them. One marshal and then another went down. Those who were equipped with side arms had been ordered to hold their fire. A cameraman in the crowd was chased and badly beaten. Finally, when the mob pressed forward, the defenders fired tear gas. `It went back and forth,' the now-retired Butler recalls. `They'd charge, we'd fire tear gas and go after them with clubs and grab a few, then they'd regroup.'
Suddenly gunfire erupted. The marshals took cover behind cars and the trucks of National Guardsmen, who had arrived as reinforcements. The Army troops still had not appeared. `We took shotgun fire first and then rifle fire,' Butler remembers. `That was the worst time. One of my men was critically wounded in the neck. We couldn't see where the shots were coming from. Three or four of us went into a grove to look for the rifleman but we couldn't find him. If we had, I'm not too damned sure I would have obeyed the Attorney General's orders.' Two men, a French journalist and a young Mississippian who was there as a spectator, died of gunshot wounds. The reporter had been marched to an isolated corner of the campus and murdered.
The marshals fired volley after volley of tear gas against the mob's charges. One man tried to ram the Lyceum with a bulldozer; another group tried to turn a fire hose on the federal men. Even so, the marshals continued to keep their powder dry. `If we'd fired, there would have been a lot of killing on both sides,' Butler believes. At 2 a.m. Army troops finally arrived and cleared the campus. Six hours later Meredith registered as an Ole Miss student and headed for his first class--Colonial American History. The toll among the 552 federal officers who took part was 180 wounded (27 by gunfire) but no fatalities.
The men in the `48 Short' Sears jackets had shown courage and restraint under fire. Five were cited for bravery. Teams of marshals guarded Meredith 24 hours a day for the year and a half he remained at Ole Miss. `He was never out of our sight,' recalls Frank Vandergrift, who commanded the detail. `We all took a lot of heat--they threw cherry bombs and bottles at us and abused us regularly) but Meredith took twice as much verbal harassment as we did.'
Their performance at Oxford gave the marshals an infusion of pride that helped them find their 20th-century identity. They finally established a central headquarters and in 1969 reorganized as the U.S. Marshals Service, a bureau of the Department of Justice. Headquarters took over managing the budget and hiring and training deputies, jobs that generations of district marshals had handled autonomously. A year later the Justice Department entrusted marshals with the protection of witnesses in organized-crime cases, a delicate operation that involves the creation of new identities in another locale for witnesses who fear reprisals. Five thousand witnesses and their families have in effect reinvented their lives under the marshals' protection, and they continue to enter the program at a rate of about one a day.
Marshals plucked an even juicier plum in 1979 when they were given responsibility for pursuing federal fugitives, an assignment that had belonged to the FBI for half a century. The marshals were still touchy about that upstart bureau. `The joke around the office,' Stanley Morris says, `was that when the FBI made an arrest they got credit, of course, but when we did, the story credited `federal agents.' The dramatic escape of Christopher Boyce--in the celebrated `Falcon and the Snowman' espionage case--gave marshals a chance to prove themselves once and for all. It was a chance they almost blew.
`Boyce was crucial for us,' says Howard Safir. `He was the first high-profile escapee after we got the fugitive job from the FBI. My nightmare was Boyce turning up in Moscow and holding a news conference. It would have been a disaster for us if we didn't catch him.' Safir ramrodded a 19-month manhunt that hit dead ends in places as distant as South Africa and Costa Rica before it homed in on Boyce, with the aid of an informant's tip, in the Pacific Northwest. `We'd have a meeting every day and every day I'd ask the same question,' Safir recalls. `Where is Christopher Boyce?' FBI agents joined the search amid muttering in Washington that they should never have yielded the fugitive-chasing charter.
The personable, articulate Boyce eventually turned to bank robbery in Washington State and Idaho to keep himself going. He was living in Port Angeles, Washington, and taking flying lessons, apparently in anticipation of a flight to Siberia, when the net finally closed in August 1981. He was nabbed at a drive-in restaurant in Port Angeles while eating a hamburger. Safir was at home when he got the call: `The Falcon is in the cage,' he was told. Boyce was initially confused about the identity of his captors. `Who are you guys, CIA?' he asked.
Safir regards the capture of Boyce as validation of the marshal's growing professionalism. `We still have a way to go, but we're light-years ahead of where we were,' he says: `our guys won't tolerate the hangdog manner marshals used to have.' `Our job is nothing more or less than insuring the integrity and security of the judicial system,' Morris adds. `You need a sense of tradition and pride because of what you're asked to do, which sometimes means risking your life.'
Today's marshals have five main duties: insuring federal court security, protecting witnesses, transporting prisoners (with the aid of two 727s and nine other planes, a squadron deputies call `Con-Air'), executing court orders and capturing fugitives. Budget and manpower levels are at an all-time high. Marshals supervised the recent exchange of U.S. and Soviet prisoners at Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. They have a SWAT team for emergencies. They even get their share of ink these days, especially when they pull off a clever caper like the 1985 sting in Washington, D.C., that lured 101 fugitives to a carefully staged bash promising free tickets to a Redskins football game. When the unsuspecting outlaws found out that the female cheerleaders, the tuxedoed master of ceremonies and even the reveler in the chicken suit were all armed marshals, one of them threatened to sue for false advertising.
But the fuzzy-image dilemma persists. When Director Morris toured the marshals' bicentennial exhibit on the eve of its opening, he noticed that a statute of former Chief Justice John Marshall stood between two corridors of displays. Without hesitation he stepped up to the plaque and placed his hand over the second l.