The Daily Oklahoman
Of State's Original Sheriffs, Only McAlester Man Still Alive
270-Pounder Kept "Lid" on Atoka County --- Unlike TV Heros, He Rarely Wore Gun
McAlester - At 80 years, Jesse W. Phillips is a gentle man of scholarly appearance. His
hair is snow white, and his face bears the etch of his frequent smile. He probably is one
of the last persons anyone whould pick out as the real-life prototype of a television
Yet, this same Jesse Phillips was one of the first sheriffs elected to office after
Oklahoma became a state. He, in fact, is the only living member of the
first county slate of officers elected in Atoka County back in 1907.
He has the distinction of being the only man now living who was sheriff
of a county that first year of statehood.
He shared the distinction with John E. Johnson of Sequoyah County for years until
Johnson's death about two weeks ago.
The retired McAlester man is still big - 6 feet 2 and a firm 210 pounds - but is no where
near the 270 - pound giant he was in post-Territorial days.
"I was pretty much a peace-maker, even before I was elected sheriff," Phillips will tell
you with a smile. "I didn't have to wear a gun too much, but I had three stashed away
at strategic places in Atoka just in case I needed one. I went after a few toughs, and I
always came back with then."
A native of Tishomingo County, Miss., where he was born Feb. 18, 1882, Phillips moved to
Caddo, Blue County, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory, when he was 16. His father,
Gray W. Phillips was in the mercantile business in Burnsville, Miss.
"We were Mississippi Choctaws, and we came to Indian Territory to be Choctaws," the
octogenarian relates with a smile. "The court ruled otherwise, so my father abandoned
his hope of getting a big land acreage and opended a store at Caddo, now in Bryan County."
When he was 21, the younger Phillips bought a grocery store at Caney, Atoka County, with
his father's help.
"There was no organized law in Territorial days," Phillips recalls. "When a drunk
wandered into a store, the owners would call me to come and throw him out. I was a
pretty big, rough boy."
Phillips was operating his grocery store at Caney when statehood came. His father wanted
Jesse to run for county treasurer, but the strapping young merchant, then 25, decided he'd
rather be sheriff. He was one of five candidates for the first badge Atoka County was to
bestow on the victor.
"I polled 992 votes, only six of which came from the county seat," the McAlester man said.
"Election night, I went home, thinking I had lost. Friends woke me up about 3 o'clock
the next morning and told me I was sheriff. I had beaten out me next closest opponent by
If women and Negroes had been permitted to vote, Phillips' opponent likely would have won
the election, since his plurality in Atoka would have been much greater.
The new sheriff had two regular deputies, Tom Hosmer and Otis Presson, both now deceased.
Presson later was superior judge in Seminole County. Phillips drew $2,000 a year as
sheriff, while his deputies worked entirely on commission.
And to make certain county officials were not over-paid, banks discounted their monthly
warrants anywhere from 10 to 20 percent. Sheriff Phillips made money on his feed allowance
for prisoners. He received 60 cents a day for each of the first 10 prisoners in jail; 50
cents a day for eah of the next 10, and 40 cents a day for feeding each inmate numbering
"I kept them out to work gangs," Phillips relates. "Most of the crimes were misdemeanors,
but I took the view I was in office to enforce the law. Outside work contractors would
feed my prisoners for 25 cents a day, so I made a good profit in the difference between
what the county paid in feed allowance and what it actually cost. Due to the fact most of
the crimes in the early 1900's were horse stealing, bootlegging and the like, Phillips
figures his duties were not too difficult.
"I had heap rather been sheriff then than to hold the same job now," he said earnestly.
Phillips took office in November 1907. He was re-elected to a second term in 1910, then
retired voluntarily to serve two appointments by President Woodrow Wilson as postmaster
While Phillips was postmaster, Bob Sumpter, a Republican, was elected sheriff. Phillips'
friends talked him into running against Sumpter in 1919, and the erstwhile sheriff won a
third term. Sumpter later became deputy U.S. marshal and was killed by moonshiners in
An old political opponent, the laste O.P. Ray, unsealed Phillips as sheriff when the latter
sought a fourth term. Phillips returned to the grocery business in Atoka, but shortly
thereafter opened stores at Maud and Shawnee during the oil boom of the
In 1929, Phillips was named by Gov. W.J. "Bill" Holloway as assistant deputy warden of the
state prison under Warden John Q. Newell. He was there for six years, going out during
the E.W. Marland adminsitration. When Leon C. Phillips became governor, the early-day
peace officer was named deputy warden of the penitentiary under Warden Jess Dunn. After
1 1/2 years, he was named superintendent of the boys' training school at Stringtown.
Phillips was named postmaster of McAlester on Sept.1, 1943, and served in the office until
his retirement at age 70 in 1952. He then went back to the penitentiary for four years
as assistant deputy warden under the late H.C. McLoud.
Two of the 80-year-old's brothers and one sister are still living. They are John A. Phillips,
Durant, former sheriff and assessor in Bryan County; Graover C. Phillips, McAlester, one-time
treasurer of Atoka County, and Mrs Martha White, Berryville, Ark.
Phillips' son, Ferman, served three terms in the legislative house and two terms in the
senate from Atoka County before becoming secretary of the Oklahoma Education Association.
There also are two grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Bits and pieces of interesting information keep popping into Phillips' stories about law
enforcement in years past. The former Atoka County sheriff attended the first Oklahoma
sheriffs' convention at Oklahoma City in 1908, for instance. And much of his work right
after statehood was done from a buggy, and the sheriff, unlike TV marshals, rarely wore
a pistol and holster.
"I could tell some tales of death and violence, but they seem out of place now," Phillips
said. This staement is completely convincing as he smiles from the big chair in the living
room of his comfortable home.
***posted for genealogical purposes only; no relation***