Skip to Content

U.S. Marshals Service

History - ". . . Peril of Your Life"

This is an excerpt from The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies: 1789-1989, by Frederick S. Calhoun  |  There are five web pages associated with this theme: Broad Range of Authority > General Practitioners > Peril of Your Life > Civilian Enforcers > Loyal to Their Communities

Nor was opposition to the federal government restricted to individual citizens or groups of  citizens. State and local governments also took umbrage at Federal measures. Their anger, too, was often directed at individual Marshals who suffered interference, arrest, and imprisonment as a result.

In March 1809, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a resolution calling on all citizens to resist Marshal John Smith's court-ordered efforts to collect money from the state in the complicated Olmstead Case.

When the Marshals went to the house of one of the defendants with a writ of attachment in hand, eight state militiamen greeted him with bayonets. "In the name and by the authority of the United States, I command you to lay down your arms and permit me to proceed," Marshal Smith declared. "In the name and by the authority of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I command you to resist him," ordered General Bright, the commander of the squad. Turning to Marshal Smith, Bright warned that any further effort to enter the property would be "at the peril of your life."

The Marshal, after taking down the names of the militiamen, returned to the courthouse, where he promptly called on the Secretary of' State for permission to raise a posse of 2,000 men.  The next day, Smith went back alone to the defendant's house, which was still guarded by General Bright and his men.  Circling around back onto Cherry Street, he scaled the the fence and served his process on the defendant through the back door. Later, General Bright and his men were indicted and found guilty of resisting a federal court order.  Bright was sentenced to three months imprisonment, his men to one month. All were later pardoned by President James Madison.

Other instances of interference by the local governments abound.  After the civil war, dozens of Deputies were incarcerated in Southern jails as a result of their efforts to enforce Federal laws.  Deputy W.B. Blackburn was indicted by the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, in 1844 for carrying a concealed weapon.  The evidence used against Backburn consisted of eyewitness accounts of  two moonshiners he had arrested.

Other Deputies were arrested for murder or attempted murder, depending on the results of their gunfights with moonshiners and other criminals. Because the Marshals enforce federal laws in their local areas, they are easy targets for state and local authorities to vent their frustration over federal measures.

Moonshiners ambush deputies

Moonshiners ambush Deputies and Internal Revenue Agents during the 'moonshine wars'.  Following the Civil War, U.S. Marshals assisted the Internal Revenue agents (who had no arrest powers) in enforcing the whiskey tax laws against moonshiners. Source: Harper's Weekly, Nov. 2, 1878

Train robbery

Train robbery was not a Federal offense unless the robbers stole U.S. mail, which most did. Source: Harper's Weekly, wood engraving, , January 16, 1892


Deputy Neagle shot and killed David Terry to protect Supreme Court Justice Fields

In 1889, Neagle shot and killed David Terry, who had attacked Supreme Court Justice Stephen Fields.  Arrested for murder, the Supreme Court ordered Neagle released in a landmark case that set precedents for the power of the executive branch of our goverment.

continued ... Civilian Enforcers is an official site of the U.S. Federal Government, U.S. Department of Justice