What would you do if you had spent 10 years researching an idea? Reading old newspapers? Looking through old files and ledgers? Driving hundreds of miles looking for information? Making hundreds of inquiries? Tramping through old cemeteries?
You might write a book, too!
That is what second-time author Robert A. Russell did. After Fayette County Sheriff Vernon Stanforth asked a question about a long past Fayette County sheriff, Russell got to thinking about all the other sheriffs and that is how “I Solemnly Swear” became his second book.
His first published endeavor, “A History of the Courts, Courthouse and Public Square,” came from a request from then Judge Nancy Hammond. According to Russell, “The judge was preparing for the re-dedication ceremony for the current Fayette County Courthouse and asked me if I would put together a history of the courthouse. What started out as a tri-fold pamphlet for the ceremony turned into a 30-plus page booklet about the entire history of the courthouse square that is on sale at the Historical Museum.”
This writer asked Russell, who retired at the rank of lieutenant from the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office, what was the most difficult part of his 10-year research into Fayette County’s highest office?
“Finding the burial sites. Unless the death was modern enough that I could find obituaries, all I had to go on was a name. Many were only first and second initials with a surname. I would have to go through newspaper accounts, property deeds, marriage licenses, census information, etc., and try to create a trail of where the sheriff might have gone upon leaving the office and/or the county,” Russell said.
This is where all the driving came into play. Russell drove to Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Texas looking for burial sites or other information that would help locate a sheriff’s burial site.
This writer asked about the funniest parts of his research.
“I guess that would have to be some of their names. The one that sticks out the most in my mind is Napoleon Bonaparte Hall. What was going on at home that this is the name his parents chose?” Russell said.
What stood out during your research?
“That would have to be that so many of the early sheriffs had military backgrounds. And they were pioneers. They were passing through, which is how they got to Fayette County and, when their terms were up, they moved on to other places. What was surprising was the early sheriffs were not paid a salary. It was not a 24/7 position like it is today. The courts probably met once or twice a year. Many sheriffs were farmers and after their two-year term was over they wanted to go back to farming. I imagine their farm and the fields were looking a bit shabby due to neglect,” he said.
Why was it important to you to write this book?
“There was no history on any of the sheriffs. It was important to me that all this information I had gleaned be recorded for all time. And, as board member for the Fayette County Historical Society, I am surrounded by Fayette County history. It was a natural progression. On a more personal note, when I was doing research on my family history as I went from cemetery to cemetery, I would take a picture of the headstone,” Russell said. “I just automatically started doing the same thing for the sheriff research. One day I found a signature for one of the sheriffs. I thought that would be a nice touch, then came the idea of a photo of each one, and then ‘What happened of note during their time in office?’ Well, you get the idea, the whole idea just snowballed. I asked myself one day, Where do I stop?”
Russell muses, “I really enjoyed the research. I have always enjoyed research. There are other books on Fayette County history. The history of the Fayette County sheriffs coincides in many ways with the history of Fayette County.”
What would you like the reader to take away from I Solemnly Swear? Russell’s response is quick.
“Besides learning the history of the county sheriffs, I would hope to foster an interest in our local history. I hope someone will be spurred to research something they are interested in. There are so many paths open to the researcher: newspapers, family history on-line, cemeteries, and county offices like the Recorder’s Office and the Archives Center. Not every county has an Archives Center. Fayette is very fortunate to have one.”
Russell’s books are available at the Fayette County Museum, and I Solemnly Swear is available in many businesses around the county, and on Amazon.com. Scheduling for book signings is occurring now. The dates and times will be announced.