This file portion of www.watertownhistory.org website
The Law East of the Crawfish
Deputy Marshal Fred Stylow
1829 - 1885
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
Written story based on a Watertown Gazette story of 09 04 1885
Lawmen came in all shapes, sizes and levels of dedication, wisdom and bravery. Dodge City had Wyatt Earp and his deputy, Bat Masterson, Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory had its Wild Bill Hickok, and other frontier towns had their own special heroes. Some were upstanding men, some were not all the cities desired, but they were all alike in one respect; they got the job done.
Officer Stylow of Watertown was no exception. But Officer Stylow differed in one respect; his competence did not exactly match his confidence. He was well known for his braggadocio, but the sheriff, the marshal, and most others in the law-enforcement part of the Watertown city government, were aware of his shortcomings and worked around them. They made exceptions and excuses for him. A popular rumor around town said that, in an effort to protect the town, Stylow had been issued only one bullet for his gun. But rumors aside, it was the general feeling that if he was nothing else, Officer Stylow was certainly reliable. Just like the lawmen of the West he, too, got the job done . . . usually.
In 1885, Watertown, like many other cities in the Midwest and the east, was afflicted with a virtual epidemic, a plague, if you will, of tramps and hoboes setting up temporary residence in the outskirts of town, almost always near the railroad tracks. These men came were of all temperaments; some were docile, willing to please, some were clever, adept at conning people or getting helpful handouts and some were hostile, dangerous men. Most of them were not in the least intimidated by the threat of a short stay in the county jail, although spending time incarcerated was much less desirable during the summer months than during the cold, bitter winter months.
One weekend in early fall, 1885, six men had been arrested for breaking into a railroad car on the side track in Watertown. They spent the night in the city jail, and, as was the usual procedure, early the next morning they appeared before the judge who sentenced them to the maximum time permitted in the county jail. That would keep them out of Watertown for a while, and the county would have to bear the expense of feeding them. All perfectly legal and not unusual at all. This being at the time when travel by some conveyance other than a horse drawn vehicle was in its infancy, the only way to transport these six men to the county jail in Jefferson was by train. Several of them traveled between Watertown and Jefferson each day.
No problem. It was a boring job not exactly coveted by the lawmen on the force, and furthermore, the chief of police [city marshal] preferred to keep the top men of his force in town, prepared for any emergency. Here was a job with Officer Stylow’s name on it. Maybe he would consent to escort these prisoners to the county jail.
Maybe? This was one of his dreams about to come true. Here was a chance to show the Board of Street Commissioners they had acted wisely when they had employed Officer Stylow to protect their city. Here was a chance to show the public just how adept he was at handling six desperate tramps. What an opportunity!
When it came time to depart, the band of desperadoes were released into his custody and, with all the confidence in the world, he marched them to the Northwestern Depot, arriving just as the train was preparing to depart. The city marshal had deemed it unnecessary to put handcuffs on the men, knowing it was unlikely that any would try to escape from a moving train. So Stylow seated them all in a group and took a seat where he could keep an eye on them.
As the train with its small band of docile desperadoes, led by one very capable lawman, passed through Johnson Creek and preceded without stopping, things were going very well. The prisoners were quiet, even lethargic, the day was just fine, and all was right with the world. Had this been a hundred years later, Stylow would have called this job “a piece of cake.”
Officer Stylow’s chest swelled with pride as the train pulled up to the platform at the Jefferson depot. The crowd of people on the platform were awaiting his arrival, Stylow concluded, but actually the crowd was composed of the usual people assembled for the usual reasons; some were meeting arriving friends and relatives, some were seeing friends or relatives off, and some were simply the daily gathering of men and boys with nothing better to do than see who arrived or departed on each train. I was one of that group. But to Stylow, we could see, this was a chance to show how a real, professional lawman handles a gang of desperate criminals.
No sooner had the train wheels ceased turning than he ordered his charges to disembark and assemble on the platform. With the group properly assembled, he took his place at the head of them, and with a sharp “Follow me, boys,” he set off for the jail, marching ahead of them like a general in command of his troops. We all laughed when we saw that instead of following him they all scattered, and we laughed some more when, on reaching the end of the platform, he looked back at his obedient group and—Surprise, Surprise! None of his charges were anywhere to be seen! They had, we all knew, all left the formation in pursuit of liberty.
All six had taken off in just one direction—away from Stylow. As we stood there all agape, all six had found freedom, temporary though it was. Four escapees were quickly captured by a small group of us who saw our civic duty and acted immediately. But two of the escapees had chosen to seek hiding in an adjacent cornfield. Some people subsequently claimed they were later seen fleeing in the area of the packinghouse.
In any event, Officer Stylow was greatly embarrassed, as we could see and we understood he must have felt deeply a need to reestablish his authority. But although we understood his embarrassment and were about to give him verbal support, Stylow ruined it all and lost all our sympathy and understanding with his ensuing actions.
He stormed up to the now reassembled group of prisoners and, in what I thought was a display of narrow-mindedness (others called him plain stupid) he whipped out his pistol and fired a shot into the ground—for what reason, no one could fathom.
Then, and this was the act which dissolved the last remaining favorable opinion of him, with a cane he carried, a heavy-duty cane which appeared to have been somewhat reinforced, he hit one prisoner over the head so hard the man sank to the ground stunned.
At this the crowd began voicing their feelings. We heard shouts of “cruel, inhumane, Throw him in jail, too”.
Seeing things might easily get out of hand, without discussion, four of us escorted the assembled prisoners (minus the two still free) to the jail while others, who, I understand, carried on a very brief discussion, took Stylow into the station and waited with him until the north-bound train arrived.
With Stylow safely on that train and on his way back to Watertown, the rest of us went our ways convinced we had witnessed a bizarre incident the likes of which we hoped never to see again. We agreed it was all a result of an overgrown ego. One of the group summed it all up with the old saying—
Handsome is as handsome does
F Stylow was listed as a junior alderman in 1876 in Watertown in Retrospect, 03 08 1933 article
Obituary: Deputy Marshal Fred Stylow died suddenly of heart disease Friday night, Oct. 30, 1885, at the age of 57 years. He resided in this community for upwards to 30 years. His wife, two daughters and one son survive him. Deceased was about the street in his usual good health the afternoon previous to his death, but about ten o’clock that night, feeling unwell, he went home and died a short time after arriving there. Sunday afternoon his funeral was held under the auspices of the German Odd Fellows lodge, and was largely attended. His body was laid at rest in Oak Hill Cemetery. Watertown Gazette, 11 06 1885 [Gazette records death as Oct 30, tombstone reads Oct 29]