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History of Sheriffs

The office of Sheriff in Cumberland County dates back to the birth of the county itself in January 1748, when the county of Cumberland was carved out of the southern portion of Salem County. The county of Salem was one of the counties comprising the West Jersey Province. The Assembly established an act creating Cumberland County on January 19, 1748. 

The Duke of Cumberland was given the parcel of land as a reward for his victory at Culloden, over Prince Charles. The first meeting of the justices and freeholders was to address the building of a jail and courthouse. This meeting was held on March 25, 1748 and Ananias Sayre, the first appointed Sheriff of Cumberland County, was instructed to build the jail. 

The Act of 1747 required that all Sheriffs be residents, own property in the county and have the authority to vote. There were nine appointed sheriffs up until 1776, a span of twenty nine years. Prior to the Revolution, Sheriff's were appointed by the Governor and Council for three years or at the pleasure of the Governor. After the Revolution the office of Sheriff became an elected position. A Sheriff could only hold office for three years in succession. Today's Sheriffs are elected for three year terms and may succeed themselves. 

Eighty Sheriffs have served to date. To see a complete list of names and dates served. The following facts of their service has been collected. 

Ananias Sayre was the first Sheriff in the new County of Cumberland. During his term of office, he built a twelve foot square jail of logs in Greenwich. During Samuel Fithian's term of office, a pair of stocks and a pillory were placed near the courthouse.

First Cumberland County Jail
The First Cumberland County Jail, located in Greenwich, NJ. Erected in 1748. Picture circa 1906.

Sheriff Maskell Ewing had the dubious honor of hanging the first person in Cumberland County. Two persons were arrested for stealing two horses, they were sentenced to hang on September 18, 1758. One received a reprieve, due to his youth, and the other was hanged, at the appointed hour, in a common area on what is now Broad Street, in what is now known as Bridgeton. 

A new Courthouse was erected in the center of Broad Street in Bridgeton during the term of Sheriff Silas Newcomb. The building was two stories high with a cupola. The Courthouse remained at this location until 1844 and was used during 1846 to house the famous Liberty Bell of Cumberland County. 

Sheriff Powell, in 1765, was ordered to close in the jail yard with a fence. During his term the city became known as Bridgetown, having been previously called Cohansey Bridge. 

While Sheriff Theophilus Elmer was in office stocks were erected in Greenwich and Stow Creek, in 1767. 

During the term of Sheriff Jonathan Elmer, 1771 to 1774, he and his brother, Ebenezer, began to publish the first newspaper in New Jersey, the Plain Dealer. In 1775 it was distributed at Potter's Tavern in Bridgeton. 

In 1776 Sheriff Elmer read the Declaration of Independence in front of the Courthouse and he then burned the King's coat of arms. 

Later in 1776, Joel Fithian was elected Sheriff and was Cumberland County's first Sheriff after the revolution. 

In 1790, during Sheriff Joseph Buck's term, a new jail was built, a two story structure, which remained standing until 1867. 

Sheriff George Burgin was in office when the second execution for a capitol crime occurred, in 1799. A man, known only as Joseph, was tried and convicted of murdering his boss, Peter Jackson, and was duly hanged by Sheriff Burgin, using an oak tree on Roadstown Road as a gallows. 

Sheriff David Campbell was in office from 1837 to 1839 when the last whipping post disappeared from New Jersey. It had stood on a vacant lot in the city of Trenton, it was never replaced. 

The third execution in the county was carried out by Sheriff Harris Mattson, who in 1844 supervised the hanging of a servant girl who had poisoned her employers with arsenic. One of them died and as a result , she did too. 

While Sheriff Stephen Murphy was in office the third Cumberland County Courthouse was built and occupied. The Liberty Bell was sold, to be used as an alarm bell for the Fireman's Hall. 

The last administration of capital punishment in Cumberland County took place in 1864, when two men were executed for the murder of a third man on April 28, 1864. They were hanged in the old jail-yard. 

In 1866-67 a fourth jail was built in the county. It contained a residence for the Sheriff. During the term of Sheriff David McBride, 1878 to 1881, a two story addition to the residence was built, along with a cook kitchen. 

1903 has the earliest recording of an Undersheriff in Cumberland County, and in 1907 the penalty of hanging was done away with and changed to electrocution. 

Sheriff William P. Riggin served the county for a record seven terms, with five of them in succession. He is the longest running Sheriff in the history of Cumberland County. His twenty one years of service has never been equaled by any Cumberland County Sheriff, before or after him. 

Sheriff David Valentino, 1969 to 1972, instituted programs that led to uniformity in dress and equipment within the department. A new jail was erected during his term. 

The most violent day in the history of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department occurred during Sheriff George Castellini's term. On June 2, 1979, two jail officers were taken hostage within the Cumberland County Jail. As a result the inmates were all released from their cells and they then controlled the section of the jail known as the "New Jail". A stand off took place, lasting for several hours, while negotiations were underway to secure the release of the hostages. At mid day several prisoners attempted to leave the jail using the hostages as shields. SWAT officers opened fire, resulting in the death of two inmates. One of the hostage officers was also wounded in the process. 

A large annex to the county jail was begun during Sheriff Daniel La Ferriere's term, and an agreement with the state to house state prisoners, in the county jail, was signed. 

During the term of Sheriff James A. Forcinito, an addition to the County Courthouse was completed that more than doubled it's size. The department moved to it's new headquarters during his term , providing the needed space for it's ever expanding role in law enforcement in Cumberland County. 

Our most recent Sheriff, Robert A. Austino, Elected in 2008, plans to take the Sheriff's Department into a new era of law enforcement.