Will the 1821 Sheriff of Madison County, AL, please stand up? #amwriting #dilemma #histfic #research #Alabama200 #history

I have a dilemma related to one of the characters in my new series, the Fury Falls Inn. While reading about Alabama’s early history, one of the notes I took was that of the very first sheriff of Madison County, Alabama. One of the reasons it intrigued me is that his years of service coincides with the time period of my series set in 1821. Could I use him in my story?

I considered using this man’s name in my story to give it historical accuracy. Not as a main character but a tertiary one. But before I portrayed him in any way, it seemed prudent to investigate as to what kind of a man he was and how effective he was at his job. After all, I don’t want to paint him with the wrong brush, so to speak. You know, if he was a really great sheriff, then I wouldn’t want to make him seem inept, and vice versa. So I started looking…

I came across this article by Ruby W. Lawler, Chairwoman of the Program Committee of the Gurley (AL) Historical Society, that included the following comment about the sheriff:

“The first sheriff of Madison County was Stephen Neal who held office from 1809 to 1822. Crime in those days was usually confined to stealing a horse or a display of public drunkenness. In many cases, the locals would extract [sic] their own swift punishment without the need of the local sheriff.”

Sounds to me like he might not have been very busy, but I don’t know that. I haven’t researched crime reports from that era, and wouldn’t know where to find them. It’s also not relevant to my dilemma. The statement above includes nothing about him as a person, just one passing comment about the kinds of crime he might have dealt with. What this quote confirmed for me was that stealing horses was an historical issue, one that I had included in The Haunting of Fury Falls Inn (Book 1), so that’s cool to know.

Still, the question of whether to use Neal’s name and thus his persona, or make up someone else, niggled in my brain. I’d prefer to be historically correct—rather than creating a fictional sheriff—but I don’t want to misrepresent a real person. I kept looking and found this article by Donna R. Causey for Alabama Pioneers that had this to say:

“Stephen Neal, one of the earliest settlers and sheriff of the county from 1809 to 1822, purchased the lot embracing the east end of Commercial Row [in Huntsville] and sold it to different parties, who built store-houses there.”

I interpret this statement to imply he was rather wealthy, both because he bought a large lot and he would have made money when he sold smaller lots to others. The accompanying photo of the house Neal purchased is quite impressive, too.

Then I found this brief history from the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, which sheds a bit of light on Neal:

“Sheriff Neal served in his appointed capacity until Alabama became a state in 1819 and held it’s [sic] first ‘Constitutional Convention’ at what is now known as Constitution Hall Park in downtown Huntsville.

“Following the adoption of the Alabama Constitution, Sheriff Neal became Madison County’s first elected Sheriff by defeating eighteen opponents, the most candidates to ever run for the office of Sheriff in a local election.” [emphasis added]

When I first read this, I thought, Aha! If Neal was respected enough to defeat 18 other candidates, he must have been doing a pretty good job, right? So it should be safe for me to use his name and portray him as being a competent sheriff.

But then I remembered that it was a common practice in that day and age for candidates to throw rallies where they not only stood up on a tree stump and extolled on what they’d do if elected, but they also doled out whiskey to the men who attended, essentially partying with them to show what a great candidate they were. Buying their loyalty and their vote, in a manner of speaking. So did he get elected because more people knew his name and/or liked his partying style? (Hm, is that where the term “party” came to be associated with political entities? Another research question…)

It’s fairly common for people to vote for candidates they’ve heard of. Since Neal had been sheriff for ten years, he’d been a known entity. Good or bad. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about who he was and how he behaved. I’m not trying to imply that I think one way or the other. I’m just “thinking out loud” here as I ponder whether to use the name of the real sheriff or not.

I wish I could find out more about his personality, his job performance, but when I think about it, I don’t need to delve too deeply into his character for the purposes of my stories since he’s a minor/tertiary character. As I’m beginning final revisions to the first story, I think the best path forward is to fictionalize the sheriff. I focus more on a fictional deputy anyway, so ultimately what name I give the sheriff isn’t going to change much with regard to plot and action. But I believe it’s better to not portray a real historical figure incorrectly.

Do you agree with me, that it’s important to know the historical figure as much as possible before employing their personage in fiction? Even for “walk on” characters? Or am I overthinking this?

I’d love to hear your opinion… Thanks!


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2 thoughts on “Will the 1821 Sheriff of Madison County, AL, please stand up? #amwriting #dilemma #histfic #research #Alabama200 #history

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