Sheriff Maude makes history

Sheriff Maude makes history

Maude Collins

Maude Collins was the first woman to be elected as a county sheriff in Ohio.

In November 1927, Edgar Foy and Rose Waldron were delivered to the Ohio State Penitentiary for their part in a violent robbery. They were also inadvertent witnesses to a nearly forgotten moment in Ohio history: They were the first prisoners ever escorted to the penitentiary by a woman — Maude Collins, the first woman in state history to be elected sheriff.

Originally appointed to the job after her husband, Vinton County Sheriff Fletcher Collins, was murdered, Sheriff Maude (as she was called) was elected by an impressive majority the following year. During her groundbreaking tenure, Maude Collins not only transported a fair number of prisoners, she also took down moonshine stills, investigated five murders, and even took the former marshal of Hamden into custody after he was convicted of killing a suspect.

Widow with a badge

Born in 1893, Maude Collins was the granddaughter of Randall McCoy, patriarch of the McCoy clan during its infamous feud with the Hatfields. Maude’s husband, Fletcher, was a former Navy fireman and a popular sheriff. Fletcher, however, was shot in October 1925 while attempting to serve an arrest warrant, leaving Maude to raise their five children alone.

When the local coroner (next in line for the position of sheriff) turned down the job, county officials offered the post to Maude. It was not uncommon at the time for widows to inherit political positions — typically to hold the post for the local political party until the next election.

With her husband gone, Maude’s decision to carry on as sheriff likely was a financial one. In Vinton County, the sheriff’s house was adjacent to the jail, and as the sheriff’s wife, Maude would have served as the jail matron, feeding prisoners, cleaning the jail, handling paperwork, and taking care of female prisoners.

“When Fletcher was murdered, the county commissioners appointed Maude as sheriff. Had she turned them down, she and her five children would have lost the roof over their heads, and she would have had no other way to support them,” says author Jane Ann Turzillo, who wrote about Collins in her book, Wicked Women of Ohio.

Sheriff Maude served out the last year of her husband’s term and then made the unprecedented decision to run for re-election. Women had only recently gained the right to vote, and while women had made some inroads in law enforcement elsewhere, the few who had been appointed sheriff via widow’s succession had always left the post when their terms were up.

In the 1926 election, Collins handily beat her opponent in the Democratic primary (winning 964 votes to 232), and received nearly 60% of the vote in the general election.

Moonshine and murder

Vinton County is a largely rural area with a relatively small population, but Collins’ time as sheriff was far from easy. Prohibition was in full swing, and while moonshine stills had always been common in southeast Ohio, illegal liquor operations in the region had grown in scale and scope and brought an increase in violence. Collins investigated at least five homicides while sheriff.

The most notorious of those came in 1927 when Sarah Stout, the wife of local farmer William Stout, was murdered. Collins arrested Stout’s son, Arthur, for the murder of his stepmother that winter. A few months later, after William Stout himself went missing, Collins determined that Arthur Stout’s teenage girlfriend, Inez Palmer, had murdered the elder stout. Collins’ investigation showed that Palmer bludgeoned Stout to death, donned his boots to create footprints in order to fake his disappearance, forged a will, and then dropped his body down a well.

The lurid case received attention around the state and nationwide, and it was through reports on the Palmer case that Turzillo first discovered Maude Collins. “The first thing I saw when I started to research the murders was Maude’s picture — the one of her in the Annie Oakley hat,” Turzillo says. “There was something about her expression that drew me to her. There was a confidence there, even a bit of haughtiness, and, of course, the fact that she was the first female sheriff in Ohio.”

After Collins’ time as sheriff, she was elected twice to the position of clerk of courts in Vinton County, and then served as a matron at the Columbus State School. She later moved to California, but eventually returned to Ohio, where she died in 1972. She is buried in Hamden Cemetery, next to her husband.

Collins’ story was presented as a play by the Ohio History Center in 2014 and was given even more exposure via Turzillo’s book. Sheriff Maude was also elected to the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

Ohio’s trailblazing sheriffs

Maude Collins’ election was a first in Ohio, but she was almost forgotten outside of Vinton County until 1976, when Kathy Crumbley was elected sheriff of Belmont County, and folks there claimed she was Ohio’s first female elected sheriff.

Officials in Vinton County wanted to set the record straight. “After they made a big deal about the Belmont County election, we wanted to make sure people knew about Maude Collins,” says Deanna Tribe of the Vinton County Historical and Genealogical Society. “We didn’t want to create a big fuss, but we wanted the stories to be accurate.”

Crumbley, like Collins, has a fascinating story. She was the only female sheriff in the nation when she took office, and gained fame not only for her barrier-breaking election but also for her outspoken personality and her imposing physical presence (she was over 6 feet tall). She demonstrated judo holds on Johnny Carson during an appearance on The Tonight Show, and at one point was even in discussions with Paramount Studios to develop a TV series based on her life story. After serving one term, she later worked as a fraud investigator for the Belmont County Department of Jobs and Family Services. She died in 2011.

It would be another 40 years before another woman was elected as sheriff in Ohio. Deb Burchett was elected in Clark County in 2016, and is still the only woman serving as a sheriff in the Buckeye State.