Lucretia Roberts: First woman deputy sheriff in Arizona

by Mary Kasulaitis

She was the subject of a novel and they made a movie about her, but still, Lucretia Roberts is not a household name in Southern Arizona. Well she should be, for Mrs. Roberts was the first woman deputy sheriff in Arizona and perhaps the United States.

It took some time for the newspapers to notice that Lucretia Roberts had won the election for Constable in Canelo (Canille), Arizona. I suppose they thought it wasn’t possible for a woman to win an election for that kind of position, so the Nogales’ Oasis newspaper didn’t mention her by name. However, the forward-looking state of Arizona, as it was enacted in 1912, allowed women the vote. During the first election in the fall of that year, women made the decision and Mrs. Roberts put on her badge, joining Helen Eason for Justice of the Peace. When the results were in, Sheriff William McKnight of Santa Cruz County commissioned her as Deputy Sheriff, thus making her the first in that office in the State.

For some time, it seemed to be a joke, with the Tucson Citizen claiming that “she is an energetic woman and make a good officer not withstanding the fact that many people believe a woman hardly suited to the office of constable.” (Nov 18, 1914). But Lucretia put on her gun and took her job seriously. Perhaps her first task did not involve enforcing laws, but ensured that she received public attention. The Oasis recounted: “Mrs. Margaret Finley and Mrs. Lucretia Roberts, our Canille constable, had a thrilling experience Thursday morning with a couple of wolves. They heard some cattle bawling in a canyon close to Mrs. Goodin’s place. They soon had their cow ponies saddled and rode over to see what was the trouble when they saw the wolves hamstringing a calf. Mrs. Finley soon had her rope down and in pursuit, but the constable trusted to her .45 with which she is some expert and her quick aim soon brought down Mr. Wolf. After making several circles, Mrs. Finley soon had her prey at the end of her rope. Everyone one around Canille is loud in praise of the bravery of both ladies.” (11/19/1914)

The next year, Lucretia returned to the East, from which she had come, and received the attention of the New York Times: “Underneath her big sombrero, Mrs. Lucretia Roberts, Constable and Deputy Sheriff of Santa Cruz County, Arizona, has invaded New York City with Mexican hair lariat and a 45 Colt revolver. However, there is nothing about the little woman, who wears cowhide boots and a tan riding suit, that should cause any uneasiness to the quiet citizens of this metropolis. Rather is she of the type that might suggest the Boston schoolteacher on an outing. Soft spoken in her speech and gentle in her manner, the only woman holder of an elective office in Arizona has pitched her tent for several days at the Hotel McAlpin. Yet underneath her quiet demeanor there is an apparent confidence of ability to handle affairs. Mrs. Roberts said last evening that she had come here to gather funds to build a sanitarium for consumptives. . . She owns a homestead site of 160 acres and has ten saddle horses and 250 head of good cattle. She said last night that she lived ‘in the saddle’ and loved out-of-doors life…Speaking of her election, Arizona’s only woman Sheriff said, “It was a sort of a joke vote in Santa Cruz County a year ago in November. I was elected over two cowpunchers, G. Byerley and John Yost, by three votes to one for them, it being the first time the women voted in the State; but it hasn’t turned out to be a joke for many, for you will remember that we put the State on the dry side in the last election. We women don’t know much about the ballot, but we sided right on the main issues and put them through.’ Speaking of her work as a Constable she said: ‘Most of our arrests are of bad Mexicans and bootleggers. Of course, I can swear in any man at any time as an assistant and they jump at the chance.’ She told of a ride of sixty-five miles from Canille to Bisbee between 7 o’clock in the morning and sundown recently, when she and another deputy, Harry Rafferty, captured a Mexican who had stolen cattle from a neighbor.” (12/4/1915)”’And,’ said Rafferty when he got back, ’if any one thinks our Canille sheriff can be equaled on a long ride, just let them follow her and they’ll have another think.’”

Commenting in the Bisbee Daily Review: “I don’t like the east,” she said with much emphasis, “Too much noise in the streets and too many short skirts on the women. Give me Yuma every time.” (5 Dec 1915) Not withstanding, she had her two sons educated in New York.

In the 1950s one of her sons wrote a novel entitled Star in the West about Lucretia’s experiences in Santa Cruz County. Verifying the actual events is a bit difficult after all these years, but newspaper accounts jibe with many of them. In the 1960s Debbie Reynolds and Andy Griffith starred in a movie based on the book, called Second Time Around. Neither the book nor the movie is easy to come by these days, but keep an eye out for them!

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