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By Terry Ommen
Dusting Off History 

Court Smith – A Tulare County Lawman


Last updated 5/2/2024 at 6:19pm | View PDF

Court Smith when he was Visalia's police chief

I'm told that Rudyard Kipling, the well-known English novelist once said, "There's a man who has lived more stories that I might invent." Exactly who this famous writer was referring to is not known, but based on Kipling's words, he could have been describing a longtime Tulare County lawman named Courtland "Court" Smith.

Smith was born on January 30, 1876, in Fairbury, Illinois. As a small boy, he moved with his parents to California. They settled in Tulare in 1888, where his father operated a livery stable. One of the young boy's first jobs was driving a delivery wagon for a grocery store. In 1903, he accepted a part-time position as "Special Deputy City Marshal."

Later that year, George Martin, Tulare's Town Marshal, was killed in the line of duty and Smith was appointed to replace him. He received a glowing endorsement from the Tulare Register newspaper that reported, "The new marshal grew to manhood in this city and has earned the respect of the people among whom he lives." For the next decade, he earned a reputation as a fair and honest peace officer.

In 1914, he ran for the office of Tulare County Sheriff and won the post. While sheriff, he had to deal with unpopular liquor laws brought about by prohibition. He carried out his duties, smashing stills and confiscating moonshine booze.

Smith also had to manage the proliferation of the automobile. The relatively new contraptions invaded the highways and were often operated dangerously on poorly maintained roads, so he created the county highway patrol - a move sorely needed but not always appreciated. Smith served two four-year terms as sheriff, but lost his re-election bid in 1922.

Coincidentally, in 1923 the city of Visalia became a charter city, and with it had to create a police department that required a chief of police. Smith was available and he became Visalia's first police chief. As chief he purchased the first department police car - a black 1921 six-cylinder Studebaker, and introduced the first "true blue" officer uniform.

During his tenure, the department made over 6,000 arrests and unbelievably, none of them went to a jury trial, saving taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. Smith's talent as a skilled interrogator spread throughout the state. According to the Visalia Morning Delta, he was even asked by other police departments to interrogate their arrestees. Perhaps his success had something to do with his physical stature as he stood 6'6" and weighed about 250 pounds.

In February 1927, the Delta surprised many when the newspaper reported that Smith had submitted his resignation, and had been appointed warden of Folsom State Prison.

Soon after his appointment, the new warden was faced with a Thanksgiving Day prison riot. For about 20 hours, over a thousand convicts took control of the prison. The governor called in the National Guard, and other law enforcement agencies responded as well. Order was restored, but the cost was high - eight guards and convicts were dead and about 22 injured.

For about 10 years, Court Smith served as warden at Folsom and earned an enviable record, but he was in for another change of assignment. James B. Holohan, Warden at San Quentin Prison, was wounded by escaping prisoners in 1935. He survived the attack, went back to work, but his injuries prevented him from continuing. The governor appointed Smith to replace him in 1936.

Photo courtesy Tulare Historical Museum

Shown here is Court Smith on April 5, 1938 in the Tulare Jubilee Parade. Smith is riding a horse named Captain.

For the next few years Smith ran San Quentin, but found it difficult to manage the penal institution in a changing political environment. New approaches to prison reform made it difficult for him to do his job. In 1940 Governor Culbert Olson dismissed all the members of the California Board of Prisons and asked for and received Smith's resignation.

After 36 years of public service, Court Smith was out of a job, but he wasn't ready to just bide his time. The 64-year-old veteran lawman became chief of security at San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel where he worked for several years.

In all his working years outside of Tulare County, he never forgot his friends back home. He returned often and frequently invited them to visit him.

On June 30, 1957, Court Smith died at the age of 81. He had accomplished a lot, and has earned an honorable place in Tulare County history. He is buried in Sacramento's Eastlawn Cemetery.


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