Elections and Connections: The Appointment of Phoebe Couzins, the First Female Marshal

Today’s post was written by Katie Beaver, who spent her summer interning with textual processing.

The latter half of the nineteenth century is notorious among American historians for shady and tumultuous politics, particularly during presidential elections. The U.S. Marshal Service during this time was charged with monitoring polls on election days to ensure that the process ran smoothly and fairly. For many, especially for the marshals in the Southern states, this task was a heady one: African Americans had been given suffrage rights by the Constitution, but were still being turned away at the polls by state officials.

Upon looking at the “Appointment Files for Judicial Districts” series, I observed that the struggles at the polls were emphasized by the records as the focal point of several controversies involving federal and state authority. I was perusing through one particular case of a marshal in Missouri who was accused of acting outside his jurisdiction by enforcing fair elections when I noticed an interesting parallel to another case I had been looking for. This marshal’s name was J.E.D. Couzins of St. Louis, who shared the last name and hometown of the famous Phoebe Couzins, the first female marshal and the first female to pass a U.S. Bar Exam. J.E.D. Couzins was Phoebe’s father, and was the one who appointed her to the office of Deputy Marshal for Missouri.

The circumstances of her appointment were also very interesting. The Election of 1884, during J.E.D. Couzins’s stint as Marshal, promised to be tumultuous and controversial. Black suffrage was a relatively new concept and political tensions were at an all-time high.  Marshal Couzins took it upon himself to appoint several special deputies for the sole purpose of monitoring the legality of all votes cast and maintaining order. He issued a pamphlet with explicit instructions for his deputies (among them, daughter Phoebe), including orders to immediately arrest anyone casting an illegal vote, to prevent illegal votes from being submitted at all costs, and to arrest anyone who caused any disturbance in the polling area.

The act of appointing special deputies with free rein was not received well by several critics and state officials. Many asserted that it was unconstitutional for a marshal to appoint deputies for elections when there would already be state-appointed “elections supervisors” present. Others took issue with the nature of the instructions, saying that marshals had no authority to immediately arrest individuals (without a warrant) who were merely suspected of casting an illegal vote. These actions themselves were seen as interfering with the electoral process and should be restricted. This controversy was the ultimate demise of Couzins’ career as Marshal. His daughter, Phoebe, however, remained in the service at the request of several St. Louis citizens.

Even though she was appointed for such a controversial reason, she went on to add another “first” to her list: first female Marshal of the United States.

This post is based on documentation found in the series Appointment Files for Judicial Districts, 1853-1905, (NAID 734590), Office of the Attorney General, Department of Justice. Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice.

One thought on “Elections and Connections: The Appointment of Phoebe Couzins, the First Female Marshal

  1. Hi – I thought that John E.D. Couzins died in office and that’s why Phoebe filled in for him. Is this true or not? The article makes it sound like Couzins was dismissed from the Marshal’s Service.

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