The Law Comes to Key West
In 1828, the law arrived upon the shores of Key West, as a Territorial or Federal Court was established by an act of Congress. Under the "Supreme Court for the Southern Judicial District of the Territory of Florida," this court wielded both Civil and Criminal Jurisdiction, enforcing the laws of the Territory of Florida and the United States. It also encompassed admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, as the region was plagued by frequent wrecks.
Key West underwent a transformative moment with the transition from an incorporated town to an incorporated city in 1832. The territorial council of Florida granted a charter, appointing a mayor and six councilmen to govern the city. This newly-formed city council, in turn, selected Mr. P. B. Prior as the City's first Marshal. However, Mr. Prior did not fulfill the requirements for the position, leading to the election of Mr. Stephen R. Mallory, who served as Marshal in his stead.
In the early years of Key West, law enforcement primarily entailed administrative duties. The city saw only three felony convictions within its first fifty years, with two occurring on the high seas rather than within city limits. The majority of cases presented before the court revolved around salvages linked to shipwrecks.
Among the notable figures who held the city Marshal and Mayor position was William S. Allen. Affectionately known as "Buffalo" Allen, William possessed a moderate stature, a genial disposition, and a sharp intellect. Under his leadership, many considered him "the best mayor Key West ever had." With his energetic and hands-on approach, he earned the nickname "Buffalo" due to his brisk, Rooseveltian manner of taking charge and personally directing or handling matters.
On one occasion, when the peace and dignity of the city were disturbed by a well-known character who was prone to inebriation and alternating between singing and swearing, Mr. Allen swiftly intervened. Failing to calm the individual, he apprehended him and brought him to the "Sweat Box," the city's lockup at the foot of Duval Street. This unique confinement space was fashioned from a wrecked ship's caboose. As fate would have it, the prisoner's brother, also a notable character of the time, happened upon the scene in an inebriated state and proceeded to berate the mayor for incarcerating his sibling. "Buffalo" Allen deftly apprehended both brothers within mere moments, confining them until sobriety restored their senses.
In these early days, the Key West Police Department, through the dedicated efforts of its lawmen and marshals, sought to maintain peace, uphold dignity, and protect the welfare of the city's inhabitants. Their presence ensured that Key West remained a place where justice thrived and harmony prevailed.