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The Sheriffs of Hamilton County
Portrait of Frank Burns
1934-1940 / 1948-1950

Frank J. Burns was born in Polk County, Tennessee. His exact birth date remains unknown, for he refused to divulge his age, even to those who were closest to him. As a child, he moved to East Chattanooga with his family and later married Gladys Smalling.

For two and a half years, Burns guarded convicts at the Hamilton County workhouse before joining the Chattanooga Police Department in 1915. He was a popular yet stern police officer. His days as a workhouse guard laid the foundation for an amazing store of information regarding criminals. Seldom did a day pass that his workhouse contacts failed to help him track down thieves, killers, and other criminals.

His dedication eventually won him a promotion to the detective force. In 1934, he took a leave of absence to run for sheriff against his old friend and neighbor, Charlie Taylor. Though Taylor had previously served two terms as sheriff (from 1928 to 1932), Burns won the election and made Taylor his chief detective.

Burns was the first sheriff to wage a personal campaign against “fee-grabbing” and promised to assign all criminal work to salaried deputies. He carried out his campaign promises and as a result, was elected to three consecutive terms. Because of Tennessee law, which forbade a sheriff from serving more than six consecutive years, Burns was not able to seek re-election in 1940.

On January 1, 1941, he returned to Chattanooga’s detective force so he would be eligible to retire under the city’s pension program. He remained on the force until April 1, 1944, when he retired to his farm near the police and firemen’s camp on Pan Gap Road in Tiftonia.

In 1948, the former sheriff decided to make a political comeback and began his campaign a year before the Democratic primary. Certain political forces opposed him strongly, which he made an important issue in his campaign. Burns went literally door-to-door canvassing the county and enlisting the support of the voters. He emerged the victor over those who had dominated Hamilton County and city politics during the years he had been out of office.

In 1950, Burns made a bid for a fifth term and suffered his first defeat. In previous campaigns Burns declined to “meddle” in other races, but during the last campaign for Hamilton County Judge he took sides in what had become a very bitter race. He sided with Councilman Hugh Abercrombie who was also defeated that same day by Democrat Judge Wilkes Thrasher. Judge Thrasher teamed up with Rex Richey, the Republican nominee for sheriff, and they won by a very narrow nomination.

After the defeat Burns again retired to his Pan Gap farm and had very little interest in politics. In 1951, he made an unsuccessful bid for city commissioner. His name was discussed as a possible contender in the 1956 primary, but he declined to enter the race.

On June 11, 1957, Burns died unexpectedly at Erlanger Hospital after suffering from a heart seizure. He was 68 years old.

Frank Burns Cabin Frank Burns Cabin
Franks Burns cabin from undated photos.

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