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The Sheriffs of Hamilton County
Portrait of Sheriff John Knox Tate

John Knox Tate was an educated man who came from a prominent family with a long history of judges, sheriffs, and teachers. Geneology records also show that John Tate was related to President James Knox Polk. It is no wonder that Tate gave way to the encouragement by both parties to run for Hamilton County sheriff.

Tate won the 1932 election with a campaign promise that he would cut his salary by twenty percent, operate a smaller car to save money, cut the department budget to $25,000, and retain officers from the Taylor administration. Tate pressed for ardent law enforcement in his department. His ambition to serve his community sparked multi-media coverage with the destruction of countless distilleries, raids on gambling, and searches involving arrests of prostitution houses.

Tate was very supportive of his officers and frequently participated in the investigations and raids made by his department. He received considerable recognition when he personally pursued and captured federal prisoner Sam Godsey, near Sweetwater. After his arrest, Godsey remarked, “Sheriff Tate and his men are as nice as they come.” Other cases which received much attention were the disposed mutilation killings which resulted in the arrest and conviction of four-time bigamist Walter Lutz.

Aside from his reputation for promoting justice and a desire to clean up Chattanooga, Tate received more favorable reviews as a “people’s man” concerned about ordinary citizens. He used his own money to feed prisoners a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, bought his own vehicle, and often left his county car stored to save the county money. He appealed to the people in the community for old books and purchased some himself in order to open a library for the prisoners. He appointed officers to work in the court in order to eliminate fee-grabbing and later made it a salaried position. After taking office as sheriff, Tate received numerous gifts such as a badge with a diamond center. He had the diamond replaced with cut glass and had the diamond mounted on a ring for his wife.

After the completion of his term, Tate elected not to run for a second term and returned to his grocery store business. On April 13, 1950, be suffered a fatal heart attack while working in his store. Today, he is remembered for his honesty, fairness, and generosity to Chattanooga.

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