Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Masthead
Former Sheriffs

The Sheriffs of Hamilton County
Portrait of Sheriff William T. Cate

Before being elected sheriff of Hamilton County, William T. Cate was the local mail agent and magistrate. Married with two children, he and his family were well-liked and respected throughout the county. Cate was endorsed by the Chattanooga Weekly Commercial a local newsletter and easily won the sheriff’s race against James E. Conner. There is little information available about Cate and his short term in office. This lack of knowledge is due, in part, to his young age when elected.

Like the lawmen before him, Cate knew that choosing police work as a career could entail danger both to himself and to his family. Nevertheless, Cate chose to become sheriff, and he is remembered to this day as one of the bravest men to hold the office.

In 1880, under Sheriff Springfield’s administration, ship carpenter John Taylor murdered a steamboat captain. Taylor was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Taylor won an appeal in the case, and by the time it was due, Sheriff Cate had taken office. Cate and his deputy, John J. Conway, escorted Taylor and three other prisoners to Knoxville aboard the Southern Railway System. Cate had been in office only fourteen days.

Artists illustration of the murder of Sheriff Cate. The lawmen sat in seats opposite their handcuffed prisoners in the passenger car. Two strangers boarded in Sweetwater, Tennessee and took seats behind the sheriff and deputy. When the train reached Philadelphia, Tennessee, the sheriff walked out on the platform to see if some of his relatives had come to visit him. With Cate out of the passenger car, Taylor’s brother, Bob (one of the two who had boarded the train in Sweetwater), shot Deputy Conway in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Hearing the gunshots, Cate courageously rushed back into the car with his gun drawn. Andy, youngest of the Taylor brothers, shot him without warning. Then John and Bob approached the injured sheriff lying on the floor of the train and shot him three more times. As Cate lay dying, the killers ordered the conductor to “pull the bell” as they kept their hands on their pistols “all the way to Lenoir.”

Once in Lenoir, the Taylors hurried on foot towards their home in Kingston, Tennessee. It appeared to everyone that the killers had escaped, but John Taylor had been wounded by Sheriff Cate and would later die from the injury.

Back to Past Sheriffs