Pennsylvania and Bradford
|Mary Jane (Mitten) Morrow|
|First Woman Sheriffs|
|History of County Sheriffs||Sheriff Mary's Story||Mary's Parents|
|Bradford County History||Sheriff Fred's Story||Life in the 1920's|
Mary Jane Morrow was born in the bountiful and beautiful farm country that is northeastern Pennsylvania on the 12th of August, 1873. Her father, Newton James Morrow, was a successful farmer in Herrick Township, Bradford County. Her hard-working grandfather Hamilton James had come from Ireland in 1826 and built his dreams into over 400 acres of prime farm land.
Little is known about Mary's mother, Adeline (Nesbit) Morrow, but there is no doubt that she raised four wonderful children who went on to become pillars of the Bradford County community. This included Mary's sister Helen Adeline who became an art teacher; brother "Andy" (John Andrew) teacher, Principal, and then Superintendent of all the county's schools; and brother Hamilton, a preeminent physician in both Pennsylvania and Nebraska.
Named after her Aunt who died a few months after she was born, Mary learned much from her parents, both of whom were supportive church-going Presbyterians. Her father often taught school and was a school director for a few years.
(click photo) After Mary graduated from the common school, she attended the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in Towanda, studying to be a teacher. After graduation, she returned to her native Herrick Township and taught there for three years.
When she was twenty-three, Mary married Frederick Renwick Mitten. Fred was also a school teacher at that time. In 1897 Mary had her first child, Margaret Aline, followed by Eleanor Morrow in 1898, Hamilton James in 1900, and William Newton in 1901. (click photo) Both brothers were later honored in Who's Who in Nebraska. About 1901, Fred entered the livery business in Wyalusing, but he had a lot of ambition and they soon moved to Towanda. Fred became Chief Clerk for the County Commissioners and got to be well known. In 1908, Mary bore her final child, Paul Andrew. By now Fred had become a deputy sheriff, and he served twelve years in that position.
In 1923 Fred ran for County Sheriff, and was elected, taking office for an anticipated four-year term in January 1924. But in the fall of 1925 he became seriously ill and passed away October 1st.
Mary had been assisting him with his duties in the sheriff's office, and was already well respected by Towanda residents and the citizens of the County. After Sheriff Fred's unexpected death, hundreds of Bradford Countians signed petitions demanding that Mary be appointed to complete her husband's term of office. Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot* was impressed, and his letter offering her the appointment clinched the deal. Mary Morrow Mitten was sworn in as Bradford County Sheriff on Oct. 24, 1925, the first woman sheriff in Bradford County and in Pennsylvania. She was fifty-two years of age.
[*Governor Pinchot was ahead of his time, and quite sympathetic to America's minorities. In 1925 he established the Bureau of Women and Children. He was also famous for protecting America's forests, helping to create the U.S. Forest Service and quadrupling the number of national forests, with President Teddy Roosevelt's heartfelt support.]
But in 1925, Calvin Coolidge was the President, and the newspapers were covering the Scopes Monkey Trial, a heated debate about teaching evolution in our schools. Hitler was a little known politician who had just published the first part of Mein Kampf, while ten million $350.00 Model-T Fords shared the muddy roads with horse-drawn buggies.
Charlie Chaplin films were the rage, as was The Great Gatsby. Scotch tape and potato chips were the year's big inventions, and U.S. refrigerator sales had reached 75,000. In Chicago, Al Capone had taken over the rackets; while Dr. Robert Goddard had launched the first liquid fueled rocket. As Sheriff Mary Mitten took over the reins of office, Bradford County boasted a population of 50,000.
(click photo) Mary did not wallow in her grief, but actively worked to help her fellow citizens and to uphold the law. Although she opted not to run for re-election in 1928, she took over as the County Probation Officer, a position she held for ten years until her death.
Mary Morrow Mitten "equaled, if not exceeded, her husband in the hearts and minds of their fellow Bradford Countians." Aside from working with her husband prior to his untimely death and raising five healthy children through thirty years of marriage, she was an active community leader. She was President of the American Legion Auxiliary, an officer in the Bradford Country Federation of Woman's Clubs, a Past Worthy Matron of the Towanda chapter of the Eastern Star; a member of the Delphian Club (a literary club); and an active Member of the Presbyterian Church.
She passed away at the home of her daughter, Eleanor Banks, in Lansdowne, Delaware Co., PA in January of 1938 at the age of 64.
As her obituary reported, "Few if any residents of Towanda are more highly regarded than was Mrs. Mitten. She was possessed of a charm that drew people to her constantly and her quietness, her patience, her loyalty held their friendship always. No task was too difficult for her to undertake; she gave freely of her time, her energy, her physical welfare for the advancement of those causes she esteemed, those people she held dear. Her love for her family, her friends, her community was boundless, and Towanda in her passing has lost that which cannot be replaced."
She was survived by her aging, but still proud father, Newton James Morrow, who was 90 years old, many relatives and friends, and six grandchildren. She is buried in the Camptown Cemetery, Bradford County, PA.
"Remembering Pennsylvania's First Woman Sheriff: Mary Morrow Mitten Made Bradford County History, but Few Have Heard of Her," by Wes Skillings, Rocket Courier, 25 March 1999, Wyalusing, Bradford Co., PA [Includes information researched by Janet McGovern Johnson in the Bradford County Historical Society]
Bradford County-a Chronology of History 1924-1976, L. Ashton Merrill, pp. 5 and 87
The Morrow Sept and the McPherson Clan, Alice Houseworth Wolfe, 1973, p. 2
History of Bradford Co., PA, Bradsby, p. 1038
Obituary from the Daily Review, Towanda's newspaper, Bradford Co., PA
Who's Who in Nebraska, 1940, pp. 288-89
Pictures from Bill Benson's family collection.
A big thank you to Jill Shiposh who provided copies of many of the articles on which the above is based. Also to Sheree Angus, a long lost cousin who inspired me to finally pull all this together. Lastly to Janet M. Johnson who worked with the Towanda Daily Review reporter Wes Skillings on one of the main articles.
Last updated Jan 2003
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