This is the story of the first woman to serve as a sheriff in Tennessee. It’s a story that doesn’t take place in Scott County, but one that nevertheless has strong ties to this place.
You see, Lillie Ladd — who was sheriff in Roane County — never even lived in Scott County. But, in a way, Scott County can claim her as one of its own. She was the grandmother of Scott County’s favorite son: U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr.
Born July 11, 1879, Lillie Matilda Cox was one of those ladies who we sometimes refer to in this part of Appalachia as “a tough old bird.” She survived a mastectomy at the age of 97, made her own dress for her 100th birthday party, and was known as a ferocious bridge player until the very end of her life.
And, when her husband was sheriff in Roane County, there was a jailbreak, and she made national headlines when she rounded up some of the escaped prisoners and returned them to jail.
When she died in 1981, while her grandson was majority leader in the U.S. Senate and one of America’s most recognizable politicians, The Tennessean described her as “the quick-witted grandmother of Sen. Howard Baker and a pistol-wielding fraternity housemother.” The Washington Post described her thusly: “To this day she has never considered herself a feminist, and she might think right now that you were calling her something ugly if you told her that’s what she was and is.”
Born to Abraham Cox and Annie M. Davis Cox in Oliver Springs, Lillie married another Oliver Springs resident, Chris Ladd (1876-1927) in 1898, at the age of 19. She spent most of her life in Roane County, but eventually left and became the first housemother of the Lambda Chi fraternity at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. There she earned the nickname Mother Ladd. For the rest of her life, the feisty lady was known throughout the state as “Mother Ladd.”
The story of Mother Ladd’s short tenure as sheriff is as colorful as her life was. In 1927, her husband had fallen sick, and she had taken him to see a doctor in Illinois. When they reached their destination, they received a wire that all of the prisoners, about 20, had broken out of the jail back in Kingston.
An ordinary woman might have prayed for her husband’s quick recovery so he could get on the trail of the escaped convicts. But Mother Ladd was no ordinary woman. How dare the prisoners break out of jail while her husband was in bed sick! So she caught the first train back to Kingston to see to their capture herself.
“I thought I knew about where two of them would be because they lived up in the country,” she told The Washington Post in 1980. “I got a man to drive me in the car, up a country road beside Walden’s Ridge. We went several miles, 10 or 15, I guess, and I saw two men up on the side of the mountain, and I knew it was them.”
Mother Ladd motioned for the men to come down to her — “they knew it was me, they knew who I was,” she said — but they ignored her. She persisted, driving the car along the edge of the mountain and blowing her horn, until they finally gave in.
“Now you sit down here boys and let me talk to you,” she said when the convicts had made their way down the mountainside to her. “Listen, there are lots of the deputies who would love to kill you, and they’re up here scootin’ around in these mountains right now, and they’ll kill you if you don’t come back with me to the jail.”
One of the inmates said, “I’m coming back with you.” So Mother Ladd said, “Well, come on and get in the car.” And they did. Both of them.
After driving back down the mountain, Mother Ladd stopped in Harriman to wire her husband. When she went inside the Western Union, she left the men sitting in the back seat, unguarded. “Because they had promised me they would stay there and go with me to the jail,” she said.
As Mother Ladd was writing the telegram to her husband, telling him that she had captured the two leaders of the escapees, the man behind the counter asked where they were. “They’re out there in the car, they promised me they won’t leave,” she said. And he went out to see for himself.
Unbeknownst to Mother Ladd, the Western Union employee was taking notes. The next morning, there was a half-page story about the capture of the two escaped convicts in The Chattanooga Times. Chris Ladd had read about it before his wife had even returned home.
As the story goes, word spread that the two leaders of the escaped prisoners had been captured, and that caused the others to drift back out of the mountains and return to jail in Kingston.
Mother Ladd was an instant celebrity.
Chris Ladd was a successful logging contractor, and the couple were well off — so much so that they traveled frequently, including a trip to the Kentucky Derby every year for 25 years.
By the time she rounded up the escaped convicts and gained celebrity status, Mother Ladd was a middle-aged grandmother. And she was soon to be sheriff.
Six months after the trip to Illinois, Chris Ladd died. Not forgetting her heroic actions in rounding up the leaders of the jailbreak, the Roane County Court asked the widow Ladd to serve out the remainder of her husband’s term. She did. But this Roane County grandmother was no Andy Taylor, strolling around town without a gun. She kept law and order with a .32 special in her purse. And she wasn’t afraid to use it.
For three months, Mother Ladd and her deputies kept the Roane County jail at full capacity, mostly by arresting moonshiners and bootleggers. But she decided to resign, saying that “it was not my calling.” Being sheriff was a rough job, and she had only taken the position because of her husband.
So, Mother Ladd took her .32 special and became a fraternity housemother at UT. They gave her a small room in the basement of the frat house, where there had been a problem with burglars. Not long after she arrived, the burglar struck again.
In the 1980 profile in The Washington Post, Ladd described how the burglar took something from the refrigerator, then went creeping up the stairs to get all the boys’ watches and money. But when he came back down the stairs and tried to get into Mother Ladd’s room, he was in for a surprise. She was standing there with her .32 special at the ready.
“I just started shooting right through the door,” she said. “Oh, how he scrambled. I didn’t know but what I had killed him. We found splinters all through the room where I had shot through the door.”
The next day, she said, “They were selling papers on the streets in Knoxville that said, ‘Extry, Extry, Housemother Shoots Burglar.’”
There was never another burglary at the Lambda Chi fraternity house as long as Mother Ladd was there.
Mother Ladd later married Rhinehart Patrick Mauser, a Knoxville businessman, in 1941. But he died just seven years later.
In her later years, Mother Ladd moved to Maryville and began wintering in Florida.
Chris and Lillie Ladd had four children. Tragically, only one of them, daughter Myrtle, survived to old age. Their oldest son, Gillis, died when he was only two. Their youngest son, Joe William, died at the age of nine.
No wonder Mother Ladd was tough. You have to be to survive the tragedy she endured.
One of the Ladds’ two children to survive to adulthood was daughter Doris Ann, who married Howard H. Baker Sr. in 1925. Baker was born in Somerset, but the Baker family was originally from Campbell County. He had attended law school at the University of Tennessee and had graduated the previous year. Howard and Doris moved to Huntsville, where Baker opened a law firm. He was elected to the state legislature in 1929, later served on the Scott County Board of Education, was elected attorney general, and finally was elected to Congress in 1951.
Doris Baker, however, died in 1934.
Howard Baker Sr. would die in office in 1964. His second wife, Irene Bailey, a Sevierville county official who was active in state Republican politics, was appointed to serve out the remainder of his term before a native Scott Countian, John J. Duncan Sr., was elected that same year.
The Bakers’ only child was Howard Henry Baker Jr., who would become the first Republican to serve in the U.S. Senate from Tennessee since Reconstruction, and the first Republican to ever be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate from Tennessee. He quickly earned the respect of his colleagues in Washington and rose to prominence. He was considered by President Richard Nixon for the U.S. Supreme Court and was considered by President Gerald Ford as vice president. After a failed presidential bid in 1980, where Baker was polling third behind Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, he became Senate Majority Leader, a position he served in until retiring from the Senate. He later served as President Reagan’s White House chief of staff and is credited with helping to resurrect Reagan’s flailing presidency in its second term. Baker was believed to be a candidate for president again in 1988, but serving as Reagan’s chief of staff expended his political capital and he retired from politics for good — though he later served as the U.S. Ambassador to Japan under President George W. Bush.
The Bakers built a Republican legacy, and they inherited their status as Republicans from the matriarch of the family, Mother Ladd.
Mother Ladd admitted to The Washington Post in 1980 that she had some ancestors in New England who were Democrats. But she was a diehard Republican. Her father fought for the Union in the Civil War, and she was fond of saying, “Thank God, he was on the winning side, the Republican side.”
When Baker ran for Senate, he told everybody about his grandmother and her exploits as sheriff back in Tennessee. He said that she really wanted him to follow in her footsteps.
“She told me if I really wanted to run for president she would support me, but she said, ‘Son, if you don’t run for president, run for sheriff,’” he said in 1980.
Mother Ladd responded, “I didn’t say no such a thing. Howard Henry made that up.”