In March 1924, with a few weeks left in his second term as East Baton Rouge Parish’s sheriff, Robert B. Day was shot and killed while busting up a gambling hall off Scenic Highway.
The next day, then-Gov. John M. Parker appointed Day’s wife, Eudora Slaughter Day, to temporarily fill her husband’s position until the upcoming election — a move that made her the parish’s first female sheriff.
Eudora Day would go on to win the April election and serve the next four years as the parish’s top law enforcement officer, becoming one of only a handful of women in Louisiana, even to this day, to serve as a parish sheriff.
Yet, as an archivist with the East Baton Rouge Parish Library recently discovered while researching the historic event, Day’s election victory did not come easily. In fact, it took a mighty campaign from a group of women recently empowered with the right to vote for Day to prevail against her opponent, a man nominated by the powerful Democratic Party following the death of Day’s husband, who had been the party’s previous nominee.
“Prior to his death, he had received the nomination for sheriff from the Democratic Executive Committee,” said Melissa Eastin, the library archivist. “And back then, it was the height of the Solid South — a nomination from the Democratic Committee was tantamount to an election. So he was a shoe-in. He was going to be the next sheriff.”
But fate had other plans.
The events leading up to Day’s election as East Baton Rouge’s only woman sheriff began on March 29, 1924. That was the day her husband was on patrol with another deputy when they stopped to break up a fight in the parking lot of a gambling hall off Scenic Highway. After they quelled the discord, Robert Day and his deputy went into the building and found some bettors.
“They were taking names of gamblers down in a back room when, for some reason, shots were fired,” said Eastin, whose research, compiled mostly from old newspaper articles and reviews of old laws, will be the subject of an upcoming presentation. “They say somebody ‘blew out the light’ and fired a pistol.”
In addition to the sheriff, at least one of the gamblers was fatally shot. Another was shot in the stomach and later developed pneumonia, but Eastin couldn’t find any record of his death. The deputy with Day wasn’t injured.
The violence led to the bittersweet and historic appointment of the first and only female sheriff in parish history. It appears that Eudora Day would have been the first female sheriff in the state if not for Ella McCoy Gilbert, who was appointed Franklin Parish sheriff for a brief time after her husband, Jesse S. Gilbert, died while serving as sheriff in February 1924.
Regardless, it would take a campaign featuring daily marches and the offering of classes where residents were taught how to write-in “E.S. Day” on the ballot for Day to prevail in the election.
The teachers at the school, which was on Third Street, shortened her name to “E.S. Day” because it was easier to write, especially for anyone with subpar literacy.
Campaigners even developed a slogan — “Don’t Stamp the Rooster” — in an effort to prevent voters from electing Day’s opponent, Edward B. Young, who appeared under the Democratic Party’s section of the ballot, which then was identified by a rooster.
“The mayor’s wife was in her camp, the editor of the newspaper’s wife — it was probably the first real actionable political moment that a lot of these women experienced in their lives,” Eastin said.
Eastin, whose job duties include researching the history of Baton Rouge, happened upon the story of Day’s rise to sheriff one day while browsing items on eBay. She came across a picture of Dewey Key, a Baton Rouge inmate at the time who was pictured in jail garb, and started researching the man.
“So Dewey’s in trouble, and I was reading articles about him,” Eastin said. “And one article mentioned Sheriff Day and how ‘she’ did something. And I was like, a ‘she’ sheriff?
“So I started researching her, and it ended up being this really crazy story,” Eastin said.
Robert Day, Eudora Day’s grandson, said he grew up being close with his grandmother, eventually moving in with her for a couple of years in the late 1950s when he was about to graduate from high school.
“She was a very talented, very intelligent woman,” said Day, now 71, of his grandmother. “At a point in time, she was a concert-level pianist and violinist.”
After her four-year stint at sheriff, Eudora Day taught music lessons and played the organ at Baton Rouge’s First Presbyterian Church, her grandson said. She also was a college graduate from Bellhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, and “an excellent cook” who could speak French, he said.
“I was pretty close with her,” Robert Day said.
Eudora Day is one of at least five women in Louisiana who have served as a parish sheriff, although it appears she was the first to be elected to the position.
Ella McCoy Gilbert temporarily filled in for her husband after he died as the Franklin Parish sheriff in 1924, according to newspaper accounts of his death and her appointment. She was replaced the same year by E.J. Short, according to unofficial records kept by the sheriff’s office there.
Florence Lewis Aycock served as St. Mary Parish’s Sheriff from 1949 to 1952 after her husband, Sheriff Guy Aycock, died unexpectedly.
Eloise Bouanchaud Evans served as the Pointe Coupee Parish sheriff from 1956 to 1960. Her service followed the death of her husband, Sheriff Alcide Bouanchaud.
“She actually ran and was elected,” said Capt. Steve Juge, a spokesman for the Pointe Coupee Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Finally, the most recent woman to serve as a sheriff was Beth O. Lundy in Calcasieu Parish. Lundy served as sheriff from 2000 to 2004 and was not married to the previous sheriff.
The upcoming presentation by Eastin about Day’s rise to sheriff will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Main Library on Goodwood Boulevard. It is free and open to the public, and it’s the first in a series of monthly presentations about the history of Baton Rouge.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.