Walter McSwain was born on his family's ranch on the Merced River below Snelling, on Oct. 4, 1865. In 1876, the family moved to Tulare Lake, where they ran sheep. Later they moved to Huron, where they operated sheep pens and built the first house in town.
They arrived in Fresno in 1881. McSwain worked on farms and in packing sheds, and later as a teamster in partnership with John Zapp, of Zapp's Park fame. In 1897, he was hired as a patrolman by the city marshall's office, the predecessor of the Fresno Police Department.
McSwain was seriously wounded at Kern and E Street on the morning of Sept. 11, 1901, when he was shot while chasing a man who had just committed a murder. He was appointed as a deputy sheriff in 1903, serving as a field deputy under Sheriff James Collins. In 1906, he was elected as Constable of the Third Township (Fresno) and served in that post from 1907-1911. As the Democratic candidate for sheriff, he was elected twice, in 1910 and 1914. He died of tubercular pneumonia during his second term as sheriff on Dec. 6, 1915. He was survived by his wife, Susie, and a daughter.
When he took office, McSwain hired a third deputy to work in the county jail, initiating 8-hour shifts (jail officers had worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week up to that time). In October 1911, in compliance with a state law requiring a female jailer to handle women inmates in the county jail, McSwain hired Lizzie Grue, his sister-in-law, as the first woman law enforcement officer in Fresno County. In April 1912, part of the existing jail was demolished and Sheriff McSwain oversaw a $46,000 jail reconstruction project. In July 1913, McSwain appointed Deputy Sheriff Oscar Bottorff as the Department Photographer and Bertillon Expert, thus initiating the forensic detection of criminals in Fresno County. Bottorff worked both in the jail, photographing and fingerprinting prisoners, and in the field photographing crime scenes and lifting latent prints. In 1915, the sheriff's office began recording the details of crimes on standardized report forms.
McSwain inherited the I.W.W. disorders in the jail from Sheriff Chittenden in January 1911. The capacity of the jail at the time was 100, and at the peak of the problems, the sheriff was holding 174 prisoners, most of them Wobblies. The I.W.W. prisoners were all being held for violating the city ordinance prohibiting speaking in public without a permit. Eventually, in February, Sheriff McSwain informed the city that he would begin refusing to accept their prisoners. The city quickly came to an agreement with the Wobblies, allowing them to make their political speeches in free speech areas at Tulare and F Street, and Mariposa and K Street (now Van Ness).
McSwain was a highly respected law officer even before becoming sheriff. As sheriff, he handled the field investigations of most of the serious crimes that occurred during his terms. Included among the more notable cases solved during McSwain's tenure were the March 1911 murder of Frank Vidal at the Chidester Ranch on the San Joaquin River east of Firebaugh, the February 1914 murder of Turner Jack at Wonder Valley, and the February 1915 murder of "Alligator Jack" Henderson near Hume Lake.