Joe Tracy was born in Iowa on November 12, 1897, the youngest in a farm family of fourteen children.
In adulthood, he moved to Southern California, working in the chemical and oil business. He was later was employed at a movie studio.
In 1937, he became a U.S. Marshal in Los Angeles and was later transferred to the Fresno office. In 1950, he ran for sheriff and unseated George J. Overholt, who had held the office for 20 years.
In 1954, Tracy was defeated in his re-election bid by Melvin Willmirth. After leaving office, Tracy operated a furniture store and spent 11 years working as an assistant sergeant-at-arms in the state assembly. He died in Glendale, Ca. on June 30, 1975, survived by his wife, Ann, and a son.
Tracy was the first sheriff to hold the title Sheriff-Coroner, as the coroner's office was placed under the sheriff's authority at the start of his term. Tracy's term of office was stained by allegations that he and his undersheriff, Burt Lantz, had allowed gambling and prostitution organizations to operate unhindered in the unincorporated areas of the county. Tracy and Lantz were named in a civil indictment by the Fresno County Grand Jury in April 1952. Lantz died in July 1952, leaving Tracy to face trial alone in September. Numerous deputies and staff officers testified that Tracy and Lantz had ordered them to allow selected gambling establishments and houses of prostitution to conduct business. In October, a jury found the charges unproven, and Tracy remained in office for another two years.
Tracy's term was not without advancements in the service provided to the people of Fresno County. He assigned a deputy sheriff to work narcotics, in conjunction with state and Fresno PD narcotics officers. He established the Juvenile Bureau at the Sheriff's Department and expanded patrol division coverage to sixteen hours a day (swing shift and midnights).
The most notable crimes during Tracy's term in office were the January 1951, Huron area murder of 17 year-old Josephine Romero by her 18 year-old husband, and the September 1951, beating death of Paul Self in the Firebaugh City Jail by Bernard “Red” Gilliam, for which Gilliam was sentenced to death.