The Lessons Of Edgar Watson

| The Ayoob Files |

In a hard and dangerous place where you have to take care of yourself, deadly force is sometimes necessary. But, for a certain type of man, it can become too-attractive a problem-solver.


When you develop a reputation of being too quick to resort to the gun, people will fear you. Fear breeds hate, and can lead to you being seen as the problem needing solved.

On Oct. 24, 2010, the Brave — one of the finest state-of-the-art boats in the Florida Gulf Coast region (known as Ten Thousand Islands) — dropped anchor near the badly damaged dock of the hamlet of Chokoloskee. Only days before, the area had been savaged by the most powerful hurricane in the memory of any living resident. The boat’s owner, perhaps the most successful plantation owner and businessman in the islands and sometimes scornfully called “Emperor” by those who envied him, stepped off. He was wearing a revolver in a hidden shoulder holster, and carried a tattered hat in one hand and a double-barrel shotgun in the other.

Awaiting him, already gathered at the nearby store and post office when they heard the distinctive sound of his powerful boat’s motor, were some 20 men of the town. All of them carried rifles or shotguns. On the periphery were even young boys armed with single-shot .22s.

The man from the boat spoke to the men who led the crowd. They reminded him disapprovingly he had promised to bring back the head of a murderer. He replied he had brought back the killer’s hat, riddled with buckshot, after he shot down the murderer and the waters swept the corpse away. Not good enough, said the townsmen. They were going to hold him for the sheriff, because they thought he had committed the murders himself, and they demanded he surrender his shotgun.
Instead, he swung the double barrel up at them.

The guns erupted in a stunning volley, bullets and buckshot alike slamming into the plantation owner’s body. Some said the gunfire continued when he fell helpless to the ground. By the time the shooting stopped, the man from the boat was motionless, and dead. The strange life of Edgar Watson had come to an end. The year was 1910, and the century-long legend of Edgar Watson had begun to crystallize.

The Backstory

Peter Mathiessen wrote in 1991 that we know little of Edgar Watson “from the few hard ‘facts’ — census and marriage records, dates on gravestones, and the like. All the rest of the popular record is a mix of rumor, gossip, tale and legend that has evolved over eight decades into myth.” Mathiessen should know, because he spent many years researching the Watson story, and wrote four books about it. Good news and bad news there. Some of the good news is pioneer families of Southwest Florida cooperated with him enthusiastically and shared oral family history about the case, and more good news is Mathiessen, one of the best novelists of our time, wrote four fine books on the topic: Killing Mr. Watson (1991), Lost Man’s River (1997), Bone by Bone (1999) and Shadow Country (2008). It is some of the best “faction” — fact-based fiction — you can find. The bad news is, it’s exactly that: fictionalized.

Timothy England, curator of the Museum of the Everglades in Everglades City, Fla., has also studied Watson’s life and exploits in depth. He gives an excellent lecture on the topic, which I was fortunate enough to attend in December of 2010. The work of Mathiessen and England constituted my primary sources for this article.

Edgar Watson was born in Edgefield, S.C., the son of an embittered, alcoholic Civil War veteran. People said Watson’s father beat him viciously, and often attributed that to the way the son turned out.

Time passed. Edgar Watson ended up in Northern Florida, Columbia County. Here he showed he had inherited his father’s propensity to become extremely violent when drinking. There was a killing. Watson found himself on the run.

Over 6 feet, unusually tall for the time, and extremely strong, Watson’s appearance was additionally distinctive in that he had red hair and beard, and hands and feet that seemed visibly too small for a man of his size. The latter would come back to haunt him.

He went to “Indian Territory,” where he was said to have rented a house from Belle Starr. The exaggerated dime novels of the late 19th century had dubbed Belle Starr “queen of the outlaws” and “the female Jesse James.” Rumor went that Starr got wind of the story Watson was a wanted man in Florida and, fearing any spotlight the law put on him would catch her in its beam as well, she told him to get out or she would report him to the authorities.

Very shortly thereafter, Belle Starr was bushwhacked and killed, blasted off her horse by a massive charge of buckshot. The shooting scene was very close to Watkins’ house, and tiny footprints found in the mud at the scene were determined to be the same size as Watkins’ unusually small boots. He was brought to court, but the case was dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Just who killed Belle Starr is one of those “mysteries of the West” to this day. Some blamed her then-husband. Others were certain it was the outlaw woman’s son, whom she had recently beaten and humiliated in public for whipping one of her horses. And some believed it was another Edgar Watson.

However, then and now, many believed that this Edgar Watson was the most likely culprit, and when he was named as such in a book around the turn of the 20th century, that impression would be solidified among his neighbors and acquaintances.

It does seem reasonably certain Watson shot and killed a man named Quinn Bass in Arcadia, Fla. By all accounts, it was ruled self-defense.

Watson found his way to the Everglades in the early 1880s. Timothy England points out, “South Florida was still a primitive frontier when the Old West was being paved and electrified. Frontier law meant you looked after yourself.”

Edgar Watson fit right in. An ambitious man, he began farming in the mosquito-ridden ’glades, and had luck with every crop he planted. He turned out to be particularly successful in raising hogs, and in growing sugar cane. He earned enough to invest in state of the art equipment to process the latter crop into cane syrup, bottling it on-site and taking it by boat to the Keys to sell each year’s bounty.
Others in that part of Florida, the Ten Thousand Islands and the village of Chokoloskee that was the nearest community to his plantation, came to respect him for his success and, some say, to envy him for it. After all, some were already calling him “Emperor Watson” behind his back.

The day came when he got into a drunken argument with a pillar of society in tiny Chokoloskee, a landowner named Adolphus Santini. Angered at some perceived slight, Watson drew a knife and slashed Santini’s throat. To everyone’s surprise, Santini survived. Facing charges of attempted murder, it is a documented fact Watson paid Santini $800 (some say $900) to drop the complaint.

For that time, it was a fortune — “enough to buy the Everglades,” some said — and it seemed to double-stamp Watkins’ guilt for the deed in the eyes of the community. Was it a bribe to keep Santini from testifying, or “street justice” worked out by the authorities of the time? The answer is unclear. We do know he never stood trial for the attempted murder.

Bodies Stack Up

In the sparsely populated Everglades, seasonal farm and plantation help was hard to come by. Visitors noted there seemed to be ample labor present during harvest season at the Watson plantation, but the workers mysteriously disappeared thereafter. Skeletal human remains were discovered on Watson’s property, though there were no scientists in the Ten Thousand Islands to analyze the bones to determine age. The rumor spread Watkins murdered his workers and disposed of their bodies rather than pay them at the end of harvest season, a practice known forever after in the ’glades as “a Watson payday.”

There is reason to believe this may have been exaggerated or wholly falsified. Watson might simply have brought his migrant helpers to the Florida Keys along with his delivery of cane syrup at season’s end, to spend their pay there. Timothy England has documentation Watson told an Atlanta journalist at the time about bones of Indians that were abundant on his property, and history shows Native Americans had indeed inhabited the region long before whites. England notes Watson paid well, taking scarce labor from competing farmers, and this could have engendered jealousy leading to them spreading rumors to scare workers away from their arch-rival.

England also points out Watson reported at least one work-related death on the property, a laborer whose arm was caught in a cane grinding machine and torn off, causing death by hemorrhage before he could be aided. A second employee may have died in the same fashion, according to passed-down recollections. It was dangerous work: a slip of the cane-cutting blade could pierce a femoral artery and bleed out a worker in a very short time. The nearest quality medical care, like the nearest law enforcement, was 90 miles away in Key West, or a day away in Fort Myers. It was common to wait until the crops were brought to market to bring in the bodies of workers accidentally killed on the job.

The Situation Escalates

The term “serial murderer” was not in use at the time, but suspicion built in that direction when a couple who had “squatted” on some of Watson’s property and raised crops there refused to leave.
They had basically told Watson to pound sand when he ordered them to leave, and then they turned up shot to death.

Good help being hard to find in mosquito-clouded swamps, Watson had been known to associate with some of the less savory elements of society and bring them to live on his property. One was a thug and rumored cop-killer named Dutchy Melvin. Another was an outlaw named Leslie Cox.

In autumn of 1910, Dutchy Melvin, another man, and a woman who had come to work for Watson and had become popular in Chokoloskee, were found murdered on Watson’s property. Suspicion, naturally, turned toward him. Loudly and vehemently protesting his innocence, he blamed Cox, and traveled to Fort Myers to ask the sheriff to deputize him to hunt Cox down. Familiar with Watson and the growing suspicions about him, the sheriff denied the request.

It was at this time an unnamed hurricane (the formal practice of naming such storms was decades in the future) struck and devastated the area. It was probably Category Four to judge by survivors’ descriptions and news reports of the time. Tensions were understandably running high when, after the storm had passed and the community was trying to recover from the massive destruction, Watson announced he was going after Cox and would either bring him back to answer for his crimes, or “bring back his head.”

He went to the store run by Ted Smallwood, a linchpin of the community and one of his last friends, to buy shotgun ammo. Legend has it Smallwood’s wife, less trusting of Watson than her husband, sold Watson waterlogged ammo that had been ruined in the storm. Alone aboard the Brave, Watson piloted the boat back toward his plantation. When he was gone, knowing there was no law enforcement they could call on, the townsfolk began to make plans for his return.

The Guns Of Chokoloskee

When he first settled in the Everglades, Watson had made much of his living shooting exotic birds for their plumage, which was much in demand in fashion circles of the day. He and others like him virtually wiped out the rookeries. He had become very skilled with the double-barrel shotgun, and it appears to have been his favorite weapon. He was also known to always carry at least one revolver, sometimes two, with one usually in a shoulder holster. Even on the most humid days when everyone else on the plantation was stripped to the waist, Watson would keep his shirt on to cover his shoulder holster.

Mathiessen describes Watson’s primary carry gun as a Smith & Wesson .38, while England was told by descendants of those who knew him that Watson often carried Iver-Johnsons. In a time and place where men commonly owned multiple weapons, these are not mutually exclusive determinations. The turn of the century Iver-Johnsons looked very much like top-break S&Ws and both were chambered for the .38 S&W cartridge. However, it seems a man like Watson who appreciated the most modern boat and the most modern steam grinding wheel might have been more likely to carry the S&W Hand Ejector model of 1899, chambered in .38 Special. The speculation is irrelevant, since none of Watson’s guns were catalogued as evidence, nor have ever turned up as proven to have been owned by him.

The Museum of the Everglades has on display two firearms believed to have been used in the shooting of Edgar Watson. One is a flat-butt, half-magazine Winchester Model 92 in .32-20; the other is a single-shot, break-open 20-gauge shotgun marked “Riverside Arms/Chicopee, Massachusetts.” Mathiessen appears to believe one of those who killed Watson, Henry Short, used a .38-caliber Winchester 1873 Model, presumably .38-40, while England has heard repeatedly that those who were there remembered that gun as a .25-20, which would make it more likely an 1892 model.

The Shooting

When Watson faced the obviously armed party awaiting him, he had to know what was up. He approached them with his own double-barrel 12-gauge in a cradle carry. When he told them he had killed Cox, couldn’t recover the body, but brought back Cox’s pellet-riddled hat as “proof,” they told him they were going to hold him for the sheriff and to put down his gun. It was then, by all accounts, he swung the double toward them and the shooting started.

Legend has it the first live round fired — assuming Watson did indeed pull the trigger on his own wet, dud rounds first — came from the lever action Winchester of Henry Short. A young black orphan who had been raised by one of the most respected white families in Chokoloskee, Short had fallen in love with a young mixed-race woman who worked for Watson. Watson, who had a history of seducing younger women, had ordered Short off the property and had obvious designs on his young employee.

Short made his living as a market hunter and was the one man in the islands more famous than Watson for his marksmanship. One theory is that Short killed Watson instantly with a single shot, and that in those Jim Crow years, knowing a black man who shot a white man for even the best of reasons would be lynched for it, the townsfolk emptied their guns into Watson’s corpse to “spread the blame” and protect Short. However, the great majority of accounts describe a single, long volley of gunfire with almost every armed person present firing at Watson.

It’s telling the people of Chokoloskee tied Watson’s corpse behind a boat, dragged it to the little island of Rabbit Key, and buried it there. It was as if they feared him so much, they didn’t dare leave his body anywhere near their homes. Only then did they reach out to the distant sheriff and tell what had happened. None were ever charged with a crime.

When the authorities did get to Rabbit Key, and Watson’s corpse was exhumed, 33 separate gunshot wounds were counted in the body.

The Lessons

Some consider Edgar Watson to have been a classic serial killer, at least one even suggesting he suffered from multiple personality disorder. A few see him as a brave man who took care of himself in times and places where there was no law enforcement to take care of people, and believe he was a victim of unproven rumors spread by those who envied his ingenuity and success.

There are some lessons we can take from his story no matter how we see him, because we can learn from the good and the bad alike.

“Keep your powder dry.” It was said by some there Watson pointed his gun at the crowd and pulled both triggers, but both shells in the double-barrel misfired. He’d gotten fresh buckshot shells at Smallwood’s store before going out after Cox, but apparently didn’t realize the ammunition had been soaked by the storm that had devastated the store along with everything else in the region. If one can reasonably perceive oneself a wrongly accused honest man about to by lynched by armed vigilantes and there’s no way out but shooting, ammo that works would be a good thing to have. By some accounts, Watson had dropped the scattergun and was going for the shoulder-holstered revolver when the hail of lead finally took him down.

Perhaps the overriding lesson is fear is the key ingredient in hatred. It appears Watson deliberately cultivated fear in others. Part of it may have been a temper that went out of control when fueled by alcohol, such as the throat-slashing incident that cost him so much money, and so much local “image capital” as a good guy. England says Watson liked his reputation of being an outlaw desperado no one should mess with.

The lesson seems to be, if you encourage people to fear you enough, they will come to hate you. If they come to hate you enough — they’ll find it in their interest to destroy you.
By Massad Ayoob

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