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Sunday Favorites: The Sarasota Assassination Society, Part 1

Published Sunday, August 19, 2012 12:05 am
A band of thugs known as the Sarasota Vigilance Committee began harassing some of the city’s most prominent families.

SARASOTA –Today Sarasota is known for its posh yachting atmosphere, distinguished downtown attractions and art infused waterfront, but it didn’t always have a good reputation. In the late 1880s, a Florida newcomer by the name of Alex Browning described Sarasota “as bad as a village of its size could be.”

 

In 1885, shootings, rustlings and knifings occurred on a regular basis. There were several murders that were never investigated, that is, until a band of thugs formed and began harassing some of the city’s most prominent families.

 

It started as “a bunch of cowboys getting lit on sugar cane and riding up and down the street,” according to the 150th Anniversary addition of the Manatee County Sheriff’s history. They shot their pistols in the air from their horses while at full gallop. They yelled obscenities in the middle of the night. Folks were scared to come out of their houses. At least five murders had taken place in 1883, the text notes, including a Bee Ridge man who had his throat slit before he was shot– no one bothered investigating.

 

 But that was only the beginning. Sarasota was still part of Manatee County, which at that time stretched all the way to Charlotte Harbor. The village was sparsely populated then, and the law couldn’t touch those hardy pioneers that had settled there. Only one sheriff patrolled the entire county and his headquarters were in the Village of Manatee (present day east Bradenton), which was located over 16 miles away. The jail and courthouse were at Pine Level, over 40 miles inland and only one circuit court judge served the entire state.

 

This 1860 map of Manatee County shows a broad expanse accross the state.

“It used to be more dangerous to kill a razorback that had destroyed one’s crops than it was to kill a person,” Browning wrote.

 

Sheriff Sandy Watson was a family man. He and his wife had five children before she died, and Watson never remarried. When he took the position of Sheriff, he walked into an era of political strife and animosity stemming from the Civil War. When democratic President Grover Cleveland took office, the Reconstruction Period following the War Between the States had theoretically ended. However, as Janet Snyder Matthews articulates in her book the Edge of Wilderness, Sarasota was still divided.

 

 Although Snyder states that most of the original pioneers had left the area, the lifestyles of poverty-stricken “Crackers” living in Sarasota contrasted greatly with newly arriving families whose members were educated farmers and capitalists from the north. Many of them had served as officers in the Union Army.

 

 A secret society was created by a group of former Confederate soldiers called the Sarasota Vigilance Committee. Those who joined, or were forced to join, swore an oath not to reveal anything about the society. The act was punishable by torture and death, according to the Manatee County Sherriff history.

 

The postmaster, Charles Abbe, and his family became targets for the vigilantes.

The sole purpose of this committee was to murder five of the area’s most prominent men: Robert Greer, Furman Whittaker, Harrison “Tip” Riley, Charles Abbe and Stephen Goings. However, the society was not discovered until the postmaster, Charles Elliott Abbe, was murdered in broad daylight. His body was never recovered. 

 

Abbe, a native of Illinois, brought his wife and two teenage daughters to Manatee in November of 1877. Abbe had been a salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and had visited Florida in the winter months. In 1876, he had purchased a total 359 acres, 120 of which were located in the heart of present-day Sarasota, for $1 per acre. However, Abbe didn’t stop there; in the next three years he would buy up 300 more acres, most of which was waterfront.

 

In the following years Abbe became an industrious farmer, the family homestead was known as Helena. Only eight months after his arrival, he applied for a public post office to be in his house; the first one on Sarasota Bay. Abbe was postmaster.

 

The greater majority of the community accepted the family, even more so after Abbe’s daughter Nellie married Furman Whittaker, the first native-born resident of Manatee County to become a doctor and practice in the area. (Whittaker was born at Fort Branch during the Third Seminole War – Seminoles burned the home of his parents. His family founded Sarasota.) 

 

However, not everyone held the Abbe family in high regard. They soon found themselves the target of the Vigilantes who harassed the entire family for months before they killed Abbe in cold blood.

 

To be continued next Sunday . . .

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