News Section: Community
Sunday Favorites: The Sarasota Assassination Society, Part 2
A band of thugs known as the Sarasota Vigilance Committee began harassing some of the city’s most prominent families.
Photo: Florida Photograpic Collection
SARASOTA –At its peak, the Sarasota Vigilance Committee grew to about 20 members. Alfred Bidwell, a storeowner and competitor of Charles Abbe had started the group with his friends and neighbors Jason Alford and Dr. Leonard Andrews.
The men lived with their families and a few others on the South side of Sarasota Bay. Many of the patriarchs were Georgia or Florida born, and tailored to the “cracker lifestyle” according to Janet Snyder Matthews in her book The Edge of Wilderness.
Joseph Anderson, Charlie Willard and Chandler Yonge were among the other neighbors who would eventually become involved with the gang. According to the History of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Bidwell and Andrews were self appointed “judges”, Alford held the title of “captain” and Willard and a man named Louis Cato were “lieutenants”.
In a letter to his parents Pliny Reasoner, a pioneer nurseryman, described them as “a group of five or six men, a clique of them, who are negro-killers, rascals and yes devils, (I mean it).”
Years later, a widow of one of the members publicly stated that the purpose of the vigilantes was to prevent the community from being “gobbled up by spectators,” it seemed that informants were notifying land companies about “squatters” in the area. The companies would then force them to leave. Since the “squatters” were local and the majority of the companies were located in the north, animosity grew. Especially when Harrison “Tip” Riley and Abbe were named as the squealers, according to the sheriff's history.
There was an underlying hatred for Abbe. Aside from being the postmaster, Abbe was an entrepreneur who was well respected across the U.S. Tampa’s Sun Tribune recognized him as having “probably done more than any other one individual in inducing immigration into his county and south Florida.” Matthews stated that Abbe had accomplished this by traveling north once a year and exhibiting his produce in state and local fairs from “New York to Kansas.” In 1882, he was appointed U.S. Commissioner for the circuit and district courts.
Reasoner said the men were picking quarrels with Abbe with “no real cause for their hating him other than he is a Damn Yankee and has always said just what he thought.”
Abbe’s wife Charlotte thought her husband’s standing of the group was made worse when he was elected to office. “As U.S. Commissioner, he was not blind to some of the violations of the law on their account,” she wrote.
When Abbe was away, the group began harassing Charlotte. On one occasion, she awoke to gunfire outside her bedroom window. She said the gun was fired so close, she could smell gunpowder. She hid until she saw a figure of a man leave. Another time, she found a knife stuck into her kitchen table when she awoke the next morning.
For a time, the gang turned its focus to Riley. It was discovered that Riley was having an affair with Mary Surginer, a widow and mother of six children ages five to 23. According to Matthews the two were indicted for “an offense it takes two to commit.” The case dragged on for months until Surginer died. Before the case could be dismissed, members of the vigilance committee testified that Surginer had an abortion and became ill, they said all signs pointed to arsenic poisoning and accused Riley of killing her. Before Riley could be tried, he was shot and knifed to death by the vigilantes, according to the sheriff’s history.
When the decision was made to kill Riley, those assigned to carry out the assination were told if they failed complete the act, they too would suffer the same fate.
“When a man can shoot another and cut his throat, in cold blood, and know that the law nor the people will neither of them care or do anything about it, you can imagine they get lawless, and not afraid of anything nor anybody,” Reasoner’s letter read.
Because they got away with Riley’s murder, the group was brazened. The harassment of the Abbe family became more severe. The vigilantes burned one of their homes and destroyed many of their crops. Several threats were made against Abbe’s life. Then another vigilante target, Robert Greer, was almost killed with a razor blade in Bidwell’s store, but was able to escape unscathed.
Then in 1884, two days after Christmas, Abbe was painting the hull of his boat on the beach when Charles Willard approached him. Abbe and Willard were engaged in friendly conversation when the dialogue turned to politics. Willard seemed upset, left, and came back two hours later with a shotgun. He shot Abbe in the head. Charles Morehouse, who was assisting Abbe, was an eyewitness to the murder. At gunpoint he was instructed to flee, which he did in earnest.
Charlotte heard the gunshots a half-mile away. There was no mistaking the gun that went off. It was Joe Anderson’s, she could tell because his shotgun misfired, causing a rapid double fire, according to Matthews. As soon as she heard it, she panicked and ran down Osprey road in search of her husband.
Ed Bacon, Anderson and others dragged Abbe’s body down the beach. Together they loaded him in Ed Bacon’s boat, and set sail.
Charlotte ran back to the house just in time to see Morehouse running up the street. He came up to receive her.
“Did they kill my husband?” she asked.
“Don’t go,” he said. “They will kill you too.”
She pulled away from his grasp and ran to the beach. But when she reached the shoreline, there was only a puddle of blood and a bloody trail through the sand.
“I saw the spot where they shot him,” she would later testify. “I saw the blood on the ground and his hat laying there with holes through it. I saw the paint cans as they had been dropped from his arms.”
To be continued next Sunday . . .
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