News Section: Community
Sunday Favorites: The Sarasota Assassination Society, Part 3
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 – Within six hours of the homicide, Sheriff Sandy Watson had been alerted. He saddled his horse and rode at full gallop from the Village of Manatee to Sarasota Bay. By the time they reached the scene of the crime it was dark, but a bright December moon lit up the site. The bloody path was more than a foot across, a straw hat with bullet holes lay four feet away, and a coagulation of brains and buckshot determined the fate of the postmaster.
After studying the crime scene the next morning, Watson decided Abbe’s throat had probably been slit because of the amount of blood in the sand. He quarantined some peculiar footprints as evidence. The footprints were identified as Ed Bacon’s; they were easily recognizable because of Bacon’s “queer feet,” which were slender and had a very prominent big toe, according to Janet Snyder Matthews in her book, The Edge of the Wilderness.
Several witnesses came forward and testified against members of the society. It was determined that Charlie Willard had killed Charles Abbe, then loaded him in Bacon’s boat where they went out about three miles offshore and dumped the body. There had been at least two other accomplices. While interviewing locals for statements, Watson noted that several of them had “blood-like” stains on their clothing.
The citizens of Manatee County were outraged. A warrant was issued for Willard, and six others who acted as accessories “before or after the fact.” An “indignation meeting” was called in the Village of Manatee where 26 citizens appeared before the Justice of the Peace, Alden J. Adams, and were deputized by Watson. Armed with shotguns, they rode out to Sarasota Bay to “ferret out the murderers,” according to Snyder.
The posse returned to Manatee with Joe Anderson, Dr. Adam Hunter and storeowner Alfred Bidwell. A preliminary trial was set for the next day, New Year’s Eve, but residents were riled up. Mobs began gathering outside jail. Watson began to worry that he could not stop them from lynching the suspects. An armed guard, three during the day and six at night, protected the suspects. However, every time Watson took one of them out of their cell for a statement or judicial proceeding, the crowd became restless. Watson was finally forced to take the suspects to the end of the pier on the riverfront, where the mob couldn’t reach them.
Charlie Willard was on the run. He had gone to William Bartholomew’s, a lawyer that had represented Tip Riley in court. Willard had his dog with him. He was scared the dog would give him away, but told Bartholomew that he didn’t have the heart to kill it. Bartholomew told Willard it was his duty to arrest him, but Willard said he would never be taken alive. He left with his dog and Bartholomew later testified that he’d made no move to stop him.
On December 29, 1884, members of the citizen’s posse quietly surrounded the home of Chandler Yonge, a good friend of Willard’s. But before they could completely encircle the house, a single bark gave away their cover and Willard was able to escape through the back door – his dog had saved him. Under the cover of darkness, Willard was gone before anyone could cut off his retreat.
The search for Willard lasted eight days and covered hundreds of miles spanning south to Charlotte Harbor and west to Myakka. The weather was cold and rainy. The posse went for an entire 24 hours without seeing a single house. They slept in barns and cabbage cribs, having very little to feed their horses or themselves. On one occasion, they ate raw sweet potatoes, afraid that a fire would give them away.
One morning, the men came upon Willard in a thick patch of scrub and “scared him out of his bed.” Willard ran, leaving his shoes, coat, hat and stockings behind. Donning only underwear, Willard was able to lose the posse in a swamp. They tracked him through the mud all day, only seeing him once. They gave up and went home.
The night the posse returned to Manatee, Willard was caught. He had come across a man named Sheppard at his trapping camp in the woods. Exhausted, he’d asked for some food. Sheppard said he’d only feed him if Willard gave himself up. The vigilante had eaten nothing for four days, and his bare feet were worn to the bone.
The entire group of suspects was transported from Manatee to the jail at Pine Level, which was the county seat at the time. On the way there, Bidwell tried to kill himself by ingesting a large amount of morphine.
Sheriff of Manatee County for 14 years, from 1882 through 1896, he was sheriff at the time the Sarasota Democratic Vigilantes murdered postmaster Charles Abbe.
In the weeks preceding the vigilante trial, the truth about the sinister organization would come to the forefront. Henry Hawkins, a farmer who lived at Tatum Ridge (present-day vicinity of Fruitville Road by Richardson Road) had buried Harrison “Tip” Riley, the man murdered by the Sarasota Vigilantes for allegedly committing adultery with the widow Mary Surginer.
Hawkins said the group had been actively recruiting members from all over the county, especially in the less connected rural areas.
They would ask, “Wouldn’t you like to be a member of a democratic club? Two thirds of the county and state belong to it already.”
If the party was interested, he was asked to come to Bidwell’s warehouse and join.
“Are you 21?”
“Are you a citizen of the State of Florida and a good law-abiding citizen?”
“Do you see any harm in this?”
According to Snyder, three yeses meant you were in.
“Those who did join soon found themselves bound into a situation they dared not escape – gagged by secrecy, intimidation and fear,” Snyder wrote.
After a few meetings, Judges Bidwell and Andrews assigned young members the task of executing a specific target. If they refused, they were told they would be executed instead. In addition, they were required to empty all the rounds of their weapon into the victim. Anything left in the barrel would be emptied into their own body. This had been the case when it came to Tip Riley.
The club had recruited three local men in their early 20s, Tom Dryman, and brothers Coop and Miles Brown. They were ordered to a thicket near a creek (in the vicinity of present day Bee Ridge Road). Miles called in sick and didn’t go; he instead got on a horse and rode as far as he could in the opposite direction.
Under the instruction of Louis Cato, a vigilante lieutenant, Dryman and Coop were instructed to shoot Riley as he passed the thicket. Three guns fired, but Riley wasn’t dead. Coop was reportedly so scared he shot in the wrong direction. Then Cato went up to Riley who was on his knees holding himself up with a palmetto bush and slit his throat. Riley had eight buck shot in his head and 22 in his body.
Newspapers across the county picked up the story about the menacing club. An article in the New York Times ran under the headline “An Assassination Society: The Bloody Work of a Band of Southern Murderers.”
In March of 1885, a jury found Willard and Joseph Anderson guilty in the first degree of Abbe’s murder; they were both sentenced to life in prison at the state penitentiary doing hard labor. Edmond Bacon was found guilty of the murder of Harrison Tip Riley in the first degree, and Leonard Andrews and Alfred Bidwell guilty of accessory in the first degree. Bidwell, Andrews and Bacon were sentenced to death by hanging, according to Snyder.
In all, nine vigilantes were indicted for the two murders, Eight men were tried, three sentenced to death, four to life, and one acquitted.
A year after the trial, Bacon and Andrews escaped from Pine Level jail. Bidwell’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment and he joined Anderson and Willard as lease-labor convicts.
Tom Dryman was convicted, but later pardoned as a result of some 500 pleas from citizens of Manatee County. The last of the vigilantes was released in 1892, eight years after the two murders.
This strange era in Sarasota’s history was born in a time of rural living, residual resentment from the Civil War and economic inequality. Luckily, the society wasn’t able to accomplish all of its malicious ambitions. Characters like Sandy Watson should be commended for their enforcement of due process of the law, for if they had allowed the lynch mob to prevail, this situation could have presented itself again.
Click here to add a comment to this page