In 1884, Sarasota was a small, somewhat lawless area that was part of a much larger Manatee County (Sarasota broke off in 1921). As the landscape of Florida shifted post-Civil War (1865 onward) an influx of people from the North with differing political and ideological beliefs created tensions with the primarily Democratic Floridians. In April 1884, a group of about twenty men known as the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee was formed to eliminate the political enemies of its members (or “obnoxious people” as they called them).
The first death was of Harrison “Tip” Riley that June. Riley was shot from his horse and left for dead. The coroner called to the scene was a Vigilante and Riley’s murder was unsurprisingly brushed aside with no official investigation ensuing. However, when a Republican postmaster, Charles Abbe, was shot in the middle of town during the day in December, everything changed. This second murder made national news and everything unraveled for the Vigilantes.
Sherriff A. S. “Sandy” Watson (husband of Rebecca Watson) was called in and, with a posse of around 26 men including John Riggin, they rode to Sarasota to investigate. This led to a manhunt for the murderer and conspiracy for murder charges for several others. Some in the community, like Frank C. Jones (husband of Rosa Jones), were members of the group but either turned over evidence for the State’s prosecution or produced an alibi and were not put on trial.
In all, three men were given the death penalty for the murders and several others were sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. By 1892, all those sentenced (including those given the death penalty) were either pardoned or had escaped from prison.