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Sara Sota Vigilance Committee, Part 1

This article was originally written by Krystin Miner. Research for this article was conducted by the author. Trial transcription completed by Manatee County Historical Commission Member and MVHP Volunteer Susan Pomerantz. All sources are available upon request.


Notes:

(1) Warning, this article contains details about traumatic events in Manatee County’s history, including homicide, and may be considered graphic and difficult to read.

(2) The breaking up of Sara Sota when referring to the Vigilance Committee’s full name is not a typo. They were referred to as the S.S.V.C. and had the word broken up.


This Part 1 of this article. Part 2 can be found here.


In April of 1884, a group of men from Sarasota got together to discuss members of their community. Together, they formed a group with a unified purpose: to eliminate “obnoxious” people and to ensure justice would find those who the law was lenient toward. This organization, later known as the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee or S.S.V.C., would kill at least two people. The last would be killed during broad daylight in the middle of town and sparked a scandal that would be read about in newspapers across the country.

Sarasota of 1884 was more akin to a John Wayne western movie than the sprawling land of condos and beaches that we are used to seeing today. At this point in Manatee County’s history, it was roughly the size of the state of Connecticut (5,000 square miles) and would eventually be broken into 9 different counties (Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto, Glades, Highlands, Hardee, Charlotte, and part of Lee and Hendry counties). Prior to the Civil War, the area was politically flat and overwhelmingly Democrat. In fact, it was so one-sided that Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln didn’t have enough votes to appear on the ballot in 1860. After the war, however, the dynamic was changing. Republicans, enraged by the devastation caused by the war and the assassination of Lincoln, wanted retribution. This is part of the reason why James Green, a Republican and veteran of the Union army during the Civil War, was able to advocate for the state to move Manatee’s county seat to Pine Level (today a ghost town in DeSoto County), something he’d been advocating for some time. Coupled with this was an expanding population that had quadrupled from 1860-1880 and brought people of various socio-economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and societal expectations to the area. In particular, tensions were exacerbated by an influx of Union veterans, “carpetbaggers”, and “scalawags”. The Homestead Act (1862) promised upwards of 160 acres of free land under certain conditions, including occupying the land for 5 years. U.S. Veterans were able to count their time served in the military during the Civil War toward that requirement. “Carpetbaggers” (Northern Republicans) and “scalawags” (Southern Republicans) were believed to have only come seeking to profit off the South’s defeat. Combined, these dynamics created an environment where many in the area felt powerless and became sensitive to political and regional changes.

By 1884, these factors were ready to boil over. Sarasota, being fairly remote during this period, was roughly 16 miles away from the Sherriff (who lived in Manatee) and about 35 miles away from the county seat of Pine Level (today this is still about a14 hour walk). For the most part, it was a place where many things were handled through “frontier justice” rather than through law and order.

Sometime after 1880, a gentleman named Harrison “Tip” Riley moved to Sarasota and began working on Mary Surginer’s citrus farm. Mary was a widow with six children of various ages and had some prime land at her disposal. The two seemingly became close and, at some point, Mary felt comfortable enough to lend Riley $2,000 (roughly $62,000 - $66,000 in 2023). By 1882, rumors began to circulate about the two of them cohabitating. By the end of that year, Mary’s son-in-law, Stephen Goin, filed adultery charges against Mary and Riley. This was the second adultery charge Mary was named in within three months. The court documents include a letter from Riley’s wife detailing how he stole her colt and mare, selling the colt to buy a buggy, and ran away south. Further, testimony from Mary's children and another boarder claimed the two had “shared a bed”. Whether they were found guilty or not is unclear and Mary died in November 1883 of unknown causes.


At this point, the Vigilantes were not organized, but those who would eventually join were rumbling. The rumor circulating, supposedly started by Leonard Andrews and Joe Anderson, was that Mary had been murdered during a failed abortion. The weapon of choice? Arsenic. To some, the man responsible could only be Harrison Riley. Beyond knowing that Mary died in November of 1883, there is little known about her death or whether any foul play was truly involved. It is, however, an interesting note that Mary’s daughter, also named Mary, and her husband Stephen Goin, did pursue the Riley estate for the borrowed $2,000 after Riley’s death.

By April of 1884, the Vigilantes officially organized. Originally the group came together as a “political club”. However, that would shift as, within two months, they committed their first murder. Through court documents and newspaper articles from the trial, we know that there was a distinct organizational structure and there were 20 - 22 members. As reported in the Savannah Morning News in July 1885, the group consisted of two judges, a captain and three lieutenants but it is important to note that different sources claim different numbers of each category. The judges were responsible for administrative duties for the group similar to many organizations today (call the meeting, administer oaths, read the bylaws, etc.), but they also had the right to delegate work and appointment someone to carry it out. If the person selected to carry out those duties was unsuccessful or refused, they would be subject to the same punishment that was initially handed down. Not all punishments resulted in murder, as was the case of William Lowe who was whipped after an argument with his stepson, Louis Cato. The group also had a pact of secrecy and security. If a member of the group was brought up on charges, the others would endeavor to get on the jury in order to assist them. If he was convicted, they would seek to free him or pay his fine. Their goal, in short, was to punish “obnoxious people” and those who the law did not (or could not) reach. It was rumored that some of the targeted men included Charles Abbe, Harrison Riley, Furman Whitaker (Abbe’s son-in-law), Stephen Goin (Mary Surginer’s son-in-law), Robert Greer, William Lowe, and Richard Cunliffe.

While their organization was sworn to secrecy, it didn’t stop others within the community from becoming suspicious. While out of the state, local postmaster Charles Abbe received several ominous letters. One was an anonymous threat that, if he returned, he would be dealt with, while another was a warning that he was being targeted. Accounts differ but Harrison Riley, Pliny Reasoner and Robert Greer have all been named as possible authors of the “friendly” warning. While it is unclear whether or not this letter was actually from Riley, it is believed that it may have been one of the reasons why Riley became their first victim. Riley's death sentence was alleged to have been determined by Leonard Andrews, who believed that Riley was involved in Mary Surginer's death.


In June 1884, Harrison Riley left his home near Bee Ridge and set out for the post office. Along the way he was ambushed by Thomas Drymon, Ed Bacon, and Louis Cato as he approached an "open pond". The men had instructions to empty their guns into Riley. The group had been threatened sufficiently and were told that any bullets left in their chambers would be used on them when they returned. Drymon, Bacon and Cato ensured their job was completed. After shooting Riley, they slit his throat for good measure and left him for dead. The men then made their way to Phillippi Creek to meet up with Alfred Bidwell and Leonard Andrews.


It took a while for someone to notice Riley’s absence. Eventually, his injured horse meandered back home where it was found by Riley’s son. Two neighbors were asked to assist and, eventually, Riley was found. In total he had 8 shots to the head and 22 to the body. One of the neighbors, Isaac Redd, went to look for an official to act as coroner while the other men waited with the body. Redd found William Bartholomew, a lawyer who had served as legal counsel for Riley in the adultery case and was a relative of Leonard Andrews. Bartholomew finally appeared at around 8 the next morning. He pulled together a small jury which promptly declared that Riley was killed by “parties unknown”.


This lack of attention and the ease in which they “got away with it” emboldened the Vigilantes. They had killed someone in broad daylight, the Sherriff was never called, and no one was arrested. It’s safe to say that the S.S.V.C. membership probably wasn’t overly surprised when, in the coming months, William Bartholomew officially joined their ranks.


Continue reading the story of the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee here.


Images:

Downtown Sarasota, ca. 1885-1886, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections

Crop of Manatee County in C. K. Munroe's Florida, ca. 1884, courtesy of Florida Memory

Idell Riley Letter, courtesy of Historical Records Library, Manatee County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, Historical Resources Department

"A Murderous Florida Band," Evening Star (Washington D.C.), January 23, 1885, courtesy of Chronicling America

Charles Abbe, ca. 1880-1884, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections


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