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Sara Sota Vigilance Committee, Part 2

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 is part 2 of this article. Part 1 can be found here.


Now that Harrison “Tip” Riley was killed, the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee turned their attention towards Charles Abbe. Abbe was born in Massachusetts but spent much of his life in Illinois. He and his family came to Manatee in 1877 after purchasing several hundred acres along Sarasota Bay. While he was primarily a farmer, like many others in the area, he was also a United States Land Commissioner. Roughly a year after arriving, Abbe sought to open up the first post office between Manatee and Punta Rassa (in modern-day Lee County). He succeeded, and by doing so, officially gave Sarasota its name.


Even before the Vigilantes had formed, Abbe didn’t have the easiest time with his new community. While many accepted the new family, he fell victim to intimidation efforts presumably undertaken by those who would eventually become Vigilantes. Throughout the mid -870s and into the early 1880s they burned one of his homes, damaged his crops, fired a gun outside of his window (close enough that his wife, Charlotte, smelled gun powder), and left a knife embedded in one of their benches. While some in the community seemed to resent his outspoken nature, enforcement of liquor laws, Republican beliefs, and enterprising way, it’s worth noting that Abbe did successfully win the position of Post Master over Jason Alford (who would eventually become a Vigilante). From this, it’s an easy assumption that perhaps only a small portion of the community had ill feelings towards Abbe.

By March 1884, Abbe may have been set up or fell prey to what the Chicago Tribune deemed as “subterfuge” when he was brought up on charges for operating a business without a license. Later that same year, he was again brought up on additional charges - this time for operating a hotel without a license while two friends boarded with him. It was between these two incidents that the Vigilantes marked him as the next to die.


Towards the end of 1884, the community issues were escalating dramatically. Emboldened by the lack of repercussions for Harrison Riley’s murder the previous June, the Vigilance Committee began targeting Abbe more fervently. By mid-December, Dr. Hunter (himself a Vigilante) noted that the group was harassing Abbe when Abbe pulled a gun on them and stated that he would “shoot any wild cat”. On Christmas, the group was solidifying plans. While attending a party at Alfred Bidwell’s home (which still stands and is owned by the Sarasota County Historical Society), the men plotted Abbe’s murder. Two days later, they would carry it out.


Early on December 27, many members of the Vigilantes started drinking heavily. By mid-morning, some members of the group were so inebriated that they began passing out. About this time, Abbe and a friend from Chicago, Charles Morehouse, were repairing Abbe’s boat down along the water. Shortly before noon, Charles Willard approached the men and started a heated political discussion with them in an attempt to rile up Abbe. When he was unsuccessful, he left. By noon, Abbe and Morehouse decided to return to the Abbe home for lunch. Not long afterwards, Eva Alford (Jason Alford’s daughter) saw Joe Anderson attempting to hide a gun while he and Charles Willard walked up to Bidwell’s Store near the waterfront. With lunch concluded, Abbe returned to the waterfront without Morehouse but accounts differ as to why. Some claimed that he returned to collect kelp, others state he did so to pack lemons or to finish the repairs on his boat. Regardless, Morehouse left for the waterfront around 1:40 in the afternoon. As he came back to town, Morehouse encountered Alfred Bidwell and they exchanged pleasantries. In his witness testimony, Morehouse noted that Bidwell’s store was closed, which seemed odd as Bidwell was known to put money first and it was the middle of the day.

By the time Morehouse returned to Abbe’s side, Abbe claimed he was done for the day and intended to return home to plant orange seeds. As they walked back to the Abbe home, Charles Willard stepped out from the back of Bidwell’s store, raised a gun and shot Abbe without warning. The weapon, Joe Anderson’s double-barreled shotgun, discharged its barrels almost simultaneously - a quirk of that specific weapon that was well known throughout the community. Willard turned to Morehouse and told him to leave. Morehouse, evidently in shock, asked if he can grab his things. Willard began screaming at him, calling him names and demanded that he “run for [his] life!” Morehouse did just that. After he reached a safe distance, Morehouse turned to see Willard take hold of one of Abbe’s feet and drag him across the sand towards the waterfront where Ed Bacon and Joe Anderson helped him load the body onto a boat. The party proceeded into the Gulf of Mexico where they dumped his body.


While running back to the Abbe home, Charles Morehouse saw Virginia Hunter (wife of Dr. Hunter) and shouted to her what has happened. She heard the gunshots but, instead of helping, pulled her children into the house and shut the door. Reaching the Abbe home, Morehouse quickly relayed what has occurred to Charlotte Abbe and warned her to stay away as they would kill her as well. Charlotte, not heeding his warning, takes off for the waterfront. Once there, she began to pound on the door of Bidwell’s Store demanding to know what he’s done to her husband. She carried on until Richard Cunliffe saw her and was able to calm her down enough to take her home. Charlotte promptly left the home to take shelter at the home of Nellie Whitaker, her daughter. At this point, the family was utterly convinced that the entire family were targets.

Emile Whitaker, Nellie’s brother-in-law, heard what happened and immediately set off for Manatee. He made it to General John Riggin’s home as the sun was setting and, through Riggin’s help, a small posse of six men were put together (including the Sherriff, A. S. “Sandy” Watson and Riggin himself). The group set off towards Manatee. Their first stop was to the Whitaker home where they spoke to Charlotte Abbe and Charles Morehouse. Afterwards, they left for the crime scene. Arriving after dark, their initial investigation was fruitless. Despite this, they were still able to identify brain matter, hair, buckshot, and Abbe’s hat, but nothing more.


Despite having ample time to clear the crime scene of evidence, the emboldened Vigilantes did not attempt to clear anything away after the murder or during the night. With the rising sun, Watson was presented with a very clear scene. He located the same materials as the night before but was also able to locate blood, Abbe’s knife and hat, as well as three sets of footprints that led away from where Abbe fell and towards the water. One of those footprints (the set leading to the water and back - implying the person went from a boat to the body and back) was distinct with very narrow feet with protruding bones. These footprints were easily linked to Ed Bacon. The other were about a size 8 and a size 6 shoe. One set of these tracks were suspected to belong to Joe Anderson and the other was later determined to be Charles Willard's.

Two days after the murder, witness statements were being taken on anything and everything available, including receipts and unmailed letters. At this point, warrants were issued for some of those who helped before, during, and after the murder. These initial warrants included Joseph Anderson and his son (also named Joseph), Dr. Adam Hunter, Virginia Hunter, and their son, Emmett Hunter.


Even as statements were being taken, the community began to turn on itself. Virginia Hunter threatened Richard Cunliffe, blaming him for everything and warned him that he’d get his comeuppance. Joseph Anderson also threatened Cunliffe that they would “clean him out”. Another member of the community, most likely Frank Jones but only referred to as "Jones" in the testimony, was also warned by Anderson to keep his mouth shut. Anderson evidently feared what Jones had heard the morning of the murder when he was with the Vigilantes.


Meanwhile, Charles Willard was making slow work of his escape. From testimony, he made his was to Leonard Andrew’s house by dusk the night of the murder. Andrew’s son, Bart, testified that Willard was on the hunt for medicine but lingered into the next morning. At this point, they moved Willard to William Bartholomew’s home. Bartholomew was now in a predicament. As a lawyer, he was obligated to detain Charles Willard but his allegiances were conflicted. He asked Willard why he killed Abbe to which he responded that he “couldn’t help it,” then asked where Morehouse was as he needed to be “gotten out of the way”. Shortly thereafter, Bart Andrews and Charles Willard returned to the Andrews home but, finding too many people there, Willard left.


The posse who accompanied the Sherriff had now grown significantly and had a good idea where Willard was currently hiding: at Captain Charles Yonge’s home near Phillippi Creek. As the posse approached in the dead of night, a dog began to bark and alerted Willard that something was off. Without warning, Willard ran out of the door and into the woods before anyone was able to stop him.


The posse searched for Charles Willard for eight days, stretching south to Charlotte Harbor and east to Myakka. It seemed like he was consistently one step ahead of them. At one point, roughly six days into the search, the group found him and surrounded him while he was sleeping. Something alerted Willard to their presence and he took off into the swamp, leaving behind his coat, hat, shoes, and stocking. By day eight, he had turned himself in. Although Florida winters are mild compared to other places, there is no denying that being without proper clothing in the swamp during January is not going to be easy or comfortable for anyone. By the time he surrendered, he had had nothing to eat for four days, his feet were worn down and had exposed bone, and several toes were stubbed off. In short, he few choices left.

Throughout January, arrest warrants were issued for Alfred Bidwell (who was reported to have tried to commit suicide with morphine around this time), Joseph C Anderson, Dr. Adam Hunter, Jason Alford (on the run and would not be caught for several months), and Leonard Andrews. Despite having an eye witness, the evidence was surprisingly flimsy. Many in the community were scared to speak up and unrest was close to boiling over. Sherriff Watson began to fear that the arrested would be stolen from jail and lynched if a trial wasn’t called soon. It’s not clear what was said, but a conversation between John Riggin and Dr. Adam Hunter lead to Hunter agreeing to give evidence despite the fact that he would implicate himself with that evidence.


Up until this point, the murder of Harrison RIley was still an independent incident in the eyes of the community. Shortly after Justice of the Peace, Major Alden Adams, made the decision to call more witnesses, Henry H. Hawkins stepped forward. Risking his life, Hawkins claimed that the Riley and Abbe murders were connected and that he had firsthand knowledge of Riley’s murder because he was the one to bury him. Once Hawkins stepped forward, others in the community followed including Vigilance Committee members Frank Jones and William Bartholomew.

The Abbe Murder Trial took place June 1 - 11, 1885. Shortly before the trial a pamphlet began circulating called “The Other Side”. This material painted both Riley and Abbe as meddlesome and troublesome men and went so far as to say that Abbe had even spied on his neighbors. The weather provided another element to complicate things. High water levels from rainy season delayed the start of the trial for several days as many of the jurors were unable to get to Pine Level on time. By June 11, the verdict was in: Charles Willard and Joseph Anderson were found Guilty of First Degree Murder. Originally, the sentence was death but the judge commuted that to Life in Prison instead.


The Riley Murder Trial, which took place a month later in July, experienced its own weather-related issues. Judge Mitchell, who was originally slated to preside over the case, took ill from the heat and was replaced by Judge E. K. Foster. At the end, Ed Bacon was found Guilty of First Degree Murder and sentenced to hang. Leonard Andrews and Alfred Bidwell were found Guilty of Accessory Before the Fact of First Degree Murder and were also sentenced to death. Interestingly, this is the first time in Manatee County’s history when the jury did not ask for the court’s mercy on behalf of the sentenced and the death penalty held.


Despite their pre-planning when creating their group’s purpose, the Vigilantes appear to have failed to swing these cases by flooding the jury. It is unknown if that was because nearly half of the membership was on trial or if it was because so many others were named during testimony. Between the two cases, nine men were indicted for the murders. Eight were tried. Three were sentenced to death. Four were sentenced to life in prison. One man was acquitted. But, their story did not end there. One year later, motions for appeal on behalf of Bacon, Bidwell, and Andrews were denied. Eventually Andrews and Bacon stole a double-barreled shotgun from their guards and were able to escape. They were never seen again. Bidwell decided not to escape and, eventually, had his sentence commuted to life in prison at Live Oak (a hard labor camp).


Less than 8 years after the murders, all the convicts had either been released from prison or had escaped. Some returned to Manatee or Sarasota while others decided to spend their lives elsewhere. There are rumors that some of their activities continued into the 1890s but no definitive connection has been made.

Images:

Sarasota Main Street, ca. 1890, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections

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

Telegraph from Nellie Abbe Whitaker to J. N. Adams, December 29, 1884, courtesy of Historical Records Library, Manatee County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, Historical Resources Department

Sheriff Alexander S. Watson, ca. 1885-1886, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections

Trial Document, Drawing of Crime Scene, courtesy of Historical Records Library, Manatee County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, Historical Resources Department

Sketch of Pine Level Jail, courtesy of Historical Records Library, Manatee County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, Historical Resources Department

Sketch of Pine Level Courthouse, courtesy of Historical Records Library, Manatee County Clerk of Court & Comptroller, Historical Resources Department


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