Friday, April 15, 2011
Edgar J. Watson’s Island Graveyard of Horror – Chokoloskee, Florida
The small isolated island of Chokoloskee, Florida is a quant fishing town that is part of the Ten Thousand Islands, which in the late 19th Century was a haven for fugitives, criminals and murders. The area comprising the Ten Thousand Islands is a remote area of swamps, shell mounds and mangroves. It is also the location for where one of the grizzliest acts imaginable took place on an Indian shell mound just 90 miles south of Fort Myers, Florida.
The notorious blue-eyed and red-haired Edgar J. Watson of Scottish descent was born on November, 11, 1855 in Edgefield County, SC. Watson’s father, Lige Watson, was a penitentiary warden and a very violent man. He got into many knife fights, one which incidentally inflicted a knife wound around his own right eye. Subsequently, he became known as ‘Ring Eye.’ E.J Watson’s mother fled her malicious husband with Edgar and his sister Minnie, relocating to Fort White, Florida to live with relatives.
When Watson was a young man, he married his first of three wives and rented a farm but lost it after a tavern fight which resulted in an injury to his kneecap. Watson later left with his first wife for Arkansas when he was suspected of killing Belle Starr, a notorious female outlaw in 1889. Watson’s motive for the killing was his fear that Belle Starr would turn him into the authorities for a murder he committed in Lake City, Florida. In fact, he was even put on trial, however nothing came of it and he was acquitted. In 1891, he returned to Florida and killed a man in Arcadia, allegedly in self-defense.
Watson built a respectable two-story framed vernacular home around 1892 on his 40 acre parcel at Chatham Bend, about seventeen miles south of Chokoloskee, Florida. He had a farm and grew sugarcane, papayas, horse bananas, beans and sold his goods in Fort Myers and Key West. He was a successful farmer and to some, he was even a kind and pleasant man. He would occasionally travel to Marco Island, Fort Myers and even Tampa searching for vagabonds, migrants and wayfarer types that he would bring back to his plantation near the Chatham River in order to give them work. Locals believed his success was due to his ‘cheap’ labor as he never intended on paying them their wages in the first place. One thing is clear: none of these people ever seemed to leave Chatham Bend alive.
While in Key West, Watson had reluctantly got into a heated argument with an early Collier County pioneer named Adolphus Santini who he had met at an auction house. Watson cut the man’s throat. Santini survived, but barely. The incident would cost Watson just $900, a small price for almost taking a man’s life. In Monroe County, Watson purchased a parcel of land on ‘Lost Man’s River.’ However, a squatter by the name of Tucker and his nephew who refused to leave, would later be found dead at their campsite. When fingers began to point at Watson for the murders, he left for Fort White, Florida. There, he was nearly hung after a saloon fight which left two more men dead.
Watson had several fugitives living on his property including a man named Dutchy Melvin who was said to have killed a police man and took a liking to torching buildings. While Watson and Melvin were in Chokoloskee, another man by the name of Lesley Cox, the groundskeeper of Watson’s property, and an unknown person known only as ‘the nigger,’ were said to have murdered Hannah Smith and a man named Walker. When Watson and Melvin returned to Watson’s house near Chatham Bend, Cox and the man known as ‘the nigger’ would also end up murdering Melvin. Hannah Smith’s body was found floating in the Chatham Bend River near Watson’s property. She had been gutted so that her body would sink to the bottom of the river.
A black man who fled the island where Watson lived had arrived in Chokoloskee and began to speak about tales of murder at Chatham Bend. In her book The Everglades - The River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote that, “the story the Negro told was that he worked for Watson a long time and seen him shoot a couple of men. The Negro said he’d buried a lot of people on his place, or knocked them overboard when they asked him for their money. Watson was away, the Negro said. His overseer, named Cox, killed another man and the old woman [Hannah Smith] and forced the Negro to help cut them open and throw them in the river.”
After the rumors began to circulate about Watson’s murders, a group of men embarked for Watson’s sugar cane plantation and found the grizzly remains of human skulls. More than 50 skeletons would later be found near and around his island home. Cox managed to escape and was never seen or heard from again. On October 17, 1910, a hurricane swept through Collier County while Watson fled to Fort Myers for shelter. Watson then contacted Sheriff Frank Tippens to arrest Cox for all of the dead bodies found on his remote property; however, the Lee County Sheriff would not get past Marco Island before turning back due to the bad weather.
Watson then purchased some shot-gun shells from C.S. Smallwood’s general store and headed for Chatham Bend to kill Cox himself. He returned on October 24, 1910 to the general store and was confronted by an armed posse comprised of fisherman, farmers and merchants. Watson claimed to have gunned down and drowned Cox in the swamp, showing his hat as evidence. Apparently, Smallwood had sold Watson wet shot-gun shells that were rendered useless so the crowd didn’t believe him. Old man McKinney asked Watson to drop his gun but Watson refused and attempted to fire at the men. The group fired back, riddling his lifeless body with bullets, then proceeded to drag his bloody corpse behind a boat at Rabbit Key and buried him in a shallow grave near a mud bank. However, before meeting his final resting place, the rope used to drag his body behind the boat was then tied to a mangrove tree and Watson’s body was left there for days until it was finally reburied at the Fort Myers Cemetery.
Watson’s home on the Chatham River would remain unharmed for many years. In fact, a woman who lived there was said to have gone crazy, burning every tree on the property. She had burned them all except an extremely robust Poinciana with snake like roots, which still remains on the property today. The property is now part of Everglades National Park and is only assessable by boat. The house no longer stands (it burned in the 1940’s), but the cement cistern, a sugarcane syrup cauldron and some farm machinery remain.
Posted by Indietop20 at 2:20 PM