Catching a Murderer in 1885 – from the Correspondence of Pliny Reasoner

By Rachel Laue –

The pioneer settlements of nineteenth-century Florida were rife with hardships and potential dangers. Settlers contended with adverse weather, fires, wildlife, and accidents often far from the help of modern conveniences, medical care, or other people. In the settlement along the Manatee River, there was another, more unexpected danger – other settlers. In the early 1880s, the area was terrorized by a group of vigilantes commonly known as the Sarasota Assassination Society (SAS). Over the course of just a few years, the group murdered an unknown number of African-American men as well as seven white settlers.

Pliny Reasoner
Drawing of Pliny W. Reasoner, artist and date unknown.

Their killing streak came to an end in 1884, when a revenge plot to murder five local land owners led to the murder of successful store owner and land developer, Charles E. Abbe. A popular figure in the Manatee River community, Abbe’s death brought local tensions to the boiling point. Letters from Pliny Reasoner, the founder of Royal Palm Nurseries, describe the circumstances of Abbe’s murder, and the subsequent manhunt for and capture of the killer.  These letters, summarized here, are available in the Florida History Pioneer Days digital collection.

Just two days after Christmas 1884 two men ambushed Charles Abbe and his friend Charles Morehouse as they left the beach where they had been painting Abbe’s boat. SAS member Charley Willard shot Abbe point blank in the face but allowed Morehouse to escape. Morehouse fled to Bradenton to warn Abbe’s wife and neighbors that they might be Willard’s next targets.

One of the young boys in the family was sent on horseback for the sheriff in Manatee and to spread the word of the attack along the way. In a letter to his parents, Reasoner wrote that “we had all of us been expecting to hear that Mr. Abbe was shot anytime, as he had carried his life in his hands for a year. Still, it was rather sudden.”

A personal quarrel between Abbe and rival general store owner Alfred Bidwell, the leader of the SAS, had been escalating for some time. Abbe was a newcomer – a wealthy Chicago Yankee who grew still wealthier as he bought and cultivated orange and banana groves. Most of the members of the SAS were born and bred Floridians and had little tolerance for what they believed to be Northern interlopers, a fact that Bidwell, though himself a former resident of Buffalo, New York, knew well and exploited. According to Reasoner, “there is no real cause for their hating him, only they are devils and think he is a D— Yankee, and always has said just what he thought.”

Charles Abbe
Charles Abbe, from the New York Times, 1885

Over the course of the year, Bidwell and his companions had burned Abbe’s property, framed him for dog-poisoning, cut down his groves, and fired bullets at his home.

After shooting Abbe on Bidwell’s orders, Willard and his associate, Joseph Anderson, dragged the body to the river, loaded it into a boat, and sailed for the Gulf of Mexico where they disposed of it. Nevertheless, the grisly nature of the crime was apparent even without a body. Reasoner was at the murder site at the same time as the sheriff and describes finding Abbe’s hat “shot through” and the scene covered in blood and gore. He told his parents of a “big spot two-feet across, where the sand was soaked with his blood—saw where they dragged him by the hands down to the boat, leaving a trail of blood, as you would see when you butcher a hog.”

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Reasoner’s letter is his detailed recounting of the manhunt for the murderer in the first week of January, 1885. Anderson and Bidwell, along with several other of the gang’s approximately 20 members were apprehended soon after they had disposed of Abbe’s body. Willard evaded capture for over a week. A posse of 26 men, including Reasoner, scoured the countryside from Sarasota to Ft. Ogden, Charlotte Harbor, and all through the Myakka Lakes in search of him. Reasoner wrote, “have been tracking our man, surrounding and searching houses, and living on about one meal a day and no sleep. Horses faring just as badly. Sleeping on the ground or on the floor of some barn when we did sleep. No blankets or fire.”

Armed with shot-guns and pistols, the men surrounded and cleared every homestead they encountered, and carefully questioned any known associates for signs of Willard. Their search was frequently complicated by the difficult terrains of the Florida wilderness. At one point Willard gained a lead on the group when high tides blocked the horses from safely fording a creek, forcing the men to lose hours going around to the nearest bridge.

Sarasota Gang
“Rough-Looking Characters” from Canoemates by Kirk Monroe (1905)

After a week of exhaustive searching, the posse caught up with Willard near Shell Creek but after a day and half’s chase through a salt marsh they lost him again. Despite the hardships of the search, Reasoner noted that it was also exhilarating.  “I tell you it is an exciting kind of a New Year’s call – to walk up to a house with your gun cocked and all ready, not knowing but what your man would run out at any time, and blaze away at one of us with a Winchester – or wondering whether he would stop when halted, and whether a fellow would have to shoot or not. I think if he had ran out 9 out of 10 of us would have banged away and yelled halt at the same time.”

The posse finally closed in on Willard at the farm of a man named Smallwood, where they flushed him out of a makeshift bed in the scrub. Willard ran into the marsh, leaving behind his coat, shoes, and stockings. He evaded capture for two more days barefoot and soaked in the swamp, until he at last collapsed from exhaustion and was captured and taken back to face justice. “He had had nothing to eat for four days, and his feet were worn down to the bone and the ends of the toes stubbed off.

Catching a Murderer
Camp in the Myakka Swamp, frontispiece from Wildlife in Florida by F. Trench Townsend (1875)

Meanwhile in Manatee, the rest of the conspirators faced a significant threat of their own. Outside the jail, a crowd gathered demanding the prisoners be turned over to them to be lynched, believing that the gang would not receive due justice in court and would be set free to cause more harm. The threat was serious enough that the prisoners were moved to an old warehouse out in the middle of the Manatee River and kept under strong guard until their arraignment at the county court in Pine Level. On the way, Bidwell attempted to poison himself, taking an overdose of morphine obtained from an unknown source, but survived. Public tensions ran so high that when the posse returned there were some calls to arrest the searchers themselves for failing to lynch Willard on the spot. However, Reasoner assured his parents, “we showed them our warrant and our deputy sheriff and told them to kiss —-.”

County Court
Postcard of Manatee County Courthouse

Nevertheless, Reasoner and the rest of the posse were as determined to see justice done as the lynching mob. For Reasoner, justice had one very clear outcome. Addressing his mother’s concerns about the public response to the affair and the safety of her eldest son in such a powder keg environment, Reasoner wrote, “You mustn’t worry a single bit, as there is no need of it. All the scamps are in the Pine Level Jail & if they break out they won’t go far….I shall not do anything imprudent, nor anything that I shall be sorry for afterwards, nor anything that will make you feel bad. But, if after a fair trial, the law fails to do its duty and hang these men, the people are determined to do it themselves. Not just a few men, but everybody, and I shall be willing to help.”

A short time later, at trial, Willard and Anderson were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Bidwell was also found guilty as an accessory before the fact and given the death sentence, although this was later commuted to life in prison. Several other members of the SAS also served prison terms while others were released for turning state’s evidence against the gang. So ended their “dangerous brotherhood.”

A more detailed account of the activities of the SAS can be found in Janet Snyder Matthews’s article, “He Has Carried His Life in His Hands”: The “Sarasota Assassination Society” of 1884, The Florida Historical Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 1 (July 1979), as well as in her book, Edge of Wilderness: A Settlement History of Manatee River and Sarasota Bay, 1528-1885. Tulsa: Caprine Press, 1983.