Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The killing of Mr. Watson

Edgar Watson. Photo courtesy of Alvin Lederer

Edgar Watson. Photo courtesy of Alvin Lederer

Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Death of Mr. E. J. Watson

On Sunday, October 24, 2:30 p.m., at the Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee (the actual date, time and place of Mr. Watson’s demise), the re-enactment of The Killing of Mr. Watson, will be presented. The play is based on the best-selling novel by Peter Matthiessen, published in 1990. The Smallwood Store and Museum will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of this event. It was just after the hurricane in 1910 that the townspeople gathered at Ted Smallwood’s trading post and waited for Mr. Watson to arrive by boat.

Who was Mr. Edgar J. Watson? When learning about a person, it’s always best to go directly to the source, someone who actually knew the person. Rob Storter recounts his memory of this highly colorful character in his book Crackers in the Glade with the Forward by Peter Matthiessen, who comments that “Rob was able to provide me with perhaps the best description of ‘Mr. Watson’ I ever came across.”

Rob Storter was just sixteen at the time, and it was his brother George who “was in just yards of where it happened. He heard the gun and in minutes he saw the whole thing.”  As Rob tells it…

“Mr. Watson was a friend to my dad, as they both had little schooners and met at Key West and other places to sell the stuff that was produced in that part of the country, especially syrup. Mr. Watson’s schooner was called Gladiator. He ate many meals at our table. He’d come to Everglade once a week to pick up groceries and his mail. He most always arrived about noon and would eat dinner at our house. Sometimes we’d see him at Key West, and he always came aboard our boat and visited. I knew him as a friendly, jolly man. I didn’t know what was down inside of him at that time. I remember him very well. He had a broad mustache—sometimes side whiskers.”

“Mr. Watson had a big cane farm at Chatham River – about forty acres. He made lots of syrup…I was sixteen when the Watson killing happened. A strong northeast wind had been blowing for days, which was not uncommon, especially in October during hurricane season. Early on that mid-October morning, Ed Watson came and asked my papa to take him to Marco. He said he was tired of all the nonsense about being accused of murder.”

“Watson had come to Half-Way Creek around 1892 and was supposed to have killed Belle Starr out of Arkansas. He worked awhile around Everglade, then bought the Chatham River cane farm, raising sugarcane and vegetables for the New York – Key West market. Mrs. Hannah Smith, who had been engaged in hunting alligators with a Mrs. McLane, from an oxcart, was killed about 1910 at Chatham Bend. Mrs. Smith and a man named Waller, who also lived at Chatham Bend, were murdered and their bodies weighted and thrown overboard.”

“We called him Mr. Watson or E.J. He was a two-hundred-pound, red-headed man, with a quick and sometimes quirky temper. Watson was reported to have been a hand of Belle Starr’s and to have shot her in the back from ambush one night in Oklahoma. He was also said to have killed three men in Georgia and one in mid-Florida. He also cut the throat of Aldolphus Santini in Key West, but Santini recovered. A deputy sheriff sent from Key West to bring Watson back was tricked out of his weapon by Watson and then put to work in the cane fields – under the gun – before being sent back, unharmed, but very respectful.”

“Watson came to Chokoloskee just as the 1910 Hurricane was brewing and hired my dad to take him to Fort Myers to seek the aid of Sheriff Frank Tippins to arrest the murderers. They got only to Marco before they had to seek shelter. Tippins came south about that time, checking rumors of the killing, and missed them.”

“After the storm, Watson returned to Chokoloskee, as a mob started gathering with guns….”

To find out more about what really happened to Mr. Watson on October 24, 1910, come to the performance at 2:30 p.m. There is a $10 entrance fee. (Children 8 and under will be admitted free of charge.) For more information, call (239) 695-2989. To find out more about what’s happening in the Everglades area, visit website

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