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Edgar J. Watson, ca. 1855-1910,
Legendary Florida pioneer

By PETER MATTHIESSEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999


    Editor's note: E.J. Watson owned a sugar cane plantation in the Ten Thousand Islands of southwest Florida during the lawless years of the early 20th century. A persistent rumor that he had killed notorious outlaw Belle Starr birthed still wilder rumors -- that he slashed a man's throat in Key West, killed his help and fed their corpses to the sharks, and buried bodies near his home.

    Whatever his deeds, whatever his true character, this real-life man became an essential and enduring part of the Florida wilderness myth.

    In this excerpt from Killing Mister Watson, a fictional account of Watson's life, author Matthiessen imagines how one member of the community, Mamie Smallwood, might have regarded the infamous man.


I recall the day in 1906 when Mister Watson came back to Chokoloskee -- everybody does, I guess, because he showed up in the first motor launch we ever saw. ...

photo
[Times art: Don Morris]
Even a quarter mile away, out in the channel, the figure at the helm looked too familiar, the strong bulk of him, and the broad hat. When he saw the crowd, he tipped that hat and bowed a little, and the sun fired that dark red hair -- color of dead blood, Grandma Ida used to say, only she never thunk that up till some years later, when the ones who never knew him called him Bloody Watson. ... But it was that little bow he made that told us straight off who it was, and my heart jumped like a mullet, and it weren't the only one. A hush and stillness fell on Chokoloskee, like our poor little community had caught its breath, like we was waiting for a storm to break from high dark thunderheads over the Glades in summer, just before the first cold wind and rain.

"Speak of the Devil," says Grandma Ida, primping up her hair, though no one had spoke of Him lately as I knew of. Grandma knew she was looking straight at Satan, and no mistake. That man has dared to come back here among us! ... It was like in Revelations, regular Doomsday. I didn't see no one rend their clothes nor tear their hair, but a couple of God-fearing bodies hurried their offsprings up the hill, squawking and scattering like hens, not 'cause they really thought Mister Watson might attack 'em but to show them other biddies how Mrs. So-and-So wouldn't let her angels have no truck with no Methodist murderer. ...

When Mister Watson tipped his hat and bowed, who should stand up right beside him but a young woman with a babe in arms! Next thing we knew, he was handing her out onto our landing! After that, it was a barnyard around here, pushing and squeaking and flapping off home to find a poor bonnet or a pair of shoes for such a high society occasion.

Say what you like about Mister Watson, he looked and acted like our idea of a hero. Stood there shining in the sun in a white linen suit and a light Panama hat, not one of them rough straws we plait down here. And her on his arm in a wheat-brown linen dress and button boots, and sweet baby girl in a brown frock and sunbonnet and big pink bow -- you never seen a more upstanding couple!

For a few moments that fine little family stood facing the crowd like they were posing on a holiday. I see that picture each time I recall how he stood alone in that very selfsame spot on a dark October evening four years later, with that young woman turning slow to stare at me in my own house, and his little girl squeaking her heart out in the corner like a poor caught rabbit, in that wild crashing of men and their steel weapons.

* * *

Copyright (c) 1990 by Peter Matthiessen. Published by arrangement with Random House, Inc. The other two books in the Watson trilogy are Lost Man's River (Vintage, 1998) and Bone by Bone (Random House, 1999).

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