Crisis At Cedar Keys

Cedar Key History Article (Complete)

Toni Collins

We had a couple visit the Historical Society Museum today where I docent on Wednesdays. They had questions regarding the relationship of the names Cottrell and Pinkerton to Cedar Keys history. I researched the net and found this tid bit of great information I would like to share. Special thanks to Toni Collins “Historian”. Toni Collins books and other great Cedar Key hisotry books are available for sale at the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum.


By: Master Chief William R. Wells II
United States Coast Guard (Ret)

Reprinted by permission of the U.S. Naval Institute from the April 2002 issue of Naval History magazine.

Before dawn on Saturday, 17 May 1890, Third Lieutenant Godfrey L. Carden, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, had anticipated “a flash of some shot,” but the landing party strode confidently into Cedar Keys, Florida, without incident. The naval infantry squad from the revenue cutter McLane was there to restore civil order and reclaim the town from its mayor and his gang of ruffians.

By this time, anxiety over perceived economic difficulties and real rising taxes caused the once prosperous town’s population to fall to less than 2,100. Limited access–only one road, which paralleled a thin section of the Florida Central and Peninsula Railway—made the town’s population easily controllable, and it was a key factor in later actions of 33-year-old William W. Cottrell, who had been elected mayor of Cedar Keys in 1889 with a unanimous 101 votes. Not only was Cottrell the mayor; he also was an inspector of Customs.

Almost immediately, Cottrell showed total ineptitude as mayor. He disappeared frequently and secretly. This lack of leadership did not, however, prevent his reelection. But this time, he received only 67 of 124 votes, with the remainder going to his opponent, Samuel G. Reddick. Perhaps the narrow margin caused him to suppose he was losing control of the town. The votes were not secret, and following the election his acts of violence increased, building to a climax in the first week of May 1890.

Despite his antics or because of them, Cottrell and his financially prominent and influential family were well liked by a minority of the white townspeople. Some referred to him as a “dashing young fellow,” whose family had spoiled him. Yet they considered him an educated, cultured, and upstanding citizen, when he was sober.

Cottrell received support in his activities when his own henchmen were elected to the Cedar Keys police force. Town Marshal J.R. Mitchell followed Cottrell, it is said, only out of fear of being shot. The unruly band Cottrell had assembled never recognized personal privacy. During drunken revelries they would turn townspeople out of their homes and into the street, making them dance at gunpoint.

Death threats prevented the majority of citizens from reporting Cottrell’s actions outside town. His three brothers joined the campaign by declaring they would hunt down and kill anyone causing harm to their brother. Cottrell’s penchant for holding long grudges was well known, and most Cedar Keys denizens simply would not cross his sights. Many of his grudges were inexplicable, especially the one against telegrapher A.M.
Rathe, whom the mayor forced a man at gunpoint to beat “mercilessly” on a town street. Cottrell also tried to kill a railway agent and used a knife to wound another man over some perceived insult.

On 15 May, while having dinner with Carolina, his wife of five months, at the Schlemmer House, he tried instigating an argument with a local lighthouse keeper. Cottrell voiced loud and disparaging words about lighthouse keepers to another man in the room. Knowing Cottrell’s temperament, the keeper did not acknowledge the insults. The silent rebuff infuriated Cottrell, who “reached for his revolver.” Noticing the firearm, the keeper made his escape through the dining room door and up the hotel’s stairway. In pursuit, Cottrell tripped and fell, but he did fire one shot that passed between the keeper’s arm and torso, ripping a furrow in the wall. With the keeper gone, Cottrell returned to this table and calmly finished his meal.

The Schlemmer House was not the only building redecorated with Cottrell’s pistol shots. Nearly all of the buildings on the main streets displayed bullet holes from his tantrums. Later reports indicated he shot and killed his brother-in-law, then cursed his sister for being poor. He held townsmen at gunpoint while he insulted women and struck children carried in their mothers’ arms. Other townspeople alleged he murdered between five and ten men.

Cottrell’s acts killed any hope of economic recovery; he shot at the few businessmen willing to make the trip to Cedar Keys. And his street rule dissuaded citizens from shopping. His own brothers, Eugene and James, had a mercantile business that was forced to close for lack of customers, even though Billy Cottrell coerced townspeople to shop there. The behavior of his brothers was inconsistent, considering they supported him openly, perhaps out of fear. Newspaper accounts reported that business in the town was “practically dead…[L]ong line of stores stand closed, one firm after another having sold out.” The business owners were “either afraid to dwell in such a lawless place or gave up in despair at the sign of general decline.”

The Levy County Grand Jury had issued 18 indictments against him, but none was served. The Revenue Cutter Service’s Lieutenant Carden stated later that any of these charges would have carried a hanging or life imprisonment sentence in New York. But this was not New York.

Cottrell’s father, Colonel James L.F. Cottrell, a former five-term Florida state senator, still exercised political influence. At the elder Cottrell”s urging, Governor Francis P. Fleming, as well as U.S. District Attorney Joseph N. Stripling (known to be a friend of William Cottrell) did nothing to interfere. Although Colonel Cottrell’s last term was in 1885, he had a special bill enacted that placed a time limitation on his son’s indictments. Reporters noted that the voters would remember Fleming’s inaction at the polls. He was voted out of office in 1893.

With this formidable political and local backing, Billy Cottrell continued to rule Cedar Keys. But when he took an unprecedented action by threatening to kill Collector of the Port J.H. Pinkerton, he found himself outside the influence of his father and friends.

Newly appointed to the post by President Benjamin Harrison, Tennessean Pinkerton almost immediately ran afoul of Cottrell. It became Pinkerton’s duty to dismiss Cottrell for allegations of misconduct. But instead of an outright firing, probably because of his reputation and local influence, Cottrell was allowed to resign on 1 March 1890.

Cottrell reasoned that political favoritism had caused his dismissal. His father and brother had held Customs inspector positions under the former Collector McDaniels. Despite supposed civil service reforms, the election of Republican President Harrison changed many politically appointed posts. Cottrell, a Democrat, probably felt he should have kept his job, regardless of who was in the White House. Ironically, he may have been right that politics figured in his dismissal. The following June, J.H. Pinkerton recommended his 27 -year old Colorado-born son, F .H., for the inspector’s post. Whatever the reason, Cottrell nursed yet another grudge. Following his removal, Cottrell approached the elder Pinkerton in town asking if he might retrieve his personal belongings from the customs house.

Because it was after office hours, Pinkerton refused his request. Cottrel was incensed and warned Pinkerton not to show himself on the street or he would be sent into eternity on Cottrell’s shotgun schedule. The collector knew the threat was serious and stayed home, a virtual prisoner. Frustrated at Pinkerton’s refusal to come out of his house, Cottrell tried to force a man to go into the collector’s home and drag him into the street. The man refused and for his bravery received a savage beating. Pinkerton later slipped out and sent a telegram to the Treasury Department, outlining his difficulties. As the environment at Cedar Keys grew increasingly hostile, the marshals found themselves outgunned and could not force Cottrell’s arrest. At that point, they and Pinkerton requested the assistance of the Revenue Cutter McLane.

Treasury Secretary William Windom conferred with the new Chief of the Revenue Cuter Service Captain Leonard G. Shepard, who sent telegrams directing the McLane to Cedar Keys. Shepard sent telegrams to ports along the length of the cutter’s cruising grounds on the west coast of Florida. He was not sure about the location of the McLane, under the command of Captain Thomas S. Smythe since 15 March. The cutter arrived at Tampa on 14 May. While on shore leave, Third Lieutenant Carden and Second lieutenant Orin D. Myrick learned of the incident at Cedar Keys through the Tampa press. Realizing an emergency, the two made the nine miles back to the cutter, just before she started steaming to her normal station at Egmont Key.

Smythe did not steam immediately for Cedar Keys, presumably because he wanted to make an all-daylight trip. Because the officers and crew were fully aware of the emergency and Cottrell’s nature, the crew spent time at Egmont Key engaged in small-arms target practice. Still not having received a telegram, Smythe used his own initiative and got the McLane under way for Cedar Keys. The cutter sailed at 0600 on 16 May, making the Cedar Keys lighthouse at 1545 and coming to anchor about an hour later. Smythe did not receive his orders from Washington until he arrived at Cedar Keys, where another of Shepard’s telegrams awaited him. Smythe waited until the next morning to begin the hunt for Cottrell.
The cuttermen had orders to shoot him on the spot should he show the slightest sign of resistance. The press correspondents watching the landing expected the sailors to shoot them down on the slightest provocation, and they expected also that Cottrell and his men probably would be brought in dead.

Although short-handed, the armed landing party went ashore and returned at about 1200 without finding Cottrell or any of his followers. A second sweep at 1600, of Way Key and Cottrell’s house, again yielded nothing. The third search party of the day left the cutter at 2030 for a night search. One other party went to search Atsena Otie [Depot] Key, an island opposite the town. The majority of the town’s white residents met the searchers with either a surly silence or vocal imprecations. The cuttermen were grossly insulted in some of the houses they entered and called republican hirelings

dogs, scamps, and many other opprobrious epithets. The sight of armed Federal seamen forcing their way from room to room, prodding with cutlasses and the butts of their rifles into bedclothes, lockers, and every possible place a man might be concealed deterred any assistance to the searchers. For this reason Carden ensured his men committed no overt acts in the dwellings. Frustrated by lack of local support, the marshals resorted to Cottrell’s tactic of obtaining cooperation at gunpoint.

The U.S. Attorney general received letters from some Cedar Keys citizens, protesting the searches. One of the deputies, S. Lestrange, reported, “In every instance I asked permission [to enter], which I am pleased to say was readily if not cheerfully given. I have been religiously scrupulous on this point,” which he claimed could be borne out by Carden. On several occasions he related that the marshals and seamen were complimented for the unostentatious and orderly manner in which they conducted the searches in what even the marshals considered a most painful duty. “But,” Lestrange added, “the rabble will talk and bluster.
During the pursuit the landing party came onto a small bluff, where they saw a small boat with six men pulling away. Carden ordered, “Give them five hundred yards elevation,” as the landing party fired at the boat. It took only three well-placed shots to convince six of Cottrell’s men to surrender. Cottrell himself escaped, presumably up the Suwannee River, to a location near the Georgia State Line.

J .R. Mitchell, the town marshal, had not figured in either the search or the chase but was arrested on 14 May by the U.S. marshals. Fearing Cottrel would return and try to rescue him, the marshals jailed him at Jacksonville, where he made a $6,000 bond and was permitted to return to Cedar Keys. When he did, the acting mayor, Alderman W .P. Finlayson, a former business partner of Cottre1l, reinstated him to the marsha1’s position. Collector Pinkerton, the marshals, and Captain Smythe echoed protests from the better class of citizens over Mitchell’s reinstatement.

town meeting on 19 May. He met with the angry crowd of men, one armed with a double-barreled shotgun. Despite the marshal’s claims of citizen cooperation, the shotgun wielding man swore he would, among other threats, blow the head off anyone who ties to search my house. Smythe’s anger flared, as he warned, “I tell you that any any who raises a hand against my men will suffer for it. If anyone tried to take the law into their own hands they would find themselves in hot water at once.” Smythe added: “As for you, my man [the one with the shotgun], if I hear any more seditious language from you I shall take measures to stop it. I don’t intend to take threats from any one.” He concluded by promising in a thinly veiled threat his full and cordial support for all good citizens.

Captain Smythe then ordered Lieutenant Carden, 20 sailors, and Deputy Lestrange on an expedition up the Suwannee River. He also allowed correspondents to accompany the expedition, but they had to become part of the force in what would be the first Revenue Cutter Service military operation on a Florida river since the Seminole Wars. They left on 21 May for what one reporter called one of the most lawless [areas] in the State and completely isolated from all telegraphic and railroad communication. The plan called for the McLane to follow the expedition as far as possible, but Collector Pinkerton became nervous at the prospect with
Cottrell still on the loose. Pinkerton knew how to pressure Smythe and did so with a threat that he and all the Customs officers would resign if Smythe left the port. Smythe recalled the expedition.

Unable to chase Cottrell, Smythe sent warnings to him by the easiest means. He held great gun practice with his crew, firing blank cartridges from the cutter’s howitzers. The low sound of the cannon fire reverberated through the town and across the swamps. As the threat of Cottrell’s return diminished, the cutter’s men assisted the collector in trying to return to his normal duties. They also protected the witnesses against Cottrell as well as the town’s postmaster, William C. Ferriday, who as the only other federal representative in town had received threats and harassment from Cottrell’s supporters.

Although the town was quiet for the moment, Smythe was not sure similar incidents might not occur in other isolated areas. In a later report to the Treasury Secretary, he recommended a commission be convened to investigate the incident and prevent future occurrences. His contingency plan never materialized.

By 22 May the Cedar Keys Town Council, still uneasy, was informed that
Cottrell was removed permanently from the town and his office as mayor had been vacated. Although Cottrell’s brother had said Billy would surrender if he would be allowed immediate bail, it appeared no one wanted him back. The council called for a special election on 23 June. This brought political stability, but the economy worsened.

A number of those still in Cedar Keys were outraged about the use of armed Federal forces in what seemed to be a local law enforcement matter .
Some townsmen sent letters to their U.S. senator, Wilkerson Call, who, as a

former Adjutant General in the Confederate Army, would not condone another Federal invasion. On 23 May, Call offered a resolution in the Senate. In
a purely partisan move, Call’s letter was endorsed by Speaker Pro Tempore
George F. Edmunds (D- VT). Edmunds passed Call’s letter along, but it did not reach the President until 26 May.

Not until 6 June did President Harrison reply that maintaining civil order was, and is, the duty of the local governments; however, when the local government lost or gave up the authority, as demonstrated by the actions of Cottrell and Mitchell, and such loss threatens the public good, it is the lawful, and right, duty of the Executive to take action. He remarked that this was especially so if a U .S. government official requested protection from those local officials who were themselves the lawless instruments of the threatened violence.

Harrison noted that the Treasury Department knew about Cottrell and his actions for some time. But it had no legal recourse, even though as early as August 1889 a Cedar Keys woman wrote the President requesting assistance because of Cottrell’s antics while she was a Customs Service employee. It was to Harrison’s surprise and regret that so many citizens supported Cottrell against the searchers. Presumably, the Treasury Department’s investigation of the accusations at that time resulted in Cottrell’s resignation.

Pinkerton then asked for and received permission to continue the McLane’s presence as long as needed. The cutter left on 29 May, partly because of continuing boiler problems. But she returned on 16 June prior to the election to ensure Cottrell’s faction would not regain a foothold in the town. Smythe departed on the morning of 23 June so no complaint of intimidation can be made by Cottrell’s supporters. The episode seemed closed. Nevertheless, the McLane continued making random visits to the town.

Cottrell seemed to learn nothing from the incident, nor did he alter his behavior. On 19 July, he was arrested in Lowndes County, Alabama, where he posted a $2,500 bond. A trial was set for the U .S. District Court in Jacksonville, but Cottrell never made the trial.

In Montgomery, Alabama, on 5 November, police arrested him for drunk and disorderly conduct following several days of heavy drinking. Released on bail, Cottrell swore vengeance on Chief of Police Adolph Gerald. The next day, the perhaps still-intoxicated Cottrell rode to police headquarters and challenged Gerald to a duel. Gerald judiciously stepped onto the front porch and shot Cottrell in the left torso, with a second shot entering his left cheek and exiting the right eye. Gerald surrendered himself to the county sheriff and claimed self-defense. The next day a coroner’s inquest accepted his claim, and Cottrell’s reign of terror was over. In an air of celebration, The New York Times ran the headline: Cottrell Killed At Last.

EDITORS NOTE: Due to space limitations, the footnotes have been omitted. For a copy of the complete article with footnotes, please contact Toni Collins, Levy County Clerk’s Office, (352) 486-5275

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