Friday, August 9, 2013

A Drunken Sheriff and Other Tales of Mayhem

Earlier this week I was interviewed by Greg Pallone of Channel 13 News for a story he was doing on Jesse Doucette a new Brevard County Sheriff's Deputy that is a descendant of one of our county's earliest Sheriffs, Mills O. Burnham. If any readers recognize that name is probably for the fact that he was the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse keeper for most of his life, but he was also the first Sheriff of St. Lucie County from 1845-47, which was renamed Brevard County in 1855. 
Capt. Mills O. Burnham
Courtesy of the Florida Memory Project

As part of the interview Greg asked me what I thought the differences were between crime in Burnham's time and now, and I had to say that, "not much really." Although he had none of the benefits of modern crime fighting, such as state of the art weapons or DNA analysis, he and his fellow nineteenth century sheriffs were faced with some real doozies of crimes. There was cattle rusting, river smugglers, the horrible Packwood murders, train robberies, justifiable homicides, suicides and just about everything else you can think of.

Although Burnham served with distinction and without incident some of his successors did not fare so well. In 1887 Guptill Hoyt of Titusville was shot and killed by Charles R. Cook because someone in Hoyt's house was playing the piano too loudly, really? After a jury indicted Cook the Sheriff E. H. Covar failed to arrest him until he was forced to do so by the citizens, as he was drunk and apparently intimidated by Cook's friends. These friends then tried to break Cook out of jail and with the Sheriff drunk, the deputy scared, the mayor absent and the Town Marshall favoring Cook's side, a posse was formed to defend the jail. In the aftermath of this "hot mess" Sheriff Covar was forced by the governor to resign and in one of those laugh at loud moments Covar acknowledged being drunk but stated that someone had spiked his drink!

Burnham Memorial Window at St. Garbiel's
Episcopal Church in Titusville
Courtesy of Polly Schuster
In something reminiscent of the "Wild West" lack of action on the part of authorities occasionally led to the public taking matters into their own hands, as in the case of a Mr. Weaver who infuriated the good citizens of Titusville in 1892 when after drinking and gambling away all his family's money he tried to get his wife to recoup the family fortune by entering a house of ill repute. Mrs. Weaver refused and upon learning of his actions the town's citizens were so angry that they publicly horsewhipped him at noon on Main street and drove him out of town. Mrs. Weaver, "a widow of some means and excellent standing,"  was grateful for her kind treatment and thought she might stay and make her home in Titusville.
The murder of two women and two children in 1891 at Packwood's place south of New Smyrna in which the victims were shot and had their throats slashed could probably have been solved easily through DNA evidence as one of the ladies fingernails were dark with blood from defending herself. Instead the aimless investigation went on forever and at least one poor African-American was hung by his thumbs in a failed effort to make him confess.
In any case I don't think the crimes of today are too very different from those of the last century, but Sheriff Burnham's progeny will certainly have better technology available with which to solve them.
Good luck Jesse!