There's something strange in the back of County Line Cemetery.
The afternoon sun through a sheer autumn sky casts everything in a rusty, sepia tone. Gopher holes and fire ant mounds pockmark the thin lawn of scrub grass. A cool breeze blows through the moss dangling from an oak tree in the center of the cemetery, and one broken limb sweeps at the dirt in front of a broken headstone.
This is the headstone they talk about. The one with a century-old tale behind it, passed down through generations of Pasco families. The one with the curse:
Thomas M. Ellis
September 27, 1879
July 4, 1909
Mine enemies spoke against me.
They lay and waited for me.
Therefore let them be confounded and perish that were against me and be covered with shame and dishonor who sought to take my life which was so brutally stolen by Preston Gillette.
Erected by his father Richard Ellis
• • •
There are at least three legends that attempt to explain what happened in the south Pasco woods on July 4, 1909. The story has been preserved in the book Citrus, Sawmills, Critters, & Crackers by Elizabeth Riegler MacManus and Susan A. MacManus. It has appeared as an embellished vignette online by John M. Taylor. And it is vividly conjured in the memory of 90-year-old Pasco native George Riegler, who is related to the MacManuses.
The stories differ in their semantics, but they all agree Tom Ellis died that day at the hands of Preston Gillett (sometimes spelled Gillette, as it was on the tombstone).
Around the turn of the century, when much of this part of the state was covered with thick brush and dirt roads, the Ellises and Gilletts were well-known in the county. So was their feud. In her 1998 book, Susan MacManus called them "the area's version of the Hatfields and McCoys."
Tom Ellis' brother, Lee, was the county sheriff at the time and was married to a woman named Malinda Gillett. Malinda had two brothers, Preston and Austin. All accounts agree that Tom wanted Malinda for himself.
One day — the stories don't give a date or year for the incident — Austin was visiting his sister at her house in Ehren, near what is now Land O'Lakes, when he was killed by a gunshot through a window. Tom Ellis was the main suspect, the stories say.
Sometime after that — again, the stories don't specify when — Lee Ellis died. MacManus' story says he left behind a pension of $10,000 that Tom Ellis vowed to steal, even "if it meant he had to kill (Malinda's) whole family," including Preston Gillett.
The stories differ here. Neither can be verified.
MacManus writes that Preston Gillett was driving his horse-drawn wagon down a road that would later become State Road 54, just west of where it now cuts over the interstate. The bend in the road is now known as Ellis Curve.
Preston Gillett rounded the bend and met Tom Ellis on horseback, gun-in hand. Ellis sidled up to Gillett and pushed the pistol's barrel into Gillett's ear. He pointed to a stump about 200 feet away and told Gillett to drive toward it. By the time Gillett got to it, Ellis said, he'd be dead.
Ellis jumped down and walked backward toward the stump, keeping his aim at the other man.
At some point while he walked, Ellis either looked back at the stump or tripped over it. And in that split second, Gillett pulled a shotgun from under the bench of his wagon and shot Ellis.
Other versions say Ellis was the one driving the wagon and found Gillett sitting on the stump waiting for him. He pointed a gun at Gillett and demanded to know where Malinda was, but Gillett drew a gun and shot Ellis.
All versions of the story say that Ellis, who had a reputation as a bandit in the county, wasn't missed by anyone outside of his immediate family. They say Gillett confessed to shooting Ellis, but that Sheriff Bob Sturkie turned a blind eye to the crime. Some say the sheriff gave Gillett two shotgun shells to reimburse him.
Tom Ellis' father, Richard Ellis, was furious. And he vented his anger with the curse on his son's tombstone.
George Riegler says the curse "didn't work too good." He said Preston Gillett went on to become a ship captain in World War II (another story puts him in World War I). Two ships sank under him, but he survived both.
Riegler said Gillett died decades later, at the age of 65.
He was hit by a car near Ehren.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.