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Breathing New Life Into A Legend

Published Jul. 16, 1990|Updated Oct. 17, 2005

The Everglades has never been short of legends, lore or lies. This land of swamp and surf brims with tales of alligator poachers, outlaws on the run, Indian wars, and salesmen who specialized in underwater real estate.

But none of those tales can match the story they tell about Ed Watson.

Watson _ who is the subject of Peter Matthiessen's new novel, Killing Mister Watson _ lived in a region of mangrove keys and shark-infested waters called the Ten Thousand Islands.

(The PBS Adventure series explores the Ten Thousand Islands tonight in Lost Man's River: An Everglades Journey with Peter Matthiessen. The show airs at 9 p.m. on WEDU-Ch. 3.)

Like other turn-of-the-century pioneers, Watson tamed the land. He raised sugar cane and other crops, shipping his goods to Tampa and Key West. He concocted a cane syrup so delectable that one man said he savored the taste for decades.

But it wasn't sugar cane that made Watson a legend.

It was murder.

In the early 1900s, word spread on the islands that Watson had killed a notorious Western outlaw named Belle Star.

Folks said that he had slashed a man's throat in Key West, and that lawmen from the north had hunted him.

Later, writers came up with more stories, many of them based on sketchy _ or no _ evidence. Most writers focused on the farm hands who went to work at Watson's remote place on the Chatham River. They wrote that the workers disappeared and offered catchy theories about what Watson did with them.

According to one writer: "On payday, he killed his help and tossed their bodies to the sharks."

Another said: "... around 50 skeletons were uncovered near and around his island home."

There is no proof of any of that, says Charlton W. Tebeau, who speaks with the caution of a professional historian. But Tebeau, a retired chairman of the history department at the University of Miami, thinks there's good reason to suspect Watson may not have been innocent, either.

Most accounts about Watson _ including Tebeau's _ tell a story of how someone found the body of Hanna Smith in the Chatham River one day in 1910. Hanna Smith had worked upstream at Watson's place.

Watson blamed the killing on another man, but not everyone was convinced.

A few days later, Watson brought his boat to Chokoloskee, an island town built atop an old Indian shell mound. Watson stepped onto the beach and found the townsfolk waiting, rifles loaded.

They asked Watson some hard questions. He gave some unsatisfactory answers. He is said to have raised his rifle.

The others did, too. And that is when they began killing Mr. Watson.

After the gunfire, Watson fell at the shore of Chokoloskee Bay. His neighbors buried Watson about eight miles away, on Rabbit Key. A few days later he was disinterred and buried at Fort Myers, where his wife's family lived.

The Watson legend

Loren "Totch" Brown takes a seat in his fishing boat while his son takes the helm. They set out across Chokoloskee Bay, then head up the Turner River, through an endless green mass of mangroves.

Watson has been dead for 80 years. For roughly 70 of them, Brown has lived in the Ten Thousand Islands. Every bend in the river seems to bring another story about alligator poaching, moonshine-making and even drug-smuggling. Brown was convicted of tax evasion in connection with a notorious marijuana-smuggling operation that operated out of the Everglades City area.

Brown points between the mangroves at shell mounds built by the Indians. He sweeps his hand across the water, pointing out dolphins racing the boat. The boat turns, and three white ibises _ a protected species _ fly out of the brush. "Chokoloskee chicken," he says with a chuckle. "Boy, that's something good to eat."

For people like Brown, hearing the Watson story was part of growing up. He remembers an old man who said Watson was scared that a law officer from up North would track him down.

"He said that Watson would never be in the light at night. That he would never stand out where somebody could get a shot at him."

After crossing a series of identical bays, each ringed by a ribbon of green, the younger Brown turns down the Chatham River. His destination: the old Watson place.

Watson's house is gone, and the sugar cane doesn't grow there anymore. But the exotic poinciana tree that stood in front of the home still spreads its green leaves and red blossoms over the water. The old kettle where Watson boiled his cane syrup is still there.

The site is overgrown but peaceful. Today the Watson Place is an officially designated campsite along the Wilderness Waterway, a 99-mile canoe and boating path that leads through Everglades National Park.

Brown steps onto the dock, swatting uselessly at a swarm of mosquitos. He says it is probably too late to know the truth about Watson.

"I don't know, and neither does Peter Matthiessen," he says with a grin. "We all forget, and that one that would've really knowed was my uncle, Doc Brown. Died last year at 94."

It is a reminder that Everglades history is disappearing, even though some are trying to preserve it. Lynn McMillin, 33, has just received state approval for a $10,000 grant to preserve the old Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee. The store, which was owned by her grandfather, Ted Smallwood, stands at the site of the Watson killing _ although reports differ on whether the structure had been built by that time.

McMillin, who also listened to Watson stories as a child, had heard that Watson's wife was at her grandparents' house when he was shot.

Book of the dead

Peter Matthiessen's accomplishment is not that he solves the Watson mystery, but that he revives it. He has stirred the ashes and breathed life into lost voices.

Most of the chapters in Killing Mister Watson are first-person accounts by those who knew Watson, worked for him, or loved him.

They aren't true tales, exactly. The book is fiction. The people who speak about Watson have died. Matthiessen created their stories by talking to their descendents. He says he never wrote anything in the novel that he knew was historically inaccurate.

"It is my hope and strong belief," Matthiessen writes in an author's note, "that this re-imagined life contains much more of the truth of Mister Watson than the lurid and popularly accepted "facts' of the Watson legend."

Interestingly, one person who doesn't get to tell his tale in the first person is Watson.

He may get his chance.

"Trouble hunted him'

Matthiessen first heard the legend of Watson while on a fishing trip with his father in the 1940s. He was 17.

They put in at Everglade, as Everglades City was known in those days.

As they passed the Chatham River, his father remembered a story he'd heard before. It was the tale of Watson.

"It kind of stuck in my mind, the whole idea of a man executed by his neighbors," Matthiessen said in a telephone interview from his Long Island studio.

It was a long time before Matthiessen, 63, turned his full attention to the Watson story. He took up a lot of other projects in the intervening years, writing more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction and helping to found the literary magazine, Paris Review. His books include the novel Far Tortuga and the non-fiction work, The Snow Leopard.

When Matthiessen decided to start writing a Florida novel, he thought the Watson story would play a minor role. But, he said, "it became such a strong thread that it just took over."

Matthiessen read what he could find about Watson, finding most of it nonsense. His research took six years and included visiting the area with Tebeau; touring the 'Glades with Randy Wayne White, a fishing guide and columnist for Outside magazine; and tracking down Watson's relatives.

Most of all, it meant interviewing and getting to know the people at Chokoloskee.

"I made a lot of friends," Matthiessen said. "I've gotten very fond of them, even though we wouldn't agree on every point of politics and race."

The vernacular of people who live in Chokoloskee and the stories they tell resonate in the book.

Consider this comment from Nancy B. Hancock. In an interview with a reporter before the book was published, she remembered what her mother, Mamie Smallwood, had said about Watson. "He told my mother he didn't hunt trouble; trouble hunted him."

In the novel, a fictionalized Mamie Smallwood says: "I said, "How come a man with such nice manners gets in so much trouble?'

"He (Watson) looked at me just long enough to make me nervous. Very softly he said, "I don't go looking for trouble, ma'am. But when trouble comes to me, why, I take care of it."'

That is Watson's voice. We hear it through the words of other people, in the novel, as well as in real life.

But Watson may get to speak his piece. Matthiessen said he is not done with the Watson story. He wants to write at least one more book on Watson, perhaps two, possibly focusing on years he lived in North Florida and South Carolina. Eventually, Matthiessen said, he will let the fictionalized Watson tell his story in his own words.

"Before I'm through I will," he said. "I think his voice has to be heard sooner or later."

This article includes information from Pioneer Florida, by D.B. McKay.

AM EXCERPT

In the last light the postmaster sees little Addison hid in the sea grape, spying on all those grown-up men with guns. Smallwood's voice breaks when he calls the boy, and goes unheard. Hurrying down the steps, he does not call again.

What had he feared? That his neighbors would denounce his call as a shout of warning?

Warned or not, the man would come in anyway.

Now Henry Short glides like a shadow from the trees, crossing behind the men, down to the shore. He wades without a splash into the water, just to the right of Bill House and Bill's father.

A suck and wash as the bow wave slaps ashore. Time stops, spun upward in a vortex. Smallwood's heart caroms, his hands rise to his ears.

The boat stem crunches old dead mollusks. Silence.

The Earth turns. A quiet greeting, an exchange of voices. The men drift forward, spreading out along the water. Smallwood gasps for breath. With the day of reckoning unbearably deferred, the postmaster's relief is mixed, without elation.

Soon Mamie and her friend venture outside. They talk and smile to ease their nerves, starting down the little slope toward the water.

A twig snaps and the twilight stiffens. A hard shift, the whip crack of a shot, two shots together. There is time for an echo, time for a high shriek, before the last evening of the old days in the Islands flies apart in a volley of wild fire.

_ from Killing Mister Watson, by Peter Matthiessen

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