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The State You're In: Ninety years later, a blind killer's guilt remains questionable

On June 28, 1926, as Charles "Blind Charlie" Manuel, left, sat in jail awaiting trial in the decapitation death of a girlfriend, more brutal slayings occurred. Three members of the Rowell family and their tenant were hacked to death with an axe. Some said Bee Rowell had been telling people around Tampa that Blind Charlie was innocent, and Rowell knew the identity of the real killer. Leonard Thompson, center, was questioned in the Rowell killings, but Benjamin Franklin Levins, right, was executed for them. Still, what had happened to Blind Charlie's girlfriend? [Times Archives]
On June 28, 1926, as Charles "Blind Charlie" Manuel, left, sat in jail awaiting trial in the decapitation death of a girlfriend, more brutal slayings occurred. Three members of the Rowell family and their tenant were hacked to death with an axe. Some said Bee Rowell had been telling people around Tampa that Blind Charlie was innocent, and Rowell knew the identity of the real killer. Leonard Thompson, center, was questioned in the Rowell killings, but Benjamin Franklin Levins, right, was executed for them. Still, what had happened to Blind Charlie's girlfriend? [Times Archives]
Published May 9, 2018

Charles "Blind Charlie" Manuel had a girlfriend with no shortage of men in her past. That detail would be worth remembering, long after 1926, the year Manuel was accused of killing her.

Did he do it? It's a mystery older than most Tampa residents.

This homicidal tale includes a riot, a psychic, a blind man who pleaded guilty but may have been innocent, and a surprise twist ending that could rival the recent DNA capture of a suspect in the Golden State killings.

Archives from the Tampa Tribune and the Tampa Times show it all began on April 28, 1926, when tipsters called police to 508 Nebraska Ave. They said Manuel, a newspaper vendor known as Blind Charlie for an obvious reason, was slashing a woman's throat.

RELATED: Eerily similar Tampa serial killer cases a century apart

Law enforcement found Emma Hilliard decapitated and Blind Charlie holding a jack knife while claiming to be so drunk he didn't remember doing it.

Hilliard was married, but Blind Charlie said she had been his girlfriend.

She also had an ex-husband.

More on that later.

On June 28, 1926, as Blind Charlie sat in jail awaiting trial, another brutal slaying occurred. Three members of the Rowell family and their tenant were hacked to death with an axe in their home at 116 S Nebraska Ave.

Suspects were questioned but no charges were filed.

That July, Blind Charlie pleaded guilty to murder, rationalizing that he might not remember attacking Hilliard, but if witnesses said he did it, he must have.

A month later, detectives began to doubt that plea.

There were rumors that Bee Rowell, the slain patriarch of the Rowell family, had been telling people around Tampa that Blind Charlie was innocent. The man had let people know he was ready to tell police the identity of the real killer.

The public began to wonder if that was why the Rowells were targeted.

Law enforcement reached back out to the witnesses in the Blind Charlie case and found them less credible. Their accounts had changed.

Newspaper editorials called for a full investigation and the release of Blind Charlie, but evidence to clear him remained elusive.

RELATED: Eerily similar Tampa serial killer cases a century apart

Then, the following May, five members of a family named Merrill, including a 5-week-old baby, were slain with a railroad spike maul at their home on the corner of First Avenue and 31st Street.

This time, suspects left a trail:

Benjamin Franklin Levins and Leonard Thompson visited a local psychic the next day and asked if they would get into trouble for the murders.

That same day, while dining alone at a restaurant, Levins read aloud the news coverage of the crime and punctuated his performance by declaring Thompson was guilty.

Hours later, Levins and Thompson were arrested. But, under questioning, Levins stated he was guilty and Thompson was innocent.

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In early June, a mob of about 2,000 people tried to break into the jail to get at Levins. Buildings burned. Tear gas rained down. National Guardsman fired into crowds.

After the three days of riots subsided, five were dead and 11 injured.

Levins then changed his testimony, saying Thompson assisted him in the Merrill murders.

Levins even admitted to the Rowell crime. In one report, he said he killed the Rowells' tenant over a woman and then killed the family to cover his tracks. In another report, he said he was angry with the Rowells for playing a dirty trick on him. The old news clips do not elaborate.

On the night of the Merrill killings, Levins told detectives, Thompson convinced him to finish off the Rowells in case any could testify against him. But, the Merrill home was mistaken for the Rowell residence.

Stories continued to waver.

Levins later again took full responsibility for the slayings but during the trial claimed law enforcement threatened to turn him over to the rioters if he did not confess to the Rowell homicides.

He further stated in court that he was guilty of just one "accidental" murder. He said that he and Thompson were drunk and climbed through the window of what they thought was a vacant home where they could sleep.

When the Merrill patriarch found them in his house, Levins continued, he attacked the two. Levins testified to killing him in self-defense. He then claimed he left the home without hurting anyone else but that Thompson remained behind.

Thompson was acquitted.

On Nov. 22, 1927, Levins was executed.

As for Blind Charlie, when he was released from prison on Nov. 15, 1930, the Tampa Times included this tidbit in its coverage:

That woman found decapitated alongside a blind man with no recollection of killing her?

She was Levins' ex-wife.

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.