by Robert A. Waters
Edgar J. Watson got his violent nature from his father. Nicknamed “Ring-Eye” Lige because of a circular scar around one eye that he got in a knife-fight, Lige would fight anybody at the drop of a hat. Bloody Ed’s mother fled her loutish husband, taking her son from South Carolina to Lake City, Florida.
Soon Ed grew restless and moved to Arkansas. There he hooked up with the outlaw, Belle Starr. They had a falling-out, however, and Starr ended up on the wrong end of a bullet. Watson was suspected of being her killer, but by then, he’d high-tailed it back to Florida where he began racking up an impressive string of murders.
In the early 1900’s, he bought Chatham Bend Key, one of the Ten Thousand Islands in the Everglades. According to Florida’s Past by James M. Burnett, “It was not long before [Watkins] had his fertile little island lush with cane crops, produce, and the valuable buttonwood, cords of which he shipped to Key West. His cane syrup was a popular product and he shipped tons of it in his 70-foot schooner to Fort Myers and to dealers such as Bryan and Snow in Tampa.”
Despite his financial success, Bloody Ed couldn’t keep from killing people. In Arcadia, he knifed Quinn Bass to death, but since no one could positively identify him, he escaped a charge of murder. While visiting relatives in Lake City, he had a dispute with Sam Toland, and ended up shooting him. Bloody Ed was somehow acquitted of Toland’s murder, but was given an ultimatum by the local sheriff: head back to the Ten Thousand Islands and never come back to Lake City.
Watson did just that.
But he could never control his temper. While attending an auction in Key West, Watson got into an argument with local resident Adolphus Santini. The hot-headed Bloody Ed attacked Santini, slitting his throat. He likely would have killed his hapless victim, but bystanders pulled Watson off. Santini survived, but Bloody Ed was forced to pay him $900 (a fortune at the time) to drop the charges of attempted murder.
Not long after, Watson found two men “squatting” on one of his islands. They refused to move, and quickly ended up dead. While there was little evidence, local residents figured Watson was the killer. But since there were no lawmen to investigate (the nearest sheriff lived 90 miles away), Bloody Ed walked yet again.
But those crimes were just incidental to Bloody Ed’s real murderous spree that had been going on for years. In Florida’s Past, Burnett writes: “…A young black boy fled [Chatham Bend Key] in terror, racing over river, swamp, and sawgrass, to reach a group of farmers, clamdiggers, and herdsmen near Chokoloskee. The frightened boy bore witness to a gruesome murder by Watson…” The boy guided the men to the grave of a woman named Hannah Smith. At more than six feet tall and three hundred pounds, she was harder to bury than most of Watson’s victims, and he inadvertently left a leg sticking out of the ground.
This was the final straw for the citizens of the Ten Thousand Islands. They disinterred the remains and soon headed for Ted Smallwood’s Store in Chololoskee, where Watson bought supplies. The crowd had heard that Watson was on his way.
Once he arrived, a shotgun in his boat, the mob was waiting. Witnesses stated that, when Watson advanced toward the men with his gun pointed at them, they opened up. Thirty-three bullets later, Chololoskee’s bad man lay dead. It turned out that Watson had tried to fire his weapon, but the powder in his shotgun shell had been wet and wouldn’t detonate. (Smallwood’s wife had sold him the shells, and rumors circulated that she had intentionally tampered with them.)
But the story didn’t end there. Within hours, a hurricane hit the islands, tearing up the landscape. When searchers returned to Chatham Bend Key, Burnett writes that they unearthed “about 50 skeletons” on properties owned by Watson.
Investigators soon learned that he would travel to Tampa or Tarpon Springs and hire workers to help load his produce. He made sure these men had few, if any, relatives who would come looking for them. When these down-and-outers became insistent that he pay them, he would dispatch them and bury their bodies on one of his islands. In other cases, it is thought that he dumped many in the Gulf of Mexico.
The actual number of souls murdered by the diabolical madman will never be known.
The county sheriff finally arrived and held an inquest into Watson’s death. No charges were ever filed against those who gunned down the killer.
Edgar Watson’s remains were interred at Rabbit Key, and the secrets of Florida’s most prolific serial killer were buried with him.