For a guy about whom so much has been written, we really don't know much about the enigmatic outlaw Edgar J. Watson. He was extremely tall, red-headed, and possessing, they say, of unnaturally small hands and feet. He was born in Edgefield, South Carolina and though I've not heard anyone else voice this theory, he may in fact be the same E.J. Watson who was secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and head of agricultural affairs in Columbia, SC.
Somewhere along the way, Watson found his way down to the end of the line: Florida. Here, it's said, he began a lifelong murder spree (whose victims included the actor Quinn Bass) that necessitated his fleeing the state. And so, he headed out West, where a man could theoretically operate with less intrusions from the law. Here, he hooked up with the infamous female outlaw Belle Starr in Oklahoma, and, some say, killed her too. As the story is told, Belle became aware that her friend Watson was wanted for murder, and he became aware that she became aware, and well, dead women tell no tales, he thought.
Belle was apparently ambushed while riding her horse, and was shot repeatedly at a distance and at close range, by buckshot. The shooting scene was very close to Watson's home, and the tell-tale footprints at the scene were found to be the same size as Watson's abnormally small boot size. He was tried in court, but the case was dismissed for insufficient evidence. The death of Belle Starr remains one of the greatest mysteries in Wild West lore.
And so, still facing a nationwide manhunt for his Florida murders, Watson made the decision to return to Florida. This on one hand seems like a stupid thing to do, but on the other hand Florida might have been for that very reason the last place the authorities would think to look for him. As another man once said to another Watson, "the culprit always returns to the scene of the crime."
Watson was an expert at agriculture (which also lends credence to the idea that he may have been the same E.J. Watson who held an official position in that department in SC) and began farming deep in the Everglades. Reportedly he had great success with every crop he planted in the swamps, against all odds. He earned enough from his sugarcane and livestock ventures to invest in state-of-the-art equipment to manufacture cane syrup and rum. So rich and powerful became he in such a short time, neighbors on Chokoloskee Island began referring to him as "Emperor Watson".
Then he got in a drunken argument with another landowner in Chokoloskee - a man named Adolphus Santini - and cut his throat with a knife. He didn't sever the jugular, however, and to his shock, Santini survived and lived to tell the police. Watson paid Santini $900 to drop the complaint, and astonishingly, he did. The local police, seemingly unaware that Watson was already wanted for murders in Florida, let him go since Santini no longer wished to press charges. Law was a funny thing in those days.
Locals began to notice that each season, a new crop of farm workers would arrive at Watson's plantation, but then disappear, only to be replaced by different ones the following year. Maybe Watson was so hard to work for that he couldn't keep good help. Or maybe, some began to theorize, Watson was killing them all at the end of the season so he didn't have to pay them. Bones, in fact, were found on his property, but forensics was in its infancy and there were no known identifiers to the skeletons that could link them to the missing migrants. Gradually the rumors took on a life of their own to the point where it was simply regarded as a certainty that Watson was a serial killer, and that working on his chamber-of-horrors plantation was a guarantee of death.
Then, in the fateful autumn of 1910, right after the hurricane swept through the region. Two men (including another outlaw called Dutchy Melvin) and a woman, all employees of Watson, were found murdered on his property. By this time everyone instantly knew to suspect Watson. Watson, for his part, blamed yet another local outlaw - a man named Leslie Cox - and asked the sheriff of Fort Myers to deputize him so he could hunt Cox down. The sheriff didn't believe Watson's story, and denied the request.
Watson visited Smallwood's Store and purchased ammo which he loudly admitted he planned to use to assassinate Cox. According to legend, the woman at the store deliberately sold him ammo that had been ruined by flooding during the hurricane. When Watson showed up at the boat dock, he found a posse of locals who were fed up with him. Watson, not knowing his ammunition was wet, fired into the crowd and the gun wouldn't go off. He dropped the rifle and reached for his revolver, but he was too slow. The posse immediately shot back and gunned him down on the spot.
He's buried in Fort Myers Cemetery, Lot 8, Block 6. Was he really a serial killer, or just an eccentric who didn't know the value of the sayings "Play Well With Others" and "Keep Your Powder Dry"? We may never know.
Also of interest: this letter which purports to be from Watson's grandson and claims his ghost still walks around Florida. I'm especially curious about this assertion he makes:
The most peculiar thing happens to a person once they've entered the city limits of Everglades City, Florida. It is almost as if that proverbial "black cloud" just suddenly hovers over your head. Only, it is not a "black cloud"; it is more like a big black hat.
Smallwood's Store still exists, by the way, and operates as a historical museum of the period. The stories of hauntings there are numerous. Whether it's Watson's ghost or the ghosts of the many he killed, no one knows because no one's thought to simply ask.