The assassination of Judge William Center: one of many murders after reconstruction

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The assassination of Judge William Center: one of many murders after reconstruction

August 29, 2017 - 10:07
Oldest portion of the current county courthouse, built in 1913 by J.F. Jenkins and Company

County Judge William Center was assassinated outside his home in Brooksville on June 4, 1879 in the early morning. According to his family and newspaper accounts at the time, Judge William Center was about to reveal who had set fire to the Hernando County Courthouse in 1877 when he was assassinated.

By noon on June 4, 1879, Center’s murder started showing up in newspaper accounts state wide, which was impressive, because Brooksville did not have the telegraph at that time. It usually took news several days to propagate. His murder was reported that day as far away as in Savannah in the Savannah Morning News.

The Hernando County Commission had offered a reward of $2,000 for information leading to the conviction of the person/people responsible for the courthouse fire. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

County Judge William Center was the secretary for the First United Methodist Church at the time of his assassination. Recently, the current secretary stumbled upon this fact and jokingly wondered how dangerous the church secretary job actually is.

Roger Landers a local historian recounted a story involving Judge Center.

“On Sunday, May 6, 1877, Arthur St. Clair performed the marriage of a mixed-race couple in Brooksville -- David James, who was black, and Lizzy Day, who was white. The marriage led to a public outcry.

“The following evening, the couple was visited by several prominent residents: Frank Saxon, James Rhodes, County Judge William Center and R.M. McIntosh. Their purpose was to advise the newlyweds of the possibility of danger. A firearm was discharged, resulting in a gunfight that left a number of men wounded, including James.

“The judge, Center, visited the couple again the next day, and assured them that the visit of the previous evening had been strictly out of concern for their safety. Center also told them that they would be safe until James’ wounds healed and they could leave town. They moved to Tampa.”

Arthur St. Clair was a major figure in reconstruction politics (when Florida was under the military control following the Civil War). Many of the people who were involved in the Confederacy were banned from holding office during this time. St. Clair held a number of offices including “voter registrar, deputy sheriff, county commissioner, captain in the state militia, delegate to the 1876 Republican state convention and three-time Republican nominee for the State House.”

St. Clair was murdered on June 26, 1877, when he was returning from a political meeting for his fourth run for the State House at Dade City (Fort Dade), when a group of men confronted him. St. Clair was shot and killed. This drew men living nearby and one of them, Henry Lloyd was also shot and killed.

Much of what we know about the 1870s in Hernando county comes from the pages of the Sunland Tribune Newspaper. The Sunland Tribune Newspaper from the 1870s has been scanned by the University of Florida and is available online. Sunland Tribune was the predecessor of the Tampa Tribune.

In August and September 1877 there were several articles in the Sunland Tribune with accounts of Mary Turner, a black woman who was reportedly with Rev. Sinclair on the night he was killed.

She said the murder of Sinclair occurred at “about 10 p.m. and through the moonlight she saw a crowd of about 20 men on horseback and armed. After they were surrounded by these men, Sinclair recognized several of them and called them by name. The men then covered their faces with their hats. Sinclair was shot, in the confusion that followed, and Mary Turner escaped.”

When asked if she had been at the coroner’s inquest,she replied that “she had and knew several of the men on the jury as being involved with the shooting.” She lived in Brooksville and would have known the men she accused. Mary Turner alleged that “Mr. Saxon, Mr. Rhodes, Mr. Center, Mr. Hennes, Mr. O’Berry, William and Robert Nicks were all involved. She claimed that George Cross had shot Sinclair.”

In July and August 1877 there were several large meetings and several resolutions passed regarding the incident. The first resolution “condemned the crime and called for diligent efforts to bring the assassins to justice.” The next resolution condemned the Ocala Star Banner and Sunland Tribune for printing fake news about the events.
On September 29, 1877, around 1am the Hernando County courthouse is destroyed by arson. The Sunland Tribune reports that all the county records were destroyed. On May 10, 1879, the Sunland Tribune reports that again around 1am another fire is set in the building which stored the records since the courthouse burned. This time some of the records were saved.

The county had enough of these shenanigans and the Sunland Tribune reports “the county commissioners have offered $1,000 reward for the perpetrators and $1,000 reward for evidence that will convict the parties of burning the court house.” This was the reward that it was said that Judge William Center was set to collect when he revealed the names of perpetrators and the evidence he had collected. Only he was killed between his house and the city where he was to reveal who had burned the courthouse.

Judge Center’s murder along with the other events led to calls to clean up the lawlessness in Hernando county. His murder was never solved.

During these years of upheaval following the Civil War and Reconstruction there were many murders. Even though the population was a few thousand there were dozens of murders over a few years in the surrounding area.