A tri-county, tri-family feud

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A tri-county, tri-family feud

February 04, 2017 - 14:41
A rendering of Marshal William Erastus Whitehurst from Tarpon Spring's listing of officers killed in the line of duty

The Whitehurst-Whidden-Stevenson Feud started in Hillsborough (Tarpon Springs) and took place mostly in Pasco County. Although a prominent Hernando Citizen John Washington Crum is thought to have also been a victim of this feud. The feud turned deadly with the killing of Tarpon Springs Marshall William Erastus Whitehurst on July 4, 1893.

The Tarpon Springs Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office both list Marshal William Erastus Whitehurst as an officer killed in the line of duty. Marshal Whitehurst was hired by the City of Tarpon Springs, but he was deputized by Hillsborough County. The City of Tarpon had requested that the Hillsborough Sheriff permanently station a deputy in the city, but the request was denied, so the City of Tarpon Springs hired their own lawman and had him deputized by the Hillsborough Sheriff. Mr. Whitehurst's father Walton served as a Florida House Representative for Hillsborough County in 1891.

John W. Crum and Ann Pyles Hope, from the Frasier Mountain collection

On the Fourth of July, Tarpon Springs celebrated with a festival. Mr. Whitehurst participated in a contest where riders attempted to lance rings hanging from strings while riding at full speed. The marshal was called away from the festivities to deal with a drunken sponger, Bob Atwell, disturbing the peace.

Mr. Atwell resisted being arrested and his friend Constantine "Bud" Stevenson joined him in resisting the Marshal. In the ensuing struggle, the Marshal was shot and killed by Mr. Stevenson and a friend John McNeill. Tillet Whidden was also said to have been involved in the shootout on the side of the Marshal. Mr. Stevenson was severely wounded in the gunfight and passed out at the scene. Bob Atwell and John McNeill fled into the woods. With a posse out to avenge the Marshal, John McNeill surrendered to the Pasco County Sheriff in Dade City.

Bud Stevenson was badly injured in the shootout and was kept in a house in Tarpon Springs while he recovered under guard and protection of a deputy. On July 26, late at night, a large group of men attempted to take Mr. Stevenson. They held the deputy at gunpoint while the rest of the group attempted to enter the house. The Stevenson women who slept on the porch, awoke when the group tried to enter and a struggle ensuded. Two of the attackers went around the house and fired into the window, wounding Mr. Stevenson and killing a cousin of Stevenson, Henry Taylor Osteen.

The first trial of Stevenson and McNeill for the murder of Whitehurst took place almost a year later from May 22 to May 28, 1894. Stevenson was found guilty of murder in the first degree and McNeill was found guilty of manslaughter. On June 8th, Judge Barron Philips declared a mistrial and voided the convictions. At the second trial for Stevenson on December 20 to 22 1894, he was acquitted.

On July 26, 1895 the Whitehurst allies Dan and Crockett Whidden were killed in their camp on the Cootie River in Pasco. A group of men shot Dan and Crockett while they slept in their hammocks. Their workers were roused from their sleep by the gunfire and found the two deceased.

The murdered men were brothers to Tillet Whidden who was accused of a number of murders in the area. On May 29, 1896, The Tampa Morning Tribune reported that Tillet Whidden was found not guilty of murder. "This is the second trial of Tillet Whidden for murder during this session and he has been acquitted in both cases."

On June 12, 1896, the Daily Charlotte Observer reported on another murder "At Brooksville, Fla., Wednesday night, John W. Crum was shot and instantly killed by some unknown assassin. He was a delegate to the Democratic convention which met yesterday and came to town to meet his delegation, and was on his return home when he was killed." The Tampa morning Tribune reported "It is thought that Tillet Whidden is implicated in the tragedy as bitter animosity existed between the two. "

On February 3, 1897, Bud Stevenson was shot from ambush while planting watermelon on his farm near Hudson. Later that same year, William Edwards was shot while eating dinner at his home near Trilby. It was reported that this might have been retaliation for the killing of Mr. Stevenson as it was hypothesised that it was Mr. Edwards who assassinated Mr. Stevenson.

This feud shows how wild the area was at the turn of the 20th century. The number of deaths attributed to the feud vary from six to fourteen depending on the account. Often times men took the law into their own hands to settle their disputes and witnesses knew that the law could not protect them if they testified against them, so the trials often lead to acquittals.