Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Despite Fearless Lawmen, Anarchy Ruled

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Despite Fearless Lawmen, Anarchy Ruled

Article excerpt

For years following the War of Northern Aggression, as it was

called by some, Clay County teetered on the edge of chaos. The

rule of law was a matter of location and circumstance. One group

of men represented the will of good people to bring order to a

dangerous, uncertain frontier.

In the period between 1885 and 1917, nine men were elected to

serve as sheriff of Clay County. It was a dubious honor as only

three lived to tell about it. Three died in the line of duty,

and two disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

"The pine woods and swamps don't tell secrets," said locals of

the times.

One case defines a category.

James Weeks survived his first five years in office and retired

a legend among sheriffs in the state. But events conspired and,

answering the call of a desperate populace, he again pinned on

the badge in 1906.

He had no choice. The county was in turmoil. Feelings of

uncertainty and apprehension had simmered in the wake of a

decadelong invasion of a dangerous element seeking the anonymity

that could be found in turpentine and logging camps. The murder

of Sheriff Charles Wilson was turning the simmer into a hard

boil of fear and vengeance.

Elected in 1905, Wilson was an immensely popular young official

seen as a new generation leader into the progressive era

sweeping the rest of the country. Descendant of an established

Clay County family and full of enthusiasm for the possibilities

of the future, many saw him as a bridge to positive growth and

change.

South of Palatka, traveling by train on county business, Wilson

was alerted by the conductor that among the passengers were a

dangerous kidnapper and his hostage. Wilson volunteered to make

the arrest. But as the sheriff moved into the passenger car from

the baggage car where he had been riding, the fugitive

turpentine worker recognized him immediately and opened fire at

close range.

Despite immediate medical attention, the young sheriff died in

minutes. Fellow passengers pulled guns and fired. The murderer

was dead before he hit the platform. …

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