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Sarasota's Vigilante Group

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Sarasota's Vigilante Group photo

The New York Times called them the "notorious Sarasota Assassination Society." Thus did the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee make the national news when members of the committee were brought to trial in 1885 for the murders of residents Charles Abbe and Harrison Riley.

Charles Abbe moved with his wife and two daughters to the early community of Sara Sota, on Sarasota Bay south of Hudson Bayou, in the 1870s. He purchased almost 400 acres and built a home and store in the area of the present Osprey Avenue and Hillview Avenue. A businessman with varied interests, Abbe established a pineapple plantation with Yellow Bluffs settler William Whitaker and took in seasonal boarders at his home.

In 1878 Abbe applied for and was granted the first post office in the area, which later became Sarasota County. Initially Abbe considered naming the post office, and thus the town, Helena, but decided to use Sarasota, a name long associated with the bay. The appointment provided Abbe with a steady income, as well as a politically significant position. Four years later he became commissioner for the U.S. Circuit Court in Florida.

In the spring of 1884 a few men organized the secret Sara Sota Vigilance Committee, which they initially described as a political club. Later trial testimony indicated that 22 members joined. Talk of politics turned to talk of murder. Harrison Riley of the Bee Ridge Community was the first victim. He was shot, then his throat cut, as he rode his horse to the post office the last day of June 1884. His death was not investigated.

Charles Abbe was the Vigilance Committee's second victim. Testimony at the later trials indicated that hostility toward Abbe from some of the residents had grown, over several years before his death, with numerous incidents of vandalism and threats during the last two years. Abbe was killed two days after Christmas 1884, as he walked near the bay. His murderers took his body into the Gulf on a boat and dumped it overboard.

Gradually the investigation by Manatee County Sheriff A.S. Watson exposed the Vigilance Committee members and their connections with both murders. Nine men were indicted. Three trials were held in the small courthouse at Pine Level (now in DeSoto County, then the seat of a large Manatee County). In the end, seven men were found guilty. Although their sentences were death by hanging or life in prison, by 1892 all were free. Two escaped from prison; the others were pardoned.

What led to the murders? When Karl Grismer wrote his "Story of Sarasota" in 1946, he attributed the vigilantes' animosity toward Riley and Abbe to the belief that they assisted speculators who tried to push settlers off the land. Janet Snyder Matthews' later research for "Edge of Wilderness" found no support for that explanation. She concluded that the leaders of the Vigilance Committee operated from personal motives, one of which was jealousy of Abbe's wealth and political power.

As historians continue to peel, away the layers of fact and fiction surrounding events in the past, it is clear that the settlers in this area at that time were subject to the fears, hostilities and lawlessness of a frontier society.