Florida mayor’s death hailed as “end of bloodthirsty monster”

Cedar key is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. The 2 square mile island just off the Gulf Coast, about 55 miles west of Ocala, is a quaint village of about 800. In fact, it is one of the many islands in inside the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. There was a time when things weren’t so quiet on the sidelines. Here is more than one 2019 essay by Francine Uenuma of the Smithsonian Institution.

The problem was the mayor. His name was William W. “Billy” Cottrell. And his despotic rule in the late 1800s ended because of a man who had a friend in Washington: the President of the United States.

An airboat departs for a wildlife sanctuary tour, passing the waterfront dining district of Cedar Key.  Cedar Key is an island town off the northwest coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.  It is known for the Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuge, a group of small islands with trails and rich birdlife.  Cedar Key Museum State Park features a nature trail, a 1920s house, and artifacts that illustrate Cedar Key's history as a busy harbor.  Cedar Key Historical Museum explores the city's past through photos, documents and objects from the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the archipelago became a center for seafood, manufacturing, and most importantly, the grinding of crayons, and its population grew to 2,000. Somehow the residents succeeded in electing Cottrell, only 33, as mayor in March 1889. He squandered

no time to push the envelope. He brandished a gun at voters and once forced a black man to beat a telegraph operator. He would shoot women shopping and “hold them hostage” just for fun. Most of these outrages occurred when his Hizzoner was drunk. Go figure it out.

Cedar Key resident appeals to President

Cottrell has strengthened his hold on his family. His father was a state senator and a brother was a part owner of one of the city’s major stores.

A resident had previously complained about Cottrell to President Benjamin Harrison, saying the mayor, just five months in office, had widowed his sister in a confrontation and that “good Christians” were too “shy” to challenge the man.

Atsena Otie, in the foreground, housed a mill that produced enough wood for hundreds of thousands of pencils before an unnamed hurricane in 1896 destroyed it.  A year later, the island was abandoned as residents moved to the mainland, mostly congregating in what is now Cedar Key.

Harrison, indirectly, made the change in 1890. A new federal customs collector introduced himself. His name: James Harvey Pinkerton. (The essay doesn’t say if he was linked to the notorious detective agency.)

The reign of terror:As mayor, William Cottrell imposed his will and carried out acts of violence

A slice of original Florida:Cedar Key – The Story of What Could Have Been

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Cottrell was not just mayor. He was also the island’s customs inspector, a post that actually surpassed Pinkerton, and the two clashed in numerous turf feuds. But JH Pinkerton was there by presidential nomination and wasn’t about to be intimidated, even when the mayor threatened with his life.

Residents “in a perfect state of terror”

Pinkerton said the mayor should resign. Cottrell reported to customs, along with the Town Marshal, who he ordered to shoot Pinkerton.

The federal inspector eventually asked the Revenue Cutter Service to send a vessel. Its captain said the reports “do not speak of half of this Cottrell man’s crimes” and that the residents were “in a perfect state of terror”.

Map of Cedar Key, Florida, 1884

Cottrell escaped the Federal crew and went on the run. The residents of Cedar Key, on the other hand, didn’t like Federal Sailors to be in town. Memories of the “Northern War of Aggression” and subsequent federal occupation were still raw.

The mayor fled to Alabama, where he challenged the intoxicated Montgomery Police Chief to a duel. The next day the chief shot Cottrell down. A newspaper hailed “the end of a bloodthirsty monster”.

Florida Time is a weekly column on Florida history written by Eliot Kleinberg, a three-decade former writer for the Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and author of 10 Florida books (www.ekfla.com).


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