In the spring of 1890, the United States government sent a heavily armed vessel to dislodge a despot. Under his rule, citizens lived in fear of capricious acts of violence. He inflicted retribution on all who dared oppose him—and many who had not even tried. President Benjamin Harrison defended the military intervention to Congress, saying it was justified and in the interest of the nation.
This episode, however, did not take place on the shore of a distant nation, but instead off the waters of Florida in a small American town called Cedar Key, where mayor William W. “Billy” Cottrell had imposed a reign of terror so mendacious that it could only be halted by a man with deep connections to the White House.
By the time President Harrison took action, the trouble in Cedar Key had been brewing for more than a year. The first alert he received came from a local woman named Mrs. Rose Bell, who wrote to the President on August 4, 1889, and called for an investigation into the “outrageous conduct” perpetrated by the “habitual drunkard” Cottrell. Bell indignantly described Cottrell bullying locals, forcing a local black man to parade through the town in costume, and making his own sister a widow after a confrontation with his brother-in-law. The “good Christian men” of the town were too “timid” to put a stop to his outrages, and she concluded her letter by saying she had “no son or husband for him to fuss with and shoot. I expose his character.”
President Harrison would later note that it was “a very grim commentary upon the condition of social order at Cedar Keys [sic], that only a woman…had the courage to file charges against [Cottrell].”
It was a big scandal at the heart of this small archipelago off of Florida’s Gulf Coast, located more than 130 miles north of Tampa. Only one of the Cedar Keys, Way Key, is inhabited today (a dozen nearby islands comprise the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge). Despite their small size, the Keys’ location was considered strategic during the 19th century; they housed a critical supply depot established by General Zachary Taylor in 1836 during the Second Seminole War and would later be occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. The completion of a railroad linking the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico in 1860 boosted their value, making the Cedar Keys a hub for trade and transport before the completion of a railroad to larger Tampa. In the latter half of the 19th century, nearby Atsena Otie Key was home to a large mill supplying cedar for pencils and employing many residents. Over the years the economy would be driven by the seafood, manufacturing and milling industries. Cedar Key’s population peaked at less than 2,000 people, which makes it even more remarkable that the vile shenanigans of the town’s mayor reached the attention of the White House.
Residents were well-acquainted with the young mayor’s cruel—and at times homicidal—mood swings. Cottrell was first elected to the office in March of 1889, and was fond of using his firearms to intimidate his constituents. Readers across the nation would later learn of him forcing a black man—at gunpoint—to beat a telegraph operator senseless. Women shopping at a dry goods store were reportedly held hostage at gunpoint, seemingly for Cottrell’s amusement. As a child, rumor had it, he used a pocket knife to stab an elderly man who had dared to correct him, and the local Schlemmer House hotel was marked by bullet marks from the mayor’s drunken pursuit of a fellow patron.
“Aged men and prominent citizens have thus been treated…Ladies of the highest social standing were not exempt from these insults,” the New York World summated.
While his notoriety may have lent itself to exaggerated retellings, together the anecdotes paint a picture of Billy Cottrell as a young man out of control. “When [people] talk about him when he’s not intoxicated, he’s a normal person. He behaves, he gets along,” says James L. “Jim” Cottrell, great-grandnephew of Billy. “And then you throw some whiskey in him and he turns into Billy the Kid.” (Five years earlier, when racing his family’s schooner, Nannie, in Tampa Bay, another boat pulled ahead. An angry Billy ran below deck for his gun to shoot the competition before crewmates reined him in. The incident “speaks volumes to his character,” says Cottrell. “It doesn’t bode well.”)
The reputation and resources of Billy’s family had deferred any consequences for the mayor, who seems to have had no occupation of note before taking office. His father, J.L.F. Cottrell, was a state senator and one of his brothers, J.L. Cottrell, co-owned a store along one of the town’s main streets. Local records show he married Carolina Frier, who also came from a politically connected family, soon after taking office on January 2, 1890. When Cottrell was first elected at the age of 33, perhaps unaccustomed to the responsibility of a steady job, he reportedly disappeared from Cedar Key for more than a month. Upon his return, his style of governance would be enough to induce nostalgia for his neglect.
Mayor Cottrell kept his grip on the town through a combination of family connections, fear, and isolation, but the 1890 arrival of J.H. Pinkerton brought a new obstacle to the mayor’s reign of terror. Pinkerton had been named the new customs collector with oversight of revenue generation and maritime law, a fairly coveted and influential position. “Immediately when he got there, [he] ran up against Cottrell and had problems right from the beginning,” says Frank W. Pinkerton, J.H. Pinkerton’s great-grandson. Cottrell, serving concurrently as mayor and customs inspector (a position outranked by the job held by Pinkerton), may have expected to be automatically slotted into the more senior post. “Little did James Harvey Pinkerton know the quagmire in which he was about to be ensconsed,” Frank Pinkerton writes of the episode. Having been appointed through his connections in the Republican party, it was inevitable that Pinkerton’s arrival from out of town would raise the ire of the young hotheaded mayor.
However protected Cottrell might have been by his local stature, as an appointee of the Harrison administration, Pinkerton was not one to be intimidated. When Cottrell, in his usual fashion, threatened to kill him, Pinkerton sent a telegram to Washington as soon as he could do so safely. Their feud had escalated in previous weeks when Pinkerton insisted Cottrell resign from his position as inspector on account of his volatile reputation. Cottrell then appeared at the Customs house on the evening of May 9 accompanied by city marshal J.R. Mitchell, bruising for a fight.
According to Pinkerton’s descriptive May 22 dispatch to the Treasury Department, when Pinkerton refused to open the Customs House after hours, Cottrell ordered Mitchell to “shoot the G—d — m Republican son of a b—” if he failed to do so. “He then called me all the vile names he could think of in a loud and angry voice and said, ‘I will make it a hell for you and your set as long as you stay in Cedar Keys,’ and many other vile things equally bad, using all the time the most profane oaths and vile epithets,” Pinkerton wrote.
The reluctance—or refusal—of local authorities put an end to Cottrell’s behavior led Pinkerton to appeal for federal intervention, a request that was granted through the Revenue Cutter Service, which sent its ship McLane to the islands on May 15. Captain Thomas S. Smyth and his crew arrived days later, appalled by Cottrell’s long streak of impunity. Smyth wrote that “the newspaper reports…are not only not exaggerated, but do not tell one-half of this man Cottrell’s crimes. The fact is that the people here are in a perfect state of terror…[and] are unable to obtain assistance or protection from the State authorities, owing to the influence wielded by Cottrell, and the methods resorted to in frightening and terrorizing witnesses.”
Backed by the might of the McLane, Smyth’s crew and additional marshals launched a search for the mayor. The men scoured homes, businesses and the swampy waters, but Cottrell eluded capture, making his way up the Suwanee River and out of the McLane’s reach. Even after his escape, at Pinkerton’s request, the cutter remained nearby to assuage fears that Cottrell would reappear in town. While docked, the McLane continued firing blanks, the sound of its might echoing through the keys.
Despite more than a year of unmitigated abuses by Mayor Cottrell, the appearance of a federal cutter on their shores was not welcomed by all. More than 25 years after Union troops had left, a vein of intransigent hostility ran through the small town. “The people here have lived so long in an unreconstructed condition that the appearance of United States seamen in the streets intent on forcing order and obedience is especially galling,” the New York Times told readers on May 20.
Captain Smyth was threatened by a resident who threatened to shoot on sight any man who attempted to enter his home. He angrily reminded the crowd the McLane was there on the authority of the United States government. Complaints about the house searches made their way back to sympathetic congressmen in Washington, placing the McLane and other law enforcement officials acting on behalf of the government under increased scrutiny (as acting attorney general, future president William H. Taft was tasked with submitting the findings of an inquiry to President Harrison). Special deputy marshal S.L Estrange defended the action, saying he had been “religiously scrupulous” in ensuring that homes had not been entered unlawfully or without permission and that “the rabble will talk and bluster.”
President Harrison seems to have had the final say on the matter. In his June 6 response to the Senate, he declared that an appeal to local authorities was impossible in this case, given that the complaint would have been addressed to the very authorities allowing or perpetrating the violence.
“It will always be agreeable to me if the local authorities, acting upon their own sense of duty, maintain the public order in such a way that the officers of the United States shall have no occasion to appeal for the intervention of the General Government, but when this is not done I shall deem it my duty to use the adequate powers vested in the Executive to make it safe and feasible to hold and exercise the offices established by the Federal Constitution and the laws,” Harrison wrote.
On the ground in Florida, authorities had still not apprehended their man. Cottrell had made his way up the nearby Suwanee River toward the Georgia border, and then traveled onward into Alabama, where he was taken into custody by authorities but soon released on bond to await his day in court.
It did not take long for Cottrell to resume his ignoble habits, and on November 5, he was arrested after drinking heavily and picking a fight with a restaurateur. According to newspaper reports, Cottrell then swore vengeance upon Montgomery, Alabama, police chief Adolph Gerald, telling friends he planned to kill him and challenging the chief to a duel.
At just past 11 a.m. the next morning, Cottrell appeared in a horse-drawn buggy. Gerald didn’t wait to find out if Cottrell would actually make good on his threat. As Cottrell exited the carriage, Gerald shot him twice with a double-barreled shotgun, hitting him once in the torso and once in the eye, leaving him dying in the street, a “bloody and ghastly spectacle,” according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
In the end, it was not the intervention of President Harrison, nor the imposing Coast Guard cutter, but a shootout in Alabama that put an end to Cottrell’s escape from justice – and his life. Newspapers across the country carried news of his demise – the gunslinging mayor who himself died in a hail of bullets. “The bloody ending of a bloodthirsty monster,” eulogized the New York World.
Today the town of Cedar Key evinces none of the fear and violence that consumed it under Cottrell’s rule. Casual seafood restaurants playing live music line the water’s edge, and golf carts amble slowly along its compact main streets. Both commercial and sport fishing are mainstays; the railroad that made it a larger commercial hub phased out in the 1930s. Schlemmer House, site of one of his drunken shootouts, is now the town’s library. The local historical society is the centerpiece of the town and proudly boasts of the Keys’ storied history, from military outpost to railroad boomtown. Cottrell is scarcely mentioned. The dictatorial leader who once brought it national notoriety has receded from view, with tales of his wild antics the only trace of Cottrell’s presence in the quiet, sun-soaked Cedar Key of today.