Thursday, April 7, 2011

Murder in Pensacola

I've always been a genealogy bug and lately I've started digging out old pictures and poking through my family tree.

Obviously, I started with the big event in the tree - which I've always been interested in.

My great, great grandfather was a sailor in the Austrian Navy during the 1800s.



No one knows why he picked Pensacola but he mustered out of the Navy and went to work on the docks of Pensacola Bay.

His last name was Biscupovic but that was hard for those he worked with to pronounce and it often caused problems with his paychecks.

The crews working the wharves at that time were a mixed group, made up mostly of Black, Indian and Mulatto men and they began calling him "White Man."

The name stuck and he officially changed his name and became John White.

It's well known among family members that he always regretted changing his name.

In April of 1879 he opened a store down on the docks. At first he sold boots, raingear, seamen's shirts and other garb worn by the dock workers.

His store grew and by 1905 was a thriving men's wear store.

And then tragedy struck.

On Wednesday, July 19, 1905 this was the headline in the Pensacola News Journal.



Just before 5:00, on the afternoon of July 18th, people on the street heard 5 gunshots coming from John White's store.

The local constable happened to be close by and along with two other men, rushed in and found James White, son of John, covered in blood and wrestling with the gunman.

The newspaper says that James yelled "Take him Mr. Guyler, I don't whether he has killed me or not!"

The constable and others grabbed the shooter and wrestled the revolver from his hand.

The gunman, William F. Williams, was hurried away to the County jail as the others took in the scene before them.

According to the newspaper, John White was sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper, foot propped on the foot rest customers used when trying on shoes.

His son, James was standing just back and to the left of his father.

Edward Dansby, a clerk in the store, was showing a customer some men's clothing while a second clerk, James Nix, was in another part of the store with a different customer.

White's two younger sons, Edward and Thomas were in the office of the store.

Williams walked into the store, passed the customer, walked up to John White and without a word, pulled out a Smith and Wesson 38 revolver and shot him twice. Once in the chest and once in the neck.

He then shot James White and Edward Dansby. He shot at James Nix who dodged the bullet and hid behind a counter.

"It was all done in the twinkling of an eye"

Though badly wounded, James grabbed Williams and was wrestling with him when the Constable ran in.

James and Edward Dansby were immediately taken to the hospital.

The cause of the shooting is said to be because John White suspected Williams of stealing and asked the Constable to look into the matter. The Constable discovered that the merchandise was being sold in a store in the north part of the County and he too suspected Williams.

John White confronted Williams, who denied the accusations. White decided there wasn't enough evidence against Williams and dropped the matter.

Williams left the store and went to a local bar. Reports state that several people saw him drink quite a bit and ramble on about White falsely accusing him.

He returned to the store and the rest is history.

A Pensacola News Journal reporter interviewed Williams just a few hours after the shooting and his first question to the reporter was "Is John White dead?"

The reporter told him yes and he asked the same question several more times.

Then he said "John White was the best friend I ever had. He helped me out of trouble. If he had kept other people out of his business and had not listened to them I would never have done it. It is not him I was after, it was other parties. They drove me to it."

This happened about 5:00 in the afternoon and at 8:00 that night a "Coroner's Jury" had been selected and they all went to the scene of the crime.

Several witnesses were called and gave their testimony of the events that had happened that afternoon.

Late that evening, Edward Dansby died from his wound.

James White recovered.

Exactly one month later Williams was put on trial for the murder of John White. During that trial it was to be decided if he was to be tried for the murder of Edward Dansby after the White trial.

The headlines from the Pensacola News Journal tell the story of William Williams's fate.



He was found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in prison.

It took the jury just over an hour to make their decision.

It was decided that since he would already be spending the rest of his life in jail that there was no need to try him for Ed Dansbury's murder.

I was fascinated with this story as a teenager so I spent several days poking through old courthouse records.

Which is where I found this.



This is a copy of the actual piece of paper that the jury handed to the judge, declaring their guilty verdict.

I couldn't believe that piece of paper was still in a file folder in the basement of the Court House.

After his death, John White's four sons took over the store and it stayed in business for many years.

Our family continued to grow and today the story of John White is a sad but interesting part of my family history.
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