Searching for Truth in Florida Folklore

In the Oxford American, John O’Connor searches the Everglades for the facts within the folklore of sugar cane farmer and outlaw E.J. “Bloody” Watson. Locals killed Watson in 1910 for routinely shooting his black and Indian farm workers on payday. If the legend is true, then Watson’s fifty-three murders make him one of the worst serial killers in U.S. history. Peter Matthiessen’s historical novel Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend helped birth a Watson tourist trade and now functions as a de facto biography, but so much of Watson’s life remains disputed. In a sense, O’Connor went searching for sasquatch, and that’s part of what compelled him. What is real? What’s still out in the swamps waiting to be discovered? This sense of possibility, of the unexplored and unknowable, suggests that America’s once vast frontier lives on in the branches of mangroves and between blades of grass. It’s an exciting read, and a story even people from Florida have never heard:

In the morning I call a number Lynn gave me. A man answers, says his name is Alvin Lederer. Says he’s the official spokesman for Watson’s kin. Says don’t bother, they won’t talk to you. Says he keeps a photograph in his wallet of Ed Watson instead of his parents. Says he has spent twenty-five years researching Watson and knows a thing or two, like the identity of a man whose father found Leslie Cox’s body on Chatham Bend back in 1910.

“Name was Ed Smith,” he says. “I knew him when he was seventy. He told me that after the hurricane his father had come across Leslie Cox’s body with a bullet hole in his head. He was hung up in the mangroves. His father said not to tell anyone.” Alvin lets this sink in. “Ed Watson killed Leslie Cox just like he said. Had him in his boat. Shot him in the head and he fell overboard, then his body washed ashore.”

Alvin, it becomes clear, runs a kind of one-man Watson Innocence Project, contesting Watson’s guilt for anyone who’ll listen. Although he has never been to Chatham Bend nor seen the river country where Leslie Cox roamed, he has iron springs from Watson’s bed and shards of glass from his windows. He knows Watson’s great-granddaughter, Edith, he says, who lives nearby and “has a head of red hair like E. J. Watson.” His tone is exasperated, not curt, but lawyerly, like he’s dead tired of explaining to folks what is self-evident, and he tends to punctuate sentences with a declarative “Yessir.”

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