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 novelShadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legendhelped 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.”
Recently, Roy Wenzl profiled a woman named Kerri Rawson for The Wichita Eagle. Rawson’s life was upended a decade ago, when an FBI agent knocked on her door and informed her that the man she’d always known as a loving father was in fact the BTK serial killer. Wenzl’s piece is a compelling and meticulous portrait of a woman slowly coming to terms with the impossible. Below is an excerpt:
When friends questioned whether it was wise for them to have children, Kerri ignored them. She never worried about her kids inheriting a serial killer gene.
When Emilie, at 5, understood what “grandfather” meant, she asked where her grandfather was.
“In a long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Couldn’t Kerri go see him? Emilie asked.
“It’s a really long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Kerri asked friends: “Don’t tag our children” on Facebook. When friends asked why, she didn’t know how to answer them. She told some of them that “my dad did something terrible.”
“You blink. You look again. You look at other photos. You wonder if you’re being melodramatic, if your memory is faulty. You wonder if people will believe you, or simply think your imagination has run away with you. You wonder if there is a class of neurotic people who make up false accounts of run-ins with serial killers. You realize that to be true to your story and yourself, you can’t let what you are reading create false memories.”
The writer recalls her past life, without family and hitching rides at truck stops—and a time in which she may have crossed paths with a serial killer:
I had a vision of Lisa Pennal as a truck-stop Kali roaming the back lots in her denim skirt and fuzzy slippers with an ozone hole for a halo. She would be easy to dismiss. Rhoades intentionally chose women who lacked credibility. Sometimes, as with Shana Holts, the girl who had escaped in the brewery, the sense of not being credible was internalized. Lee told me that the final lines of Holts’s police statement read, ‘I don’t see any good in filing charges. It’s just going to be my word against his. If there was any evidence, I would file. I would file charges and sue him.’
It took me a second to understand those last sentences. What evidence was she lacking? She was found running naked, screaming down a street in Houston with DNA all over her body, her head and pubic hair shaved, still with his chain around her neck. How could she lack evidence? But I thought about what she’d said—’It would just be my word against his,’ which was clearly followed by the unvoiced thought: And who is going to believe me? I could easily imagine my own teenage voice whispering those same words.