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Sunday Favorites: Cedar Key Mayor Deposed in Quirky Coup


Who doesn’t love a good Florida Man story? One of the most bizarre, as highlighted by journalist and humor author Craig Pittman, dates back to 1890. In a tale that could only come from the Sunshine State, the U.S. government had to send an armed convoy to Cedar Key to remove its dictator-like mayor, William “Billy” Cottrell, whose authoritarian rule caught the attention of President Benjamin Harrison himself.

President Harrison later justified the move to Congress by claiming he acted in the “best interest of the nation,” according to a 2019 Smithsonian Magazine article “Florida Man Terrorizes Town, Forcing Federal Government to Step In,” by Francine Uenuma.

The small town of Cedar Key, situated on the Gulf Coast 130 miles north of Tampa, emerged as a strategic hub in the late 19th century. It served as a vital supply depot during the Seminole and Civil Wars. As the railroad's southern terminus, Cedar Key became a bustling center for commerce and tourism, facilitating trade and travel to more southern destinations like Manatee and Key West. In addition to its advantageous location, Cedar Key supplied Americans with a vital product, it was the primary producer of pencils, according to the Cedar Key Historical Society.

In 1889, Cottrell, 33, was elected mayor of the small town despite his unpredictable reputation. Five years earlier, he’d made local headlines during a regatta in Tampa Bay. While racing his family's schooner, Nannie, he became furious when another boat cut him off. He ran below deck, grabbed his pistol, and may have killed his competition if it weren’t for his crewmates who wrestled the firearm out of his hands, according to Uenuma.

So how did this unstable individual come to hold a position of power? It seems his family was well-connected. His father was a state senator, and his brother was a prominent Cedar Key business owner. His wife, Carolina Frier’s family was also politically allied. Together his family’s reputation and resources deferred any consequences for the young man, who as Ueneuma wrote, “had no occupation of note before taking office.”

Unsurprisingly, Cottrell's bad behavior also marked his tenure as mayor. The young man’s cruel and homicidal mood swings were tactics used to intimidate his constituents. Horror stories soon spread across the state as Cottell forced a man at gunpoint to beat a telephone operator senselessly. He terrorized women by kidnapping them during shopping trips and holding them hostage for his amusement. A local hotel exterior was marred with bullet holes after he’d gotten drunk and tried to shoot an adversary outside, Uenuma wrote.

Rumors circulated that he’d been violent even as a child when he stabbed an elderly man who dared to correct him. But in a position of power, his behavior became increasingly tyrannical. He imposed strict control over the town, including acts of violence and intimidation against those who opposed him. According to Pittman, he even ordered residents to head-butt each other in the street.

Finally, one woman had enough. Rose Bell wrote the President of the U.S. a letter on August 4, 1889, calling for an investigation into Cottrell’s “outrageous conduct.” Bell claimed the mayor was an alcoholic who scared and humiliated locals for his enjoyment. In the letter, she described horrendous acts by Cottrell, including forcing a black man to parade through town in costume and even killing his own brother-in-law. While others feared speaking out would spark retaliation against loved ones, Bell said she had “no son or husband for him to fuss with and shoot” making her the best person to expose his character. President Harrison took note of the conditions and commended Bell for her bravery.

Meanwhile, back in Cedar Key there was a new blood in town that outranked Cottrell and threatened his menacing persona. J.H. Pinkerton a customs collector appointed by President Harrison himself with oversight of revenue generation and maritime law. Pinkerton refused to be intimidated by the young mayor, even after Cottrell threatened to kill him. The warning, and several intense escalations, prompted Pinkerton to send a telegraph to Washington asking his superiors to send backup.

The ship McLane was dispatched to Cedar Key and helmed by Captain Thomas S. Smyth. Symth warned his crew that the disturbing stories in the media were not exaggerated and did not tell half of Cottrell’s crimes. By the time the ship arrived, Cottrell had already left town, escaping along the Suwanee River. The crew of the McLane remained nearby searching homes and businesses and firing blanks to deter the former mayor’s return.

Despite the federal government’s intervention, Cottrell managed to evade capture. Ultimately, it was his volatile temper that led to his demise. After continuing his unseemly habits, he was challenged to a duel by the police chief in Montgomery, Alabama, and killed.

Today, the scandal is a mere footnote in Cedar Key’s history. But one thing is certain – it’s a helluva good Florida Man story.­­­­­



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