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Sunday Favorites: The Fallen Marshal

This scene may be wild west reenactors shown during a performance at the Six Gun Territory theme park in Ocala, Florida, but a shootout like this one happened in downtown Palmetto in 1897.

We have all heard of the Wild West, where high noon sometimes indicated the commencement of a shootout between "the law" and out-of-control cowboys. But what about the Wild South? Like the Wild West, Florida was a haven for fugatives, misfits and criminals all searching for a place they could kick off their boots and call home.

Just like the old westerns, town marshals and sheriffs that dedicated thier lives to the safety of citizens and didn't tolerate trouble in their towns. This week, we will take a glimpse at one man who was killed in the line of duty to understand just how unruly life was in those long ago days of Florida Indians and cowhunters. 

“Two pistols, six shots. One man before the law and the other before his God,” read the Manatee River Journal, Sept. 23 1897.

Marshal Joe Terry was the first lawman in Manatee County killed in the line of duty.

His death occurred in the pool hall, formerly Joe Hendrix’s store, on the Palmetto wharf where he was shot five times. 

The Journal described the gruesome scene: “Stretched out on the dirty floor, his haggard face and disordered clothing smeared with blood, open eyes starting at nothing, lay the body of Joe Terry.”

According to Forgotten Heroes, a book by William Wilbanks, Palmetto was incorporated as a city in 1893 with the law enforcement entrusted to a town marshal. 

Back then, the marshal didn’t just protect citizens by putting away bad guys; he also collected taxes and made residential inspections every two weeks. During the inspections, the marshal would take a tally of family members, make sure conditions were sanitary and inquire if there was any sickness in the home. 

Wilbanks reports that there were seven marshals the first two years of Palmetto’s incorporation, their pay ranging from $15-40 a month. 

Terry was conducting his bimonthly routine on that unfortunate September morning when his life ended unexpectedly. 

He was downtown around 11 a.m., cautioning residents to clean up their homes or they would receive a citation. 

Terry was just about to leave the pool hall when he began to “engage Felix M. Tate in conversation.”

The conversation soon turned aggressive and Terry “seized Tate by the shoulder,” according to The Journal. Apparently he was trying to arrest Tate; however, the reason behind the arrest remains unclear, Wilbanks writes.

Tate wriggled free of the marshal’s grip. 

A disgruntled Terry drew his revolver and fired. 

Although it seems that Terry was only trying to scare Tate, as the barrel was aimed in the air, Tate quickly drew his gun and fired five times. Three bullets hit Tate in the chest, one hit him in the groin and the other was a miss.

Terry reportedly yelled out, “He got me!” before collapsing in the doorway of the pool hall. 

Despite the marshal’s untimely end, Tate was never convicted of murder.

On Sept. 30, 1897, he was taken before a county court judge who, after hearing from both the defense and prosecution, ruled Terry’s death to be justified. 

Both Tate and Terry were family men, The Journal reported, but in the end it did little to fill the void left by the death of such an important figure. 

The story of the West has been told with the help of the movies, books and television shows. But if the same attention were paid to the great untold story of the Wild South, then stories like Terry’s would show that the same kind of struggle and grit was laid below the Mason Dixon Line. 


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