Ty Starkey, July 2003
Tom Faircloth and Theodore Smith had become close friends, despite their age difference. The younger Tom was relatively tall and thin with dark hair and a dark mustache. Theo was almost his opposite, being a bit shorter and more muscular with sun-bleached hair and a blonde handlebar mustache. Both men were from good families, but unlike their families, both liked to drink overmuch and preferred carousing and “hell-raising” to work.
Partying does cost money, though, so the two usually managed to find employment, mostly as farm laborers and cowpokes. When he could manage it, Theo enjoyed working as a hunting guide for the rich tourists who came to resort at the quaint gulf-side town of Cedar Key. But, sadly, the wheels of the Cedar Key tourist industry had almost completely ground to a halt following the hurricane of ’96, which had nearly destroyed the entire village.
Recently, Tom and Theo had hired on with Rob and Haygood
Ellzey logging cedar in nearby Lafayette County. Logging was dangerous and backbreaking work, but for many
years the pencil factories of Cedar Key and the surrounding logging companies
and sawmills had provided work for those who wanted it. And though the hurricane had inflicted heavy damages on these
businesses as well, there was still work to be had.
As is often the case, trouble started with a rumor. The rumor was going around that rich, old L.B. (Brit) Lewis had $20,000 in gold locked in a safe in the Lewis’ home. Of course, this was during the post-Civil War/Reconstruction depression and a sum of that size would be like having over a million in cash in stored in one’s home today.
So, Tom and Theo caught wind of the rumor, and both men,
having previously worked as farm hands for Mr. Lewis, were familiar with the
Lewis home. Once, while working at
the Lewis farm, Tom had seen the safe and wondered who in those parts had enough
money they would need a safe to keep it. The
very idea of the safe had impressed him then, but not nearly so much as it
impressed him now.
Tom Faircloth, according to his own confession, had started thinking of how to steal the money and had been mulling it over for a couple weeks before he brought it up to Theo. Why should they be doing all this backbreaking work, when Old Man Lewis is sitting up there on a mound of gold? Theo, whose wife, Ella Osteen Smith, had just born their second child, considered this, and agreed Tom’s was a good idea. But, first they had to figure out how they could commit such a crime without being caught, and second they had to figure out how to break into the safe.
In preparation, the two men went to Proctor’s general store in Bronson and ordered a drill, two large drill bits to break the safe, and also ordered “false mustaches”. [Can you imagine walking into a general store in 1902 in Bronson and ordering drill bits and fake beards? There was certainly no mystery surrounding the murders.] Neither of them could read well, but they had heard the stories of bank and train robbers from the dime novels, and they figured this was the way to start.
Theo, Ella, and their two young children, one his newborn little boy, lived in Bronson, the county seat. The Lewis couple lived outside of Bronson, near a small town named Ellzey after the Ellzey family for which Tom and Theo worked. Tom decided to move to this town of Ellzey a month and a half before the caper, to further plan the robbery. The Monday after the drill and mustaches arrived, Tom took them out to Bronson to show Theo and further confer about their plans. After a bit of discussion, they decided the sooner the better, and so, they would do their dirty deed the following weekend.
Tom Faircloth came back to Bronson Friday morning to see Theo and make a last trip to the store. He bought a box of .38 shells and 25 cents worth of black powder. The powder was to be used to blast open the safe, and the shells were for a .38 caliber rifle Theo was going to “borrow” from his uncle.
The two young men met Saturday morning in the pasture behind Joe Prevatt’s house. Now, this wasn’t necessarily the smartest place to meet as Joe Prevatt’s father had been the Sheriff of Levy County and Joe was an upstanding citizen of the community. Joe’s mother and wife were also relatives of Theo’s, and his father had ridden with Theo’s father-in-law, Sol Osteen, in the Cow Cavalry during the Recent Unpleasantness, as they liked to call it. Basically, not a good spot to plan a robbery, but the two were known more for their brawn than their brains.
From the start, things did not go as planned.
To Tom’s aggravation, Theo had failed to bring the .38 rifle.
Theo’s uncle had gone hunting and taken the gun with him, but
regardless, with their “cudgels” in hand, they decided they were armed well
enough to face a couple of old folks and proceeded to the Lewis’ farm.
Arriving at the edge of the farm by afternoon, they had some time to kill since the plan was to do the deed after dark. Acting more like truant schoolchildren than adults planning a robbery, the two men spent the afternoon in Mr. Lewis’ vineyard eating grapes and goofing off.
As the light faded, Theo and Tom crept through the cane patch up to the side of the Lewis house. They looked through the Lewis’ windows and saw the two were still up and about. Tom argued they’d be better off if the couple was dead anyway and wanted to go in after the money even if it meant killing the elderly pair in the process. After all, what else did Theo figure they brought clubs for- to tickle them? Theo begged Tom to reconsider, and finally they agreed to come back the next weekend.
It was evening now, so they went on down the road to the abandoned Jackson house and stayed the night. The next morning they set out for Theo’s, and Ella fixed them breakfast. She had begun to get used to Theo’s not coming home and had stopped badgering him about his actions. He was usually drunk and mean when he was home, so though she loved him, it was almost a relief for him to stay the night elsewhere. Besides, she had determined to raise the children on her own if she had to. Little did she know what a good decision that had been, or how soon she would find herself in such a situation.
Tom returned to Ellzey that Sunday evening, and he spent the rest of the week planning. Thursday night, they met again and decided to do the crime the next evening.
Resolved not to depend on Theo this time for a weapon, Tom borrowed a shotgun and empty shells from his friend Jim Hill, under the pretense of doing some hunting that weekend. Tom wanted to get some more powder and shot, but he was afraid to buy the items this close to robbery.
As he later admitted, “Luck came my way. Father sent me to purchase 10 cents of powder.” Tom bought 25 cents worth of powder and returned to his father’s house. When he got back there, he realized his father and brother were not home, so he took the opportunity to portion out his powder, and stole some shot from his father’s shot bag. Later that day after dinner, his family tried to get him to stay for a while, but Tom insisted he had to get back to Ellzey “without fail”.
Theo waited near the Seven Mile Post as they had preordained, and soon he saw Tom coming up the road. They walked on down to the cross roads at Deer Pen Pond, where they sat down in a clearing by the water’s edge and had a drink of bitters to “cure” themselves of their nerves. For some time, Tom and Theo sat there drinking, but as the afternoon waned, they decided they were ready to commence with the crime. The two disguised themselves as Negroes by blackening their faces and hands and donning their fake beards, then convinced no one would recognize them, they set out for the Lewis house.
When the sun began to set, Tom and Theo crept down by the house of Brit’s son Jim, who lived and worked at his father’s farm. After making sure Jim wasn’t home, they moved on across the pasture to the main house and waited for dark. Theo finished off the rest of the bottle of bitters and by this time they were “good and boozey” according to Tom’s later testimony.
Creeping nearer to the main house, the place seemed unusually quiet. With a closer inspection, the would-be thieves found the house was completely empty. Following this discovery, Theo went inside to find a weapon, and soon he emerged with a .22 hunting rifle, commonly used for hunting squirrels and rabbits. Actually, the rifle looked plain ridiculous in comparison to the double barreled shot gun Faircloth was carrying, but to Theo’s eyes, it was more threatening than the club he had brought.
Theo told Tom, “You go on in the house and start to drillin’. I’ll stay out here and watch,” so Tom went in and started drilling on the safe until his bit broke.
Angry about the broken drill bit and ready for a rest, Tom came outside and told Theo, “How ‘bout you go in the house and drill for a while, and I’ll watch the road.” Theo shrugged in agreement, and they switched jobs. Theo soon went to work on the safe, and Tom poked around in the front parlor watching for the Lewis’ arrival.
The task was difficult and Theo had not been drilling very long when he thought he heard a noise outside. Tom went to the door to check, and yelled to Theo, “I see them old folks coming down the road!” Theo grabbed the rifle and drill and the two ran out of the house. They made immediately for the barn only yards away and hid inside.
When the elderly couple approached the house, Tom aimed the shotgun at the couple seeing an opportunity to kill them both at once, figuring then they could easily get back to work on the safe. But again Theo quailed at the idea and said, “Don’t kill ‘em Tom, let’s just git. You know Jim’ll be following along behind’ em some’eres.”
The younger Tom was becoming irritated with his older counterpart. He glowered at Theo and hissed, “I come here for that money, and I’ll die ‘fore I leave it.” They looked out the stable door and saw the old man sitting on the front porch. He was removing his shoes and looked as if he was preparing to wash his feet. Mrs. Lewis had gone into the kitchen and looked as if she was getting something together for them to eat.
Fearing Theo’s lack of resolve, Tom grabbed his friend by the shoulder and looked into his blackened face, “Now did you come here to die for that money or not, ‘cause I shore did!” He shook Theo a bit as if shaking sense into him and growled, “Now, you better git on over there and shoot that old bitch, or you’re gonna git shot yourself!”
Theo looked into the white eyes glaring from behind the black face and decided in a moment that Tom was deadly serious. In the darkness of the barn, Theo’s focus shifted from Tom to the rifle in his own hands then to the lighted kitchen window. Theo’s gaze returned to Tom, but this time with a fierce gleam in his blue eyes. His head nodded in agreement, and with no additional words, the two went about their deadly mission.
With his wool hat pulled down to his eyes, as if to shade himself from the moonlight, Theo crept to the open window and glanced at the woman inside. Oblivious to the violence she was soon to encounter, Georgia Lewis hummed quietly to herself, as she set out a couple plates and pulled some bread from the pie safe.
Trying his best not to think about the heinous crime he was about to commit, Theo poked the rifle’s barrel through the open window and fired. The action was so quick, he did not see where he hit her, but as she screamed and ran from the kitchen, he knew he had.
Tom ran to the front of the house where the old man was sitting. The crack of the .22 had startled Brit Lewis and he jumped to his bared feet. At once, another frightening noise reached his ears, and with heart racing, the elderly Mr. Lewis darted for the front door toward the sound of his wife’s terrible screams. From the corner of his eye, he saw a dark figure round the corner of his house. Brit Lewis turned to see a black-faced man emerge from the shadows. The old man barely had time to move before Tom let him have both fiery loads in the chest. As if hit with an invisible battering ram, the man stumbled backwards propelled by the force of the shotgun blast. A bloody mess, he tumbled off the porch into the sandy yard.
Screaming in panic, Georgia Lewis came running from within the house towards her dying husband. The tough old farmer struggled to regain his feet and with a gasp he yelled at his wife to run for her life, but she only heard a muddled groan as he collapsed to the ground before her eyes.
In abject horror, she stood frozen in the doorway. Georgia looked from her dying husband to the black, bearded man who was now reloading his shotgun. Tears ran down her face as she stood there screaming, petrified with terror.
Only an instant later, Theo turned the corner to see Faircloth unload with both barrels into the face of the panic stricken woman. Georgia America Lewis crashed to the wooden floor of her large home, her once beautiful face, now unrecognizable.
Theo came running up the steps of the porch in near panic himself. He stared at the dead woman on the floor with most of her face gone. He then looked through the thick, white smoke to the old man who lay in the yard sucking air through a gaping chest wound. Slowly he turned towards Tom who was now out of ammo. Standing amidst this scene of carnage, Theo could not be sure if the two words had come from Tom or perhaps it was the voice of the Devil himself, but the message rang clear in his ears, “Finish him!”
Theo looked with eyes wide at his young friend, then turned and fired a shot into the body of Brit Lewis. With his excitement turning to panic, he spun back towards Faircloth and huffed, “You satisfied? He’s dead! Now we gotta git the hell outta here!”
Tired of Theo’s bumbling, Tom stared at him coldly and stated calmly they were going to sit right where they were until Jim Lewis got home, then they would kill him, too. It was the only clear choice. A bit embarrassed of his franticness in the face of Tom’s seeming calm and resolve, Theo looked towards the road but did not reply.
Having committed a double murder, and not received a cent for his work, Tom was furious and refused to leave. Shaking his head, Theo walked to the barn to retrieve the clubs and drill they had left behind and search for any incriminating evidence. As the evening sky darkened, the passing minutes seemed like hours. Reflecting on the words spoken by his hotheaded young friend, Theo decided he no longer cared for the money, and was inclined to get as far away from this place as possible as quickly as was practical.
Finally, feeling as if he were thinking clearly for
the first time that day, Theo threw his club under the house and made plain his
intention to leave whether Tom Faircloth followed or not.
Gripping the rifle tightly in his hands, he walked away and hoped Tom was
truly out of ammo.
Sitting alone on the dark steps of the house, Tom watched
the figure of his partner fade into the darkness. He repeated to himself that it was more dangerous to leave
Jim Lewis alive to chase them down like dogs, than to make his stand right here
and now. But in the end, Tom did
follow, dropping the drill as he ran.
Looking for more to drink, supplies, and a good place to
hide, they made straight for the Smith family still where Tom stashed the empty
shotgun. But again, Theo was in no
mood to stay in place, and they went on down toward the Evingston’s and then
down past the Duncan’s place where they soon found the railroad tracks and
followed them into the Otter Creek swamp.
The two fugitives stopped to rest their aching lungs and
discuss what would happen now. Tom
figured the law would soon be setting after them with coonhounds, as by now Jim
Lewis had surely found the bodies of his murdered parents.
Really, he considered, their only option was to run further into the
swamp. Once they made sure they
could not be followed, they would return to their homes, and act as if nothing
had ever happened. So once again,
they were up and running into the pitch-dark swamp.
When they came to the Wacasassa, “about ten miles down below Love Faircloth’s place”, according to Theo’s later testimony, he realized they were still carrying evidence of their crime. Having fished and hunted the area for years, he knew well the creeks and rivers of the Otter Creek swamp, and he soon found a deep hole in the Wacasassa where they could dispose of their tools. Theo threw the rifle into the black waters, hoping to never see it again, but Tom decided he wanted to keep the broken drill bit and hid it beneath the “public road” bridge crossing the Wacasassa Creek.
Having disposed of the Lewis’ rifle, the beards, and the drill bit, they washed the remainder of their disguises off, most of which had sweated off in their flight. Once again they waded into dark, snake-infested waters of the creek. For almost a mile, they waded -sometimes up to their chests- in the black water. When they were convinced no dog could follow their trail, they returned to “dry” ground, which was not so dry now that they had entered the Gulf Hammock.
Near daybreak, they stopped at Tom Faircloth’s father’s abandoned home on the edge of the swamp to rest their bodies and plan their immediate future. Tom figured he would head to his family’s home, but Theo being many miles from Bronson would head to his friend Torn Townsend’s place nearby. They would wait to see if anyone caught on to the fact they had murdered Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, then if they had been found out, Tom intended to head to the Suwannee River where they could catch a boat north into Georgia. Theo thought it would be easier to jump a train heading from Cedar Key to Jacksonville and hide there, but either way, they would need to split up.
Come daybreak, following their short respite, they headed out to the “Bac Lilice” [sic] road, where they met a black fellow named Ike Lightford. Unaware of their crime, he kindly offered to give them a ride, so they hopped in his wagon. Theo rode about a quarter mile up the road till they got near Torn [sic] Townsend’s house, and he said he wanted to go for a visit. It was about noon and he thought he might call on the Townsend’s for lunch. Continuing the charade, Tom bid him farewell, and rode on with Ike until they reached Tom’s Grandpa Stephens’ place, where he thanked Ike for the ride, and sent him on his way.
Later that evening, Theo came into town. He stopped by the Stephens’ house near dark, and he and Tom spoke for a few minutes. “You heard anything, yet?” asked Theo. Tom replied that he had heard nothing so far.
Theo headed over to their mutual friend Jim Hill’s house, and stayed there all night trying to act as if none of the previous day’s horrible events had occurred. He then made his way on home Sunday morning to get some needed sleep.
Next… The capture and trial of Theodore Smith and Tom Faircloth…