A 19th century photograph of downtown Marianna.

Lynching is usually represented to be a racial crime – and it often was – but the first recorded lynching in Jackson County had nothing to do with race.

A mob strung up James Avant and William Powers in Marianna on June 20, 1845. Both men were white:

In our last paper we spoke of the apprehension of a man by the name of Avant and one of his confederates, near Apalachicola. They have since been taken to Marianna, in Jackson county, where they were hanged on Friday, the 20th inst. without the form of trial; and notice was, at the same time, given to four gentlemen of the blackleg order, that if they were found in the place after the lapse of 10 hours, they should share the same fate. (1)

Marianna as it appeared in the 19th century.

The story of the lynching is shrouded in mystery but it is clear that the mob considered both Avant and Powers to be outlaws. Little is known about William Powers, but more detail is available on the life of James Avant. He first attracted attention in Florida when he became involved in a confrontation with a Pensacola businessman named Henry A. Nunes.

The nature of the dispute between the two men is not known, but Avant was charged with shooting and badly wounding Nunes:

Avant was a monster in human form, and his life for a series of years has been marked by crimes of the deepest dye. He came to our city some years ago, a fugitive from justice of the state of Alabama, where he had murdered a sheriff. He had not been here long before he attempted the assassination of one of our citizens, and being obliged to fly from here, he went to Marianna, where he was concerned in the murder of another officer. (2)

Records in the Jackson County Courthouse do not mention Lewis Williams, the victim of the murder that led to the lynching of Avant and Powers.

The officer that Avant was accused of murdering in Marianna was Lewis Williams, who some historians have incorrectly claimed was the Sheriff of Jackson County. William Wilbanks, for example, wrote in Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early Florida, 1840-1925 that Williams was the local sheriff when he was murdered by Avant and William H. Watson in a swamp near Marianna on April 26, 1844. (3)

Based on this and other books, the name of Lewis Williams was added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in 1997.

Williams may have been a law enforcement officer, but he was not the sheriff of Jackson County in 1844. Sheriff Samuel Stephens had been reelected in November 1843 and began his new term on April 20, 1844, just six days before Lewis Williams was allegedly killed by Avant and Watson. Stephens ran unopposed and received all 312 of the 312 votes vast in the race. (4)

Marianna’s historic Davis-West House was built at about the time of the Avant/Powers Lynching.

It is possible that Williams was a deputy sheriff, but if so he served for so short a time that he neither collected nor was owed any pay. Records in the office of the Jackson County Clerk of the Circuit Court do not mention Williams at all. The courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1848, but the records of the clerk’s office were stored elsewhere and survive to this day. (5)

Curiously, though, those same records reveal that the accused outlaw James Avant was himself a law enforcement officer in Jackson County. He was named the Constable for District Three on November 8, 1843, two days after Stephens was reelected to the post of sheriff. How a wanted man from Pensacola became a constable in Jackson County is yet another mysterious twist to the story. (6)

So who was Lewis Williams, the law enforcement officer said to have been murdered by Avant and Powers? The long and short answer is that no one knows. His name does not appear on the 1840 U.S. Census for Jackson County and the reward offer placed for the arrest of the suspects in his murder makes no mention of him being an officer:

Avant and Watson fled into the Chipola River swamps after the killing of Lewis Williams. Legend holds that Alamo Cave near Marianna once served as a hideout for such outlaws.

Whereas, it has been made known to me that William H. Watson and James Avant, late of the county of Jackson, stand charged with the murder of Lewis Williams, late of the county aforesaid, and that they, the said Watson and Avant, are fugitives from justice:

Now, therefore, be it known, that in pursuance of low, I do hereby offer a reward of $200 for the apprehension and delivery of each of the said offenders, to the Marshal of the Apalachicola district of Florida, or to the sheriff of Jackson County. (7)

Further confusing the matter are newspaper reports from 1844-1845 which indicate that Avant and Watson were wanted not for murder, but arson! (8)

Regardless, the two men fled into the Chipola River swamps. Watson had suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder in the encounter with Williams and needed time to recuperate. Avant, meanwhile, established a hideout in the vast wetlands north of Apalachicola and assembled a gang of outlaws that joined him in preying on travelers and local citizens. William Powers and four or five other men were part of this band:

Avant and Powers were captured in the vast floodplain swamps near Apalachicola, Florida.

The peace and well-being of the community demanded that such a villain should meet with retribution for his outrages – and owing to the insufficiency of our territorial government no jails have been provided for the security of criminals; he and his accomplices, therefore, in order to insure them punishment, were brought to speedy execution.

Those concerned were actuated by another motive – there still are remaining a number of men of the same desperate character in the swamps about the county, and an example, which the process of law could not afford, was necessary to strike them with terror. (9)

Avant and Powers were captured near Apalachicola by William Blount in June 1845. Whether he held any law enforcement capacity is not known, but he did collect the $200 reward offered by the state for Avant’s apprehension. (10)

Riverside Cemetery was Marianna’s only public burial ground in 1845. Avant and Powers were likely buried here.

Although the arrest of the two suspects was legal under Florida law, what followed was not. Taken by a mob, they were brought to Marianna and unlawfully hanged on June 20, 1845. The Pensacola Gazette and other newspapers attempted to justify the murders of the two men by pointing out the crimes that they had allegedly committed.

William Watson, meanwhile, eluded capture and soon made his way to Newnansville where he lived under the alias of “James Black” for three years. He was accused of murdering Sheriff William Gibbons of Alachua County in 1848 after the two men engaged in a dispute over the outcome of a poker game:

Notwithstanding that Black, who had been accused of the murder of Mr. Wm. Gibbons, was discharged by the magistrate immediately after the affair, such was the excitement of the citizens of Alachua county against him that they forcibly detained him in custody, with a daily and nightly guard, until the session of the Circuit Court for that county. The Grand Jury then found a true bill against him for murder. At his request the venue for his trial was removed to this county [i.e. Duval]. (11)

“Black” was identified as William H. Watson, the wanted suspect in the Jackson County murder of Lewis Williams, by the bullet wound in his shoulder. His father gave further confirmation before promptly helping his son escape from the Duval County Jail. Both men – father and son – disappeared and it does not appear that justice was ever served in the case.

The lynching of James Avant and William Powers challenges much that is accepted about such extrajudicial murders in the Deep South. Race was not a factor in the incident, which could definitely be described as a “spectacle lynching.” One of the victims, Avant, was even a law enforcement officer. His ability to escape following two previous incidents of violence played a major part in his death at the hands of a Marianna lynch mob. Newspapers noted that residents did not trust the Territorial government to assure that justice would be served for the killing of Lewis Williams.

Dale Cox
January 29, 2018
To learn more about a better-known Jackson County lynching, please consider my book The Claude Neal Lynching: The 1934 Murders of Claude Neal and Lola Cannady.

(1) Pensacola Gazette, June 28, 1845.

(2) Ibid.

(3) William Wilbanks, Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early Florida, 1840-1925, Turner Publishing Co., Paducah, Kentucky, 1998, pp. 11-13.

(4) Jackson County Archives, Marianna, Florida, documentation retrieved by Sue Tindel on January 24, 2018.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Proclamation of Thomas H. Duval, Secretary and Acting Governor of Florida, September 19, 1844.

(8) Republican Farmer, July 22, 1845.

(9) Pensacola Gazette, June 28, 1845.

(10) Resolution authorizing Comptroller to audit the account of William Blount, Acts of the General Assembly of the State of Florida, passed at its adjourned session, Tallahassee, 1845, Page 156.

(11) Jacksonville News, May 13, 1848.