HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
The Whitehurst-Whidden-Stevenson Feud
This page was last revised on July 4, 2014.
July 4, 1893. The town marshal of Tarpon Springs, William Erastus Whitehurst (1869-1893), attempting to arrest a drunken sponge fisherman named Robert Atwell, is shot and killed by Constantine “Bud” Stevenson and John S. McNeill in Tarpon Springs.
May 25, 1894. Constantine “Bud” Stevenson and John S. McNeill are convicted. The jury recommended mercy, saving the defendants from being hanged.
June 8, 1894. Judge Barron Philips declares a mistrial and thus voids Stevenson’s conviction for first degree murder and McNeill’s conviction for manslaughter.
July 26, 1893. A masked mob of 15 men, perhaps intent on seeking retribution on Stevenson, raided the house in which he was staying. Stevenson was wounded, but Henry Taylor Osteen, a 19-year-old cousin of Stevenson, who was sleeping, was unintentionally hit and killed.
Dec. 20-22, 1894. A second trial of Stevenson is held, and he is acquitted.
July 26, 1895. The New York Herald reports:
Messrs. Dan and Crockett Whidden were assassinated at their cedar camp on the Cootie River, in Pasco county, about one o’clock.... The men, with a large force of hands, have been at work in that vicinity for a week. The Whiddens slept in hammocks swung to two large trees. A dozen men rode into the camp, shot the brothers to pieces, and rode away. The negroes in the camp were awakened by the firing, and, going to the hammocks, found their employers frightfully mangled by gunshot wounds. The Whiddens took an active part in the Whitehurst-Stevenson feud, which has caused so much bloodshed in Pasco county, and they are said to have killed six men. It is supposed that they were assassinated by members of the Stevenson faction. More blood will undoubtedly be shed, as the Whiddens have a large family connection.
May 10, 1896. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that the cases against Tillet Whidden and Lewis E. Mobley for killing Tom Swayne have been transferred from Pasco County and will be tried this term of court. It reported that there are two cases against Whidden, one for killing a man some eight or ten years ago.
May 21, 1896. The Tampa Weekly Tribune reports that Tillet Whidden is found not guilty of murder.
May 27, 1896. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that jury selection has begun for the trial of Tillet Whidden charged with murdering John Ashley in what is now Pasco County in June 1881. [According to this page, the killing occurred much later.]
May 29, 1896. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that Tillet Whidden is found not guilty. “This is the second trial of Tillet Whidden for murder during this session and he has been acquitted in both cases.”
June 12, 1896. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports, “Mr. J. W. Crum, a well-to-do citizen of Brooksville, was shot and instantly killed Wednesday night by an unknown assassin near that place. It is thought that Tillet Whidden is implicated in the tragedy as bitter animosity existed between the two. No arrests have as yet been made. The deceased was a son-in-law of Mr. David Hope, of Brooksville, and leaves a wife and eight children.”
Feb. 3, 1897. Constantine Stevenson is killed at Hudson from an ambush attack. A later newspaper article reported, “Stevenson was planting a watermelon patch at the time of the shooting, and his two daughters were in the field with him. When he jumped over the fence he fell before his wife reached him with the gun, but died before he could use it. Ever since the killing of Whitehurst at Tarpon Springs three years ago Stevenson has carried his gun regularly and it is said that this was the first day he had ever been without it.”
Feb. 5, 1897. The Decatur Daily Republican reports:
Jacksonville, Fla., Feb. 5.—Constantine Stevenson, a farmer of this county [sic], was shot and killed yesterday while in his field. The assassins were concealed in a clump of bushes and fired four charges of buckshot into Stevenson, tearing his body to pieces. Stevenson was a member of the Tillet faction which has been engaged in a feud with the Whiddens, and which has now caused the loss of nine lives. In 1895, after four members of the Tillet faction had been killed, three of the Whidden brothers were shot to death while sleeping in hammocks at their lodging camp in this county. Stevenson, it is supposed, took part in this killing. In July of last year J. W. Whitehurst, a member of the Whidden faction, was assassinated while sitting on his front porch. Stevenson was indicted for this murder, and tried, but was acquitted, while the Whidden faction believed him guilty and swore vengeance, and his murder yesterday shows the vow was kept.
Tillet W. Whidden of Pasco County and Willard Whitehurst subsequently surrendered to Sheriff Spencer in Tampa. Both denied involvement in the murder; Whidden said he preferred the custody of Hillsborough to the jail of Pasco County. On Feb. 6, 1897, the Tampa Morning Tribune stated, “The killing of Stevenson is believed to be the sixth chapter in this tragical record of crime and it is about time the law was invoked to bring the book to a close.”
Feb. 24, 1897. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports that Tillet Whidden and Willard Whidden surrendered to the sheriff in the killing of Bud Stevenson, and that the Whitehurst-Whidden and Stevenson-McNeill feud continues with the assassination of Constantine Stevenson at Hudson. [According to John Fuller, a descendant of Stevenson, who has researched the feud, only Whitehurst, Stevenson, and Osteen were killed in the feud, and it ended with Stevenson’s death.]
May 27, 1897. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports:
Late Tuesday night Sheriff Spencer received a telegram from Trilby informing him that another victim of the Whitehurst-Stevenson feud had been killed. The victim was William Edwards, of that place, who was shot and killed by unknown parties a short time before the telegram was sent. The message requested the sheriff to come at once and bring his blood hounds. But owing to the fact that the hounds were out at the convict camp, and could not be gotten to the scene of the murder before the trail would be too cold to follow.
On May 27, 1897, other newspapers carried the following: “Tampa, Fla., May 27.—William Edwards was assassinated at his home near Trilby. He and his two children were eating supper, when parties concealed in the woods fired through a window, killing Edwards instantly. He was a one armed ex-Federal soldier. This is the seventh man killed in the Whitehurst-Whiddin-Stevenson feud. Bud Stevenson was assassinated in his field two months ago. It was thought Edwards did it, and he was marked by the friends of Stevenson.”
Sept. 5, 1900. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports:
A report reached the city yesterday which indicated that the long-standing Whidden-Whitehurst-Stevenson feud which has been in progress in this section for years, and which has recorded fourteen homicides already, has scored another victim. The report is to the effect that Tillet Whidden was shot from ambush, near Fort Thompson, last Friday, and that he is in a dying condition. At the time of the shotting, Whidden was riding across a field.
According to a genealogy post, Whidden died on April 24, 1914.
Genealogy Research Reveals Blood Feud Between Local Families
This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on July 4, 2014.
By PAUL GUZZO
TAMPA — As a boy, Trent Megill knew the story of the Hatfields and McCoys, and the feud along the West Virginia-Kentucky line that claimed at least a dozen lives in the late 1800s.
“I always found it to be a sad story,” Megill said. “All those people died, and for what? Revenge?”
Then, five months ago, while doing genealogical research, the 37-year-old Tampa man learned that about the same period, his ancestors were involved in their own local blood feud.
Megill is related to the Whitehurst family. Their battle with the Stevensons may have taken 14 lives.
“It was shocking,” Megill said. “I have an uncle who told me so much about my family but he never mentioned that story.”
One of the victims was Constantine “Bud” Stevenson, gunned down while plowing his field near Hudson.
Like Megill, a Stevenson relative — 72-year-old John Fuller of Alexandria, Virginia — was kept in the dark about the feud and only learned about it while doing genealogical research of his own.
Fuller knew his great-grandfather had died at the handle of a plow.
“That was how that sentence ended,” Fuller said. “I guess the truth was a source of embarrassment to my family.”
The feud traces its early days to Tarpon Springs and this day, July 4, in 1893.
Tarpon Springs was alive with activity, according to newspaper clippings, celebrating the nation’s birthday with a number of events including a jousting tournament featuring the town’s marshal, William Whitehurst.
The horseback riders had to snatch suspended rings with their lances, and Whitehurst was the favorite to win. But before he could take his turn, he was called to duty.
A drunk sponge fisherman was causing a disturbance at the Tarpon Springs docks.
When Whitehurst arrived, however, he was met by an enemy seeking revenge: Bud Stevenson.
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“There was apparently bad vibes between the two families before it turned deadly,” said Phyllis Koliano, president of the Tarpon Springs Area Historical Society.
Stevenson had a reputation as a cattle thief and had been accused of stealing cattle from Whitehurst’s uncle. The punishment was said to be a public whipping, though no records back that claim.
When Whitehurst tried to arrest the fisherman, Stevenson intervened, protecting his friend.
A fight ensued. Newspaper accounts described Stevenson as a muscular man whom Whitehurst could never best on his own. So he drew his revolver and fired two shots into the ground.
Stevenson responded by shooting Whitehurst in the chest. Whitehurst fired back and hit Stevenson in the head. The battle ended when Stevenson’s friend Johnny McNeill shot Whitehurst in the back of the head, killing him.
Tarpon Springs was part of Hillsborough County at the time, so Whitehurst is among the 15 fallen officers honored by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on a new memorial wall at the Fallen Heroes Remembrance Park in Ybor City.
His grave is in Curlew Pioneer Cemetery in Palm Harbor.
Trent Megill’s ancestors also include decorated Civil War veterans, Egmont Key’s first lighthouse keeper and Pinellas County’s first sheriff.
But whenever he visits the cemetery where eight generations of his family are buried, he stops first to pay respects at the simple foot-high obelisk headstone with faded lettering and crumbling walls that marks the burial place of his great-great-great-granduncle William Whitehurst.
“He was so young when he died,” Megill said. “He was only 23.”
Fuller, the Stevenson relative, also laments the manner of Whitehurst’s death.
“I can’t imagine he had much training for handling a delicate situation involving armed drunks,” Fuller said. “I believe he bit off more than he could chew. Shame on his superiors for putting such a young man in that office.”
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Bud Stevenson survived and was acquitted in the slaying in June 1894.
“It’s too bad Bud didn’t serve some time because he deserved it,” Fuller said.
Whitehurst’s relatives then sought their own brand of justice.
In July 1894, a masked mob of 15 men raided a home where Stevenson was staying. He was shot in the jaw and again survived. But his 19-year-old cousin Henry Taylor Osteen was killed.
“They chose not to end it peacefully,” Megill said. “So it continued to get worse.”
Whitehurst cousins Dan and Crocket Whidden, rumored to be among that mob, were killed in July 1895 at their cedar camp in Pasco County by a mob of 12. They were sleeping in their hammocks when, according to newspaper accounts, they were “mangled” and “shot to pieces.”
Stevenson was rumored to be among the assassins.
On Feb. 5, 1897, the Whitehurst family got Stevenson.
He was ambushed by two men while plowing the field at his home near Hudson. Five bullets penetrated his back, newspaper reports said, and he died at his wife’s feet.
The two original combatants, Whitehurst and Stevenson, were dead, but the feud continued.
Another eight deaths were attributed to the feud over the next three years.
Historians point to an article published Sept. 5, 1900, in the Tampa Morning Tribune, saying Whitehurst cousin Tillet Whidden had been shot. He survived the assassination attempt and would have been the 15th victim, according to the report.
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Fuller said he thinks the count is too high, though. He believes the true number is six and that the feud died when Stevenson was shot.
“There was a lot of violent activity going on in that area,” Fuller said. “And reporters were attributing deaths to the feud by speculation. The story was getting to be sensationalized.”
For instance, Whitehurst cousin William Edwards was killed in May 1897, but he was not involved in the feud and a suspect was never named. It was the Whitehurst family who speculated that the Stevensons were the culprits.
Fuller also has issues with the term “family feud.” He believes the fight was between only a few of Whitehurst’s cousins and his great-grandfather, hardly enough to implicate entire clans.
Fuller has reached out to members of the Whitehurst family, including a Whidden cousin for whom the subject is still a touchy one.
The relationship never moved beyond “simple correspondence,” Fuller said.
Neither Megill nor Fuller are proud of this chapter in their family histories, but they don’t hide from it, either.
Fuller hopes to publish a book that will include the tale of the family feud.
Megill wants to spread the story in any way he can.
“I think everyone should learn from it,” he said. “Don’t let revenge consume you. It only makes everything worse.”