End of Watch: The Death of Officer William B. Burnham: March 17, 1908

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From Pensacola’s Finest, available on Amazon

The only unsolved murder of a Pensacola Police Officer occurred 114 years ago yesterday…

On the evening of March 17, 1906, the weather was clear and mild – a typical March evening for Pensacola. W. S. Norman’s Saloon was its usual busy, bustling self – typical for a Saturday night. Most of the noises coming from the bar on the corner of Tarragona and Wright Streets were from laughing, happy, drinking men. This was a popular hangout for African-American men who lived and worked in downtown Pensacola. They all knew each other, and most were friends, including one of the regulars, Jerry Lenox. On this night, however, a stranger came in. No one knew James Ardis, where he lived, or why he was in Pensacola. From the time he arrived into the saloon he started to annoy people – seemingly on purpose. He started conversations which turned to arguments. It seemed as if he wanted to fight. He was looking for it. Then he started in on Jerry Lenox. Jerry had had enough of him and told him so. From there, Ardis and Jerry took it outside.  Jerry was tired of Ardis’ mouth, and decided that a fistfight might be the answer. But he was not prepared for what happened next. Suddenly, Ardis pulled a handgun. This was no longer fisticuffs – this was serious. 

Officer William Burnham was one of the best. Next to Charles Neel, he had made the most arrests of any of the officers at the police department last year – 338. That was almost one arrest every day!  He knew his beat well. After all, this is where he spent most of his waking hours. He was hired almost three years ago when he was 28 years old and had proven himself since then. Last year, he caught the sailor who robbed the woman on Main Street, he and Captain Fondebilla raided that card game in the back room of the bar on Railroad Street, and it was he who arrested Leo Lee, the sailor from the USS Alabama who struck and killed Walter Mann last April on Zarragossa Street. He did his job well, and he loved it.

As Officer Burnham was walking his beat near the southeast corner of Wright and Tarragona close to the Union Depot, he saw what looked like an altercation in front of Norman’s Saloon. As he got closer, he could see that a fight was breaking out between two men on the sidewalk. He started that way to break it up, but as he got closer, he noticed that one of the men had pulled a gun. The man shot twice at the other, but missed, as the targeted man ducked back into the bar. Burnham then called to the shooter and ordered him to put the gun down, informing him that he was under arrest. The man turned and fired at Officer Burnham, striking him in the chest. 

With a bullet in his chest, Officer Burnham chased after the suspect, who fled east on Wright Street toward Hayne Street. Officer Burnham pursued him for less than a block before he stopped – he could go no further. He leaned against a telegraph pole for a few moments, then fell face forward. Several people ran to his assistance, including Sheriff Van Pelt, who had responded to the sound of gunshots. Officer Burnham tried to speak to the sheriff, but was unable, and died within a few minutes. The bullet had severed an artery in his chest.

After interviewing bar patrons and witnesses in the area, officers established the identity of the suspect as 25-year-old James Ardis of Pensacola. He had been in trouble before and had recently been released from prison after serving time for another shooting in the nearby Goulding community. Witnesses described him as being mean and dangerous, especially when drinking. He was known to always carry a .32 caliber revolver with him, which was consistent with the evidence. Officers determined that, on the night of the shooting, Ardis fled east on Wright Street, turned north, stopped at two businesses and attempted to buy more ammunition. He was never seen again.  

Two days later, Officer Burnham’s funeral was attended by hundreds. He was laid to rest in St. Michael’s Cemetery. He was survived by his wife and two daughters. The Burnham family lived in the 500 block of West Government Street.


Tarragona and Gregory 2021
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