April 22 – the Pensacola Murder Trial

On today’s date – April 22 – in 1895, Theodore Cunningham went on trial for the murder of Mary Sellers.

The scene today is a quiet street that transitions from commercial to residential. Standing in the middle of the block on East Romana between Alcaniz and Florida Blanca Streets, one can see the beautiful “Levin Center for IHMC Research.” To the west is the bustling downtown area of Pensacola, and to the east is the neighborhood of Aragon.

At 7:30 AM on Tuesday, November 27, 1894, Theodore and Mary were at her home on the same block on East Romana Street. Suddenly a single shot rang out and Mary’s lifeless body fell to the floor. Marshal William McDavid was in the neighborhood and heard the gunshot. He headed toward the house.

As the Marshal was enroute to the scene, he saw Sheriff George Smith, who was driving his buggy the same way for the same reason. The two teamed up, arriving at the house within seconds. They entered the house and found Mary’s lifeless body lying on the kitchen floor with a gunshot to the left side of her head behind her ear. It did not appear that the wound was self-inflicted, because the bullet hole had no gun powder residue on it. The shot was fired from a distance away.

As they arrived, Theodore threw a revolver out a window and ran out the back door. Instead of chasing him, the veteran lawmen circled the block and found Theodore in the company of two girls. When they announced to him that he was under arrest, he informed the girls that he was only a witness.

When questioned by Marshal McDavid at the police station, Theodore said that Mary was examining the pistol when it went off and shot her in the back of the head. She then threw the pistol out the back door before she died.

A coroner’s jury was convened, interviewed witnesses and examined the evidence. The jury foreman, C. R. Magee, announced, “We, the jury, find that Mary Sellars came to her death by a pistol ball wound inflicted by Theodore Cunningham.” Theodore was held in jail pending the trial.

Five months later, on April 22, the case went to trial. The few witnesses testified, making for a circumstantial case. Theodore testified in his behalf. He said that he stopped at Mary’s house with his pistol and laid it on the table. She picked it up and was examining it when it went off and shot her in the head. Frightened, Theodore threw the pistol out the window and ran.

The case was given to the jury at 8:15 PM, and they retired to the jury room to deliberate. It didn’t take long – an hour and a half – for them to reach a verdict. Not Guilty.

Theodore was a free man. A year later he married, and carried on with his life.

#oldpolicestories

Published by Mike Simmons

I am a retired sergeant with the Pensacola Police Department. I currently work as a coordinator at the George Stone Criminal Justice Training Center. I am married to the former Jerri Crabtree. We have three grown children and seven grandchildren. I volunteer with a boys' mentoring program known as "Royal Rangers."

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