End of Watch: Officer Edward O’Brien Pursell: August 12, 1944

from the book, “Pensacola’s Finest,” available on Amazon

Along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, rivers refuse to rush. There are no jagged rocks for the waters to hustle over, no rapids formed by waters in a hurry to get somewhere. Instead, they meander, like the lifestyle. They wander through woodlands, towns and even cities, but they never rush.

            The Perdido is one of these. Roaming from side to side, it makes its way to the Gulf in its own good time. The Perdido River forms the asymmetrical border between southeast Alabama and northwest Florida.

            Following the War between the states, devastation was everywhere. Reconstruction was the order of the day. Unlike ever before, building materials – including lumber – suddenly became a high-demand product, and the virgin pine forests along the Gulf coast were ready to answer. Progressive minds and ready money were combined to begin harvesting the seemingly-endless supply of soft pine lumber. Sawmills and short-line railroads appeared almost overnight in strategic locations.

One of these sawmills was situated on the eastern shore of a large curve in the Perdido, where it began to widen out into a bay. It made sense. The lumber could be harvested in the forests, loaded onto a train and transported to the sawmill. The completed lumber would then be shipped out via the river. As the rivermen rounded the bend from the north or from the south, they had a magnificent view of the mill; hence the name “Millview.” Soon after the establishment of the mill and railroad, workers began to settle there. With them came stores, schools and a post office.

One of the first settlers in Millview was Henry Pursell from New Orleans. By 1880, he was much respected in the community, being a lumber inspector. Two years later, he took as a wife Louisa Williams who hailed from the banks of the Shoal River in Walton County, Florida, 60 miles to the east. From this union came four sons and two daughters. The Pursell family became a mainstay in the little settlement nine miles west of Pensacola.

The oldest of the children was Sam, born in 1885. Then came Charles, Burinteste, Violet, George and finally Edward, born in 1899. As did most of the families in that community, the children were close and learned the ways of the river and of the lumber business.

Edward, however, had another interest. He found himself attracted to the fiddle. Whenever the community had a social event, the fiddle was always the central musical instrument. A good fiddle player could transform a barn-raising into a stompin’ good time! Edward knew his family couldn’t afford music lessons, but he didn’t care. He wanted to play. And he found that he was good at it! He took to fiddlin’ as if he were born into it! As a teenager, he found himself to be the fiddler at most community social events. They were good times. Then it came…the “war to end all wars.”

He spent his 18th birthday at home. Five months later he boarded the USS Bushnell in New York Harbor as part of the U. S. Navy during World War I. What a difference! A small-town country boy living aboard a submarine tender in the middle of the country’s largest city!

When the war was over, Edward returned home to open arms. He continued his fiddling, and soon entered into a competition for best player…and he won! He also married Katie Helton and started a family. Nellie was born in 1923, Robert in 1924, Katherine in 1926, Edward in 1932 and Thelma in 1936.

Edward, a deeply religious man, was determined to support his growing family. He worked in nearby Warrington as a chauffeur, as an operator at the Pensacola power plant, and even as a minister at Pugh’s Chapel in the community of Molino, 26 miles north of Pensacola. The family didn’t have much money, but they were close. A talented group, they followed in Edward’s footsteps and began to sing together as a group, with Dad playing his fiddle. Thelma grew up to marry a church music minister and Katherine sang accompaniment for Bill Haley and Comets in the 1950s. Edward continued to excel in his fiddle-playing. Soon, he reigned as champion across the southeast United States!

As hard as life had been, things seemed to worsen with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by the Japanese. However, Edward discovered a silver lining. Many of the young men were drafted into service in 1942 and 1943, creating a need for workers in many areas. Law enforcement was no exception. When Edward inquired in 1943, he found that the Pensacola Police Department was in need of officers. It looked as if he might have found a stable position and a new career.

Edward found an additional family in the Pensacola Police. Smaller than normal due to the vacancies created by the war, they pulled together to keep the town safe. Edward and his family lived in town, so he was close to work and a real citizen. He belonged.

Officer Edward Pursell

So it was that he found himself working on August 9, 1944. Edward and H. P. “Buddy” Peake were working in their patrol car when they witnessed a traffic violation. When they got the car pulled over, the driver, Lt. A. D. Byers, U. S. N., began to be verbally abusive, cursing and using obscene language. After attempts to calm Byers failed, Edward placed him under arrest and moved to physically take him into custody. Byers would have none of it and began to violently resist, causing a physical fight. Suddenly, Edward grabbed his chest and collapsed from a heart attack. He was rushed to Pensacola Hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. After battling for his life for three days, Officer Edward Purcell died from the injury sustained in making the arrest. To make matters worse, Lt. Byers filed a complaint on Edward for excessive use of force, denying the resistance or abusive language. Officer Pursell’s funeral took place on Sunday, August 13 at 3:45 PM. The funeral began at his home on the corner of Garden and DeVilliers Streets and continued at 4:00 PM at the First Assembly of God Church, 1920 W. Garden Street. Interestingly, most officers and citizens of Pensacola were unaware of his fiddle playing fame. He was buried at Union Hill cemetery in Myrtle Grove.

Well done, Officer Pursell. The current generation of Pensacola Police Officers has the watch. Rest easy.


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