Officers who have worked the midnight shift will tell you that it is a different animal. Busy at times, slow at others, but always different. A city changes somewhat when most people are asleep. That’s how it was at 1:00 in the morning of April 4, 1909. 24-year-old mounted policeman Officer R. J. Carter (some accounts refer to him as “J. H. Carter” and others as “J. D. Carter.”) was working on the east side of town – near 9th Avenue and Aragon Street. That area of town was known as Aragon at that time.
As a result of an unknown incident, Officer Carter took a man into custody. Officer Carter needed to have the man picked up by the wagon and taken to the jail. As they approached the patrol call box on the corner of Aragon and Luke’s Alley, a fight ensued. The suspect stabbed Officer Carter multiple times, the fatal one in the chest, leaving what was described as a gaping hole. Before he collapsed, Officer Carter managed to fire two shots at the suspect. Carter died on the spot. Within a few minutes, Marshal Sanders, Captain George Hall, and Sheriff VanPelt arrived and began an unsuccessful search for the unknown suspect.
A short time later, a lady appeared at the desk sergeant’s office at the police station inquiring about the bond amount for her husband, David Alexander, who had just been arrested by a mounted police officer (incidentally, another David Alexander was named chief of the Pensacola Police in 2015). Mrs. Alexander had been made aware that her husband had been taken into custody a few minutes before. Immediately, all officers were notified and sent to Mr. Alexander’s home to make contact with him. When they first made contact with him, Alexander’s clothes were disheveled, and his clothing and countenance were consistent with being in a struggle. He was arrested and taken to the city jail.
At 4:00 am, 40-50 masked men stormed the city jail, overpowered the officer and turnkey and took Alexander by force. They drug him out of the jail and across the street into Ferdinand Plaza. They threw a rope over a pole, put the other end around Alexander’s neck, and lynched him. Then – as he was hanging, they fired numerous bullets at him, fifteen striking him. The coroner later ruled the gunshots as the cause of death.
No matter how you view it, this incident was sad. One of Pensacola’s finest had just been brutally murdered while doing his job, and his co-workers had worked swiftly and diligently to apprehend the man responsible. However, instead of the town simply mourning Officer Carter’s death and proudly proclaiming and celebrating the efficiency of the work of the Department, a bunch of citizens allowed their emotions or their prejudice to get the best of them and put to death the man who had not been convicted of the crime.
An investigation into the lynching led to the arrest on April 17, 1909, of William “Russian Bill” Thompson at his home at Baylen and Cedar Streets. While awaiting trial, the jail personnel were increased for security purposes. On April 28, 1909, Thompson was found not guilty in a jury trial.
As horrendous as this incident was, it is a credit to a town who cared as deeply for their officers as those of Pensacola did. However, vigilante justice is never the proper action. Did David Alexander kill Officer Carter? Maybe – maybe not. But we will never know for sure.