End of Watch: The murder of Town Marshal Daniel Douglas, Bluff Springs Police Department, Florida

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An excerpt from the book, “Some Gave All,” coming soon on Amazon

By Mike Simmons

 End of Watch Monday, May 22, 1893 

The community of Bluff Springs, Florida lies 3.8 miles south of Century on the west bank of the Escambia River in northern Escambia County. Besides the Bluff Springs Recreation Area, it is only comprised of a neighborhood today. In the late 1800s, however, it was a thriving small riverfront town. From 1890-1895, the town was mentioned 864 times in the Pensacola papers. Bluff Springs had three churches, numerous shops, a train depot, a hotel, a post office, and even a private academy for advanced teaching of children. Musicians, poets, a judge, four voting delegates, a campground, and over 500 inhabitants lived there. 

Town Marshal Daniel Douglas, 42, was a prominent citizen of Bluff Springs. Shortly after moving to the community, he built a huge fine house in the community in 1890. Two years later, he was chosen as an inspector for the upcoming county election. He was said to be one of the town’s leading citizens and one of the primary reasons that Bluff Springs had enjoyed such a building boom.  

Store in Bluff Springs

As an elected Marshal, he was to maintain the peace. Even though he carried a rifle, he usually didn’t wear a sidearm. He didn’t feel he needed to. Of course, to carry out his duties, the best thing he could do was get to know the people. That is just what he did. He knew the town and the town knew him. 

So, it was no surprise when, on May 22, 1893, Douglas was notified that there was a law violator in Hughes and Co., a local store*. He and a citizen, Thomas Boutwell, walked to the store and approached the man in question, George Thomas. The Marshal and Thomas knew each other, but the Marshal had to make sure it was him that was accused of breaking the law – a city ordinance. After all, Marshal Douglas was a fair man. When he was sure, Thomas was placed under arrest.  

George Thomas was a local man. He had friends and family there and it was likely that this was a minor thing and could be cleared up easily. There was no need to place cuffs on the man and embarrass him. They left the store in a civil manner and began walking to the jail. Thomas displayed no resistance but went quietly. When the three walked outside, there was a crowd standing by. As the trio passed the crowd, Thomas suddenly stopped and told them he had done nothing wrong and would not go with them. Marshal Daniels started toward the suspect to take custody of him but was told by Thomas to stay back. The suspect then grabbed up the marshal’s .38 caliber Winchester (or Marlin, accounts differ) rifle and shot him in the heart.  

Mr. Boutwell, the witness with the Marshal, fled – as fast as he could run! The crowd dispersed as Thomas reloaded and shot at Boutwell but missed. He shot Marshal Douglas a second time, then turned toward the parties up the street and fired two or three shots in their direction and ran. Marshal Douglas’ son was working in the Hughes and Co. store at the time. Hearing the commotion, he had followed the crowd to see what was going on. After Thomas fired the rifle, the son stepped back into the store and retrieved his pistol. When he stepped back out, he shot at the killer. George Thomas did not stop, but the consensus was that he had been hit by the young man. He headed into the Escambia River Swamp. 

Escambia River Swamp

When such an incident occurs in a small, close-knit community, it sends such a shock that everyone and everything stops. The entire village breathed a collective gasp…then the hunt began. While the women grabbed the children and locked themselves inside, the men went home, armed themselves, and put extra ammo in their pockets. Then, as a small army, they set out. They set out to catch a killer – of a lawman, and of a friend. In the mind of each man, I imagine a battle was going on as to what they would do if they caught Mr. Thomas. Would they do the right thing and bring him in, or would they do the other right thing and kill him on the spot? In any case, if he tried to shoot, they would be free to kill him.  

Escambia County Sheriff Joseph Wilkins was notified and responded by making up notices about the murder and sending them out to all areas nearby. In addition, reward money came pouring in. People from Bluff Springs, Pensacola – even the governor of Florida sent money for a reward for Thomas’ capture. From different sources, there was close to a total of $500 offered, which amounts to $16,500 in 2022.  

Another problem soon surfaced. Accusations were made from those involved in the manhunt toward some of the friends and family of George Thomas. The bitterness grew to such a height that Sheriff’s Deputies were brought in by express train to quell the difficulties. They couldn’t quell the emotions.   

A massive manhunt followed, not only from townspeople, but also from neighboring towns, counties and even states. Deputies, hound dogs, hunters, even businessmen were on the trail of the killer. The news accounts repeatedly reported that his capture was almost certain to be gotten any day. 

Then the sightings began. He was seen in north Santa Rosa County, on the other side of the river that ran alongside Bluff Springs. Then he was reported to have been in New Orleans. A year later, he was reported to have been caught in Laurel, Mississippi and, in 1896, in Mississippi City, Mississippi. In 1897, he was sighted in Valdosta, Georgia and another Georgia sighting the next year. However, he was never captured.  

Grave of Marshal Douglas

What happened to George Thomas? For one thing, the Escambia River Swamp is big. Correction, it’s vast! It consists of over 35,000 acres of dense, muddy underbrush – on both sides of the river. It is a common occurrence for a person to get lost in it. Also, the Escambia River is deep and full of trees and snags, making it a deadly trap if someone falls into it. Then there are the gators, moccasin snakes and wild boars that roam freely. They are always looking for something to eat. 

Remember, George Thomas had many family members and friends that would gladly hide him out, which is probably what happened. Maybe he changed his name and appearance. Maybe he grew a beard. Maybe he moved away and began living elsewhere.   

Meanwhile, a string of murders sprang up in Bluff Springs. First was Mason Smith, then George Toler, then McMillan, then Johnson, all within two years’ time. With only 500 people living in town, the killing of five men in two years did what one would suppose. It gave the town a reputation as a wild killing town.  The town began to dwindle as citizens moved away.

By all accounts, Marshal Douglass was a town leader. He was buried in Crary Memorial Cemetery in nearby Century, Florida. He was survived by his wife and seven children. 

Rest easy, Sir. Your job is done.

*The Pensacola News, 5/24, 25, 26, 28/1893, 5/5, 8/1894, 7/271894, 2/11/1896, 5/28/1897, 7/16/1898


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