Don’t Try that on an Officer

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The story of the guy that brought an axe to a gunfight

By Mike Simmons

Officer Charles Neel was one of Pensacola’s Finest. In the two years that he had been on the force, he accomplished some amazing tasks.

When a man was crushed to death by a streetcar, he stayed with the family the whole next day, helping to organize a gift of flowers from the police department.

Pensacola Streetcar

When he discovered that the Norwegian Seaman’s Lutheran Church on the southeast corner of Palafox and Pine Streets was on fire one night during his regular patrol, he put the fire out, preserving the church from major damage.

When little Annie Mooney was run over by a buggy on West Intendencia Street, Officer Neel immediately ran out into the street, picked her up, and carried her home to her distraught mother to be tended to. I

In July 1905, Officer Neel responded to Tarragona and Intendencia to help Deputy Nicholson subdue a prisoner. As soon as they got the man under control, a friend of his came to his aid and threatened the officers with violence. Before he made good on his threat, Neel figured it would be good for the man to join his friend, so he placed him under arrest. That was when the fight started. A few minutes later, the second man was under control and sported a wound to his head, administered by the good officer.

Norwegian Seaman’s Lutheran Church

There was also the incident that included the man who was cursing loudly and acting disorderly. Officer Neel told him to calm down…then the fight started. It ended in a small riot. The next few days involved the man’s arrest, the court, and the exoneration of the officer who was originally accused of starting it.

On another occasion, Neel approached a man for being drunk and disorderly and was accosted by his drunk buddy. Neel had to fight both at the same time – a lot of fun.  

In the short time he had been on the force, he had worked his way up to mounted officer. On the evening of Saturday, September 8, 1906, he was patrolling on the east side of town. After he made a check at Wright’s Mill near the waterfront, he headed back along Aragon Street. At about 8:30 PM, he was met by a woman, Mrs. Williams, who excitedly proclaimed that a woman was being killed! She pointed to the Cunningham home, near the corner of 10th Avenue and Aragon Street in the Hawkshaw neighborhood of Pensacola.

Mounted Pensacola Police Officer

He hurried to the house that Mrs. Williams had pointed out to him and knocked on the door. The homeowner, Mr. H. F. Cunningham, answered. Officer Neel inquired if there was any violence or problem. Mr. Cunningham said that all was quiet, but he indicated that the problem might be from a house two doors down.  

Mr. H. F. Cunningham was not known as a nice man. First off, he was a Yankee. Further, he was a New York City Yankee, which, according to many residents, was almost a crime in itself. After all, the War between the states had only taken place 40 years earlier. Secondly, he was known as a regular wife-beater, which meant that he was a weak man.

Officer Neel went to the house pointed out by Mr. Cunningham. The homeowner emphatically said that he heard a woman screaming from the Cunningham house, and the problem was probably there because Mr. Cunningham beat his wife often.

By this time, the neighbors were beginning to gather. So, Officer Neel, smart enough to not go by himself, grabbed two of the male bystanders to go with him. One of the men, J. A. McCumby, was deputized on the spot. Officer Neel quickly swore him in as a law enforcement officer.

Then the three men returned to the Cunningham residence. Before reaching the front porch, they waited in silence for anything that could give a hint as to what was going on. Nothing…then they heard it. A woman screaming. She was screaming as if in tremendous pain.

Neel and his assistants crashed through the front door. There, in the middle of the room, was Mr. Cunningham on the floor viciously beating his wife with his fists. Neel shouted to Cunningham that he was under arrest. Cunningham said that he wasn’t going anywhere without a warrant. He said that the whole police force couldn’t take him without one.

Neel realized he would have to resort to physical measures to subdue the man. The fight was on. Neel jumped in with his nightstick and tried to get the suspect off his wife. Cunningham took the nightstick away from the officer.

Maybe he was angry, or maybe he was embarrassed, but Neel suddenly had a burst of energy and wrestled the nightstick back. Then he subdued Cunningham and again informed him that he was under arrest. This time, the suspect consented. He asked if he could get his shoes and was allowed to.

After he got his shoes from the bedroom, he lay on the bed and refused to go. Neel tried to talk him into coming peacefully. Finally, Cunningham got up, reached under the bed, and produced a hatchet. He said, “I’ll fix you now!” and came at Officer Neel with the hatchet raised over his head. But his wife pushed him as he was coming down on Neel’s head and made him miss. Again, he tried. He lifted the hatchet again but was met with two rounds fired from Neel’s revolver. One hit him in the elbow and the other hit him in the hand, but followed through his abdomen, causing about a dozen holes in his intestines.

Neel quickly called for help and the wounded Cunningham was taken to the police station where the police doctor examined him. He immediately determined that Cunningham was bad off and had him taken to the Marine Hospital. But they couldn’t help him. At 4:00 AM on Sunday, September 9, H. F. Cunningham died of his injuries. No one, not even his wife, came to claim the body of the dead man. So, he was buried in an unmarked grave at the expense of the city.

A coroner’s inquest was assembled to determine if the actions of Officer Neel were legal and necessary. After interviewing the witnesses, neighbors, and doctors, it was determined by the coroner that Officer Neel was justified in taking the action that he did, as it was in defense of Mrs. Cunningham, the two men who were present, and Officer Neel. He was exonerated.


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