The death of Peter Mathiessen Saturday at age 86 brought memories tumbling back.
The time I met him in Randy Wayne White’s house. The telephone interview I had with Mr. Mathiessen in 2010. And a trip that fall into the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the man he spent 35 years researching and writing about in four books – Edgar Watson.
Mr. Mathiessen’s four novels about the pioneer legend started with “Killing Mr. Watson” and ended with “Shadow Country.”
Anybody conversant with Southwest Florida history knows about Watson, the businessman who may also have been a murderous desperado, feared by all in the wilderness where they carved out lives on the fringes of the Everglades.
He was shot and killed by his neighbors at the water’s edge in Chokoloskee on Oct. 24, 1910.
For several years through the first decade of the 21st century I had that date tucked away, noted on my planning calendar at The Fort Myers News-Press. When 2010 came around I pitched a story to the editors to look at the legend of Edgar Watson and the work of Mr. Mathiessen.
I wanted to run the story on the 100th anniversary of Watson’s killing. Through serendipitous timing, Oct. 24, 2010 fell on a Sunday so the story could run in a Sunday section called Tropicalia and I could use a lede I had been hankering to see in print for years.
Here it is: “One hundred years ago today, a man in a powerboat puttered toward the Smallwood Trading Post in Chokoloskee.”
I sprinkled the story with quotes from “Killing Mr. Watson,” trying to provide a window into the time and place and the genius of Mr. Mathiessen’s prose.
There was this: “…the whip crack of a shot, two shots together. There is time for an echo, time for a high shriek, before the last evening of the old days in the Islands flies apart in a volley of wild fire.”
Oh, to be able to write like that.
Watson was shot down by at least 12, maybe as many as 20 of his pioneer neighbors.
A sign in Smallwood’s Store, which still stands, carries these words: “Killing Mr. Watson was a community project.”
Mr. Mathiessen had first heard about Watson when he was 17 and out fishing with his father.
“Very little is known about the real Watson,” Mr. Mathiessen told me in that telephone interview.
What he heard intrigued him.
“It just sort of stuck,” Mr. Mathiessen told me. “Here’s a guy killed by his neighbors who aren’t criminals. My father didn’t even know why he was killed.”
Watson came to the area with the reputation of an outlaw and enhanced it once he started doing business. Legend has it that he killed his employees on payday instead of paying them. The Ten Thousand Islands were probably a good place to hide out, especially way back then.
From “Killing Mr. Watson:” “Who else would come to these overflowed rain-rotted islands with not enough high ground to build a outhouse and so many skeeters plaguing you in summer you’d thought you’d took the wrong turn to hell.”
In 2010, Fort Myers resident Woody Hanson and his grown son Griffin took photographer Andrew West and me back into that maze of mangrove islands on a boat.
We went up the Lopez River and on through Oyster Bay and Huston Bay and then to the Chatham River. That’s where Watson had his home.
As we tied up, Woody told us, “You got to keep your eyes out for rattlesnakes.”
That got me attention. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter any rattlers. But we found remnants of the old Watson place. A vat. Brick cornerstone. A grinding wheel.
We squished our way through muck and ducked under branches and swatted at mosquitoes as we clawed toward where the house stood.
Mr. Mathiessen re-created the world so much better than I ever could. He also brought back to life through word pictures other early settlers.
He had a character named Henry Thompson say of Watson, “When Ed Watson shot something it stayed shot.”
The mythic and mysterious quality of the Watson legend was captured in print in 1910 in the weekly Fort Myers Press. The Watson shooting followed others in the area.
“Thus ends one of the darkest tragedies that has gone down in the history of the State,” the Press reported three days after the killing of Mr. Watson. “And perhaps the real truth of the matter will never be known.”
If not for the diligence and brilliance of Peter Mathiessen, the Watson legend would likely have faded away, lost to history.
It was an honor to have met Peter Mathiessen, a man of towering talent.