Saturday, July 1, 2017

Unsolved Pensacola Axe Murder, 1926

What is now a segment of W. Hilary St. in Pensacola, once was known as Chipley Alley.  It lies just south of W. Garden St. between S. Coyle St., and S. Reus St. It was near the site of the old Frisco railroad freight and passenger terminal building.  On the night of July 4, and early morning of July 5, 1926, 410 Chipley Alley was the site of a vicious attack on two adults, and two children by an axe wielding madman.

            Preston Pickerin, a 23-year-old carpenter, and his wife Hattie had spent part of the evening of July 4th in Cantonment at an Independence Day celebration, where Hattie won a cake.  Two children, 6-year-old Emmett Simpson, son of Hattie from her previous marriage, and 13-year-old Lucille Cushings, Hattie’s little sister had remained home.

            A neighbor, Mrs. Ella Martin was awakened just before dawn, by a low rumbling sound she could not identify, and got up to investigate. She walked outside, and looking through the Pickerin’s window.  Seeing the gruesome scene, she ran inside screaming, “Hattie, Hattie!” She later said that Mrs. Pickerin had mumbled something and lapsed into unconsciousness.  In the adjoining room lay the two battered children, still clinging to life.

            Mrs. Martin called the police, and requested they bring an ambulance.  The first officer on the scene was Captain J. R. Simmons, followed soon by Chief of Police William O’Connell.  The officers found the room in disarray, and the walls covered in blood.  There was evidence of a struggle in the adult’s room.

            An axe covered with hair, and blood was found in the children’s bed. The axe was delivered to fingerprint expert Robert Forrest, and after extensive examination, he could find no usable prints. A shoe was also found in the house that showed a defect in the sole that matched shoeprints found outside in the unpaved alley.

            As the rumors spread through the local community, a crowd began to gather to view the scene of the crime. All four victims were transferred to the hospital.  Mr. Pickerin was near death and was only given a few hours to live. His wife Hattie was unconscious with severe gashes to her head.  At this time, the children were reported near death, but a few hours later they regained consciousness.  They both could not remember what happened. They had been attacked while asleep, and had no memory of the assault.

            The police canvassed the neighborhood, questioning neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.  They discovered that bad blood existed between Pickerin and a man named Taylor. As recent as June 28th, members of Pickerin’s family had appeared as witnesses against Taylor.  Taylor and other members of his family were brought in for questioning.  (I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was between the families.)

            The authorities, being concerned about a growing lynch mob atmosphere, beefed up security at the jail in case they were attacked by vigilantes.  Preston J. Pickerin died from his injuries at one pm on July 5th.  His wife, Hattie was still in a coma.

            Hours after Pickerin died, Justice of the Peace, Judge Dan S. Nee summoned an inquest.  On Wednesday, July 7, a six-man jury met a Nee’s office.  Neither the police or the Jury could figure out a motive for the attack. Robbery was discounted because the Pickerin’s were not wealthy, and nothing was known to be missing from the house.

            Eleven suspects were picked up and held for the investigation, but ultimately none were charged with the crime.  Chief O’Connell told the press, “This case is being thoroughly investigated and we expect sensational developments any minute.”

            Police talked to a man named J. H. Perkins, a train dispatcher for the St. Louis and San Francisco railroad. He told officers he had seen a man from the railroad yard the night of the murder. “I first saw him coming from the direction of the Pickerin house.  He entered several yards, and searched through some wood piles.  I saw him in one yard swinging an axe in his hands, then I saw him go toward the Pickerin home.”  He described the man as being burly with black hair.

            The Coroner’s Jury heard all this testimony, including from the eleven witnesses/suspects being held, but all the evidence was considered weak, and circumstantial. With no new information coming to light, the hearing was postponed.

            On Thursday, the eighth of July, the Governor of Florida, John Martin arrived in Pensacola for the grand opening of the newly constructed Pensacola Bay Bridge. An estimated 10,000 cars crossed the bridge in the first 12 hours it was open.

            The next day, Hattie Pickerin came out of her coma. She remembered seeing a man. She did not know who he was. She remembered waking up when her husband was attacked, and she believed she struggled with the assailant, but with no identification, the investigators were at a loss.

            Chipley Alley was now known locally as, “Axe Murder Alley”.  All but 3 of the eleven suspects were released.

            During the investigation of the crime scene, police did find three, five gallon kegs of homemade liquor.  The Federal authorities joined the investigation to find out the origin of the illegal booze.  After a brief probe, they determined that the illegal whiskey had nothing to do with the attack.

            On July 28, Judge Nee resumed the inquest, calling 23 witnesses, including Captain Simmons, and Hattie Pickerin.  Mrs. Pickerin took the stand and related all she could remember from the night of the attack.  After she concluded without revealing any new information, a man stood and approached the witness stand.  When asked if she recognized him, Hattie said no, she had never seen him before.

            The man, (whose name was never revealed in court, and referred to as, “Mr. X” in the papers.), asked her, “Is it not true that you accompanied me on a party at Bayview and had a pistol which you used to shoot a spider on a tree?”  Confused, Mrs. Pickerin said, “No! I never did such a trick and besides I don’t know you.  I have never seen you before!”  After Hattie stepped down, the stranger swore under oath that she had accompanied him to Bayview and fired a pistol at a spider.

            (This whole testimony is bizarre to say the least.  Not only is any such occurrence irrelevant to the case, but what exactly was she being accused of? Why was this witness not identified?  I don’t believe this would never be allowed in a courtroom today.)

            At the conclusion of testimony, the jury verdict predictably was that the crime was, “committed by party, or parties’ unknown.”

            In 1950 a man named Robert Raymond Lassiter, in Greenville, South Carolina, confessed to the murder of Mr. Pickerin. He was arrested and brought to Pensacola, but was determined to be insane and sent to the state hospital in Chattahoochee until he could be found sane enough to assist in his own defense.

            In February 1959, it was determined that his mental condition had deteriorated, and there was going to be no prosecution.  The only evidence against him was his own confession, and he claimed no motive other than being drunk, and only remembered attacking one person. He was released into the custody of his family, who were going to put him in a private institution.

            This crime is also unsolved, and probably always will be.

            Hattie got married to Aulice McKenzie in February 1928, but divorced in 1930. She lived until 1950, passing away in Pensacola.

            Lucille Cushing married Lloyd Williams, and passed away in 2006. She was buried at Pensacola Memorial Park.

            I could not find out what became of Emmett Simpson. There was more than one person of that name in Pensacola, but this one is hard to find.

            It seems that it wasn’t very hard to get away with murder in the Florida Panhandle in the early part of the 1900’s.  I think that unless there were credible eye witnesses, or someone was caught red-handed, there was little chance of prosecution.

Thank you Patricia Wariner of the Santa Rosa Co., Genealogy Society for the old newspapers.

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