HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
Tragedy on a Sunday Afternoon
By SIDNEY BEAVER
Trilby, a small town in central Florida, about forty miles north by northeast of Tampa via Highway 301, twenty-five crow-flight miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico — The 28th day of June, 1942, a Sunday.
Heard at a distance, the discharge blast of a twelve gauge shotgun is a distinctive sound, a deep, resonant, elongated boom. At that time and place it was not a sound one expected to hear on the Sabbath. Hearing it, we were distracted from our game, but only momentarily. One of the girls remarked knowingly, “Somebody’s going to get fussed at,” and we resumed whatever ‘let’s-pretend’ game Virginia had invented for us that day.
It was early afternoon, after Sunday school and church and soon after the usual big midday meal. Our play was quiet, subdued at least, because we were on the front porch or Mrs. Blitch’s house and the grown folks were inside napping and in a back bedroom Mrs. Blitch’s elderly aunt was slowly dying. ‘We’ were Mrs. Blitch’s grandchildren Billy Brinson and Shirley Coleson (summer visitors); Virginia Trunnel, whose home was directly across Oak Street from the Blitch home; Mary Ann Palmer, a granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Knot; my older sister Bobbie and my eight-year-old self from just down the street and, possibly, Carolyn Edwards, a member of one of the town’s oldest families.
If Trilby ever had a “Camelot” period the summer of 1942 was the apogee of it. The Great Depression was finally over, its lingering impact wiped away by the economic expansion occasioned by the United States’ entry into World War Two. Excitement and patriotic fervor ramped high by the attack on Pearl Harbor had not yet been tempered by the worry, dread, heartbreak, grief and inconvenience lurking in the offing. The nearby Withlacoochee River was unspoiled, as uncluttered, isolated and wild as it had been when only Indians fished it. And this was a time of free-range cattle, hogs, horses and children – the only fence in the miles and miles of pine and blackjack woods northwest of town was the one that enclosed the cemetery.
The town itself was a bustling railroad junction. There were four and a half passenger trains a day – The Southland arriving from the north about daylight to split into two sections, one going to St. Petersburg, the other to Tampa — northbound Southland sections from Tampa and St. Petersburg arriving in the early evening to make up one train that continued north — northbound Forty coming through midmorning and southbound Thirty-nine midafternoon — and The Goat, part freight and part passenger, puffing in from the east at whatever time it happened to arrive. Additionally, during daylight hours it was a rare time when freight trains were not either passing through or busily switching about in the extensive marshaling yards, sorting box cars, adding some, leaving off others, before continuing north, south or east. Freight trains, some scheduled others extras, rumbled past from time to time during the night. It was, as the safety slogan warned, “Always time for a train” in Trilby.
Oak Street? Yes, that’s what it was called because in the 1870’s two yearling boys, one of them the paternal grandfather of our playmate Carolyn Edwards, decided to create a living memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers: They planted live-oak saplings along both sides of the street. By the early 40’s these saplings had become huge trees, their arching upper limbs intertwined in a street shading evergreen canopy. (East of the railroad tracks the street’s name changed to Lacoochee Road.)
The Blitch home where we were playing was on the north side of Oak Street. The only thing between its side yard and the railroad right-of-way was a dirt road. Across the tracks we could see the Post Office, where it is to this day, and a bit further, on the other side of the street, the Methodist Church. It was and is on the southwest corner of Lacoochee Road’s intersection with what was then called Dade City Road. (North of the intersection Dade City Road became River Road.) On the southeast corner of the intersection, directly across from the church, the tragedy recounted herein had its beginning – at a popular, well stocked grocery store and meat market that had, out front, two gasoline pumps and a kerosene dispenser. The proprietors’ spacious residence was under the same roof. The place was owned by Aunt Minnie and Uncle Jim Hollingsworth. The aunt and uncle titles were honorary. Of the town’s school age youngsters, only Kenneth and Jack Dennis were blood kin: Uncle Jim was their mother’s brother.
A short time after hearing the gunshot that Sunday afternoon one of our group yelped, “Look yonder!” pointing across the tracks. There, trudging along toward the Post Office, was the tall, gaunt figure of Uncle Jim Hollingsworth. Grasping a 12 gauge pump shotgun by its muzzle, he was dragging it behind him, the stock trailing in the sandy rut of an unpaved road. This was outrageous. Uncle Jim was a hunter and woodsman of renown and for him to drag a gun in this careless, disdainful fashion was heresy, blasphemy. But there he was, trudging along that dusty road, dragging his gun behind him.
News, especially bad news, traveled with incredible swiftness in that essentially telephone-less little town. It was quickly known that Uncle Jim, intending to kill his brother-in-law Ben Dennis, had mistakenly killed his fifteen-year-old nephew Kenneth Dennis.
The backstory: Uncle Jim was what is today known as a binge drinker. Sober, as he usually was, he tolerated being a storekeeper, tolerated it primarily because Aunt Minnie ran the business. She minded the store like her wellbeing depended upon it, which it did. Drunk, as he was occasionally, he hated being a storekeeper or, more accurately, hated being the trampled over husband of a strong willed, successful and respected storekeeping wife. On the day before the shooting he was drunk, so mindlessly drunk he decided to end his storekeeping misery once and for all. He would “Burn the whole goddamn place to the ground.” He filled a five gallon can with gasoline and commenced pouring it throughout the store and residence. Aunt Minnie, yelling and waving her hands frantically, got the attention of a passerby and, urging him to run, sent him to fetch her usual help in these situations, her husband’s brother-in-law Ben Dennis. Struggling together, she and Ben were able to wrestle the gasoline and matches away and get the drunk into bed where he soon passed out. Believing the man would, as he customarily did, “sleep off the drunk” and everything would be fine until the next one, Ben went home. But things were different this time. The next day Uncle Jim woke about one o’clock in the afternoon, hung-over, depressed, mean and angry, chillingly intent upon killing the busybody who had interfered with his plans. Unknown to Aunt Minnie, he loaded his gun with double-ought buckshot and set out to do the deed.
My grammar school classmate Dorothy (Dot) McDaniel lived next door to the Dennis family. On that Sunday afternoon her six-year-old brother Simeon Eston (S.E.) was perched in one of his favorite places, the flimsy upper branches of a crepe myrtle tree that overhung the Dennis’s front yard gate. As described later by S.E.: He saw Uncle Jim top the hill in front of Hugh Walker’s combination grocery and residence, then come downhill toward him and his tree. Something menacing about the way the man walked, or the way he held the gun he was carrying, or his facial expression or the combination of all of it terrified S.E. Instinctively, he knew somebody was going to get shot. Might he be that somebody? Fear frozen in place, he watched as Uncle Jim stopped at the road edge, almost under the crepe myrtle tree. With the gun now held diagonally across his chest, the safety off, his right forefinger curled inside the trigger guard, Uncle Jim shouted, “Ben, come out.” The Dennis’s front door open partway and Kenneth looked out, exposing his head. A thunderous, sharp, cracking blast and Kenneth’s head exploded, blood and brain matter splattered on the door frame and adjacent wall. Kenneth fell, what was left of his head and his upper torso on the porch, the rest of his body inside. Aghast, shaking so hard the tree limbs around him were flopping about, S.E. watched as Uncle Jim worked the pump on his shotgun, expelling the spent shell casing and chambering another load of buckshot. The smell of cordite tainted the air and a thin whisk of gray smoke rose from the gun’s muzzle. Numb with horror, S.E. was convinced the next shot would blow him out of the tree. Weirdly, he wondered if his head would be messed up the way Kenneth’s was. He hoped not. His mother would not like that.
But there was no next shot. Without a second glance at the carnage he had created, Uncle Jim turned and started back up the hill. However, he did not continue on over the hill. Instead, he turned left onto a dirt road that ran alongside the Walker building, the back half of which was the family’s residence. With the danger gone from his sight, S.E. was able to release his death grip on the tree limb. But when he did, having forgotten where he was, he fell from his perch into a scene of screaming, yelling, burgeoning pandemonium.
There was bad blood between Uncle Jim and Hugh Walker. When Hugh saw his nemesis turn into the road beside his home he crawled under a bed. But not wife and mother Sis Walker, a stern, outspoken woman who booked no nonsense from her own or any other woman’s children or husband. Arming herself with a double barreled, rabbit eared shotgun, standing just inside a screen door that opened onto a side porch, she watched as Uncle Jim stopped and stared at the door. Out there in the glaring sunlight, it seems unlikely he could see Sis standing in the dimness behind the screen but perhaps he sensed her presence, or maybe he heard the clicks as she cocked both barrels of her gun: she would fire instantly if he made a threatening move. He didn’t. After staring for a moment, he shook his head and moved on, past the large, wood frame, two story Masonic Hall to his left and to his right the ruins – tiled marble floor and dynamited vault – of all that remained of Trilby’s once-upon-a-time bank. Past these, he turned right into a dirt road on the east side of the RR right-of-way. That’s when we children on Mrs. Blitch’s front porch spotted him.
(This is being written three quarters of a century after the event but inexplicitly, hauntingly, in my mind’s eye I can still see Uncle Jim dragging his gun along that road, see him as vividly this day as I did on that Sunday afternoon in 1942.)
The road Uncle Jim was now on intersected Lacoochee Road in front of the Post Office. There, he turned right and went home, but not to stay. After putting his gun and a few other supplies into his Model A coupe he left, heading north on River Road. Speculation was that he was going to Gulf Hammock, a huge wilderness area of hammock and swamp near Yankeetown. “Jim Hollingsworth,” men who had hunted with him agreed, “knows Gulf Hammock like he knows the back of his hand. They’ll play hell catching him if he makes it into those woods.”
But Uncle Jim didn’t go to Gulf Hammock. Within an hour after he drove away his car was spotted two or three miles north of the Trilby bridge. It was parked, unoccupied, alongside a dirt road that ran from River Road to the river. Adjacent to the stretch of road where the car was parked there was a fenced, twenty to thirty acre field, fallow at the time. A tree line on the far side, the north side of the field marked the resumption of hammocks and swamps that bordered both sides of the river, bordered them past the Highway 50 bridge, past esoteric fishing destinations known to locals as Gideon’s Field, Duck Slough and the Mouth of Little River, then on past Silver Lake, the railroad trestle at Croom and the rickety automobile bridge a little further downstream and on and on to Nobelton and beyond. Uncle Jim knew this wilderness as well as he knew Gulf Hammock.
Pasco County Sheriff Leslie Bessenger wasted no time rounding up a posse of thirty or so armed men. Among them were my twenty-year-old cousin James Beaver Mills (K.I.A. France, 1944, posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross) and Shorty Daly, short, squat, cigar chomping, loud, boisterous, profane, courtly to ladies and kind to children, generous to a fault, teller of tall tales (ain’t that right, Tiny), owner of an auto repair shop, legendary auto mechanic, husband of Tiny and employer and patron of Fats, a gigantic black man of prodigious strength.
My cousin James was living with us at the time. That evening we had a fresh, firsthand account of how they caught Uncle Jim: By five o’clock the sheriff had his posse assembled where the Model A was parked. They would work in pairs, the sheriff told them, “So partner up.” James partnered himself with his baseball playing buddy Cotton Hinds. The rules of engagement were terse and straightforward. “We’re after a dangerous man,” the sheriff told them. “If you spot him, shoot before he does. There’ll be no questions asked. And be sure you don’t miss. Shorty tells me Jim Hollingsworth never misses.”
As the men were sorting themselves out to begin the search they saw Uncle Jim emerge from the tree line across the field. He came toward them, gun in hand. The sheriff and his men lined themselves along the fence, guns at ready, and watched him approach. Stopping about a hundred feet from the fence, Uncle Jim called, “I’ll let Shorty come to me.” Sheriff Bessenger looked a question at Shorty. He responded with an affirmative nod. Before climbing over the fence Shorty went far enough down it to approach Uncle Jim from an oblique angle, out of the posse’s line of fire if things went badly.
Shorty, having left his weapon at the fence, walked purposely across the rough fallow ground. When he was near enough, cat quick he snatched Uncle Jim’s gun out of his hands. Startled then dismayed, Uncle Jim managed to say sadly, accusingly, “I didn’t think you’d do me that way, Shorty.” For once in his life, Shorty Daly was speechless. “I set out to kill Ben,” Uncle Jim continued. “But I’m afraid I killed Kenneth. Did I?”
“Yeah, Jim, that’s what you did.”
“Then give my gun back.”
Reading the expression on the man’s face, seeing how distraught he was, Shorty knew why he wanted the gun. He said he was tempted to give it back but before temptation got the better of him Sheriff Bessenger and two of his regular deputies were there with them and they quickly handcuffed Uncle Jim and took him away.
That night, alone in a jail cell, Uncle Jim made a rope of his undershirt and hung himself.
Little has been written herein about the victim of the tragedy. That is because I barely knew Kenneth Dennis. Only days before he was killed he had graduated from Trilby Grammar’s eighth grade. I completed the school’s third grade that year. The social chasm between little third grade boys and the half-grown eighth grade ones was so wide and deep we occupied different universes. But not so with the next door McDaniel girls. They knew him. My classmate Dot, eight or nine at the time, wrote in a recent email: “I remember Kenneth as a kind, gentle boy who was always willing to help his mother. Of course, Lettie Mae, my older sister was ‘in love’ with Kenneth because he was so cute and had curly hair.”
For whatever reason, the social chasm was not so wide between eight-year-old me and fifty-nine year old Jim Hollingsworth. I knew the sober one well and the drunken one not at all. Sober, he was a friend of the family and a welcome participant in one of our frequent and favorite social gatherings: a day at the river, fishing from the bank with cane poles. In addition to Uncle Jim, the core cadre at these happenings consisted of Clint and Myrtie Hancock (later, as Clint’s widow, Myrtie Thomas), Dewey and Evie Green, Carl and Essie Pitts, my parents Tom and Lina Beaver and the Methodist preacher Elliot Rich. (Soon after the events related here Brother Rich left to become an Army chaplain. After the war he had a distinguished career as the pastor of churches much larger than the one at Trilby. It pleases me to believe he eventually became a Methodist bishop but I don’t know that he did.) Children who liked to fish, as I did, and who happened to be free of school for the summer or the day were allowed to tag along. There was nothing exclusive about these gatherings. Others who had the time and inclination were welcome to attend and a dozen or so usually did.
Under the shade of riverside oak and cypress trees the morning’s catch of bluegills, shell-crackers, red-breast, stump-knockers, catfish and bass, together with hushpuppies were fried, by Uncle Jim when he was present, in a large black skillet set atop glowing oak coals. Creamed corn from cans was warmed in a pot or pots over the same coals and, over the flames of a campfire, coffee made by pouring the grounds into water, river water, boiling in a large blue enamel pot.
Although he was a quiet, somewhat austere man, Uncle Jim when he chose to be was a gifted raconteur. So was Clint Hancock. If we were lucky, during dinner (the midday meal was called dinner then) and afterwards relaxing there beside the river, one or the other of these, both if we were truly fortunate, could be baited or persuaded to entertain the gathering with tales of other times or other places. This is the Jim Hollingsworth I remember, cooking over a campfire or leaning back against a cypress tree, relaxed, reminiscing aloud about distant places or about things that had happened long before I was born.
Kenneth’s and Uncle Jim’s funerals were held the same day, one in the morning the other in the afternoon. They were arranged this way to accommodate people who chose, as my parents did, to go to both. This was a time when children were customarily taken to funerals, whether they wanted to go or not. But neither my sister nor I was taken to either of these.
A NOTE TO READERS: This is the first of several articles I have promised to write for this site. Your emailed comments, critiques, corrections, factual contributions and so forth will be welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. See also a second article by Mr. Beaver, about the Trilby depot, here.