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The Killing of Dempsey Crews, Jr.

By Spessard Stone

Crewsville was once an important crossroads on the Big 90, east of Zolfo Springs, Florida. Founded about 1867 by Dempsey D. Crews, Jr. and his uncle, John Collier, Sr., and father-in-law, Enoch Collins Jr., Crewsville, named after Crews, boasted a store, postoffice, 12 by 20-foot church and graveyard. The latter was unfortunately quite in demand as the ranchers, not only exercised their right to bear arms, but also frequently used them to settle personal disputes.

Dempsey Dubois Crews, Jr. was born November 23, 1846 in Hamilton County, Florida and moved with his parents, Dempsey D., Sr. and Piety (Collier) Crews, to the Fort Hartsuff area (now Wauchula) about 1859.

During the Civil War, the 5-foot five-inch Dempsey served as a private in Company B, 2nd Florida Cavalry, U. S. Army from May 28, 1864 to November 29, 1865.

On August 5, 1869, Dempsey married Francis Isabelle Collins, born December 14, 1855, daughter of Enoch and Elizabeth (Blocker) Collins, Jr. In his namesake community of Crewsville, he made a modest living for his wife and their twelve children by operating a store, in which he also for a time had a postoffice, and raising hogs and cattle. Following the death of his wife on August 12, 1890, he remarried on September 7, 1892 Martha Jane Lanier, born February 24, 1871, and had two more children. With a wife and large family, the diminutive Crews didn't like to be trifled with.

On December 31, 1884, Nelson Lockler, a 54-year-old Popash rancher, had been shot and killed by S. P. Durfey, an old acquaintance of Lockler. Durfey, the teacher of a nearby school and well-known for his dissipated character, had fled, but he was pursued by four horseback riders, one of whom was Dempsey, who captured the fugitive two days later and returned to the neighborhood of the crime.

Before a preliminary examination by a justice of the peace, Durfey did not deny the slaying, but was very anxious to be conveyed to the jail at Pine Level and trial where he believed he could show the act was perpetrated in self-defense. The justice so directed, and about sundown the bailiff chained him to a large pine tree. Jackson Scarborough and G. W. Randall were assigned to guard the prisoner. At about 8 p. m., though, a volley of shots from a mob riddled Durfey with more than a dozen bullets.

On June 10, 1895, Dempsey D. Crew, Jr. became another victim of the senseless violence when he was killed by John Lucas.

The Bartow Courier-Informant of June 19, 1895 reported:

"Various reports have been in circulation about the killing of D. D. Crews by John Lucas, mention of which was made in our last issue:
"The Arcadian published in full the evidence taken by the coroner's jury.
"Ed Crews, John Collier, Jr. and Fitz Williams were the three witnesses--all of them testified to the same main facts, and we give below the testimony of the latter, as published:
"Mr. John Collier, Jr., and myself went to the store of D. D. Crews, at Crewsville, at about 8 o'clock on the morning of the 10th of June 1895. Mr. John Lucas was in the store trading when we got there.
"In a few minutes Mr. D. D. Crews came, being at the time armed with a shot gun and a pistol in a belt around his waist,
when some difficulty occurred between Lucas and Crews, concerning
the driving of some hogs, over which they seemed to have some hot words, but seemed to stop when Crews said to us it was time to go.
"We all started to get on our horses, Crews doing the same. Lucas then said to him that any man that would take up for a hog thief was no better than a hog thief.
"Crews replied that 'I am a white man in a free country and can say what I damn please,' when Lucas made a rush as if to take hold of him. Crews then took out his pistol and commanded him to stop.
"Lucas replied, 'By God I've got something too,' went to his wagon and took therefrom a double barrel shotgun, cocked, and put it to his face. About this time, John Collier said to Ed Crews, 'catch the gun.' Ed ran and took hold of Lucas.
"Lucas told Ed to turn him loose, and knocked or shoved him loose, when Ed ran to one side. Lucas then whirled facing Crews, when each fired almost simultaneously, one from Lucas and two from Crews.
"Lucas then scrambled off about 15 feet and fell on his face, saying, 'Oh, Lord, I am a dead man.' Crews went right on after him, and when he go almost to him, Lucas turned over and threw up his gun as if to shoot.
"Crews caught the gun and shoved it back, and turned and walked back the way he went and started to where his horse was. As he passed the side of the store where John Collier had lent his gun, he picked it up and started on towards the horse, when Lucas jumped up, stepped to the side of the store and fired the shot that killed him."
The coroner's jury, composed of J. D. Adams (foreman), J. S. Keen, D. D. Whidden, Henry Locklier, Arthur Daughtry, and W. E. Whidden, declared that D. D. Crews had died by gun shots at the hands of John Lucas who should be charged with murder. Lucas was brought to Arcadia and locked in the county jail. His wounds, inflicted by fine bird shots to the back of his hip, were not serious, and his wife, in the capacity of a nurse, was allowed to tend him.

This writer has not been able to learn the disposition of Lucas' case, but he probably escaped from jail. At least, available accounts indicate the Arcadia jail was not well-guarded. On December 27, 1893, all the prisoners, except one Belford Branch, had escaped when the jail was broken open to allow James North (who had been sentenced to hang for the April 1892 murder at Zolfo of S. A. Sauls) and Quinn Bass (sentenced to life for the murder of Hardy Johnson) to escape, although Bass was killed while resisting arrest.

Anyway, Lucas afterwards added to his infamy when he killed North, now outlawed with a bounty on his head for the murder. There was no "Wild West" heroics though Lucas had a "friend" of North, Jim Daniels, to lure him on a hog hunt. Hiding beside the road, Lucas shot and killed the unsuspecting outlaw and had delivered his body to Arcadia for the reward.

An extract from the Bartow Courier-Informant of November 24, 1897 noted the final disposition of the case:

"John Lucas, who is well known to this county, and who, it will be remembered, shot and killed Dempsey Crews of DeSoto County, about a year ago, and afterwards killed Jim North, who was an outlaw, charged with murdering Bud Sauls was...himself literally cut to pieces..."

Postscript: Since writing this in 1990, I, as of February 28, 2001, still hadn't learned the disposition of the judicial handling of Lucas' killing of Crews. In rereading Nixon Smiley's article, I must conclude he didn't escape jail as, according to Smiley, "They loaded North's body onto Daniel's wagon and drove the body to Arcady (Arcadia). Lucas went in and collected the reward." Lucas, if a fugitive, would have been arrested; therefore, Lucas must have been let off lightly for the Crews' slaying.

In June 2009, I finally learned these further items:

Crews Killed By Lucas
Florida Times-Union, Arcadia, June 11, 1895—The latest reports about the Crews killing is that John Lucas claimed that Crews knew where his hogs were and if he did not tell him, he would kill him, and Crews’ son got hold of Lucas’ gun, but Lucas got it away from him and as he did so Crews shot him and he fell saying he was killed, but he was only stunned and Crews was walking off when Lucas raised up and shot Crews dead.
Lucas is reported not badly hurt. People in that neighborhood are highly worked up over it and lynching is feared.
The sheriff has Lucas heavily guarded to keep him from being lynched. The sheriff was to have been in here with Lucas this afternoon, but has not yet come and it is feared a lynching took place.
Various reports are out and as Crewsville is twenty-one miles northeast of here and in the country, no true account can be had.

Florida Times-Union, November 8, 1895
Arcadia. Nov. 7, 1895—Circuit court opened here last week. A great many minor cases were disposed of during the week and on Saturday W. H. Lucas, the man that killed Dempsey D. Crews was tried. The jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Courier-Informant (Bartow), November 24, 1897, p. 1, col. 4.
A Murderer Murdered
John Lucas, who is well known to this county, and who it will be remembered, shot and killed Dempsey Crews, of DeSoto county, about a year ago, and afterwards killed Jim North, who was an outlaw, charged with having murdered Bud Sauls, was, according to reports, himself cut literally to pieces by one Dennis Sheridan, on last Saturday afternoon at Langford’s ranch.

Tombstone of Dempsey D. Crews, Jr., Crewsville Cemetery

References not cited: Nixon Smiley, "Bloodshed On The Big 90," Miami Herald, October 3, 1965; "Dempsey Dubois Crews 1846-1895," South Florida Pioneers (25/26 July/Oct. 1980), pp. 31-33; Janet Snyder Matthews, Edge of Wilderness, p. 328; Fort Myers Press, Jan. 5, 1885; Savannah Morning News, Jan. 8, 1885; The Florida Times-Union, April 27, 1892, Nov. 4, 13, 19, Dec. 29, Feb. 12 and June 12, 1895; newspapers clippings, courtesy of Canter Brown, Jr.

This article is adapted from the author’s feature in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of June 14, 1990.

February 28, 2001, November 7, 2009, November 18, 2010 (tombstone)