Murder in the Keys: Crime and Punishment in Special Collections

Hackley describes a dinner on November 30, 1830, that evolves into a wine-fueled song-and-story time. Goulding Family Collection, 01/MSS 0-128, Box 171C

FSU Libraries Special Collections and Archives has many resources devoted to Florida history. The Goulding Family Collection (01/MSS 0-128) was donated by Professor Robert L. Goulding following his retirement from FSU in 1960. The collection includes several remarkable documents from Goulding’s ancestors, including primary sources chronicling military and civilian life during the American Civil War, World War I and World War II.

However, the most detailed historical testimony can be found in the diaries of Goulding’s maternal grandfather William R. Hackley. Hackley, a Virginia native and alumnus of William and Mary, moved to Tallahassee in 1826 at the age of twenty. The aspiring lawyer soon passed the Florida State Bar Association examination and settled in Key West in 1828, where he established a law practice and eventually became district attorney for the southern district of Florida from April 1849 to May 1857.

Hackley’s diaries detail his life in Key West from 1830 to 1857, giving first-hand accounts of daily life in the recently-established American settlement. Many of the entries are concerned with predictable facets of island life – changes in the weather, and ships sailing in and out of port. However, as a lawyer and man of privilege, Hackley had access to information and events that the average Key West resident would not.

Hackley provides eyewitness details of many court cases, including a first-hand look at an historical event in American Key West – the first known trial for murder.

“Tuesday, Nov 16 [1830]…The case of the Territory of Florida vs. Norman Sherwood for the murder of John Wilson on the 5 day of July last by shooting with a pistol loaded with buckshot came on today. The prisoner being anxious for trial did not make use of his right of peremptory challenge to the full extent allowed by law. I was requested by the judge to take down the evidence in the case and did so. The trial was protracted till nearly two. I left the court house before the jury retired. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty…”

The trial verdict opened the door for another Key West first – order of execution:

“Friday Nov. 19th…At 4 PM went up to the court house to hear judgement of death pronounced on Norman Sherwood—the judge made a most impressive charge and fixed the second Friday in December for the day of execution. The judge was so affected that he could hardly get thru with the sentence and many of the bystanders also were much affected. The prisoner indeed shed a few tears but was not much moved with the hearing of his doom. He walked back to jail and I am given to understand expressed but little sorrow saying that he could die but once…”

“Monday, Dec 6th. I hear that two days since, Norman Sherwood took a dose of poison which was conveyed to him by some one, but it was not sufficiently powerful to cause death. He is however sick from the effects of it and I think that if he can obtain the means he will commit suicide before the day appointed for his execution for which I would be sorry as the execution of a felon will I think have a beneficial effect on this community…”

“Friday Decr 10th…At ten o’clock A.M. Norman Sherwood was taken from the jail to the gallows erected near the road out from the courthouse to the West, and in pursuance of the sentence of the law was hung by the neck until he was dead. He said nothing at the gallows and died stubbornly and did not even change color…”

For more information on crime and punishment in the Keys, check out the Hackley diaries online or visit the Special Collections Research Center!

Rory Grennan is Manuscript and Instruction Archivist for FSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives.


Published by Rory Grennan

Rory Grennan is Director of Manuscripts Collections at Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

One thought on “Murder in the Keys: Crime and Punishment in Special Collections

  1. Did Mr. Hackley mention how standard time was determined in Key West back then? Was it a local time determined by meridian passage of the sun? I am curious how his references to time compare to modern standard time.

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