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Curse of the Tombstone
A True Crime Tale from Pasco County, Florida, circa 1900

The damp air was thick with the smell of pinesap oozing from the slash cuts. In the shade of the tall trees a team of oxen patiently stood in their yokes waiting for Ben Stafford to cluck and lead them back to their pine slab shelter. The oxen swished their long tails at the cloud of flies drawn by Benís murdered body, slumped over the wagonload of logs.

Almost everyone suspected Tom Ellis.

In 1907 killings in the deep woods over women or moonshine were all too common, and Tom was known to favor both. Perhaps the violence would have ended with Benís death except for the gossip bandied around that Auston Gillette had witnessed the crime.

Austonís sister was Melinda Ellis, a dark-haired beauty called Lindy by her family and friends. Unfortunately for Auston, Lindy was also the wife of Lee Ellis, a Deputy Sheriff and Tom Ellisís elder brother. Lee was a tall and handsome man, sporting a heavy mustache, stylish for the day. In contrast, his brother Tom was short in stature, the kind of man others ridiculed behind his back.

The whole community knew Lee had warned his brother about his freely expressed admiration for Lindy. Tomís sentiments far exceeded brotherly love and were much too explicit for Lee to tolerate with humor. Further, Tomís reputation as a rascal strained their family bond and Leeís status in the community as a lawman.

Concerned for his life, Auston Gillette took refuge in Lee and Lindy Ellisís small clapboard house in Ehren, a sawmill and railhead community between Wesley Chapel and the coast. He had broken his arm on the job at the Ehren Pine Mill Company. Only nineteen, Auston was Ethel and Bessieís favorite uncle and his sister and her husband always welcomed him into their home.

Auston was playing with the girls one early summer afternoon on a pallet in the front room. Lee was also home that day, nursing Lindy who was bedridden with a fever.

About twilight Lindy called out to the girls, perhaps a motherís intuition. They abandoned Auston and ran to their motherís bedroom. A moment later the report of a single shot echoed through the house. The girls screamed and their father dragged them to safety by the bed.

A bullet struck and killed Auston, ending any chance for him to speak out, either against or in favor of Tom Ellis.

Only days later Lee Ellis stood at the front counter of the company store talking with the local mail carrier, Silas Rewis. Perhaps Lee had one of dead Austonís "loonies," the aluminum tokens paid by the mill for wages, to buy the girls a couple of cold drinks. Whatever Leeís purpose at the company store, he never returned home.

Another mysterious single shot, this one through the open store door, fatally wounded the Deputy.

Opinion again was clear. All faces turned toward Leeís brother, Tom. But at the same time, proof was circumstantial. A strip of cloth matching Tomís shirt was found dangling from the barbed wire fence behind the store. But later at Mrs. Wittís boarding house, no one challenged him. His reputation for violence must have stifled their chatter, at least to his face. The boarders no doubt figured two dead men were enough.

Tom Ellis was not yet thirty and seemed determined to pack his life with meanness, his face often marked with a malicious sneer. Now, with Lee out of the way, his attentions focused on Lindy.

But she wanted no part of him.

Lindy fled to New Orleans with her best friend Sally, one of Tomís sisters. Desperate to escape Tomís attentions, Lindy continued to Kansas City trying to elude Tomís pursuit. Their fear grew when Sally was certain she had spotted Tom in the crowd around the Kansas City railroad station. In a panic, Lindy and Sally braved the heat and weariness of cross-country travel, got back on the train and returned to Florida. A fugitive in her own community, Lindy hid first in her motherís barn loft, only to flee to safer havens when whispered warnings reported Tom close by.

Tom obsessed with finding Lindy. He prowled the woods at night, hoping to catch her as she slipped to new hiding places. Several nights he lay in ambush on her pallet in the barn loft.

He was frustrated when he couldnít track her down. Lindyís many friends, including Tom's own family, stymied his hunt. Tomís vicious side was all too apparent when he threatened his father with the boast that he had already killed. The implication was clear, without naming names. It seemed the only question was who or when, or when again.

All we know for sure is that Ben Stafford, Auston Gillette and Lee Ellis were dead.

And Tom Ellis was a free man.

Two years passed. The hard working folks of rural Florida had few opportunities for celebration, but Independence Day was one of the exceptions. In all likelihood the lumber mill at Wesley Chapel slowed to a stop while the men and their families enjoyed fried fish, stewed tomatoes and rice, followed by melons chilled in a nearby pond.

Preston, the remaining Gillette brother, borrowed his motherís buggy and old white mare "Topsie" for the day. He had passed Cross the Creek Bridge with Topsie at a steady gait toward Wesley Chapel when friends waved him down and asked if he would take Maude Goodman home. She was close to having her baby and had suffered a fainting spell from the heat. As they passed the Ellis home, Tom hailed Preston and Maude. Tom said he wanted to have a few words with Preston when he returned.

Roads were few and Preston could not avoid the Ellis place on the way back.

Tom met Preston with drawn revolver, climbed in the buggy at Tomís side and ordered him to drive. They headed toward Wesley Chapel and the picnic.

Under a tall, gaunt pine left stripped of its bark and dying by a bolt of lightning, Tom commanded Preston to stop. Preston pulled Topsie and the buggy to a halt on the sandy road, the white mareís mane twitching in the heat. There Tom Ellis made his final mistake.

When Tom got out of the buggy he took his eyes off Preston Gillette for an instant, long enough for Preston to grab a double-barreled shotgun from under the seat and fire off both shells.

Justice was swift and personal in those days. Preston expected to go to jail, maybe even to a hanging when he brought Tomís body to the sheriff. Instead, Preston was given two replacement shotgun shells and sent back out the door.

"Shoot on sight." Pasco Countyís High Sheriff Sturkie had put out the word after the killing of Deputy Lee Ellis and the arrogant threats against Lindy. In the eyes of the law, Preston had done the job.

The Tribuneís front-page for the Fourth of July 1909 featured a photo of the Wright brothersí new aeroplane swooping through the air at Fort Myers. Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola each had quarter page ads touting five-cent bottles of icy-cold soda on the sports page. Buried in the back pages an article explained how the Greeks, with their deep diving suits, were driving the local sponge gatherers out of business.

Nowhere was there any mention of "the killing," not that day nor during the following week. Of course the murder was in Pasco County, way up past North Tampa and far from the trolley cars and fancy shops.

Since then, conflicting reports based on oral histories have substituted legends for fact. The murders of Ben Stafford, Auston Gillette and Lee Ellis remain buried under back-woods lore, told from generation to generation.

Today, if you walk far enough away from the roar of the interstate to hear the gopher tortoises shuffling through the high grass, a distant chain saw reminds you of the lumber and turpentine operations that flourished across Pasco County around the turn of the century. On the south side of County Line Road a handful of the graceful pines survive behind the protection of a cemetery fence.

A broken tombstone lies beneath the pines, the writing obscured by pine needles and clinging lichens. An epitaph is chiseled into the soft rock:

Thomas M. Ellis
September 27, 1879
July 4 1909
Mine enemies spoke against me.
They lay and waited for me.
Therefore let them be confounded and perish that were against me and be covered with shame and dishonor who sought to take my life which was so brutally stolen by Preston Gillette.

Erected by his father Richard Ellis

* * *

Family ties are sometimes stronger than reason, and Tomís death left behind a bitter quarrel between the Ellis and Gillette families. Until the end, Richard Ellis believed his son Tom was the victim. The curse engraved on the tombstone was the fatherís only recourse.

Despite the curse, Preston Gillette survived the sinking of two ships during World War I. He died after a hit and run incident north of Ehren Cutoff in 1962, a rich fifty-three years after the curse was carved in stone.

But, perhaps, after all those years, someone did avenge Tomís death.

The broken tombstone with its inscription tells one manís side of the story. But only the dead men know the full truth.


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