The Murder of Joel Walker

Thanks to the efforts of Lee Sturgis...a great granddaughter of Joel's sister Callie and myself...a great granddaughter of Joel's brother Kyle, while working together have uncovered the story behind the rumors.Joan Stanford, a granddaughter of Callie provided a valuable piece of information, which allowed this story to unfold...

       I grew up hearing about the human skull my great-grandfather Kyle Walker kept on his mantle. It was supposed to have something to do with the murder of his brother. It was some forty years ago when my grandmother (Alma), who was married to Kyle's son Clyde related this story to the family. I took notes one day as she was giving me the genealogy of my Walker ancestors. She said my grandfather (Clyde) had an uncle who was murdered near Bartow, FL. around 1885. He had been carrying a payroll. I wrote the name Nolan beside the information she gave me. I have searched for years for a Nolan Walker to no avail.
        Recently I was able to get in touch with Lee Sturgis, a great-granddaughter of Caroline (Callie) Rowell, sister to Kyle Walker. Lee had never heard of a murder in the family, but put me in touch with another descendant of our family.
       I called Joan Stanford in Mississippi...leaving a message. Joan returned my phone call that evening and was able to shed further light on this supposed murder. Joan's grandmother (Callie) had told her mother, "in hushed tones," the following information:

Tiger Creek
"Joel Walker...her brother and brother to Kyle, had been murdered and thrown into Lake Walk-In-The -Water, near Frostproof, FL...close to Bartow about 1895. When his body was found, there were only skeletal remains. Mathew Walker, Joel's eldest brother, collected  the bones...retaining them until he himself was to be buried, at which time Joel's remains were to be buried with him. It was rumored that Joel who was a school teacher had been having an affair with a student and she may have become pregnant." If this story isn't bazaar turns out Mathew was a minister at the Primitive Baptist Church. He also served other churches in the area as well.
     With this new found information, I got back in touch with Lee Sturgis, who went to the Bartow Historical Library to see if we could substantiate any of the story.

      On May 29, 2009, I received a rather excited phone call from Lee. " I found it ! Are you ready for this?" I listened intensely as Lee read for me
details of the murder of our ancestor gathered from the old newspapers she had been going through at the library.

       IS JOEL WALKER DEAD? An article appearing in the Bartow Courier-Informant on January 1, 1896 carried the following information about the murder:

Some hunters recently returned from the Kissimmee River Territory bringing news of the finding of the body of a dead white man in the swamp near the head of Tiger Creek. "Tiger Creek is at the head of Lake Walk-In The-Water." They say the body was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to tell anything about it, even as to whether it was black or white. One arm and hand however, was covered with mud and water and was thus preserved and when it was drawn out it was found to be white. The article goes on to say that Joel Walker had been missing for a couple of months and "a leather belt was means of identification."

       On January 8, 1896, the Bartow Courier-Informant reported the arrest of Lon Holland for the murder of Joel with the following headline:

       JOEL WALKER MURDERED...LON HOLLAND ARRESTED ON THE CHARGE OF THE CRIME...Lon Holland gave an account of what took place implicating another man for the crime:
"Dan Byrd, a well known trapper and hunter."

 Lon said that Dan and Joel were at his house and "he...Holland...went out to turn the ponies on the pond near by, leaving Byrd and Walker at the house. When he came back the two men had gone down to the swamp and soon he heard a gun fire. He says he presumed that one of them had shot an alligator, but soon Byrd came back to the house and after being asked what he had done with Walker, he replied that Walker had tried to shoot him, but that he had got the drop on him first."

       Two men consequently found Joel's body and took the belt up to the house to see if it could be identified by Holland and Byrd. They soon left to report the findings and "for the purpose of having a jury impaneled." Between changing his story several times and the following evidence..."Walkers gun, saddle, horse and some clothes were found in Holland's possession and it is said that Holland even had on the dead mans shoe's"...Lon Holland was arrested for Joel's murder.
       We now know without a shadow of a doubt, that there was a murder of Kyle Walker's brother near Bartow, as told to me by my grandmother. I now believe that when I wrote the name "Nolan" beside the information she related to me, that she was referring to the name "Holland," the man who killed him. She may have remembered it as Nolan or I could have heard it as such. This much of the mystery is solved. This question remains. Who did the human skull my great-grandfather kept on his mantle belong to?
       When Lee called me on Friday, June 12th with another article she had found about the murder of our ancestor, we both realized we were being drawn into the depths of this story by some far reaching pull beyond our immediate control. Were we brought together on this journey into our ancestors past for a purpose we had yet to discover? We were beginning to realize the enormousness of this story!
       Newspapers from around the country picked up the story of Joel's murder with articles appearing in the LeMars Semi Weekly Sentinel (LeMars, Iowa), the Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kansas), the San Antonio Daily Light (San Antonio, Texas), the Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois) and the Sioux County Herald (Orange City, Iowa) to name some that have recently been found.
      GIVEN A SENTENCE FOR LIFE..LON HOLLAND IS FOUND GUILTY  OF MURDERING WALKER An excerpt from the Bartow Courier-Informant, October 21, 1896 follows:

       There were in all about seventeen witnesses introduced in behalf of the state, the most important being Mr. L. M. Cody who first discovered the remains of the murdered man; Mr. B. E. Bushnell who was with him; Mr. H. H. Fertic, who arrested Holland and the Walker brothers who identified some of the articles and other things as the property of Joel Walker...deceased.
 Mr. Cody testified that about the 27th of last December, he and Mr. Bushnell went down into the south-eastern portion to hunt wild orange trees; that while in the swamp about the mouth of Tiger Creek, he came upon the remains of a dead white man; the flesh having all been decayed or removed. He went back a distance to find Mr. Bushnell and found him talking to Lon Holland (the prisoner) and Dan Bird. He related to them what he had found and they all went back together to examine the bones, but Holland seemed uneasy and restless, while there. They left the bones, etc. and on the second day thereafter, Justice V. P. Simmons for the coroner's jury went and held an inquest over the remains, that the justice gathered up at this time; the skull, the under jawbone, a toothbrush, a shirt, a pocket map and preserved them.
( These things were then offered in evidence and identified).The remains were in tact when first discovered by Mr. Cody. It was later proven Lon Holland had returned to the scene upon finding the remains had been discovered and scattered them and after also re-moving the clothing in an effort to conceal his part in the crime.

      Hutchinson News- Hutchinson, Kansas, 1-4-1896

          LeMars Semi Weekly Sentinel, 
             1-5-1896-LeMars, Iowa

 It was proven by R. R. McKinney and his son Dock, that on the ninth of November, they were down near Holland's house hog hunting; that Holland came to their camp and then went away and was gone from thirty to sixty minutes; that while he was gone a gun fired and when he came back he said he had shot a turkey; that he asked Dock McKinney to go down in the field near the swamp and get a pair of shoes he had left on the fence; that he then took two horses a gun and other articles and went home with the McKinney's where he remained most of the time until he was arrested nearly two months later. The gun and one of the horses were proven to be Walker's and the shirt which was found with the bones was identified by one of the Walker brothers. Holland tried to claim he had traded for the items in his possession, but it was testified by Mr. Fertic, who had arrested him, "that on that day, that Holland had taken him aside from the crowd and confessed to him as a friend, that while he did not kill Walker himself, he had it done and saw it done by Dan Bird."  It was noted that Dan Bird had already proven that he was somewhere else at the time of the murder. Lon Holland was found "guilty of the murder in the 1st degree as charged in the indictment, with a recommendation of mercy of the court. A motion for a new trial was at once made, heard and overruled."   He was then sentenced to the penitentiary at hard labor for "the term of your natural life." It was felt at the time by the community that although Lon Holland was responsible for the murder of Joel; they also believed he had accomplices. Holland was taken to Tampa for safe keeping.

       The story expands as we find Lon Holland not taking kindly to being locked up and proved to be quite the escape artist. There have been at least two escapes and one attempted escape we have found to date for Holland. The Bartow Courier-Informant on March 25, 1896 reported this escape:

HOLLAND ESCAPES FROM MOVING TRAIN... D S McKay, deputy sheriff of Hillsborough County was bringing Holland to Bartow from Tampa to stand trial, when he escaped through a window in one of the cars. The following account is made of the incident:

"Mr. McKay soon missed his prisoner and after making a thorough search of the train, he got off and tracked the man some distance and failing to find him, he reached the conclusion that the best thing to do was to come on to the city and get Sheriff Ballard, deputy Cantor and a small posse of citizen's, who were soon ready, and next put Mr. Ballard's bloodhound's on him. They were not long in bringing in the man. Holland tried to cover up his tracks in water and mud, so as to fool the dogs, but when captured he said if he had known the dogs were so well trained, he would have made no effort to escape." Motions were made to the court and the case was continued for the next term of court.

HOLLAND ESCAPES JAIL AGAIN... Bartow Courier-Informant, December 9, 1896:

Called into question was why such neglect of the prisoners and their facility was allowed, due to the fact a man previously convicted of murder was being housed there. It was noted that, "a bar in the back window was already nearly filed or sawed in two and that Holland completed the job and got out there." He was free for a couple of days before his father when paid a visit from deputy Cantor, gave up the hiding place of his son. Mr. Holland felt that if his son came back and stood a new trial he would be granted one.

It was previously reported that Holland had been caught trying to go over the fence: "Lon Holland had got out into the jail yard and was just going over the fence when the alarm was given and Mrs. Pike, (the wife of deputy Pike, who was away at the time), "succeeded in getting him back into jail." I can picture this spunky little  lady holding a shotgun to her shoulder, her finger squeezing the trigger ever so slightly. I hear the words..."Lon Holland...You better get your butt down from that fence before I fill it full of buckshot!"

I found an article in the Bartow Courier-Informant, dated May 12, 1897, where the case was taken to the State Supreme Court, which confirmed the sentence of the lower court. Holland v. State, 39 fla 178, 22 So, 298 (1897) is argued in courtrooms today. The case law argues "circumstantial evidence." I previously have stated I believe the law was created from this case, but I believe I was misreading the information.
Recently, Lee and I have uncovered two books dealing with the case and shedding some new information. Southern Reports, Vol 22,  deals with Supreme Court Cases of the South. Holland v. State can be found on pages 298-303. Also...Cases Adjudicated... in the Florida Supreme Court, 1898 has the case listed on pages 178-194. From these books we have found testimony from H. H. Fertic stating, " that defendant was arrested by him (Fertic), and a deputy sheriff's posse, armed with guns at the time of the arrest; that three brothers of the deceased were present with guns. It was also stated... nearly all the clothes were on the skeleton except shoes, and the pants were rolled up to the knees and shirt open in front and that the coroner viewed the remains on December 28, and it was found that the bones of the skeleton were much scattered, and the pants and other articles of clothing had disappeared. The skeleton was found in sort of a "sag hole." Hampton Walker, Joel's brother identified a shirt that he had given to his brother just before his disappearance. Mathew Walker and an unnamed brother were also mentioned in the court documents.When the arrest was made, witnesses reported a lot of shoving and excitement with guns being pushed at Lon Holland. One of the Walker brothers was said to "have applied a vile epithet to a witness for the defendant (Lon). We have also recently learned from the newly found found newspapers that Joel received a stab wound near his heart and a gunshot wound to his head and that Joel's father (our 2nd great grandfather), claimed to know who murdered his son, but would not give the name or names of the individuals.
       Mr. D. B. MacKay, was a writer of historical material about Florida. His stories were published weekly in the Tampa Tribune. He related the murder of Joel Walker in a 1956 article. He remembers hearing that Joel who was a school teacher was killed and thrown into a gator den in Lake-Walk-In-The-Water. Supposedly the remains were pushed out by the gator. Mr. MacKay was known to keep scrapbooks of his articles and at one time some were gathered up and bound into three books. This particular article was found recently in a container of loose material in the museum.

      One year after this case was seen by the Florida Supreme Court in which the sentencing by the lower court was upheld...Dan Bird is murdered! Coincidence or perhaps...Walker Justice. The following article appeared in the Daily Courier, June 10, 1898:

MR. DAN BIRD...HIS BODY RIDDLED WITH BUCKSHOT NEAR FT THOMPSON, WAS RIDING ALONG WITH JOHN LUCAS ..."Dan Bird, the tall hunter and trapper, was well known in this city and other parts of the state. He and John Lucas who has figured prominently in recent years in various rackets, were riding along, side by side about one mile up the Caloohasatchee River on Monday, June 6th, when someone emptied a load of buckshot into Bird, dropping him instantly from his horse. After he struck the ground, another load was fired into his back and it was ascertained afterward that forty-eight shots had riddled his body.There is of course, no definite clue as to the murderers and it is not known as to whether Bird or Lucus or both were the objects of the bushwhacking."

Seven months prior to this incident, John Lucus was in an altercation in this same area, whereby he was cut up so badly,it was reported by the Gulf Coast Breeze on November 26, 1897, "Lucus' wounds are fatal." He obviously had recovered!
      As for Lon Holland...During this particular period of time, Florida farmed out its prisoners to various "camps" throughout the state. The convict lease system was eventually done away with in 1923 by Governor Hardee due to the harsh treatment of its prisoners.In 1900, Alonzo Holland is found at the Florida State Prison Headquarters Camp in High Springs, Alachua, County. From 1910 to 1930, a Lon Holland has been found on records living at a "turpentine camp"in Highlands County. It is believed to be the same Lon Holland convicted in the Murder of Joel Walker.

      We can now get a clue as to the scull found on my great grandfather's mantle. It must have been the skull of his brother Joel that was retrieved from Tiger Creek. Or was it? Mathew Walker was reportedly the one who collected the bones. Did he and his brother Kyle share their brothers bones? Since only the skull and under jawbone was initially taken into evidence, Mathew must have gathered the rest of his brother's remains, bringing them home to the family. At first I questioned this bazaar behavior, but when you think about it, its not so far different from what happens today with the cremains of our loved ones. They also rest upon mantles!
       Lee and I continue in our quest for the truth in this unraveling story of our ancestor. We keep uncovering more layers to this drama and I suspect more layers will fall away revealing even more. It's as if we have stepped back in time and we are witnesses to an event that took place over a hundred years ago.
Addendum: Reveled...The Murder of Joel Walker
Author ©Linda Flowers
Assistant and co-contributor: Lee Sturgis who found most of the articles appearing in this updated historical document. Original story was written and contributed to the web on August 26, 2009 and updated April 15, 2011.
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