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History: Mass murderer Benjamin Levins' confessions changed with his mood


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He wore a well-pressed gray suit and recently shined black shoes. Nary a hair on his head was out of place.

When Benjamin Franklin Levins strolled into the last room he would ever see on Nov. 22, 1927, he did so with an air of confidence; his head was held high and his chest puffed out.

He looked nothing like a mass murderer responsible for the grisly death of nine people - four by axe and five by sledgehammer. But that was exactly what law enforcement claimed he was.

As Levins approached the electric chair located inside a cell at Florida's Raiford State Prison, he declared he would face his death "like a man," without any evidence of a "yellow streak."

Levins asserted he was acting like a civilized gentleman rather than a ruthless killer because he felt that was what he truly was. He claimed law enforcement and the judiciary system framed him as the devil because it suited their needs; it enabled them to close the book on one of the city's bloodiest and most embarrassing stories.

This tale begins on June 28, 1926, when Carolina Rowell, her son, granddaughter and tenant were found brutally chopped to death with an ax in Rowell's home. A few suspects were arrested, but no one was charged.

Tampa residents were afraid a maniac was on the loose, and law enforcement was embarrassed.

Eleven months later, on May 26, 1927, another family was found murdered in an equally inhumane manner. The 8-year-old son of the Merrill clan awoke that morning to find his parents and three siblings had been murdered with a sledgehammer, their heads crushed.

Unlike the murder from the previous year, however, the culprits left an easy trail for police to follow.

As news of the murder made its way around the city, Levins and his friend Leonard Thompson visited a physic and asked if they would get into any trouble for the crime. Later that day, while dining at a restaurant, Levins read a newspaper's account of the crime scene out loud and informed the establishment's owner that Thompson was the perpetrator. By the end of the day, police had hunted the two men down and arrested them.

Levins suddenly changed his testimony, though, claiming he murdered the Merrills on his own and that Thompson was the one who had nothing to do with the crime.

Tampa residents worried that the suspects would be freed and no one would be punished, just as occurred following the Rowell murders. So they decided to take matters into their own hands.

Over the course of the three days directly after the arrest, a mob of around 2,000 attempted to break into Hillsborough County prison and act as judge, jury and executioner. The police, backed by hundreds of National Guardsmen and deputized citizens, defended the prison.

Tear gas bombs rained down. When a brick was hurled at the National Guardsman and hit a sergeant, he ordered his men to fire into the crowd with their pistols. A group of rioters took shelter in a local church from where they returned fire. Others collected what was described by newspapers as "heavy timber" and used it to break a hole in the prison wall; they were arrested immediately upon entering the facility.

When the violent disturbance was finally quelled, five rioters were dead and 11 were wounded.

Following the uprising, Levins again changed his testimony. He admitted that Thompson did assist with the Merrill murders, and he also shockingly took sole responsibility for the murder of the Rowell family and their tenant a year earlier, even though he was never a suspect. He said the Merrill murders were a continuation of his plot to exterminate the entire Rowell family; he said it was revenge for a "dirty trick" the family had played on him, but he never elaborated. He mistook the Merrill home for the residence of surviving members of the Rowell family.

At his arraignment on June 13, Thompson pled not guilty, but Levins told the judge, "I'm guilty. I did it."

Then, when Levins took the stand during his trial, he changed his story yet again, claiming law enforcement threatened to turn him over to the mob if he did not profess that he slaughtered the Rowells and that the motivation for all the murders was revenge.

Under oath, he admitted he was guilty of "accidentally" slaying one person. According to his testimony, on the night of the Merrill murders, he and Thompson were drunk on ethanol. They climbed through a window looking for a place to sleep, believing the house was vacant. When the Merrill patriarch found him asleep, Levins said, he attacked him. Levins claimed he fought back, murdering Merrill in a drunken haze and in self-defense. Levins then left the home alone, during which time Thompson committed the other homicides. Because Levins admitted to one murder, there was no need to delve deeper into his involvement with others. He was convicted of murdering the Merrill patriarch and sentenced to death.

In September 1927, he was called to the stand during Thompson's trial. He was supposed to repeat his final confession, which would have been enough for the court to convict Thompson. But he shocked the prosecutor when, despite already being convicted of murder, he returned to his original confession that he was innocent, asleep on the railroad tracks when the crime was committed. He said he could not say for sure if Thompson was guilty since he was not a witness to the massacres. With no evidence, the judge was forced to acquit Thompson.

And Tampa was left with unanswered questions.

Was Levins truly behind the Rowell murders or did law enforcement coax him to confess, perhaps believing that if he did so, the rioting would end and the embarrassment of the unsolved Rowell case would be cleared from the record?

If Levins didn't kill the Rowells, who did? Was a heartless killer on the loose?

Why did Merrill change his testimony during Thompson's trial? Perhaps Merrill really was asleep on the tracks when Thompson entered the home. Or perhaps his final comments to reporters were an indication; perhaps he lied out of spite for what he claimed was law enforcement's attempt to frame him as a homicidal maniac. He did not like being portrayed as such an evil man when he maintained his was a crime brought on by alcohol.

"I have been a good man, more or less," he said to reporters. "I have never done anything except a little drinking. . Nothing to be ashamed of. . I feel sorry for the men who were killed in the riots in Tampa. I wish I could have died for them."

And what if Thompson did murder the remaining Merrills? Did a freed Thompson ever act again? Such a crime paints a picture of a sadistic man, the type who would kill for fun.

When Levins took his seat in the electric chair, his final words were prayers. He continued to recite along with the prison chaplain until the first current entered his body and snatched his voice.

At 1:53 p.m., the current then snatched his soul. Law enforcement boasted that the Merrill murderer and possibly the Rowell killer was dead.

But were they correct?

Tampa will never know.

Paul Guzzo is a freelance journalist who specializes in Tampa history. He wrote the documentary on Tampa gangster Charlie Wall and the book "The Dark Side of Sunshine," which chronicles some of the city's most infamous people and events of the past century.

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