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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Crime & Courts

Genealogy research reveals blood feud between local families

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Published:   |   Updated: July 4, 2014 at 12:13 AM

— As a boy, Trent Megill knew the story of the Hatfields and McCoys, and the feud along the West Virginia-Kentucky line that claimed at least a dozen lives in the late 1800s.

“I always found it to be a sad story,” Megill said. “All those people died, and for what? Revenge?”

Then, five months ago, while doing genealogical research, the 37-year-old Tampa man learned that about the same period, his ancestors were involved in their own local blood feud.

Megill is related to the Whitehurst family. Their battle with the Stevensons may have taken 14 lives.

“It was shocking,” Megill said. “I have an uncle who told me so much about my family but he never mentioned that story.”

One of the victims was Constantine “Bud” Stevenson, gunned down while plowing his field near Hudson.

Like Megill, a Stevenson relative — 72-year-old John Fuller of Alexandria, Virginia — was kept in the dark about the feud and only learned about it while doing genealogical research of his own.

Fuller knew his great-grandfather had died at the handle of a plow.

“That was how that sentence ended,” Fuller said. “I guess the truth was a source of embarrassment to my family.”

The feud traces its early days to Tarpon Springs and this day, July 4, in 1893.

Tarpon Springs was alive with activity, according to newspaper clippings, celebrating the nation’s birthday with a number of events including a jousting tournament featuring the town’s marshal, William Whitehurst.

The horseback riders had to snatch suspended rings with their lances, and Whitehurst was the favorite to win. But before he could take his turn, he was called to duty.

A drunk sponge fisherman was causing a disturbance at the Tarpon Springs docks.

When Whitehurst arrived, however, he was met by an enemy seeking revenge: Bud Stevenson.

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“There was apparently bad vibes between the two families before it turned deadly,” said Phyllis Koliano, president of the Tarpon Springs Area Historical Society.

Stevenson had a reputation as a cattle thief and had been accused of stealing cattle from Whitehurst’s uncle. The punishment was said to be a public whipping, though no records back that claim.

When Whitehurst tried to arrest the fisherman, Stevenson intervened, protecting his friend.

A fight ensued. Newspaper accounts described Stevenson as a muscular man whom Whitehurst could never best on his own. So he drew his revolver and fired two shots into the ground.

Stevenson responded by shooting Whitehurst in the chest. Whitehurst fired back and hit Stevenson in the head. The battle ended when Stevenson’s friend Johnny McNeill shot Whitehurst in the back of the head, killing him.

Tarpon Springs was part of Hillsborough County at the time, so Whitehurst is among the 15 fallen officers honored by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office on a new memorial wall at the Fallen Heroes Remembrance Park in Ybor City.

His grave is in Curlew Pioneer Cemetery in Palm Harbor.

Trent Megill’s ancestors also include decorated Civil War veterans, Egmont Key’s first lighthouse keeper and Pinellas County’s first sheriff.

But whenever he visits the cemetery where eight generations of his family are buried, he stops first to pay respects at the simple foot-high obelisk headstone with faded lettering and crumbling walls that marks the burial place of his great-great-great-granduncle William Whitehurst.

“He was so young when he died,” Megill said. “He was only 23.”

Fuller, the Stevenson relative, also laments the manner of Whitehurst’s death.

“I can’t imagine he had much training for handling a delicate situation involving armed drunks,” Fuller said. “I believe he bit off more than he could chew. Shame on his superiors for putting such a young man in that office.”

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Bud Stevenson survived and was acquitted in the slaying in June 1894.

“It’s too bad Bud didn’t serve some time because he deserved it,” Fuller said.

Whitehurst’s relatives then sought their own brand of justice.

In July 1894, a masked mob of 15 men raided a home where Stevenson was staying. He was shot in the jaw and again survived. But his 19-year-old cousin Henry Taylor Osteen was killed.

“They chose not to end it peacefully,” Megill said. “So it continued to get worse.”

Whitehurst cousins Dan and Crocket Whidden, rumored to be among that mob, were killed in July 1895 at their cedar camp in Pasco County by a mob of 12. They were sleeping in their hammocks when, according to newspaper accounts, they were “mangled” and “shot to pieces.”

Stevenson was rumored to be among the assassins.

On Feb. 5, 1897, the Whitehurst family got Stevenson.

He was ambushed by two men while plowing the field at his home near Hudson. Five bullets penetrated his back, newspaper reports said, and he died at his wife’s feet.

The two original combatants, Whitehurst and Stevenson, were dead, but the feud continued.

Another eight deaths were attributed to the feud over the next three years.

Historians point to an article published Sept. 5, 1900, in the Tampa Morning Tribune, saying Whitehurst cousin Tillet Whidden had been shot. He survived the assassination attempt and would have been the 15th victim, according to the report.

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Fuller said he thinks the count is too high, though. He believes the true number is six and that the feud died when Stevenson was shot.

“There was a lot of violent activity going on in that area,” Fuller said. “And reporters were attributing deaths to the feud by speculation. The story was getting to be sensationalized.”

For instance, Whitehurst cousin William Edwards was killed in May 1897, but he was not involved in the feud and a suspect was never named. It was the Whitehurst family who speculated that the Stevensons were the culprits.

Fuller also has issues with the term “family feud.” He believes the fight was between only a few of Whitehurst’s cousins and his great-grandfather, hardly enough to implicate entire clans.

Fuller has reached out to members of the Whitehurst family, including a Whidden cousin for whom the subject is still a touchy one.

The relationship never moved beyond “simple correspondence,” Fuller said.

Neither Megill nor Fuller are proud of this chapter in their family histories, but they don’t hide from it, either.

Fuller hopes to publish a book that will include the tale of the family feud.

Megill wants to spread the story in any way he can.

“I think everyone should learn from it,” he said. “Don’t let revenge consume you. It only makes everything worse.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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