Pioneer Justice: How to make a thief talk

John Collier, Jr. knew he had found the thief. Now he just had to extract the truth from Perry Sellers.

On the Florida frontier at the turn of the 20th century, the legal system was sometimes a bit too slow and unreliable. So in those lawless days, Florida’s pioneers often took matters into their own hands.

John Collier, Jr. was part of the prominent Collier/Crews/Whidden clan in what is today Hardee County. His family settled in the area in the 1850s and became quite wealthy. John, for a time, was one of the most prominent cattle ranchers in Florida.

Side Note: Check out this article to learn about the family and lawlessness on the 90-mile Prairie: Pioneer Life and Murder of Dempsey Crews.

Hog thieves, bushwhackers, and cattle rustlers were common during that time. So in 1902 when $10,000 came up missing from the safe of well-to-do Collier, he wasn’t feeling too forgiving. But he knew exactly who to blame!

The relationship the two men had is not known for certain, but Collier was sure it was none other than Perry Sellers. Perhaps the 30-year-old Sellers was Collier’s employee because he was known to have the combination to the safe.

After initially being confronted, Sellers swore his innocence. Unconvinced, Collier hog-tied the alleged thief and took him into the cypress swamp between Crewsville and Highlands Hammock.

There he tied Sellers up to a tree. One can imagine the conversation that must have ensued between the two men. As night approached, Collier wished the well-restrained man luck against the panthers and alligators as he feigned bidding him farewell.

Sellers finally divulged the location of the missing loot and Collier released him. Frankly, he is lucky to be alive. Disregarding the dangers of the swamp, thieves at the time often weren’t given the luxury of continuing to breathe.

Regardless, Collier retrieved all of his money from where Sellers had hidden it — minus $100. And Sellers, in turn, fled as a wanted man, evading capture for over two years.

In October 1904, he was finally sniffed out and brought to trial by detective M. L. Depew of Arcadia (the county seat of then much larger DeSoto County). He faced a jury at the Circuit Court in Arcadia on grand larceny charges.

The slippery Sellers solicited the help of well-known defense attorney J. W. Brady of Bartow. They concocted a counter-offensive to combat the mountain of evidence presented by Depew.

During those days, there was a two-year statute of limitations on such crimes, by which time charges must be brought. Since over two years had passed, they convinced Sellers’ wife, Martha Sheppard Sellers, to take the blame for the whole thing — knowing she could not be charged.

Perry took the stand, insisting he had known nothing about the plot to rob Collier’s safe. Martha approached and corroborated the story, taking full responsibility for the crime and insisting her husband had been entirely ignorant of her nefarious ambitions.

Despite the bold attempt to skirt the law, the jury wasn’t buying a word. Perhaps they had difficulty explaining how Sellers could confess its hiding place to Collier in the swamp two years prior. Sellers was found guilty by unanimous decision. Upon sentencing Judge J. B. Wall remonstrated that he would prefer to sentence the shifty crook to 15 years; however, the law dictated the maximum he could deliver was five years.

Sellers was carted off to the State Penitentiary, but that did not damper his attempts to earn freedom. Through the continued efforts of Brady, they petitioned the Pardoning Board for clemency. After the attempt failed in May of 1906, they tried again in 1907. Somehow, they succeeded in the argument this time, and the notorious thief was freed after serving just three years.

The Sellers family lived out their days in the tiny town of Venus, south of what is today Lake Placid. Perry died in 1945 at the age of 71. His complicit wife, who attempted to shoulder the guilt, lived until 1978.

The couple had only one child (Allen, who died at a young age). However, Martha has many relatives still in the area via her seven siblings. The family dominates the small cemetery adjacent to the old Venus United Methodist Church off County Road 731.

Collier died in 1934 at age 84. He is buried in the Crewsville Cemetery. The pioneer cattleman successfully preserved his fortune against thieves and changing times before selling off much of his cattle holdings late in life.

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