Florida v. Thrasher Part IV: Thrasher and Mrs. Brown establish the defense

Part 1: Introducing State of Florida v. B.A. Thrasher

Part 2: Louis Witkovski and Dark Days in Starke

Part 3: The Drama Unfolds as the Cast Hits the Stage

Florida v. Thrasher is a sordid and fascinating mess.

Two days after the murder, Thrasher and his defense team introduced Mrs. Brown into the story. From the moment of Annie Brown’s appearance, the court of law and public opinion were drawn to the irresistible drama of the young widow and the ambiguous nature of her relationships with the killer and the victim.

Amid the hints and winks, the reader quickly forgets that Thrasher is on trial for twice shooting Witkovski in the face at close range while the one-armed, older man sat in a chair in Thrasher’s Gainesville office one Wednesday morning.

Barton A. Thrasher never truly stood trial for murdering Witkovski. Instead, the defense

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the character of Louis Witkovski. The victim had no opportunity to rebut and defend his name against degrading slander. Faced with the allegedly impugned honor of a woman, the jury ignored the law and the prosecution’s case to impose their values and punish a supposed trespasser of the social code. Ultimately, the jury weighed insinuation and conspiracy, not evidence.

[Since Witkovski had no opportunity to turn the tables on his killer and impugn Thrasher’s character, it is only fair to

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mention that Barton A. Thrasher was no stranger to violence. The Alachua County court dockets show that “Albert Thrasher” was indicted for “assault with the intent to commit manslaughter” back in 1880. That case was placed on the absentee docket and it’s not clear how it turned out.]

Thrasher murdered Witkovski on the morning of Wednesday Dec. 11, 1889 and immediately turned himself in with his weapon and confessed to the slaying.

Preliminary examinations started on Dec. 13th and Annie Brown testified to bolster Thrasher’s self-defense argument.

In fact, it is clear that Thrasher, with no witnesses or evidence to support his claim of self defense, would be relying entirely on Mrs. Brown’s testimony that Witkovski had gravely offended her honor. Only later at trial, more than one year later, did Brown introduce a second theme, when she claimed that the deceased had threatened Thrasher in her presence.

Thrasher’s fate would depend Annie Brown’s ability to sway the jury and public.

The defense team’s strategy immediately began paying dividends when Annie Brown’s testimony was reported in the regional press. With widespread coverage, prospective jurors were certain to learn of Brown’s lurid narrative that irreparably defamed Witkovski.

Mrs. Brown stated that she had been employed for about four years by Witkovski and managed the millinery department in his Starke store. Their agreement allowed Mrs. Brown to take home merchandise in lieu, or in partial payment, of her salary. According to Mrs. Brown, Witkovski had requested that they settle accounts in June 1889. Predictably with such an arrangement, a dispute arose between Brown and Witkovski over her pay and the amount of charges on her store account. Brown claimed that they had agreed her pay was $75 per month, but Witkovski was insisting it was $50. In addition, Witkovski informed Brown that she owed money to the firm to pay for merchandise she had taken.

At this point, Brown’s testimony, as reported in the Atlanta Constitution, turns ugly. Brown said she would quit, but Witkovski threatened to “ruin her” if she did. The newspaper reports follows this alleged threat with insidious, ambiguous language: “He tried to. It was about this time that the improper proposals was made.”

Now, the reader’s imagination runs wild. Improper proposals? This is great stuff.

Mrs. Brown’s story transitioned

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from the merely salacious to utterly bizarre. Brown did indeed quit, not immediately, but “soon after.” She traveled and on a visit to New York met Witkovski there.

There is no explanation about how exactly this encounter came about. It is implausible, nor claimed by Mrs. Brown, that the two had accidentally run into each other in Gotham.

Brown, our only source for any of these supposed encounters, testified that in New York Witkovski insisted she return to his employ. Brown says she refused. Brown then added the strange detail that Witkovski told her that “his business would go to the devil if she did not return,” but that he did not care because “everything he had was mortgaged.”

Brown then concluded with Witkovki’s impassioned declaration that “all he wanted was to have her there.” Let’s remind ourselves that Witkovski was Starke’s mayor, a Bradford County Commissioner, and married father of six children, but that Brown paints him as a scoundrel and now a fraud.

In a curious detail, the journalist reported that Mrs. Brown was presented with a letter purportedly written by Brown to Witkovski. Brown denied she wrote the letter. Regrettably, we did not know the contents of this letter, or, if Brown is

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to be believed, why anyone would have gone to the trouble of forging such a letter within days of the murder to impeach Mrs. Brown’s credibility.

The reporter did not record Mrs. Brown as claiming that Witkovski made threats against Thrasher in her presence. This allegation was raised by Mrs. Brown in her testimony at trial more than one year later.

Thrasher then made his statement.

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office, Witkovski asked him to use his influence to get Mrs. Brown to return to his employ. Thrasher refused and offered the opinion that Witkovski was a “damned infernal scoundrel.”

According to Thrasher, Witkovski then said that he would carry out “threats.” The exchange rapidly escalated and Thrasher claims that he told Witkovski “he hoped it would never be necessary to shoot it out.” Witkovski defied Thrasher’s warning against moving his [one] hand toward his pocket. The report is too good not to quote:

“Witkovski said: ‘Now , it is the time to settle it,” and attempted to raise from his chair, at the same time carrying his right hand behind him. Thrasher says, seeing that he was going to shoot, he slapped [Witkovski] in the face with his hat, and this frustrated him until he [Thrasher?] got his own pistol out, and got the first shot. When Witkovski was shot, he fell back in the chair and dropped his pistol.” [Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 15, 1889].

Is any of this self-serving prattle true? Whatever the case, it is a great story.

The grand jury indicted Thrasher for the murder of Witkovski on Dec. 19th and, if this case wasn’t enough of a circus already, that same night, Thrasher’s attorney, Frank E. Hughes was arrested for contempt of court, probably connected to allegations of tampering with the grand jury.

The next day, Judge J. J. Finley (of Jackson County and Civil War fame) fined Hughes $50, which seems later, after Hughes’ guilty plea to have been reduced to $10. Thrasher pled not guilty and the case was continued until the next term. The trial finally got under way with jury selection in early February 1891.

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