Florida v. Thrasher: Part II – Louis Witkovski and Dark Days in Starke
What do we know about Louis Witkovski? Census records show that he was born in
the Posen district of Prussia in 1838
or 1839. While most Jewish immigrants to the United States before the 1880s were typically described as German, many, like Witkovski came from the Polish regions governed by Prussia. It is not clear when he arrived in the United States but by the summer of 1861 he was living in Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana. WItkovski listed his occupation as merchant when enrolling in the army, but not appearing in the 1860 census, he may very well have been a transient peddler. Soon after Fort Sumter, Witkovski enlisted and in early July 1861, he was mustered into Stafford’s Guards, which
became Company B the 9th Louisiana Regiment. The 9th, , known as the Louisiana Tigers, became one of the most celebrated regiments in the Confederate armies. Witkovski’s service records show that he was present at all the battles of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia until early May, 1863 when, after nearly two years of relentless combat, Witkovski was struck by a shell (or shell fragment) at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Surgeons amputated Witkovski’s left arm at the shoulder and a discharge from the army soon followed.
Immediately after the war, Witkovski could be found in Savannah and various places in Georgia.
In about 1869, he married Mary Daniel in Jefferson County, not far from Augusta, and Mary gave birth in 1870 to Benjamin, the first of six children. The couple soon moved to Milledgeville. Although Mary was most likely not Jewish, Louis assumed a role in the Jewish community of Milledgeville where he organized a Yom Kippur service for the towns 21 Jewish residents and became a founder and vice president of a Jewish Social and Benevolent Society.
At some point in the mid-1870s, Witkovski’s business in Milledgeville suffered and he looked south for a more promising location to open a country store. In mid or late 1877, he moved his family to Starke in Bradford County, Florida where he immediately encountered problems. Witkovski’s initial travails in Starke are described in a long, anonymous account carried in May 1878
in the Jewish South, a regional, ethnic newspaper. The correspondent does not mention WItkovski, or even Starke, by name, but refers to “L. W.” who is identified as a one-armed Confederate veteran and Jewish merchant recently arrived from Georgia.
The Jewish South writer describes Witkovski as “an
Israelite faithful to the teachings of his fathers, a plain, unassuming man, father of an interesting family and a model husband.” The Witkovskis were the only Jews in Bradford County; the only Jewish family listed living in Bradford in the 1870 census had apparently departed. The author set the scene upon Witkovski’s arrival. The local store keepers, entirely Christian, “had formed a little ‘ring’
in order to fleece their…brethren systematically, and they grew rich by the extortion practiced upon the unsophisticated planters and freedmen.” The newcomer ignored the ring and “ere long Mr. W. had his hands full of work. His goods were precisely what they were represented to be and 25 per cent cheaper than sold hitherto by the good Christian dealers.” As a result, Witkovski’s “business increased day after day.” But the merchants’ ring soon expressed their displeasure with Witkovski’s conduct. One morning he found a letter marked with a skull and cross bones and signed “K.K.K.” that ordered him to leave within ten days or stand the consequences. Witkovski ignored this threat, just as he ignored the ring’s business collusion, and instead “continued in honest dealing, selling goods at legitimate profits, giving honest weight and measure, and returning to colored and ignorant white folks the full amount of change due them, a practice entirely ignored before ” in Starke.
The author continued his narrative, alleging that the local tradesman then held public meetings to demand that Christians keep away from the “d—d Christkiller.” But Starke’s residents paid as little heed to the ring as Witkovski had. The merchants then purchased the house and store rented by Witkovski and evicted his family and shop. Witkovski could not immediately find another lodging or store in Starke. The family instead found shelter with a farmer two miles from the town. But that same night, Witkovski purchased a lot and lumber to build a house. The merchants then announced that “no one doing work on the Jew’s house would ever receive employment from the other stores.” Nevertheless, Witkovski secured a “very large force of laborers” and nine days later broke ground on “the finest house” in Starke. He re-established his store and “his business visibly grew. “ The newspaper observed that Witkovski “had a hard fight for six months, but he maintained his ground
like a man.”
The Jewish South then added a bitter coda to the story. At some point after he weathered the storm of threats, Witkovski visited Savannah and made arrangements to order tobacco for his store from the firm of H. Myers
& Bros. Soon Witkovski received a letter (dated March 12, 1878) from the Jewish proprietors of H. Myers & Bros. declining to honor his order because “our trade in your town are so strongly opposed to our selling you goods, and they being very old customers, we feel compelled to oblige them.”
Although Witkovski found enemies among the merchant class of Starke, he maintained his popularity among the majority of citizens. Six years after his arrival, WItkovski became a candidate for mayor. One local newspaper decried “the attempt to excite popular prejudice against” Witkovski. But while the Bradford County newspaper insinuated that this prejudice was aimed at Witkovski’s Judaism, the language the writer used suggested that Witkovski’s foreign origins may also have be raised as reason to oppose his candidacy (Florida Weekly Telegraph in the American Israelite, January 4, 1884). Witkovski prevailed once again and was elected Starke’s mayor in 1883 or 1884 and soon also became a Bradford County Commissioner. He continued to fill the office of mayor until the fateful morning of Dec. 11, 1889.
Next: An Isosceles Triangle? Witkovski, Thrasher and the mysterious Mrs. Brown.