|America Smith Lewis (1845-1902)
Florida became the 27th state of the United States in March of 1845, a few months before America Smith was born. In order to settle the state and spur growth, the federal government passed out land patents. This was an agreement between the settler and the government with certain stipulations including homesteading and land improvement. After a set period of time, the settler would be able to earn the land free and clear as long as the stipulations were proven. Needless to say, this enticed many people to set out on their own with their families and attempt to better themselves.
Originally, James and Mary Ann settled in Alachua County near the county seat of Newnansville, a few miles north of present day Alachua. He and his brother, William, who had made the excursion to Florida, were able to earn their patents in 1855 and 1856. They were not to stay in Newnansville long, as by 1859 James and William had earned patents in Levy County east of Cedar Key. Two years later everything would change for the Smith family.
In April of 1861, the war between the states started. Tensions had become so high between the southern states and the federal government that the states began to secede from the United States to form the Confederate States of America. Florida was one of the original 6 states to leave the Union in January of 1861.
Four of James and Mary Ann's children enlisted in the Confederate Army, including: William Fletcher, Bryant, Hampton Porter, and Milton. All of the Smith brother's enlisted in the 9th Florida Infantry. They fought at the largest Florida battle during the war at Olustee. Afterwards they moved northward and fought in small battles and skirmishes in Virginia. They were also involved in the Petersburg siege. The 9th Florida Infantry was at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia to witness the surrender of General Lee to General Grant, ending the war. Three of the four brothers survived. Milton perished in 1864.
|The Surrender of General Lee
While the men were away defending their beloved Southland, the women were faced with all of the farm work, household chores, and the raising of their children. It was no small task to accomplish this while not knowing if their family members would ever return home. Without the help of the men, children were made to work at a younger age to take on the slack that was left by the soldiers. Life was no different for America Smith.
Two years after the war, in 1867, America Smith married Lazarus Britt "L.B." Lewis. L.B. was in the 9th infantry with America's brothers and no doubt became acquainted through this connection. L.B. was a farmer and builder by trade. He would be integral in the growth of the county seat of Bronson. As a well known citizen in Levy County, he would be commissioned to build parts of the courthouse in Bronson, and would also be a part of the road planning in the area.
All of the ventures that L.B. was involved in amassed considerable wealth for the area and the time. By the turn of the 20th century, L.B. and America Lewis was arguably the wealthiest family in Levy County. Rumor had it that Mr. Lewis kept $20,000 in gold in a safe in his house.
This rumor had caught the ears of Tom Faircloth and his best friend, Theodore Smith. Tired of doing small odds and ends jobs to get by, Tom fantasized about the supposed gold in the Lewis safe. Tom and Theodore formulated a plan to buy a few drill bits and some ammo, borrow 2 guns, and drill through the safe while the Lewis's were away.
On the 29th of August, 1902, Tom and Theodore arrived at the Lewis house; a few miles South of Bronson in Levy County, Florida. America and L.B. were away at their son's house for supper. The robbers donned fake mustaches in case they were seen, so they wouldn't be recognized. They proceeded to enter the Lewis house Tom would take first crack at the safe while Theo remained on watch. After a few minutes of hand cranking a drill on the Lewis safe, Tom's drill bit broke. Theo decided he would give it a try and the two switched places. Even with the new drill bit, Theo was getting nowhere on the safe.
With their hair drenched in sweat and their muscles aching from trying to drill through the safe, they toiled harder knowing the Lewis's would eventually come home. There was no way they were leaving without the money in that safe.
Tom heard talking in the distance and realized the Lewis's were coming home. They picked up their tools and ran out of the house to the saddle barn. They tried to come up with a plan on how to get to the safe with the Lewis's in the house. They knew they couldn't leave without the money that they came for, but they were tired and hot in the muggy Florida autumn night. They had to get that money and they were willing to die for it.
America Lewis walked to her kitchen while her husband, L.B., stayed on the porch to wash his feet. Tom and Theo made their move. Theo ran to the kitchen window and pointed his .22 rifle in. He took aim, and as America noticed movement out the window and began to scream, Theo shot her in the cheek.
|Lazarus Britt Lewis
The robbers - now murderers - knew that the Lewis's son, James, lived down the road and probably heard the gunshots and the sound of his mother's screams. There was no time to try to break into the safe now. They had to go.
|James and Zennie Lewis
The initial suspect was a black man that had recently committed a murder in nearby Newberry. Those suspicions were proved false, however, when the man was discovered in Georgia. It would have been impossible to have committed the Lewis murders and gotten to Georgia in that short amount of time.
Tom and Theo had tried to escape separately to Georgia. Tom had traveled north to Fort Fanning on the Suwannee River. He was going to take a boat up the Suwannee but it was too late in the day to purchase a ticket. News had reached the sheriff that Tom Faircloth had been seen purchasing fake mustaches and gun ammo around the time of the murders. Naturally, this made the sheriff suspicious of Tom and went to apprehend him for questioning. Tom was captured at Fort Fanning waiting to make his getaway on the Suwannee.
Theo, on the other hand, had caught a train. He was able to stow away in a rail car as the train headed east. He wouldn't go far, though. As the train passed through Bronson, Theo stuck his head out of the car to view his hometown that he may never see again. It was here that he was seen by Joseph Milton Prevatt, nephew of the deceased, America Smith Lewis. Joseph knew Theo and also knew that Theo was close friends with Tom Faircloth who had already been apprehended. It couldn't have been a coincidence that Theo was a stow away on a train heading out of town.
By the time the train got to nearby Archer, Joseph Prevatt had caught up and apprehended Theodore Smith. The men eventually confessed to the murders and were tried, convicted, and sentences to death by hanging at the Bronson Courthouse.
|Tom Faircloth's written confession
BRONSON LEVY COUNTY
Mr W B Faircloth, Der cosin and friend. I will write a full Statement of our crim. Bart when we first thought of giting the money, we was in Gulf Hammock cutting cedar for Roland Hay good flying in he growth of june and the thought came to us if we fin a where thay was lots of monny we would go and get it and we thought of Brit Lewis having a safe in his house. And we decided he had a bout tunty thousand dallars and we decided that we would order 2 drills and falce mustashes and so we did and I staid in Ellzy a bout a month and Bronson and went out to Thedors one Monday eving and shod home the mus touhes Friday morning came by Theodors and I bought 25 cents worth of fodder, and 25 cents worth of 38 winchester cartrges. Theodor was to borg Elak 38 Rifal but he was gone a hunting and Theodor failed to git the rifal. So we meet back of Joe Frenatts paster. Saturday morning and he told me he failed to git the gun and to hunt a gun and come out with a 22 rifal and sid while I watch you gow and gow to drilling and I did so and brok one drill and he sed you watch and I will drill and he went in and tried in drilling and I saw the old folks coming and I sad to him: I see them coming and he come out of the house and we went to the sadle house and he started to shoot them and he ded less not shoot them and I sad all write and we started to leave and I did I come here to dye far, this money and he sed all rite less git it and we went back to the house and the old man went one the poarch to wash his feet and the old lady went in the kitchen to eat I suppose. And I sed to Theodor did you cause her to dye for this money and he sed I did you Gonna round thir and shoot the old man and I will gow to the window and shoot the old lady and I went at theme words and shot him with both barrels of my gun and Theodor shot the old lady 3 times with the 22 and I ruse a round to him and the old lady was to the old man and he ded run back and shoot her we both run a round ther and I shot her and kill her at once, I suppose. and then we left thire at once and went to Smith Still and by evingston and drove funs and one dove in Otter Creek Swamp and there one down in Gulf Hammock and one to Maccasa and wadedafe the creek a bout a mild and these come out to my fathers old place. And went to the bac lilice rody and Ike lighford over taken us at the mile Wiled Frost and rode with him. Theodor rode with him to my Grandfathers house and Thedor come to town that night. And staid all night at Jim Hills and come home Sunday morning and I went to Sawanie River as I had promist to do. And I was a rested at Swannee River and the 1 day of September and Thedor was a rested on 3 day and Mr Willman com to see Thedor a thinking he was a trying to do him good. And he was a killing him just as fast as he could But may God Bless him. I hope it will do him lots of good Bart this is the true story of the crime. May God bless you Bart your cousin Thomas Faircloth and Thedor Smith.
|Theodore Smith and Tom Faircloth (white shirts) on the gallows
(30 September 1902)
On the 30th of September, 1902, Tom Faircloth and Theodore Smith were hung on the gallows outside the Levy County Courthouse in Bronson for the murders of Lazarus Britt Lewis and America Smith Lewis.
|Death of Zennie Willis Lewis
(Palatka News 25 Sep 1902)
Two weeks after the hanging of Faircloth and Smith, tradgedy would strike the Lewis family again. Zennie Lewis, the pregnant wife of James Henry Lewis, passed away. She had been sick for some time, but she couldn't recover from the shock of the brutal murder of her in-laws.
|Ocala Evening Star
(19 September 1902)
Lazarus Britt Lewis and America Smith Lewis are buried in Bronson Cemetery in Levy County Florida.
|L.B. and America Lewis's Grave
Bronson Cemetery, Bronson, Levy County Florida
Tom Faircloth and Theodore Smith are buried in unmarked graves at Hamp Smith Cemetery south of Bronson.
For further reading about the Smith family of Levy County, check out previous blog entries about Christianna Howard Smith, sister-in-law of America Smith Lewis. Transcriptions of letters that Christianna Smith wrote can be found here.
Special thanks to Ty Starkey, who has also written about the Lewis murders.
Follow Kindred Roots on:
Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KindredRoots79Instagram https://www.instagram.com/kindredroots79