Many Bermuda place names evoke beauty spots with stunning vistas of sea, sand and sky; one has only to think of Fairylands, Paynter’s Vale or Horseshoe Bay, for example.
However, a few Bermuda place names have sinister overtones. So it is with Skeeters’ Corner, in Somerset near Daniel’s Head, site of a notorious nineteenth-century murder that haunts the island psyche to this day.
The particulars of the crime encompass dark midnight doings, doomed women, decaying corpses, eerie spectres, tricks of fate, lonely cottages and gruesome deaths; short, a scenario reminiscent of a Gothic tale by Anthony Trollope, Monk Lewis or Mary Shelley. Indeed, a century after the crime, the Skeeters murder was the subject of an historical novel, and an unsettling one at that. Perhaps even more unsettling is that the crime is suggestive of some of the dark forces operative in Bermuda history, notably the tragic legacy of slavery, formally abolished not long before the murderer was born.
In short, the case haunts Bermudian memory because it illuminates the darker side of some of the island’s sunny illusions about itself. The details of the case touch on the social and psychological legacy of slavery on emotionally overindulged yet underemployed black males, the violent complications that can follow on the heels of adultery and illegitimacy, the domestic vulnerability of women and the role of mob anger in the uncertain progress of justice in old Bermuda, a society grounded in white privilege versus black economic and social subordination. Murder, alas, can be an instructive crime. Certainly, the tragic death of Anna Skeeters has much to tell us even yet.
Anna Skeeters looked crisp and lovely at St. James Church that hot day in October 1878 as she looked on from the churchyard at a wedding held before the evening service. Anna was dressed in white. Her creamy, green-lined parasol cast a cool shadow over her face and her blue-dotted muslin gown. The 41-year-old black woman, dainty and hard working and known to all as a true and loyal wife, was also pitied by some in the Somerset congregation. In fact, neighbours usually avoided visiting her little cottage on the shore near Daniel’s Head, despite their fondness for her. Her husband of some eight years, Edward James Skeeters, was known as a chronically unfaithful husband, one who reacted violently on the occasions when his long-suffering wife was driven to protest his philandering ways.
That Sunday was certainly such a day. Skeeters had been involved for some time with the strong-willed Elizabeth Morris and her two daughters, Ann and Hannah, who lived nearby; he planted crops on shares for them. Gossips whispered that Edward sowed seed in other ways with one or more of the trio. Now Hannah Morris was expecting a child in November, a child Skeeters later asserted was his.
That evening, Ann Morris mocked Anna in the churchyard about her husband’s infidelity as some onlookers gasped and others snickered. Given that Anna’s two children by Skeeters had both died in infancy, such taunts were particularly hurtful. As usual, Skeeters himself was nowhere to be seen, though he had bumped into his wife earlier as each made a visit to his aunt’s home. After service, a tearful Anna hurried to the couple’s cottage on the shore of Somerset Long Bay, arriving at her door around nine o’clock. Elizabeth and Ann Morris would later reluctantly testify that Skeeters had briefly dropped by their house that evening, though they steadfastly denied any knowledge of subsequent events.
Exactly what happened at the Skeeters cottage late that night was initially a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain: on Monday evening, Edward Skeeters made the rounds of his neighbours in search of his wife. He declared to all that he had found the cottage deserted late on Sunday evening when he had finally returned home. Had the long-suffering Anna left him at last? She had left home several times before, only to return after a night or two. Now Skeeters went so far as to report his wife missing. He even placed an ad in The Royal Gazette, offering a small reward to any person who will give such information as will lead to the whereabouts of a woman named Anna Skaters who left her home on Sunday last and has not been seen since. Skeeters claimed that in the silent cottage on Sunday night he had found a trunk emptied of his savings (just over six pounds) and some of Anna’s clothes gone. He feared she had left him at last.
For their part, the neighbours were not convinced that he knew nothing about her disappearance. After all, hadn’t Skeeters showed up for a coaling job at the nearby Naval Dockyard early on Monday morning, seemingly in response to a message given to his wife only the evening before? How could he have known to go to Dockyard if he had not, in fact, talked to Anna late Sunday night?
A delegation of suspicious neighbours, many of them her female friends, appealed to the justice of the peace for Sandys, John Fowle of Bushy Park. Fowle was initially skeptical that the seemingly disconcerted Skeeters, a restless jack-of-all-trades known as the handiest man in the parish‚ (fisherman, tailor and casual labourer at the Naval Dockyard), could be guilty of such a crime. But when no trace of Anna could be found, a mob converged on and searched Skeeters cottage, convinced that he knew more than he claimed. The police were directed to lock him up temporarily in the Mangrove Bay jail, for his own protection if nothing else, a claustrophobic ordeal for a man long known to have a terror of confined spaces.
Violent death was rare in 1870s Bermuda. The island would not even have a formally constituted police service until a year later. Soon, however, a second, more careful search was made of the cottage, the surrounding shoreline and Skeeters’s little wooden fishing boat. A seemingly telling piece of evidence was finally noticed: rummaging by Constable Siggins produced some stained white garments, but in an era before forensics, there was no way to tell if the clumsily rinsed clothes were stained with blood or rust.
For his part, Skeeters continued to claim innocence and to insist that his wife must have sailed off to a new life in New York or Boston, perhaps on the famous Bermudian sailing ship Eliza Barrs, which had just left port. Few believed him. The hot-tempered philanderer certainly had a motive for murder, and he was capable of domestic violence, but without a body or witnesses, there was not enough evidence to charge, much less convict him.
All that changed in a macabre twist of fate. One afternoon, exactly a week after the disappearance on a blowy Sunday, a small group of men, including Anna’s brother, John Evans, a seaman on the Spitfire, gathered on the heights above the windswept bay near the cottage and noticed a curious phenomenon. White-tipped waves were racing across the bay, unsettling its surface, except in one spot on the reef, which was much calmer than the surrounding froth. The onlookers, seasoned sailors and fishermen, knew that something unusual in the depths of the Blue Channel was responsible for the eerie sight.
On Wednesday, when the high winds finally subsided, a small group of men rowed out to the site of the slick. They brought nets and homemade grappling lines made of rope and fishhooks in order to drag the six-fathom-deep waters. After several laborious passes, they finally snagged and brought up a gruesome bundle: a skeleton to which still clung some slimy shards of stinking flesh, but that lacked the bones of head, arms and feet. The grisly remains had been anchored to the bottom with rope and an 80-pound stone, whose lack of barnacles indicated it came from land. Similar stones from an old wharf littered the nearby shore close to Edward Skeeters’s mooring spot, and there had been a moon starting about 3:00 a.m. on the night of Anna’s disappearance. There had been sufficient light for someone to row out and dump a body without a telltale lantern.
Next, the authorities asked Captain Moresby, the British naval officer commanding the Dockyard, to send divers from HMS Terror to the site. One brought up underclothing, including a petticoat (later identified by its distinctive seaming as Anna’s), as well as a large hank of her grey-sprinkled hair, still twisted into the knot she had worn that evening at church. Edward Skeeters was speedily charged with his wife’s murder. By now, he was already in the Hamilton Gaol near Court and Church streets, shut up there for his protection after a mob, made up largely of indignant women, had besieged the Somerset lockup, threatening to lynch him.
The trial, held in Hamilton the following spring, was both dramatic and depressing. Skeeters, through his court-appointed attorney, Solicitor General R. D. (Richard) Darrell, who was aided by prominent young local lawyer Reginald Gray, pleaded not guilty. The sorry story of Anna Skeeters’s married life soon emerged in testimony for the Crown, with Samuel Brownlow Gray, the colony’s Attorney General, as prosecutor. Anna, who worked as a washerwoman for a Somerset family, had been married to Skeeters for eight years and had a mentally challenged daughter by a much earlier relationship. The girl did not live with the couple despite Anna’s affection for and frequent visits to her, and she seldom visited the Skeeters house. On several occasions, especially in the year before her death, an agitated Anna had fled the house for the night, telling her sheltering friends little about why she had left, though marks on her person told the tale in at least one instance.
Friends and even in-laws testified that Anna Evans Skeeters was above all a nice quiet woman; too quiet…not quarrelsome at all. Yet even the pacific Anna had been driven to appeal to Magistrate Fowle for help on one occasion, when Skeeters had allegedly blackened her eye. However, in a day when a man’s home was considered his castle and domestic violence was considered a private affair, Magistrate Fowle felt he could do little. For his part, Skeeters’s own father testified that Edward had once knocked his wife to the ground in front of him. When the elder Skeeters remonstrated with his son, Edward replied that Anna was “his wife and he could treat her as he liked.”
Earlier, when a neighbour had asked Edward about the marks on his wife’s body from a whipping “licks” as the term has it, Skeeters replied with a laugh that “it was not the hardness of the licks but that her skin was thin and cut quick.” His comment brings to mind the days when slaves, both male and female, were often remorselessly beaten. Bermudian slave Mary Prince, writing of early nineteenth-century Bermuda, put it this way: “[slaves] were never secure one moment from a blow, and [our] lives were passed in continual fear.” To be a Bermudian wife in such a plight was, it seems, to be little better than a slave. Moreover, slaves had been emancipated in 1834; women were still subordinated, especially poor black women.
As for the murder case, it seemed fate had conspired to “out” the murderer, given the grisly discovery of Anna’s sunken corpse, which was brought, ironically, to the Skeeters cottage after being fished out. The evidence was circumstantial but damning nonetheless; the court called it ‘innumerable cloud of circumstances.” The all-white jury (as was usual in this era) took just 25 minutes to bring in a guilty verdict. The judge, donning the traditional black head covering, sentenced Edward Skeeters to death by hanging, declaring that he could only hope for mercy in heaven as there could be none for him on earth. The condemned man protested his innocence and was led away.
Shortly thereafter, at 7:00 a.m. on July 2, 1879, Edward Skeeters was hanged in the Hamilton Gaol yard, the area of the gallows blanketed with canvas to conceal it from the large crowd gathered in the streets around the jail. The Royal Gazette deplored the many women in the curious crowd as unnatural females, but is it surprising that they would be uncharacteristically angry at a crime that highlighted the worst of women’s lot? For his part, Skeeters went to the gallows calmly, even reciting a poem on the scaffold about his fate, which ended with a mawkish invocation of his heartbroken mother: “Tell her that her prayer is granted/God has pardoned her darling boy.”
Divine pardon was in order. A few days before his execution, Skeeters made a complete confession to the editor of a Bermuda paper, The Colonist, having spent his months in prison writing…what? His account of events. He claimed the murder had been precipitated by the fact that he had thrown a lit oil lamp at Anna when she reproached him for the Morris imbroglio, and he was afraid that she would once again go the magistrate to show the burns on her forehead and scalp. Accordingly, he choked her to death. Skeeters chillingly added that he had reluctantly completed the murder some 10 minutes after the initial strangulation when he discovered Anna still breathing as he prepared to rid himself of her body. He admitted that he was astounded when her submerged remains were recovered; he “never thought that the sea would give up her dead till the great day of judgement.”
In a Gothic twist of justice, when Edward Skeeters’s body was buried on Burt’s Island in Hamilton Harbour (where several other executed criminals also lie), the stone that he had used to sink Anna’s body was used as his headstone. The case had other Gothic overtones. During the search for Anna, neighbours had consulted a local witch for clues as the police investigation faltered. Fatefully, both Skeeters’s sexual partner, Hannah Morris, and her infant died in childbirth the month after he was arrested. The night Edward was hanged, a group of arsonists torched the Skeeters cottage, burning it to the ground.
Moreover, stories about the ghost of Skeeters persisted for years. In his wonderful 1946 guidebook Bermuda Journey, Will Zuill told of one terrified fisherman who, during a storm, encountered the wraith of Skeeters dancing up and down in a sort of grand guignol on the rocks off Burt’s Island. More tangibly, a piece of the rope that hung Skeeters was preserved as a grim souvenir and somehow made its way from the Bermuda Police to the Bermuda Archives. The Civic Ballet performed a work about the crime at City Hall in 1984. Bermudians seemingly cannot forget this story.
To a historian, there are other reasons that make the case significant. Skeeters’s doting mother, Pleasant Fubler, long suspected of reluctantly aiding Skeeters by furtively laundering some of Anna’s bloodstained clothes, had begun life as a slave. Skeeters was intelligent and literate but claustrophobic, aimless and periodically violent. Did he exhibit a personality-disordered response to the economic and social instability of the immediate post-slavery era, particularly for black males? There is no question that gender and marital mores in the period were a sort of parody of slavery; husbands resorting to the switch or fist to discipline their wives was not unusual, even if the law theoretically frowned on it. The laws against domestic violence were no better enforced that the laws against whipping slaves had been.
No wonder Terry Tucker used the case to write her haunting 1972 historical novel What’s Become of Anna, still on sale today. Sadly, Tucker felt that she had to transform the middle-aged Anna into a more marketable twenty-something young wife, as if only young and pretty women were abused. Moreover, Tucker’s dramatic account is disfigured with racial condescension toward blacks, especially black men. Nonetheless, Tucker penned a powerful tale.
The real case is more haunting still with the recovery of the skeleton from six fathoms down. As Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, murder will out. The crime is further italicized by troubling racial and social realities
just as hard to forget. Skeeters haunts us still.
The Royal Gazette carried an account of the trial in the spring of 1879, and a copy of Skeeters’s confession, “The Somerset Mystery”, published in booklet form in 1879 by S. S. Toddings, editor of the Bermuda Colonist, can be found in the Bermuda Archives. There is also an article by Andrew Bermingham in Bermuda’s Heritage (1982).