Skimp’s Bar and the Dying Declaration

by Tim Gilmore, 1/28/2022

The one-eyed owner of Skimp’s Bar at 904 Main Street occasionally shot a customer. He’d taken some bullets himself too. He’d been exonerated in 1935, but the State of Florida put him to death in 1950. Commentators from around the state speculated on his ties to big Florida crime families. His last-minute appeals debated “dying declarations” and witness testimonies to mental imbalance. Ultimately it wouldn’t matter that he believed a headless dog haunted his prison cell. Nor that his son was a star student on his way to becoming a judge himself.

from The Miami Herald, June 6, 1950

Yes, Henry V. “Skimp” Tillman said, he had shot Leslie Oldham. He’d pulled his shotgun across the bar and blown buckshot across Oldham’s head during an argument, February 20, 1935. Oldham, whom Skimp said had reached for his hip pocket, turned out to be unarmed. That was down at Bay and Lee Streets, the bar’s first location. He said he’d “lived a life of harassment for five years” since an earlier fight with Oldham. That was good enough for a Duval County jury.

And yes, Skimp had a record. Whatever behind-the-scenes drama led to those four detectives hiding outside Walter “Bull” Novitsky’s rented rooms on West Monroe Street that Saturday night, February 17, 1923, has vanished into history. Police had received a tip. Novitsky’s brother Irving’s car had been used two years earlier in a robbery of the Palace Theater on Forsyth Street, in which two men, one of them a Jax attorney, killed theater manager George Hickman.

When two men boldly entered Novitsky’s place through the front door, detectives followed and one of the burglars started shooting. The cops fired back. The prowlers busted through a window, made it to their getaway car and left behind them a trail of blood. The man who admitted himself to the hospital later that night, bleeding from three bullet holes, was 25 year old Henry “Skimp” Tillman. Seven years later, in December 1930, Novitsky was shot to death in his room around the corner at the Ambassador Hotel.

Meanwhile, Skimp lived his life, married and divorced and remarried. In 1930, 30 years old, divorced from Bernice, he owned his own home at 93 Boulevard in old Springfield, where he lived with his two year old son Curtis and a 19 year old white servant named Dolly Young. He married Edna Myers in ’33, the year Prohibition was repealed, divorced her in ’34 and quit the dry-cleaning business.

the house where Skimp and Peggy Tillman rented rooms on West Ninth Street

The 21st Amendment of 1933 repealed the 18th Amendment of 1919, which had prohibited the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol, and countless illegal enterprises became legal. Skimp married Peggy, sometimes called Ludie, moved to 2237 Main Street and opened Skimp’s Bar just in time to shoot Leslie Oldham. By 1940, the Tillmans rented rooms at 55 West Ninth Street in a declining Springfield, then moved further north to the two bedroom house with the wide front porch at 111 Tallulah Avenue just south of the Trout River just in time for Skimp to shoot Frank Wood.

Henry “Skimp” Tillman’s last home, Tallulah Avenue

Skimp’s Bar throve. Its regulars wore pinstripe and windowpane suits and fedoras and smoked like housefires. It was standing room only when neighborhood scuttlebutt required extra company and a head of foam to get a handle on the news. Or when some demagogue was speaking over at the Armory. Or when Jimmie Murdock was featuring women wrestlers two blocks down Main Street at The Arena.

The Arena, Main and Beaver Streets

It was 2:30 in the afternoon on August 12, 1948 when brothers Frank and Edmund Wood dropped their car off at the garage across Main Street and wandered into Skimp’s. Hours later, detectives crowded Frank’s hospital room, trying to take his statement as to why Skimp had shot him. The altercation between the Wood brothers and the bartender had erupted over the recent murder of Richard “Smitty” Melvin, a Jacksonville gambling kingpin with a third grade education. Skimp shot Frank in the shoulder, the ball angled around toward the back of his skull, and Frank collapsed to the floor, his spinal cord severed. Their opinions regarding Smitty and what investments they had in those opinions have dissipated with the liquor Skimp’s served 75 years ago and the cigar smoke that coated the walls.

from The Birmingham News, September 2, 1947

“As long as the suckers will play, I’ll take their money,” newspapers quoted Smitty as saying. His wife told The Jacksonville Journal he always carried a $10,000 bill. On Saturday morning, August 30, 1947, Smitty, according to one newspaper lede, “died as he lived – recklessly and violently.” A gunman broke into Melvin’s “palatial home” on Capper Road, just off Lem Turner on the Northside, killed Smitty and his father James from an upstairs back porch, then shot Smitty’s uncle, M.B. Lee, as he crossed the back yard. The gunman shot Smitty in the head and chest. He shot Lee, who lived in a small house behind his nephew’s, in the chest and face, but left the old man alive to identify him.

“Wanted” posters showed 5’6” Don M. Stevens, who walked with a limp and sported a “deep dimple in the middle of chin.” He might also be easy to spot because he drove a 1946 Studebaker pickup truck with “D.M. Stevens” emblazoned on both doors. Sheriff Rex Sweat, rumored to be friends with “Jacksonville’s gambling mob” while publicly denying gambling was widespread in Jax, offered a $1,000 reward, a paltry sum compared to the $50,000 winning bet on which Stevens soon testified Smitty, “the bolita king,” had “welshed.” Smitty had refused to pay up. Stevens was sentenced to life in prison.

Five nights after Thanksgiving 1948, Frank Wood, paralyzed since August, died at home in his modestly upper scale brick house at 3663 Jean Court just above New Rose Creek, by the river south of town, beneath oak trees weeping with Spanish moss. Florida Times-Union headlines said, “Frank Wood Dies From Old Bullet Wound.” Now the “assault to murder” charge became “murder” and Tillman would use the same self-defense defense that had worked with the jury in the Oldham shooting. It didn’t work this time.

In writing his February 7, 1950 Florida Supreme Court opinion regarding Tillman’s appeal, Justice Roy Harrison Chapman wrote, “We find conflicts and disputes in the testimony on the question as to who started the fight or who was the aggressor.” Tillman claimed he was leaving, heading for his car parked just out the side door, when “the deceased” hit him and seemed to reach for a gun. According to the State, however, Tillman “became enraged about a remark of the deceased about the criminal case” of Smitty Melvin, pulled his gun, marched from behind the counter to where “the deceased” was seated and punched him. “The deceased struck back,” wrote Justice Chapman, “and the defendant then shot him.”

State Street at Hogan, photo by Jack Spottswood, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Tillman’s appeal depended on six points, arguing most prominently that Woods’s dying declaration should not have been admitted as evidence and that the dying declaration was prejudicial. A “Dying Declaration,” protected by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, is almost always contentious. When used in court, the intention is to admit the statement as though the victim declared it while dying before judge and jury. One side almost always argues the declaration is hearsay, the other swearing the declaration must be admitted for the very reason the deceased cannot speak presently, that denying the instant of dying as a special moment of truth dishonors the victim.

How long, however, is the “moment” of one’s dying? Within three hours of being shot, Wood told his wife he was going to die and called his attorney, John Rush (who would narrowly escape disbarment in 1951 over his own gambling operations) to make his will, then lived another three months and 16 days. Thus, argued Tillman’s appeal, the dying declaration wasn’t a dying declaration at all. Furthermore, the declaration was prejudicial, because if Wood had been able to take the stand, he would not have uttered such statements as contained in the declaration, specifically: “Oh, God!” as a response to “Are you in a lot of pain?” and, demonstrating his suffering, “I’m sorry, give me a little time” and “I have just got to move some way or other, Jesus Christ!”

from The Miami Herald, July 26, 1950

The prosecution argued and the high court concluded the declaration admissible because Wood believed he was dying at the moment he made the statement and because he had accepted that he was going to die from his wounds, which in fact he did. Justice Chapman appended the following dialogue:

SA: Now Frank, as you know, I am Bill Hallowes, the state attorney. How do you feel, Frank?

FW: I don’t know. He told me he didn’t think I would make it until morning.

SA: The doctor told you you wouldn’t make it until morning?

FW: He didn’t think I would.

SA: Do you think you’re going to make it?

FW: I don’t see how.

from The Tampa Tribune, December 9, 1949

SA: Are you in a lot of pain?

FW: Oh, God!

SA: Now, Frank, of course you realize that your condition now is critical, do you not?

FW: I ought to, I sure do. Bill?

SA: Yes, Frank. Do you think you can get well, Frank?

FW: I don’t believe so. My spinal cord is gone.

SA: You know you are paralyzed?

FW: Forever.

SA: Well, you realize your condition now, Frank, and you are prepared now to meet your God, aren’t you?

FW: Yes.

Tampa mobster Frank Costello, image courtesy Library of Congress

On October 18, 1947, Milton Plumb of The Tampa Tribune had compared the gambling scene in Jacksonville, “with its wide-open bookie joints, blackjack games and lotteries,” to that of Tampa, noting that Richard “Smitty” Melvin had frequently done business with Tampa’s Frank Costello and Joe Adonis. Plumb predicted a coming Jacksonville “showdown,” saying, “The heads of the Jacksonville police department and Sheriff Rex Sweat are going to be right in the midst of the crossfire.”

Duval County Sheriff Rex Sweat, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

On Wednesday, June 7, 1950, two days after Tillman was executed at Raiford State Prison, a column in The Tallahassee Democrat noted that 15 Tampa murders had been tied to gambling operations “and none of them have been solved.” It said “the facts” were “tough to get at,” hinting they might be actively and officially covered up. Tillman’s “death in the electric chair,” the column said, “was the fourth on the trail of Richard ‘Smitty’ Melvin.” Don Stevens had provided the “gangland slaying” deaths of Smitty and his father, Skimp Tillman – who “resented” the Wood brothers’ “interest in the Melvin killing – for some reason that has not been explained” – provided the third, and Tillman’s own execution was the fourth.

from The Tampa Tribune, June 5, 1950

What connections may have existed between Skimp and “Jacksonville’s gambling mob” in the shadows of the barman’s criminal record now fall further occluded by time. Sheriff Rex Sweat, praised in his 1986 obituary for keeping organized crime out of Jacksonville, left office in 1957 when his connections to organized crime in Jacksonville got too hot. The sheriff’s office and police department were even worse at preserving records than they were at making them in the first place.

from The Dothan [Alabama] Eagle, March 30, 1950

On Wednesday, March 29, 1950, Judge Bryan Simpson ordered that before the State took Tillman’s life, he’d pay the county’s expenses in trying him. The sheriff presented Tillman a bill for $625 for the following: coroner’s inquest, $35.95; witnesses, $355; deputies and transportation, $12; recommitment, 75 cents; service of subpoenas, $20.80; jury bailiff, $35; bus to scene of crime, $11.50; indictment, $10; trial clerk, $36; victim autopsy, $35; praecipes and subpoenas issued by clerk of court, $8.25. That total came only to $560.25, however, no word on the $64.75 unaccounted for, and no indication on the penalty for not paying the fine, nor why the court would expect Tillman to pay it.

from The Fort Lauderdale News, May 31, 1950

On Wednesday, May 31, 1950, Governor Fuller Warren’s pardon board spent two hours listening to pleas for and against commuting Tillman’s death sentence. His attorneys sought commutation on grounds of insanity, saying Skimp had grown increasingly unbalanced the last several years. His older sister Elsie told the board Skimp was terrified of the ghost of a headless dog he believed shared his prison cell. His mother said, “Please don’t send him to that chair. I can’t say very much because it hurts me too much.”

Skimp’s half-brother and his mother, Auburn and Christina Todd

A man named William Glenn, “appearing,” he said, “as a Jacksonville citizen,” said, “God wants him punished,” while the Reverend George Hodges, who’d be gunned down by his mistress at Beaver Street Baptist Church in 1963, said he was sure God had forgiven him. The board decided commuting Tillman’s sentence would cause the public to lose confidence in the courts.

Curtis Van Tillman, 1945 Andrew Jackson High School yearbook

Curtis Van Tillman, Skimp’s son, graduated on “the college track” at Andrew Jackson High School on North Main Street in 1945. His nickname was “Orator.” He was corresponding secretary, reporter and president of the debaters’ society; treasurer and secretary of the science club; treasurer of the senior fellows’ club; sergeant with the Reserve Officer Training Corps; and a member of the Red Cross Club, Beta Hi-Y, the dramatic club and the National Forensic League.

from The Atlanta Constitution, April 13, 1997

When Retired Chief Judge Curtis Van Tillman of the DeKalb County Superior Court in Georgia died of cancer, 69 years old, on Thursday, April 10, 1997, Atlanta Constitution headlines called him “Honored for ‘Reputation for Fairness.’” He’d come of age, circumnavigating his father Skimp’s trials and appeals. He’d married his high school sweetheart Margaret Elsie Johnson in Jacksonville in 1949; they’d just celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary. He’d earned his bachelor’s and law degrees from Emory University and never left the Atlanta area, where Governor Jimmy Carter appointed him to the bench in 1972. Margaret said he’d loved “cooking in massive quantities” for his son’s Boy Scout troop.