Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2023

Assistant Keeper Killed in Shoot-Out

By Timothy Harrison


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A large number of people are shown here waiting ...

On a quiet Sunday morning on June 22, 1919, gun fire erupted on the normally tranquil Sanibel Island, off the coast off Sanibel, Florida. When the short burst of shots was over, Richard Thomas Barry, who had been the assistant keeper of the Sanibel Island Lighthouse only for a short time, was dead in his car, reportedly killed by a single gunshot.

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Veteran lighthouse keeper Charles Henry Williams ...

The News Press out of Fort Myers, Florida, in reporting the event, sensationalized it with a headline that read: “Lighthouse Man at Sanibel Killed in Duel.” Whether or not it was a duel, remains questionable, but Jesse W. Lee, a local carpenter who lived on the island, was charged with Barry’s murder.

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Vintage image of the Sanibel Island Light Station ...

Although there were no eye witnesses to the killing, one person, George W. Riddle, who was quite a distance away, heard two shots. As he approached the car that Richard Barry had been driving, Mr. Lee was reported to have said to Mr. Riddle, “I’m in trouble.” When Mr. Riddle inquired as to what he meant, Mr. Lee said, “Go look in the car, I don’t see anything moving there now.”

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The headstone of Sanibel Island assistant keeper ...

Mr. Riddle found assistant lighthouse keeper Richard Barry dead in his car and immediately went to call the sheriff’s office on the mainland. Barry’s wife, Caroline, who was away in Key West, Florida, was notified and a lighthouse tender was dispatched to transport her to Fort Myers where Barry’s body was taken.

The newspaper reported that Mr. Barry had just taken some people to Sunday school at 11am and “had gone from there to Howard Page’s where he borrowed a rifle saying he wanted to do some target shooting at the lighthouse. It is reported that although he did go to the lighthouse, he returned within 30 minutes. He then came over the same road, passing the school house, going west, later coming to the scene of the shooting.

The shooting was the cumulation after Barry had earlier reportedly insulted Lee’s wife, and then one thing led to another. A local newspaper wrote, “The cause of the trouble is shrouded in mystery and will probably never be fully known; but settlement of it is most deeply deplored by everyone . . .”

The newspaper story also stated, “Both men involved were comparatively new comers, J.W. Lee having moved here three or four years ago, but he and his wife have never been identified with the community life of the island. He is a good carpenter and has done satisfactory work for a number of residents. R. F. Bailey has been assistant lighthouse keeper here for about 18 months and both he and his wife . . . mingled with people and made many friends.”

Whether alcohol had anything to do with the shooting is unclear, however an unopened bottle of aguardiente was found in Barry’s car.

Although Jesse W. Lee admitted to killing assistant light keeper Richard T. Barry, he stated that he did so in self-defense. At Lee’s trial, the jury agreed with him as was later report in the November 23, 1919 edition of the Tampa Bay Journal, which ran the story with the following headline, “Lee Acquitted of The Murder of Barry at Sanibel Lighthouse.”

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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