The Trial of Bryant Wood

Mr. Editor:

The Spring Term of the Superior Court for West Florida, has been one of more interest, I suppose, than for many years proceeding, on account of the number of capital cases standing on the docket. The County of Walton, since its formation, has not had a murder committed within its precincts, until within the last year, and since the Fall term of their Court. If you think it will be interesting to your numerous readers, I will give a short report of the cases that have been tried this term.

On the 28th of November last, about 10 o’clock at night, as Mrs. Nancy Senterfeit, wife of Stephen Senterfeit, of Walton County, was setting by the fire in her own house, in company with several ladies of the neighborhood on a visit, some fiend in human shape, murdered her by firing a gun through the crevice of the chimney. The explosion was tremendous, and immediately, the ladies present, (thinking they were attacked perhaps by Indians) put out the fire. But on examination it was found that Mrs. S. was killed. A slug of lead or ounce ball had taken effect immediately over the eye and passing entirely through the head, and literally blew of the whole coronal region of the skull. She expired instantly without uttering a word. A young gentleman residing at the house of Senterfeit, by the name of Stokes, went out immediately, but saw no one. In the morning two tracks of barefoot persons was found near the corner of the chimney where the murderer was standing, which tracks were traced about two hundred yards from the house and then disappeared. But two tracks made by shoes were then discovered leading in the same direction, and traced upwards of four hundred yards.

Suspicion fell upon a young man, a near neighbor, by the name of Bryant Wood, who was immediately arrested by the people. He denied the crime positively, but upon examination before a court of inquiry, was committed to prison. At the Walton Superior Court in April last, he was indicted by the grand jury, and removed his trial by change of venue to the Superior Court of Escambia County, at Pensacola, which commenced its session here immediately after. Wood asked a change of venue upon the ground of extraordinary excitement and prejudices prevailing against him in his own county. The case came on for trial on the 11th inst. the City Hall was crowded to overflowing, with eager spectators. A great number of witnesses were sworn on behalf of the prosecution—and upon their examination the following testimony, as near as can be recollected, was detailed to the jury.

Mrs. Busby, was present and sitting by the fire when Mrs. S. was killed, she heard a distinct report as the bursting of a percussion cap before the gun fired.

John Stokes, was present, but did not hear the report of the cap—traced the two barefoot tracks two hundred yards from the house, found some scraps of checked cloth that looked like the wadding from the ball, which patching resembled some cloth owned by a sister of the defendant—examined Woods’ gun (a yager with percussion lock) and wiped her, and found her rusty, and perhaps blew dry dust out of her. Said there was but four percussion locked guns in the neighborhood, and that Wood’s was one of them.

Thomas Dulany, said that he took Wood’s shoe and measured it to the track found upwards of four hundred yards from the house, and that it fitted exactly, the track was a peculiar one, which answered to the shoe—he owned a percussion gun, but proved it to have been at home all the time, and himself with Mr. Senterfeit on their way home from Court. All the above witnesses, certified that no previous grudge or enmity existed between the accused and the deceased.

Mrs. Stokes, said that sometime before the murder, a sister of Wood was accused of having an illigimate child, and also of having destroyed it. Several of the women of the neighborhood, and among them the deceased, went and disinterred the child and found marks of violence upon it.

Hardy Wood, on the part of the defendant, (the father of the accused) said, that his son lived at his house—that during the accident to his daughter, his son was absent on a trip to Black Water with a market wagon—that his son did not return home till one hour after dark on the evening of the murder—that his son complained of having the tooth-ache, and was sitting by the fire till about 9 o’clock, when witness went to bed in the same room where his son was—he left his son sitting by the fire—he heard the report of a gun and got up, to go out—that his son was sitting by the fire when he went out in the same position as when he lay down to sleep. Witness thought some one had killed a deer—it was common to hunt at night.

Joseph Gonzalez, a by-stander, was then called on, who stated that he was well acquainted with percussion locks, and was under the impression that the report of the percussion could not be distinguished from the report of the gun—that when the gun fired there would be but one report.

Mr. Dulany was recalled, and was of a different opinion.

The above was the substance of the testimony as well as I can recollect. The whole case depended upon the circumstances. It was contended on the part of the prosecution, that the track found was Wood’s—that the gun that done the murder was also his—that the wadding was of a piece of the gown of the sister of Wood—that the accused feared the testimony of the deceased against his sister in the destruction of her infant.

It was contended on behalf of the accused, that he and the deceased had always been friendly—that the track found that fitted to his shoe, was not traced to the chimney corner—that the track took an opposite direction from Senterfeit’s, to the house of Wood—that the wadding found was clean and never had been discharged as such from a gun—that there were many other witnesses against his sister beside Mrs. Senterfeit—that Mrs. S. took no more interest against his sister than others, perhaps not so much.

The trial held from 10 o’clock A. m. till sun down, when the jury retired after a full charge from the Court. They remained out but a few minutes and returned a verdict of “NOT GUILTY.”

On behalf of the prosecution, W. Anderson and J. R. Barstow, Esq’rs., for the defendant, V. Butler and B. D. Wright, Esq’rs.

I will here remark, that a negro boy named Will, belonging to Senterfeit—was also indicted at the Walton Court for the murder, and was found guilty, but the circumstances in relation thereto would require another communication, which I will give you next week if you think it will be interesting to your readers. The boy Will at first charged the murder on Wood, and that he assisted, or was aiding and abetting. I understand, that since his condemnation and sentence, he confesses the crime to be his own and exculpates Wood.


[Source: Pensacola Gazette, May 15, 1841; contributed by Brian L. Rucker, Ph.D.]

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