Solving a Murder on the Florida Frontier

In 1882, a body was found decapitated and mutilated in a Florida lake. Just beginning the process of reconstruction, the Florida frontier found a young British man guilty of murder. But did he do it? In this excerpt, author Andrew Fink introduces the mystifying case from Murder on the Florida Frontier.

The shelves of the research room of the Sanford Museum are laden with all manner of books, binders, maps, folders, boxes, charts and more books. If you sit quietly, you can almost hear the wooden shelves groan and the reference materials cry out for more space. Or maybe I’m a little crazy and think I hear things.
It’s not a large room to begin with, especially for housing the historical archives of a city that by Florida standards is among the older ones. And it must share space with stacks of chairs, crumbling city directories from 1889 to 1928, a copy machine, computers and several large museum artifacts that have not quite found a home yet.
It’s among these arcana that I found the strange tale of Samuel McMillan and Archibald Newton.
Or rather, it found me.
Sometime in autumn 2016, while at the museum researching another book, I came across the story of the murder of a local orange grower, Samuel McMillan. He disappeared at the end of September 1882, mystifying friends and neighbors. Several weeks later, his headless, mutilated body was discovered in a nearby lake. Even though they didn’t have any direct evidence, residents of the small, tight-knit community quickly accused a pair of outsiders, young Englishman Archibald Newton and his wife, Kate.

An indictment for Murder in the First Degree against Archie Newton.
An indictment for Murder in the First Degree against Archie Newton. Reprinted from Murder on the Florida Frontier by Andrew Fink, courtesy of the State Archives of Florida (pg. 15, The History Press, 2018).
This was in a time when Florida was just getting its footing after the horrors of the American Civil War and the difficult period of Reconstruction. Settlers, farmers, swindlers, opportunists and former soldiers from both sides were arriving in droves. Citrus production was in full swing, and as we shall see, Victorian ideals, mores and police work were in full effect. This also was the time of great capitalist expansion on this last of the great American frontiers, when, much like the American West, railroad magnates, land speculators and the Colt revolver reigned supreme.
As I dug deeper into this murder and its cast of characters, I was too intrigued to simply put it back on those crowded wooden shelves. Who was Samuel McMillan? Why did his neighbors accuse Newton? What was a young English lad from a wealthy family doing on the Florida frontier anyway? The information the museum had was tantalizing, but it scratched only the surface. Not one to miss a good story, I eventually put all the research materials of my initial book into a binder, closed it and focused on finding out what happened to McMillan and his apparent murderer.
“I think the Archibald Newton murder story was here waiting for you,” museum curator Alicia Clarke told me early on. “I think he wanted you to find him and tell his story.”
History has a way of doing that, of speaking out, of wanting to be told. And it often does so with a touch of the dramatic: I later realized that I had discovered this story and turned full attention to it on October 17— which is exactly the 134th anniversary of the discovery of McMillan’s corpse (October 17, 1882). Cue the spooky music.
OK—so 134 years isn’t exactly a dramatic milestone, and it isn’t the round-numbered 100 or 150 years we normally celebrate, so spooky music may not be warranted. But discovering this story on the same day of the month the victim’s body was found is dramatic, you must admit.
I also soon realized that I lived less than three miles from where all the main players had lived and worked in the 1880s. I frequently drove by the place where Samuel McMillan’s house had stood, pumped gas at a 7-11 where his orange grove once blossomed and used the highway that now frames the events of this tale. In short, I had lived for ten-plus years at the epicenter of a century-old mystery, and didn’t know it.

of the waterfront at Sanford, Florida, 1882.
Part of the waterfront at Sanford, Florida, 1882. Reprinted from Murder on the Florida Frontier by Andrew Fink, courtesy of the Sanford Museum Collection (pg. 81, The History Press, 2018).
As I read more about the doomed McMillan and his accused killer, the more I became convinced this was a story that needed to be told. With events set in places ranging from the vibrant orange groves of Sanford, Florida, to the posh precincts of international financiers in London, the story has depth. In fact, our story originates even farther afield, in the Himalayan foothills of the extreme reaches of the British Empire at the height of its power. Throw in some poison, hordes of cash and a decomposing body, mix it
all with Victorian detective work straight out of the pages of Sherlock Holmes, and we have a story worth reading.
Heck, there’s even a ghost story for good measure.
This history mystery is a tale of murder, of inquests, evidence and forensics, and a sensational trial. As you read, I hope you will consider the evidence and put yourself in the shoes of the prosecutor and the defense attorney in that sauna-like courtroom in June 1883. Sit in the jury box and absorb the testimony, pass Samuel McMillan’s skull among yourselves and hold the bloody handkerchief. Put yourself in the wool suit of the twenty-two-year-old Archibald Newton, a British citizen hoping for justice on the American frontier.
Render your own verdict. Someone killed and mutilated Samuel McMillan—of that there is no doubt. But remember—Archibald Newton must be found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.