Joseph Harrison was a well known mail-carrier in Panama City. Harrison, and his wife, also operated a small store in town. Walter Sharpless was more fortunate. He had the incredible foresight to homestead Gulf front property in an era when all other residents thought it was worthless. Furthermore, Sharpless’ vision was affirmed when the Hathaway Bridge was constructed and permitted automobile traffic to the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Sharpless placed a pavilion on the shore and began to call his vast stretch of beach, ‘Long Beach’.
On August 20th, 1930, Joseph Harrison was nearly bludgeoned to death near Long Beach. The assailant, a former law enforcement officer, was Walter Sharpless. Sharpless had insisted that Harrison pay a fee to be on his beach. Mr. Harrison was convinced that he was on an open beach, west of Long Beach, and refused to pay the 50 cent toll. The confrontation became violent when Mr. Sharpless struck Joseph Harrison in the head with a pistol. His employee also joined in the vicious attack. The attack was witnessed by Mrs. Harrison and family. Mr. Harrison was so severely injured that he was hospitalized several days and was unable to walk for many weeks. In addition, he appeared to have suffered a brain injury.
The incident was very sensational and made front-page news in the local papers. Even though Sharpless had been admired in the area, it became obvious after the assault, that he was hot tempered and prone to violence. On the other hand, Mr. Harrison was known as mild mannered and a devout Christian. Attempted murder charges were filed against Walter Sharpless and he went to trial in October, 1930. In general, the public was sympathetic with Mr. Harrison and felt that Sharpless should pay for his crime. The jury, however, found the former Deputy Sheriff and Police Chief, not guilty. Harrison and his son, Walter, felt tragically aggrieved by the injustice. Unfortunately, the senior Harrison was heard in public saying he would have his vengeance one day.
On May 23rd, 1931, the body of Walter Sharpless was found dead along Hwy 98, in Panama City. He had been shot in the head with buckshot. There were no witnesses to the crime. However, Joseph and Walter Harrison were soon arrested. Both father and son declared their innocence. Nevertheless, the authorities believed the teenage Harrison to be the trigger man. Convinced of his guilt, the jail house deputies began to pressure a confession out of Walter by beating him with a stick, withholding food, over-heating his cell and depriving him of sleep. For four days, Walter Harrison denied guilt. On the fifth day, court authorities told Walter, that they were going to arrest his mother and his sister. At this news, Walter began to sob, “blame it on me…blame it on me”!
At trial, the elder Harrison was sentenced to incarceration in the State Mental Hospital. Walter Harrison was sentenced to life imprisonment. Lillian West, the publisher of the Panama City Pilot at the time, stated in an editorial, if the masses had been allowed to vote, a verdict of, ‘not guilty’, would have been returned. In fact, public sentiment favoring the Harrison’s was so strong that Mrs. Harrison had little difficulty getting sufficient signatures on a petition to free her son. After a few years in prison, Walter was pardoned. Unfortunately, he did not live long. Tragedy visited the Harrison household soon again, when Walter was killed in a motorcycle accident. Joseph Harrison was released from the mental hospital in Chattahoochee and returned home to live out a long life.
J. E. Churchwell, a Panama City business man, purchased the Gulf front property from Sharpless’ widow and for many decades after continued to develop Long Beach. Long Beach was bordered, on the east, by the resort development initiated by Gideon Thomas. Mr. Thomas chartered ‘Panama City Beach’ in 1936 and Churchwell followed suit shortly after, with his ‘Long Beach Resort’.