Civil War Letters Home: Roderick Gospero Shaw

Of all the Civil War documents here at the State Archives, letters from soldiers to their loved ones are some of the most engaging. Many of the young men who signed up for military service at the beginning of the war were eager, confident, and impatient to get into the fray and make a name for themselves.

Roderick Gospero Shaw of Attapulgus, Georgia enlisted at Quincy in April 1861  in the “Young Guards,” a unit of the “old” First Florida Infantry. He served one year in this unit, and later re-enlisted in August 1862 in the 4th Florida Infantry at Chattanooga. The State Archives of Florida holds typewritten transcripts of nearly a dozen of Shaw’s letters to his sister, Mrs. Jesse Shaw Smith, who lived in Quincy for much of the war (Collection M87-6).

Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Shaw’s early letters betray his impatience as a young soldier ready for action. In May 1861, he wrote to his sister Jesse that members of his company were dismayed to be limited mostly to loading wagons with supplies and digging post holes for camp improvements. He was resolved not to share his displeasure with anyone else, however.

“I came for the purpose of making a soldier of myself as long as I was here,” Shaw explains, “and [to] lay off the ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Dandy.’ It is rather hard to do, but I think I act it as well as any of the boys.” Shaw held out hope that his unit would see action soon. “I would not be surprised,” he tells Jesse, “to hear the roaring of cannons any morning instead of the drum for reveille.”

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

As the war dragged on, Shaw began sharing sentiments so many soldiers on both sides felt – weariness with camp life and the desire to see loved ones back home. In a May 1863 letter to Jesse, Shaw describes the bland contents of the average soldier’s diet while campaigning.

“Meal after meal we sit to cornbread (once in a while a little flour), bacon and water,” he laments. “We consider ourselves fortunate if perchance we obtain a quart of buttermilk occasionally for 50 cents. I had the pleasure yesterday of partaking of a ham of mutton at dinner. Butter cannot be procured anywhere.”

Shaw’s letters often speak of his wanting to come home on furlough, but he resolves to do his duty as a loyal soldier and stay with the Army.

“I wish I could be at home with you,” he tells Jesse in December 1862, “but it is impossible. My country needs my services and, til peace is declared, I expect to remain with the Army.”

“On Picket,” an etching by “H.B. McLellan of Company A” (1860s).

Shaw was not only eager to remain with the Army, but also to move up in the ranks. In several letters, he explains to Jesse that he has been studying military tactics and taking on leadership roles in his company so as to support his application for an officer’s position. He asks often for cloth or ready-made clothing so as to improve his appearance and distinguish himself. After achieving the rank of sergeant major, Shaw muses to Jesse in one letter about having a horse and assistant to accompany him.

“Should I ever get home, I will expect to live more at ease on my return to camp. The first thing I will want is a boy to cook for me and attend to other little necessaries. As it is it costs more to live in camp than at home, and much more troublesome. [...] I wrote to Uncle Tom about buying a horse, but there is a question as to whether the promoted major is entitled to it or not…” (R.G. Shaw to Jesse Shaw Smith, Nov. 5, 1861).

Shaw received the promotion he had so earnestly hoped for in October 1863. He was transferred to Company E, 4th Florida Infantry, and made a 2nd Lieutenant.

“I do not feel very proud of it yet as I think I have no right to it for skill and valor,” he tells Jesse in January 1864, “but by Summer I will either deserve it or the brand of coward.”

Shaw’s words proved to be prophetic. General William Tecumseh Sherman took command of the Union’s western forces in March 1864, and began preparing to march southward toward Atlanta.

“This Spring will be the most important period of the war,” Shaw writes in one letter sent just before Sherman took command. “It will prove the point of culmination. The mighty hosts of the invader will be driven back or Rebellion will tremble.”

Shaw would lose his life in the Confederate attempt to halt Sherman’s advance. On May 27, 1864, he began a letter to his Uncle Thomas Smith in Attapulgus, Georgia, which he never finished. His last written words were: “I leave now for a skirmish myself for 24 hours. Goodbye until tomorrow evening.”

Tomorrow evening did not come for Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw. A letter to his uncle from one of his comrades reported that he had been killed in a skirmish near Dallas, Georgia. With the weather warm and no means available to transport the body quickly to any cemetery, he was laid to rest not far from the road between Dallas and Marietta. Shaw had just turned 21.

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Stories such as Lieutenant Shaw’s abound in the many letters, diaries, reports, and other materials available at the State Archives of Florida. For more information, check out our Guide to Civil War Records, and visit us to see what materials may be available to help you research the Civil War soldiers in your family tree.

Also, don’t forget about our featured program for October, Civil War Voices from Florida. Each day in October 2014, Florida Memory will post a letter or diary entry written exactly 150 years ago in October 1864.

 

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!

 

Somebody Give That Cow a Bath!

Why in the world would someone want to bathe a cow? Better yet, why would someone bathe an entire herd of cows? They’re just going to get dirty again anyway. Yet for a number of years in the early 20th century, it was very common for cattle ranchers to lead their cattle, one by one, through a vat designed to douse them from top to bottom. The practice was called cattle dipping, and it had little to do with keeping the cows clean.

Chart illustrating the effects of ticks on cattle (1913).

Chart illustrating the effects of ticks on cattle (1913).

Cattle dipping was a major part of an all-out battle to eradicate Texas tick fever from Florida’s otherwise prosperous cattle industry. The fever, actually a blood infection caused by parasites, was spread through ticks, which presented a big problem for Florida ranchers, who still largely practiced the free-range system for cattle production. Rather than sticking to one fenced pasture, a rancher’s cattle might roam at will over miles of territory until their owner rounded them up. Branding kept the cattle from different ranches separate in cases where multiple herds mixed together. Under the circumstances, the cattle were bound to pick up ticks as they moved about in the woods, and there just wasn’t much to be done about it.

But they had to try. Texas tick fever was becoming a major drain on the industry’s profitability. Some farmers attempted to control tick infestations by keeping cattle and other farm animals out of a pasture for several months if an infected animal had grazed there. The idea was that if the infectious ticks had nothing to feed on for a long enough period of time, they would die and the fever vector would be gone.

Counties heavily involved in the cattle industry sometimes set up checkpoints to inspect animals for ticks before allowing them to pass, hoping to stop the spread of the fever-causing bugs. These methods had limited success. Ticks preyed on a variety of animals, both wild and domestic, so measures affecting only some animals would not protect healthy cattle from being bitten.

Tick inspection station at the Baker County line (circa 1920s).

Tick inspection station at the Baker County line (circa 1920s).

Early on, a few farmers experimented with the idea of washing their cattle in some sort of chemical to discourage ticks from biting them. At first, ranchers considered it a far-fetched idea, but it proved effective with a little trial and error. Over time, an arsenic solution was adopted as the most efficient agent for protecting the cattle. So long as the solution was mixed correctly and the cattle did not stay in it too long, the cow would be safe, but any ticks attempting to bite it would be poisoned.

Cow making its way through a dipping vat in Duval County, while a man marks it to show it had been dipped (circa 1920s).

Cow making its way through a dipping vat in Duval County, while a man marks it to show it had been dipped (circa 1920s).

Cattle dipping appeared to be a viable solution for preventing Texas tick fever, except it was difficult to get every rancher in Florida to do it. Setting up the dipping vats was expensive, and rounding up free-range cattle to be dipped every few weeks was time-consuming. Many Florida ranchers at this time had small operations, and barely had the time and help to round up the cattle a few times a year, let alone every time they would require dipping. The tick fever threat was serious, however, and eventually the state stepped in.

The Legislature passed a law in 1923 requiring every cattleman in the state to comply with a full tick eradication program, which included dipping cattle every two weeks. The new law met with mixed reactions from the state’s cattle ranchers. Some believed the state’s actions would help save the industry, while others dismissed the entire affair as needless meddling. To make the cattle dipping requirement less onerous, the State Livestock Sanitary Board contracted with private companies to build dipping vats all across the state, so that even owners of smaller cattle concerns would not have as far to travel to dip their cows.

Dipping was still a chore, of course, and the records of the Livestock Sanitary Board at the State Archives are full of letters complaining about the inefficiency of the system at times. By the mid-1930s, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that conditions had improved enough that most areas could be released from quarantine.

Excerpt from a letter to State Veterinarian J.V. Knapp from High Springs farmer C.S. Douglass, dated Jan. 29, 1933. Douglass writes: "The tax payers are becoming awful sore over the reckless and unfair way this tick eradication work is being done and we are figuring on dipping the State Live Stock Sanitary Board if they don't build us a dipping vat in the area they claim to be infested with cattle fever ticks, or release us from dipping."

Excerpt from a letter to State Veterinarian J.V. Knapp from High Springs farmer C.S. Douglass, dated Jan. 29, 1933. Douglass writes: “The tax payers are becoming awful sore over the reckless and unfair way this tick eradication work is being done and we are figuring on dipping the State Live Stock Sanitary Board if they don’t build us a dipping vat in the area they claim to be infested with cattle fever ticks, or release us from dipping” (State Livestock Sanitary Board Tick Eradication files [Series 1888], Box 2, folder 3 – State Archives of Florida).

Most of the cattle dipping vats from the 1920s and 1930s have been filled in or removed, but the tops of a few are still visible. If you choose to give your cow a bath these days, it’s usually to get it ready for a stock show!

Remains of a dipping vat near Natural Bridge in Leon County (1980).

Remains of a dipping vat near Natural Bridge in Leon County (1980).

Cattle and other stock farming is still a major Florida industry. Tell us about your experiences with raising cattle or other livestock by leaving us a comment below or on Facebook!

 

 

When the Dam Breaks…

The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms is an inescapable part of living in Florida. To experience their wrath is to confront head-on the brutal power of Nature. Ask around, and many Floridians will be able to name the larger ones they’ve witnessed or heard of. Betsy, Donna, Andrew, and Charley usually make the list.

Some of Florida’s most destructive hurricanes, however, hit the state long before the National Weather Service began assigning names to tropical cyclones. One of the deadliest of these remains known to history only as the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Map showing flood damage to the Lake Okeechobee region by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 (photo 1948).

Even with their inland location, the settlements surrounding Lake Okeechobee were vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. The lake itself was highly unstable, rising and falling by as much as a foot in a matter of hours depending on regional rainfall. Despite the danger, farmers coveted the land surrounding Okeechobee for the moist black soil it provided. To make the area viable for agriculture, canals and dirt levees were used to hold back the waters and reclaim the flood plain for planting. By the 1920s, avocados, citrus,  sugar cane, and other crops filled thousands of acres in the region.

Occasional levee breaches and flooding reminded residents that their protection from the Okeechobee waters was tenuous at best. In September 1928, the lake was already high owing to heavy recent rains. When reports began coming in over the radio that a serious storm was lashing Puerto Rico, however, many locals decided they didn’t have much to worry about. If the levees and canals had performed their duties thus far, they would be just fine. And who knew? The storm wasn’t even guaranteed to come their way.

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

Hillsboro Canal settlement near Chosen, Florida during a period of high rainfall (1922).

But it did. About 7:00pm on the evening of September 16th, what would become known as the Okeechobee Hurricane roared ashore near West Palm Beach packing winds of up to 145 miles per hour. Moving northwest across the state, the storm pushed the swollen waters of Lake Okeechobee against its banks. The earthen dams design to hold back the lake failed, sending a wall of water through the communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and Chosen. High winds ripped roofs from buildings, while flood waters either lifted entire houses up and carried them away or caused them to disintegrate completely.

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

Wreckage of homes and cars after hurricane (photo likely 1928).

When morning came, the scene was one of unimaginable loss. Entire portions of towns were flattened or mangled. Property damage amounted to about 25 million dollars, but the cascading costs of the catastrophe would be felt for years to come. Worse still was the human cost. At least two thousand people perished in the flood, but the exact number was difficult to determine. Bodies were found in ditches, in trees, anyplace the swirling waters might have carried them. Farmers reported finding the skeletons of the hurricane’s victims in their fields even years later.

Accounting for everyone and burying the dead was one of the most pressing matters in the first few days after the storm passed, but it was difficult work.  The storm victims’ remains deteriorated quickly under the punishing Florida sun, making identification increasingly impossible. At first, carpenters quickly assembled simple wooden coffins to receive the dead, but the number of bodies was too great. Eventually, workers were forced to load bodies onto trucks, and they were taken to mass graves in West Palm Beach. One grave was dug for whites, another for African Americans. Eventually, even this method was insufficient, and the workers turned to cremation as the only means available to dispatch the deceased with dignity. Meanwhile, survivors came together to bid their friends, neighbors, and loved ones goodbye in a mass funeral at West Palm Beach.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Makeshift coffins stacked alongside the road between Belle Glade and Pahokee after the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

Funeral service for hurricane victims at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach (1928).

President-elect Herbert Hoover visited the Okeechobee region shortly after the hurricane to survey the damage, and upon taking office he tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with helping to prevent the disaster of 1928 from recurring. The State, for its part, created the Okeechobee Flood Control District to cooperate with federal agencies.  A new series of dikes, floodways, and gates emerged to handle future flooding, although for years this was a work in progress. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers spearheaded the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which now almost completely encloses Lake Okeechobee. Former President Hoover spoke at the dedication.

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

One of several floodgates installed to prevent catastrophic failures of the levees holding back Lake Okeechobee (1967).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee in his honor (1961).

Former President Herbert Hoover addresses the crowd at a ceremony dedicating a new dike for Lake Okeechobee named in his honor (1961).

Hurricane season begins June 1st and lasts until November 30th. For more information on how to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for a tropical storm, check out the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website at floridadisaster.org.

For more on historic Florida hurricanes, visit our Hurricanes photo exhibit on Florida Memory.

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).

Statue commemorating the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 in Belle Glade (1987).

 

The Beatles Are Back!

Fifty years ago, the Beatles played their second and last Florida show as a band at the old Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.  This was a particularly exciting and dramatic time for Floridians and for the Beatles.  The band’s movie, A Hard Day’s Night, had recently premiered in the United States. Record breaking crowds were screaming at their shows while millions of viewers were swooning and shaking their Beatle wigs in front of the television. “Beatlemania” had taken hold in Florida and across the country. Yet this particular show was nearly canceled due to Hurricane Dora, racial segregation and the illegal sales of live Beatles footage. Recently, the State Archives and Florida Memory was privileged to receive never before seen photos of this nearly doomed event along with an eyewitness account from beginning to end.  Read on as Annette Ramsey shares about the Beatles, her father’s dedication to getting her to the show despite the bad weather, and these incredible Fab Four photos.

Annette Ramsey:

I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and loved them! Especially Paul! My dad found out that they were going to tour the U.S. and would be performing at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. So he bought tickets from a radio station. Our tickets cost $4.00 each and we sat in the bleachers. For $5.00 you could sit in front of the stage!

Annette Ramsey at her Beatles-themed birthday party (1964). Photo courtesy of Annette Ramsey.

Annette Ramsey at her Beatles-themed birthday party (1964). Photo courtesy of Annette Ramsey.

Annette Ramsey's Uncle Bern dressed as Ringo Starr with a Beatle wig (1964). Photo courtesy of Annette Ramsey.

Annette Ramsey’s Uncle Bern dressed as Ringo Starr with a Beatle wig (1964). Photo courtesy of Annette Ramsey.

So the day of the concert came. It was September 11, 1964. I was 9 years old at the time and my dad was 39. A hurricane was predicted to come through…Hurricane Dora… and it did come the day before the concert. Because of the destruction my dad and I could not drive to Jacksonville as we had originally planned. My dad said to my mom “We have to find a way to get Annette to the concert and once we get there, we can figure out how to get back.” So my dad found a friend of a friend who had a commuter plane and he happened to have two seats available. It was my first plane ride! The Beatles plane landed right before ours and ours was still in the air but you could see them walk down the steps. The women in our plane took their shoes off and started beating them against the windows of the plane! Daddy was scared to death! When our plane landed everyone tried to run after the Beatles! But they were long gone.

The Beatles having a hasty dinner and press conference at Jacksonville's George Washington Hotel (September 11, 1964). Photo courtesy of Annette Ramsey.

The Beatles having a hasty dinner and press conference at Jacksonville’s George Washington Hotel (September 11, 1964).

John Lennon at the George Washington Hotel press conference in Jacksonville. The Beatles did not sleep at the hotel and nearly canceled their show in opposition to racial segregation in the city (September 11, 1964).

John Lennon at the George Washington Hotel press conference in Jacksonville (September 11, 1964).

Since we had arrived several hours before the concert, my Dad decided we should go downtown and have dinner. He was in the mood for a nice steak! So we went to a restaurant that happened to be across the street from the George Washington Hotel. While we are waiting for our meal my dad saw a reporter with a badge that said “Tampa Times.” At the time we had two newspapers in Tampa, the Times and the Tribune. So Daddy asked him if he had seen the Beatles. He said yes that he had covered an interview with them across the street at the George Washington Hotel. He was a photographer and his name was Vernon Barchard. He said he would show us where they were going to come out. Of course I wanted to go right then but Daddy was going to have his steak! After we finished eating we went across the street with Vernon to the parking garage at the George Washington Hotel. After what seemed like hours to me (but really wasn’t) they got out from the elevator and they were literally pushed against the wall by all the screaming fans. Vernon positioned himself to take a picture and my dad held me on his shoulders. When Paul came out Daddy pointed at Vernon and said “Tell Paul to smile and take the picture.”
It was very hard for the Beatles to get into their car and leave. Female fans jumped on the car and beat the windows with their shoes like on the plane!

Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison leaving the George Washington Hotel for their show. Annette Ramsey is seen at top right (September 11, 1964).

Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison leaving the George Washington Hotel for their show. Annette Ramsey is seen at top right (September 11, 1964).

I don’t remember how we got from the parking garage to the concert. We may have taken a cab? And I don’t remember any of the opening acts. The Beatles portion of the concert was late because photographers had been traveling around taking unauthorized film footage of them. The band wouldn’t start until they left. We sat in the bleachers. Our tickets cost $4.00 each. The bleachers shook because the women stamped their feet and you could hardly hear the Beatles because of the screaming! I have read that their set only lasted 37 minutes. It seemed longer to me.

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr at the Jacksonville Gator Bowl show. His drums had to be nailed to the stage due to the remaining high winds from Hurricane Dora (September 11, 1964).

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr at the Jacksonville Gator Bowl show. His drums had to be nailed to the stage due to the remaining high winds from Hurricane Dora (September 11, 1964).

The Beatles on the windswpt stage at the Gator Bowl, September 11, 1964. Concert-goer Annette Ramsey recalled that the cardboard letters spelling out "Beatles" were eventually ripped away from the side of the stage by the wind.

The Beatles on the windswept stage at the Gator Bowl, September 11, 1964. Concert-goer Annette Ramsey recalled that the cardboard letters spelling out “Beatles” were eventually ripped away from the side of the stage by the wind.

After the concert we met Vernon at a pre-arranged place and he drove us back to Tampa. A week later he mailed me these photos. I am happy to share the photos with other Beatles fans. I am planning to return to Jacksonville in October to see Paul McCartney. My dad said he’ll pass this time and let me go with my husband!!

***

If you have photos, film footage or great memories of the Beatles in Florida please contact the State Archives.  We would love to share your memories with the rest of Beatle fandom and the world!

 

Old Sparky’s Rough Start: The Story of Jim Williams

The curious story of Jim Williams begins with an early, botched operation of  ”Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair, and ends on the lips of a folk singer, with plenty of  misinterpretation, heroics, and history in between.

On April 10, 1926, Jim Williams, a 25 year-old African-American man living in Palatka in Putnam County, Florida, was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death by electrocution.  His execution was scheduled for June 1, 1926 the Florida State Prison at Raiford.

Electric chair at the Raiford Prison

Old Sparky at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, FL. c.1936. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

On the day of the execution, Williams was strapped into what would become known as Old Sparky. As Williams awaited his fate, an argument erupted over who should throw the switch that would end his life. After many minutes and no resolution, prison superintendent James Simeon Blitch contacted Governor John Martin for an answer.

J. S. Blitch, superintendent at Florida State Prison

James Simeon Blitch, superintendent of Florida State Prison at Raiford, FL in 1926. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

The problem derived from unclear language in the death warrant regarding who was to carry out the execution. The official document, signed by Governor Martin and addressed to both Superintendent Blitch and Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock, gave these instructions:

“You, the said Superintendent of our State Prison, or some deputy by you to be designated, and you, the said sheriff of our said County of Putnam, unless you be prevented by sickness or other disability, shall be present at such execution. Such execution shall be carried out by you and such deputies, electricians and assistants as you may require to be present to assist…”

The warrant clearly required the presence of both men, but it did not specify which would serve as the executioner. Newspapers reported that the sheriff of the county in which the crime was committed was the official obliged to end the life of the condemned. In Williams’ case it would be Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock. However, Hancock added to the confusion by sending two deputies, Walter Minton and L. Shannon in his place, and both men refused to carry out the execution. Superintendent Blitch was also unwilling to throw the switch. Given the uncertainty and confusion, Governor Martin instructed Blitch to return Jim Williams to his cell. Ultimately, despite two additional death warrants, Williams’ sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but his story does not stop there.

 

Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

As officials deliberated over who would serve as executioner, Williams’  sat in the chair terrified. His brush with death had a profound effect, as one would imagine. Attorney General (and later Florida Supreme Court Justice) Fred. H. Davis, said after visiting Raiford in 1927, “They can’t get him to sit in a barber’s chair because it looks a bit like the electric chair. He steadfastly refuses to undergo any tonsorial operations and I shouldn’t be surprised if it would not take the whole prison population to make him do it.”.

According to newspapers, in 1934, Williams jumped from a moving convict truck to save a woman and her child from a mad bull. He was granted a conditional pardon for his heroism and was released December 23, 1934. Although the details of his heroism are uncertain, the pardon issued by Governor Fred Cone is well-documented.

Jim Williams, who was convicted in the Circuit Court of Putnam County, at the Spring term thereog, A D 1926, of the offense of Murder and sentenced therefor to death by Electrocution and which sentence was later commuted to Life Imprisonment by the Board, should now, upon showing made, be granted a conditional pardon. It was, therefore ordered that the said Jim Williams be, and he is hereby granted a conditional pardon, effective December 23rd A D 1934.

Text of the conditional pardon issued by Governor Cone from the minutes of the the Florida Board of Pardons.

After his release, he was never heard from again. Oddities promoter Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, offered a $500 reward for information about the whereabouts of Jim Williams calling him “the only person ever known to have been strapped in the electric chair and escape execution.”

Florida’s “Black Hat Troubadour”, Will McLean wrote a ballad telling the story of Jim Williams. While the story is that of Williams, McLean names him incorrectly as Abraham Washington, another death row escapee. The first verse refers to Washington’s story, while the rest is that of Williams. Abraham Washington was, as McLean sings, sentenced to death by hanging shortly before a new law requiring the use of the electric chair.  The death warrant was declared void by the Duval County court because it specified that Washington was to hang, not be electrocuted, and hanging had been outlawed.  The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  By that time, Washington’s sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment.


Download MP3

Abraham Washington

Well there was a man named Washington, his first name Abraham
The judge said he would ride the rope into the Promised Land
Before he met his fateful doom, the hanging law was dead
They took him down to Raiford-town to the electric chair instead

They strapped him in the electric chair and so while he was waitin’
The warden and the county sheriff were talkin’ and debatin’
Which one of us must throw the switch and send this man to Hell?
But no decision could be reached; in prison he would dwell
They took him from the electric chair, his sweat had turned to blood
They told him that his life was spared and from his eyes did flood
the salty tears of gratefulness; it happens to all men
Down on his knees he made this vow to never sit again

One day a prison gang did ride by pastures that were green
A mother with her baby strolled so happy and serene
Suddenly a vicious bull did charge this freighted wife
And Abraham, he jumped the fence and saved this woman’s life

A pardon full to Washington, his first name Abraham
Who took a vow to never sit again while on this land
The last account of Washington, the day was cold and wet,
was Abraham, have you kept your vow? And he said “I ain’t sat yet.”

The Tyranny of Patent Medicines

If you’ve ever suffered from a clogged liver, blood in need of purifying, or an undernourished brain, this is the blog for you. Modern medical professionals have made incredible advances in clinical practice and new lifesaving drugs. It’s doubtful, however, that they are any more enthusiastic or confident about their abilities than their predecessors and one-time competitors, the manufacturers of patent medicines. With products named Orangeine, Curolene, Electric Liniment, Angel’s Oil, Reliable Worm Syrup, and White Star Secret Liquor Cure, these purveyors of health and vitality descended upon the American public in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, promising to calm every cough, move every bowel, shrink every tumor, and destroy every bunion in the entire nation. That is, provided the consumer would kindly ask for their product at their local druggist or send an order in by mail.

Patent medicines such as

Patent medicines such as “Father John’s Medicine,” “Retonga Tonic,” and “Swamp Root” on the shelf at Hicks Drug Store in Tallahassee (1961).

Patent medicines, sometimes called “nostrums,” have been around for a very long time. In ancient days, Latin speakers referred to such medicines as “nostra remedia,” or “our remedies.” In all cultures, people have experimented with various ways of healing illnesses of all sorts, from pain to itching to cosmetic issues to respiratory distress and sexual impotence. Often, the impetus for this experimentation has been a very noble desire to alleviate the pain or discomfort of loved ones or humanity in general. Producing remedies can also, however, be a very lucrative business.

Advertisement for Hires' Improved Root Beer, including claims that it

Advertisement for Hires’ Improved Root Beer, including claims that it “purifies the blood.” Notice the ad calls this a “temperance beverage,” a nod to the fact that in some parts of the state a movement was afoot to prohibit the sale and manufacturing of alcohol (circa 1900).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, advancements in packaging and advertisement made it possible for makers of patent medicines to promote their products far and wide and capture the interest of a broad audience. With mainstream medicine still lacking full understanding of even some basic diseases and conditions, suffering patients were often open to trying patent medicines they found in the drug store or the newspaper. It was almost impossible to know whether a product had truly been tested for effectiveness (or toxicity) or even endorsed by anyone with any medical training at all. With virtually no laws governing the manufacture and sale of pills, elixirs, and other remedies, advertisers could essentially make up whatever they wanted about the product. After all, they frequently said, they were more than happy to refund the purchase price if the product didn’t work.

Broadside for Tydings'

Broadside for Tydings’ “Turpentine Man’s” Remedy (1939).

And that’s the kicker. Patent medicines often did work, although usually not by doing what they were advertised to do. They often contained high doses of alcohol, cocaine, morphine, or opium, all of which were generally legal to possess and mix into medicines at this time. It’s hard to say whether a patient’s heart palpitations, fever, or unpleasant digestive problems were really solved by the elixir they swallowed, but then again how could they tell? After a healthy dose of this or that miracle potion, they were probably in too pleasant a fog to stand up, let alone contemplate pain.

A page from the diary of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, containing recipes for various mixtures he used for patients. Click on the image to view more of the diary and a transcript.

A page from the diary of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, containing recipes for various mixtures he used for patients. Click on the image to view more of the diary and a transcript.

In earlier days, physicians were little help in combating the problem. They themselves were unsure in many cases how to bring their patients relief, and they frequently turned to some of the same intoxicating ingredients used in patent medicines. As medical knowledge increased and practitioners began organizing themselves and standardizing their practices, they began criticizing the patent medicine manufacturers. Doctors argued that while patent medicines did not cure illnesses, they did discourage patients from seeking legitimate medical care, and in some cases caused them to descend into dependency on alcohol and other addictive drugs.

The potion makers did not go quietly. As pressure mounted, they enlisted the support of the newspaper industry, which received a hefty amount of revenue from patent medicine advertisements. Over time, however, lawmakers opted to err on the side of safety. State laws began requiring products claiming medicinal properties to disclose their ingredients. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, granting the government authority to place tighter regulations on food and drug labeling and advertising.

Margaret B. Barry and her son Bill at the family drug store, Suwannee Drug Company, in Newberry (photo circa 1908).

Margaret B. Barry and her son Bill at the family drug store, Suwannee Drug Company, in Newberry (photo circa 1908).

Today, in Florida and across the nation, strict laws and procedures tightly control the availability of many of the ingredients that once made patent medicines so potentially dangerous. Various “cures” and homeopathic remedies still exist, and many swear by them, but compared to the “liver salts, “stomach bitters,” and other elixirs of yesteryear, they are much safer to use.

What’s the craziest sounding cure-all you’ve ever seen? Tell us about it by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post with your friends on Facebook!

Women’s Equality Day

Today Florida joins the rest of the United States in celebrating Women’s Equality Day, an officially designated day observing two anniversaries in the history of women’s rights. Today is the 94th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th amendment, which struck down the limitation of suffrage on the basis of sex. It is also the 44th anniversary of the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its president at that time, Betty Friedan.

The fight for gender equality in Florida has a long history, with many bumps in the road. Today we pay homage to the women and men who stood up for equality before the ballot box, even when they faced indifference, outright opposition, or ridicule.

Ivy Stranahan, an early advocate of women's suffrage in Florida (photo circa 1890s).

Ivy Stranahan, an early advocate of women’s suffrage in Florida (photo circa 1890s).

May Mann Jennings, Florida's First Lady during the administration of her husband, Governor William S. Jennings (1901-1905). Mrs. Jennings was a co-founder of the Florida League of Women Voters (photo circa 1900s).

May Mann Jennings, Florida’s First Lady during the administration of her husband, Governor William S. Jennings (1901-1905). Mrs. Jennings was a co-founder of the Florida League of Women Voters (photo circa 1900s).

The movement to secure the vote for women was relatively unorganized in Florida until just before the turn of the twentieth century. Ella C. Chamberlain, who hailed from Tampa, attended a suffrage convention in Des Moines, Iowa in 1892, and returned to the Sunshine State eager to get something going. She sought out space in a local newspaper, only to be directed to write a column on issues of interest to women and children. Legend had it she exclaimed that the world was “not suffering for another cake recipe and the children seemed to be getting along better than the women.” She resolved instead to write about women’s rights, and to deploy the knowledge she had picked up in Des Moines.

Chamberlain was considerably far ahead of public opinion in the Tampa area of the 1890s, but she carried on her work with enthusiasm. In 1893, she established the Florida Women’s Suffrage Association, which associated itself with the broader National American Women Suffrage Association and attempted to inject women’s rights issues into the local political landscape. Susan B. Anthony herself came to know Chamberlain and her efforts on behalf of the women of the Sunshine State. For a number of years, Chamberlain sent Anthony a big box of Florida oranges during the winter as a gesture of appreciation. It was also a ploy to expose the inequality of agricultural wages in Florida between the sexes. Women typically made less than their husbands in this industry, even if they did the same work.

Susan B. Anthony, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage association, at Rochester, New York (1897).

Susan B. Anthony, co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage association, at Rochester, New York (1897).

When Ella Chamberlain left Florida in 1897, the Florida Women’s Suffrage Association lagged and faded out, but the fight for equality continued in smaller organizations around the state. In June of 1912, a group of thirty Jacksonville women founded the Florida Equal Franchise League. Their goals were to improve the legal, educational, and industrial rights of women, as well as to promote the study of civics and civic improvements. The Orlando Suffrage League emerged in 1913, aiming specifically to get women to attempt to vote in a sewerage bond election. When the women were refused, they walked away with a clear example of taxation without representation to use in future debates.

As similar groups began popping up and communicating with one another, the need for a statewide organization became clear. In 1913, the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (FESA) was born at an organizational meeting in Orlando, with the Rev. Mary A. Safford as president and women from across the state serving as officers.

Caroline Mays Brevard, granddaughter of Florida territorial governor Richard Keith Call and a founding member of the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (photo circa 1900s).

Caroline Mays Brevard, granddaughter of Florida territorial governor Richard Keith Call, noted Florida historian, and a founding member of the Florida Equal Suffrage Association (photo circa 1900s).

FESA and its associates around the state met with mixed success. In Pensacola, for example, where the local newspaper and a number of elected officials were amenable to women’s suffrage, organizers were able to hold meetings and gain a great deal of traction. In Tampa, however, these conditions did not exist and suffrage activists found the road much tougher, at least at first.

As voting rights became a more hotly debated topic across the state and nation, demonstrations on both sides of the issue became more explicit, and admittedly quite creative. The Koreshan Unity, a religious group based in Estero, Florida, put their pro-suffrage stance in the form of a play entitled “Women, Women, Women, Suffragettes, Yes.” The Florida Photographic Collection includes images of both men and women dressing up as the opposite sex, at times to support the idea of equal voting rights and at other times to ridicule it. While humorous, the images are a reminder that for many the suffrage question was often at odds with the longstanding belief that men and women occupied distinct and separate places in society.

Students at the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute in Fort Myers stage an

Students at the Andrew D. Gwynne Institute in Fort Myers stage an “international meeting of suffragettes” (photo 1913).

Visitors at Orange Lake, possibly involved in the debate on voting rights for women (photo 1914).

Visitors at Orange Lake, possibly involved in the debate on voting rights for women (photo 1914).

Reception by

Reception by “DeLeonites” and “DeSoters” at De Leon Springs. Which side of the voting rights debate they are on is not entirely clear (photo 1917).

Photo poking fun at suffragettes by depicting women smoking and driving an automobile (1914).

Photo poking fun at suffragettes by depicting women smoking and driving an automobile (1914).

The 19th Amendment became law on August 26th, 1920, granting women the right to vote. Florida was not one of the states ratifying the amendment, and in fact it did not do so until 1969. Floridian women were undeterred by whatever ambivalence might have caused the delay, however, and women began running for the legislature the very next year. No uproar accompanied the change; the most divisive question was apparently whether women would be charged a poll tax for one or two years, given they had been unable to register the previous year. In time, women began occupying positions of responsibility in all areas of Florida government, although true gender equality was still (and yet remains) an ongoing project.

Women’s Equality Day is an opportunity both to reflect on the past, to celebrate the advances made thus far, and to renew our vigilance in the interest of equal rights regardless of gender. The State Library and Archives of Florida are particularly well-equipped to help you with the bit about reflecting on the past. Check out our recently updated Guide to Women’s History Collections to learn more about the materials we have for researching the history of women in Florida.

Voting in Florida, Then and Now

On March 3, 1845, the U.S. admitted Florida as the 27th state in the Union.  A proclamation was issued for a statewide election to be held on May 26, 1845, in which citizens would elect a Governor, a member of the United States Congress, seventeen state senators, and forty-one state representatives.

Florida's first state flag, unfurled at the inauguration of Governor William D. Moseley on June 25, 1845.

Florida’s first state flag, unfurled at the inauguration of Governor William D. Moseley on June 25, 1845.

Drawn portrait of William D. Moseley, Florida's first state governor (circa 1845-49).

Drawn portrait of William D. Moseley, Florida’s first state governor (circa 1845-49).

David Levy Yulee, one of Florida's first U.S. Senators, elected to office in 1845. The other Senator was James D. Westcott, Jr. Photo circa 1850s-60s.

David Levy Yulee, one of Florida’s first U.S. Senators, elected to office in 1845. The other Senator was James D. Westcott, Jr. Note that U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures at this time, not chosen directly by the people. Photo circa 1850s-60s.

Florida’s Legislative Council passed an act “to Facilitate the Organization of the State of Florida” on March 11, 1845, part of which laid out the criteria a citizen had to meet in order to participate in the election. Voting was restricted to free white males who were citizens of the U.S. at the time of the election and had lived in Florida for at least two years. A voter could only cast a ballot in the county where he had lived for at least six months and was enrolled as a member of the local militia.

J.H. Colton's map of Florida, published in 1853. With the exception of a few counties, this map reflects the county boundaries in place at the time of the 1845 statehood election.

J.H. Colton’s map of Florida, published in 1853. With the exception of a few counties, this map reflects the county boundaries in place at the time of the 1845 statehood election.

Each of Florida’s twenty-five counties was divided into precincts. Clerks of the county courts appointed inspectors for each precinct to ensure an accurate and orderly voting process.  Each clerk and inspector kept poll books listing the voters.  Attached to these poll books were certificates of election on which the inspectors and clerk, after having counted the votes, wrote down the results for each candidate. Sometimes a voter’s qualifications were challenged by an inspector. In these cases, the inspector reviewed the available evidence and either had the voter swear an oath affirming his eligibility or rejected his claim outright.  Either outcome was then noted on the certificate.

An example of a record showing the results of a voter's attempt to cast a ballot. In this case, William Morrison's right to vote was challenged, and he opted to swear an oath certifying his eligibility. His oath was rejected, however, by local election officials.

An example of a record showing the results of a voter’s attempt to cast a ballot. In this case, William Morrison’s right to vote was challenged, and he opted to swear an oath certifying his eligibility. His oath was rejected, however, by local election officials.

In this example, John L. Call's credentials as a voter were called into question. After swearing him to an oath affirmning his eligibility, the inspector allowed Call to vote.

In this example, John L. Call’s credentials as a voter were called into question. After swearing him to an oath affirming his eligibility, the inspector allowed Call to vote.

Today, 169 years after the 1845 election that marked the beginning of Florida’s statehood, voting technology has changed a great deal, as have the requirements for becoming eligible to cast a ballot.

In 1845, a qualified voter could simply walk up to a precinct on Election Day and vote, barring any challenges from the inspector in charge. Today voters must register, and meet the following requirements:

  • Be a Citizen of the United States of America (a lawful permanent resident is not a U.S. citizen)
  • Be a Florida resident
  • Be 18 years old
  • Not have been judged mentally incapacitated by a court order
  • Not have been convicted of a felony without the citizen’s civil rights having been restored
  • Provide current and valid Florida driver’s license number or Florida identification card number. If a citizen does not have a Florida driver’s license number or a Florida identification card number then he or she must provide the last four digits of his or her Social Security number. If the citizen does not have any of these items, he or she must write “none” in the box or field where type of available ID is indicated.

 

Voter registration drive - Tallahassee, Florida (1984).

Voter registration drive – Tallahassee, Florida (1984).

In 1845, the only way to vote was in person. Today, Florida counties offer several methods for casting a legal ballot:

  • Go to designated poll site and vote in person
  • Early voting
  • Absentee voting
Stetson University political science professor T. Wayne Bailey, one of Florida's 27 presidential electors, signing his Electoral College Certificate of Vote for Barack Obama in the Florida Senate chamber (2008).

Stetson University political science professor T. Wayne Bailey, one of Florida’s 27 presidential electors, signing his Electoral College Certificate of Vote for Barack Obama in the Florida Senate chamber (2008).

Florida's state flag, bearing the 1985 version of the Great Seal of the State of Florida (photo circa 1985).

Florida’s state flag, bearing the 1985 version of the Great Seal of the State of Florida (photo circa 1985).

Are you a qualified Florida voter? If so, election season is here, and you have the opportunity to help shape the future of your community and state. Make a note of the dates below, and exercise your right to cast a ballot on Election Day. For more information about voting in Florida, visit the Florida Department of State – Division of Elections website.

Primary Election

Deadline to Register: July 28, 2014
Election Day: August 26, 2014

General Election

Deadline to Register: October 6, 2014
Election Day: November 4, 2014

Polls are open on Election Day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time.

Florida Memory is currently digitizing the returns from the 1845 statehood election, so everyone will be able to easily access them for genealogical and historical research. Expect to see them online and ready to search in a few weeks!

 

Gospel to Go: Circuit Riders on the Florida Frontier

It’s a cool Sunday morning in the sandy scrub of North Florida, with dew still on the ground and the sun just getting up over the trees. It’s 1847. Church is about to start, but it’s nothing like what most of us would think of when we think of church today. There is no church building; there’s only an arbor to shield the worshipers from the sun, a few crude benches, and a space at the front for the preacher. Moreover, the preacher arrives on his horse just before the service is to begin, because he does not live in the same community as his congregants. In fact, this is only one of half a dozen settlements he will visit in the course of a month.

Portrait of Rev. James Holland of Leon County, a circuit riding minister (circa 1880s).

Portrait of Rev. James Holland of Leon County, a circuit riding minister (circa 1880s).

This was the experience of worshipers who were ministered to by circuit riders, preachers who traveled from place to place offering religious services to settlers in far-flung corners of the Florida frontier. Sometimes called “saddlebag preachers,” these ministers typically traveled on horseback or sometimes in a wagon if the roads permitted. The communities they served comprised a “circuit,” sometimes with a permanent church headquarters in one of the larger towns. In the territorial and early statehood periods, with transportation difficult and communities spread far apart, circuit ministries were an efficient way of reaching the population. Circuit riding is particularly associated with the Methodist faith, although other denominations have used similar methods to reach their followers at various times.

Rev. Dwight F. Cameron, Jr. with his horse and buggy. Cameron was a circuit riding minister in Volusia County in the early twentieth century (1916).

Rev. Dwight F. Cameron, Jr. with his horse and buggy. Cameron was a circuit riding minister in Volusia County in the early twentieth century (1916).

The services at each station on the circuit might take place in a private home, a public building like the local courthouse, or under a “brush arbor,” a humble and temporary shelter that could be erected and expanded quickly. Later, as many communities expanded and their families became more prosperous, permanent church buildings began replacing the temporary brush arbors of earlier years. Better roads also made it easier for families living far away from established churches to come into town to worship. Over time, the circuit rider began to disappear as ministers were appointed for individual churches.

The United Methodist Church of Middleburg in Clay County, with congregants outside. The church was originally built in 1845. The photo dates to the 1880s.

The United Methodist Church of Middleburg in Clay County, with congregants outside. The church was originally built in 1845. The photo dates to the 1880s.

The concept of open-air “camp meetings” and other religious services is still an attractive one for many, however, and modern versions still appear today. As a nod to the significance of this old Floridian tradition, several reenactments of a typical brush arbor church service have been performed at the annual Florida Folk Festival over the years.

Reenactment of a brush arbor church service at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (circa 1960s).

Reenactment of a brush arbor church service at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (circa 1960s).

What’s the oldest church in your county? Did you know that Florida Memory has digitized the records of a WPA survey of more than 5,500 of the state’s churches? Visit the WPA Church Records collection, and search the Florida Photographic Collection to see if we have pictures of any of the churches in your community!