This Means Lore!

The housewife who saved FDR's life, the ghosts that roam Vizcaya, the sea serpent of Biscayne Bay, and other Miami legends, yarns, and flat-out lies

Miami-born historian Arva Moore Parks says most of the story is true, except it's unclear whether Tuttle actually sent the blossoms. "Orange blossoms were sent," Parks says. "The thing that no one knows for sure is whether it was her idea to send them or [Flagler emissary James E.] Ingraham's idea to send them." Parks also believes the blossoms came from Coconut Grove, not Tuttle's plantation. In addition, historian Paul George says that Flagler's files contain documentation that suggests he had planned to extend his railroad south from Palm Beach regardless of Tuttle's relentless public relations campaign.

Like the story of Julia Tuttle's stroke of poetic brilliance, some legends dwell on the exploits -- heroic or foolish -- of specific individuals. The legends can elevate their subject to a higher moral plane, or damage the person's reputation and humiliate his legacy.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Ellen "Maximum" Morphonios, a tough jurist who earned her nickname by handing out stiff sentences, was the court system's magnet of legends. Once, it is said, after sentencing a rapist to jail, Morphonios beckoned him over to the bench. Two bailiffs holding the convict by the arms escorted him to the front of the courtroom. As he stood there, Morphonios hiked up her robe to reveal her legs, and growled, "Take a good look at these because this is the last time you'll see 'em for a while." Says William Wilbanks, professor of criminal justice at Florida International University: "I've had a cop swear to me that he was in court that day and witnessed it, and other people have said it's completely false." During another trial, Morphonios allegedly turned to a woman who had put a bullet in a rapist and remarked, "Nice shot."

The so-called Ox Woman, another powerful female figure in Miami history, has also been immortalized in legend. "She came from Georgia and she was a very large sort of woman and had the strength of an ox," recalls 90-year-old Florence Cadwallader McClure, who wrote a memoir about her youth in South Dade. "A lot of people thought she was a man because she wore hobnail shoes. A lot of people would make suppositions when they didn't know the facts. People didn't know different."

Dade's biologists say they've always had the facts in hand, but that hasn't stopped the spread of one legend of environmental disaster. The persistent rumor, contradicted by a Dade County study, is that Bulgarian-born artist Christo's Surrounded Islands art project caused a major fish kill and other profound damage to the ecosystem of Biscayne Bay.

Certainly the more famous the person, the more legends crop up in his footsteps. In his dotage, Alexander Graham Bell used to vacation at his daughter's house in Coconut Grove. During one visit he was invited to speak at a convention of realtors, where he was asked what sort of telephone he used, wall model or desk model. Legend asserts that the inventor hesitated momentarily, eyes twinkling, and replied, "Neither. I don't want a telephone anywhere close to the place where I work or study!"

As the story goes, news of his remark spread around the globe, whereupon Bell's colleagues were compelled to admit that they had been concealing the secret for twenty years. Apparently the man who invented the telephone had little use for his own device and had grown bored with it.

John D. Rockefeller was another prominent person whose legacy is dogged by dubious legend. One Miami story describes how the millionaire strode into a fashionable clothing store owned by the pioneering Sewell brothers and bought everything in the store. He tipped the clerk a dime.

A similarly unflattering -- if not ridiculous -- portrait is painted of Commodore A.H. Brook, a South Florida booster and successful advertising man. As the story goes, on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1946, the commodore decided to demonstrate his fitness by executing a headstand. "He was so happy after his long and busy life that he wanted to show off a little," says Fort Lauderdale historian Stuart McIver. According to local lore, the stunt broke a blood vessel in Brook's head, resulting in his death a few days later. "Several sources have indicated this is true," McIver says. "But they may have just been going along with the story."

Dade's long-time chief medical examiner, Joe Davis, has the benefit of consciousness to contend with a rumor that has circulated about him for years. "I get these old-timers who come up to me and tell me they heard that I used to do autopsies with one hand while eating a sandwich with the other," Davis laughs. "Now it could be that I did it and I'm getting senile, but in the first place it's very difficult to do an autopsy with one hand."

Being alive hasn't helped the image of one well-known local TV news anchorwoman whose alleged close encounters with sexual aids have become the stuff of legend. It's not difficult to find someone who has a friend who knows a nurse at the emergency room of Jackson Memorial Hospital who was present when the anchorwoman arrived in need of medical assistance. (This legend bears some similarities to the popular urban tale concerning actor Richard Gere and a now-deceased gerbil.)

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