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

One of the most enduring mysteries regarding local architecture concerns the Miami River caves. Located on a little creek that runs south from the Miami River near NW Seventeenth Avenue, the caves are in fact two seven-foot-tall caverns roughly the size of small studio apartments. Most cave scholars agree they are man-made, but from there opinions diverge. One theory holds that the caves were used by nineteenth-century pioneers along the river for coonti storage. However, some historians believe it's more likely that the caves date from the early part of the century and were used by bootleggers to stow liquor during Prohibition. According to Paul George, bootleggers and the U.S. Coast Guard engaged in a shootout just up the river from the site.

The caves may also contain a link to Native Americans. The son of a man who used to own the land around the caves says Indians regularly conducted rituals there. John Detrick, owner of the Americana Bookstore in Coral Gables and a self-styled river rat, offers yet another theory. He says that during World War II, stateside Third Reich sympathizers dug the caves and stocked them full of supplies for U-boats. The submarines, he insists, used to pull right up to the cave mouth so the Nazis could load them up. "And," he adds, "the caves are also a breeding ground for Yetis."

Hairy monsters. Man-eating beasts. Ghosts. The stuff of legends the world over, and Miami has its share. Detrick's vaunted Miami River Yeti isn't the only menacing monster competing for popular attention. Stories of the Swamp Ape (a.k.a. Skunk Ape because of its horrific smell) have circulated around South Florida for years. Countless sightings of the hairy man-beast have been reported by visitors to the Everglades, and, the story goes, a trucker hit one as he was driving along Alligator Alley.

The legends of the Swamp Ape and the River Yeti follow in the tradition of stories describing heroic battles against titanic evil figures. In 1908, for example, a Little River couple on an outing on Biscayne Bay reported seeing a sea serpent with a 30-foot-long body and a long, slender neck.

An intrepid and well-known fisherman, Capt. Charles Thompson, set off after the sea monster. Thompson was certainly the man for the job: He had fished with four U.S. presidents and powerful industrialists such as John Jacob Astor and William Vanderbilt. Even the Miami Metropolis latched onto the hunt. "The people may rest assured," the Metropolis wrote on July 24, 1908. "If there is anything that swims of extraordinary dimensions, playing peek-a-boo with Captain Charley Thompson up around Little River within the next few days, its name will be 'mud.'" Thompson never snagged the serpent, but four years later he did hook a 30,000-pound whale shark that he toured around the country until the stench got so bad he was forced to destroy what was left of the carcass.

Supernatural beings have always populated the stories and captured the imaginations of Miamians. Vizcaya is reportedly guarded by the ghost of its longtime caretaker, Eustace Edgecome. A young guard making his rounds once encountered the vision of a woman in 1920s party regalia walking through the tower where James Deering housed his lady guests.

The specter of an elegantly attired woman also purportedly roams the halls of the Villa Paula, built in the mid-1920s as Cuba's first consulate, at 58th Street and N. Miami Avenue. The tall, olive-skinned apparition bedecked in black with ruffled sleeves and neckline is said to be the consul's wife, for whom the house was named. The woman died a mysterious death in a bedroom of the villa.

Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.'s house in Miami Beach seems to be haunted, as well. The house had belonged to Wolfson's parents who were sold the property with the stipulation that nothing be changed. One day, the story goes, an architect and Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. were standing in the living room discussing whether to alter the drapes. Suddenly they heard a groan coming from the dining room. On inspection, they found no one there.

The tower of the Biltmore in Coral Gables is allegedly haunted by Fats Walsh, who was murdered in its game room in the late 1920s over a gambling debt. His heavy breathing supposedly has been captured on tape. "That's the one that is told," remarks Helen Muir, author of The Biltmore: A Beacon for Miami. "But I would sooner imagine the ghost of [Coral Gables founder and Biltmore developer] George Merrick as the person who would be wandering around with his wife, Eunice, arm in arm, checking on things, because he was a man of such high caliber, a real gentleman with such imagination."

No sooner said than believed. George Merrick's ghost haunts the hallways of the Biltmore Hotel. Pass it on.

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