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Six Florida History Myths That Won't Die: Everglades Suicide, Al Capone and Castro's House

Yes, Ponce de Leon is an asshole. But does he matter?
Yes, Ponce de Leon is an asshole. But does he matter?

Last week, T. D. Allman sent Florida the worst birthday card ever. The author's widely shared column in the New York Times trashed Ponce de León and bemoaned celebrations of his "purported discovery" of the peninsula in 1513 as a "fiesta of illusion." OK, so Ponce was a racist, imperialist dunderhead. But he's OUR racist, imperialist dunderhead. And what's more, Allman was wrong in arguing that Ponce didn't achieve anything, says Dr. Paul George, professor of history at Miami Dade College.

"He did open the gates to the colonization of Florida," George says. "He documented his voyage, which whetted the appetite of other Spaniards to go after gold in Florida. That is significant." That's not to say there aren't some other historical myths worth busting on Florida's 500th birthday, though. Riptide asked George to share his favorites.

How did Disston die?
How did Disston die?
via Florida Memory Archives

Everglades Suicide
For decades, Floridians have whispered about Hamilton Disston's cautionary tale. Disston, a 19th-century industrialist, became obsessed with draining the Glades to create farmland. So obsessed, the tale went, that when his last attempt failed, he slit his wrists in a bathtub. Dramatic! Also, false. "He died of natural causes," George says. Obituaries from the time make it clear that heart disease likely killed the pioneer.

Six Florida History Myths That Won't Die: Everglades Suicide, Al Capone and Castro's House
via Wikimedia Commons

Miami Beach's Anti-Semitic Signs
In the dark days of Miami Beach racism, blacks were forbidden from the sand, and Jews were barred from hotels. Ask any Beach old-timer how bad the intolerance was and they'll mention businesses posting "No Dogs or Jews" signs. It's a powerful, and probably incorrect, yarn. "There was blatant discrimination," says George, including hotels with "Gentiles Only" signs. But as for the "dogs" sign of lore, "I've never found any documentation of those signs."



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