On the day he was scheduled to die, Giuseppe Zangara pushed past prison guards and entered the electrocution chamber of Raiford State Prison. He sat himself squarely in the chair, gave instructions about how to strap himself in properly, and said, "Push the button."
Five weeks earlier, on February 15, 1933, Zangara, an unemployed Italian-born bricklayer from Hackensack, New Jersey, pretty much guaranteed his own demise when he purchased a handgun for eight dollars from a Miami pawnshop and headed out to Bayfront Park to assassinate President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
FDR had come to South Florida for a fishing trip prior to his
March inauguration. Plans called for a brief appearance with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, a political ally, in downtown Miami. Soon after the president-elect delivered his short speech, the diminutive Zangara stood up on a bench to get a better view and pulled out his pistol. A woman standing next to him on the bench screamed out, "Oh my God, he's going to kill Mr. Roosevelt!" The woman, a physician's wife named Lillian Cross, quickly switched her handbag to her left arm, grabbed Zangara's shooting arm with her right hand, and twisted it upward. Then, according to at least one bystander, the 100-pound woman clamped Zangara in a headlock and attempted to wrestle him to the ground.
Zangara managed to get off several shots and injured five people, including Cermak, who subsequently died of a collapsed lung and cardiac failure. The gunman was set upon by an angry mob, arrested, and eventually sentenced to die. He claimed he was trying to kill all the kings and presidents. Others have concluded that the attempted assassination of FDR was actually a planned hit on the Chicago mayor orchestrated by mob leader Sam Giancana.
Regardless, Mrs. Cross became a national hero. Roosevelt sent her a lengthy telegram of thanks. She was invited to the inauguration. She appeared on national radio shows and there was even a great deal of consideration that she be given the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism in a moment of crisis.
And that's how a quick-thinking housewife saved the New Deal and helped millions of penniless Americans out of the Great Depression. Or so the legend goes. The truth, of course, is probably something else altogether.
Recent research by Fort Lauderdale attorney Blaise Picchi suggests that it was a carpenter named Thomas Armour who actually saved the president-elect's life. Picchi admits that Mrs. Cross, by waving her arms and screaming nearby, may have pestered the gunman. But he concludes that it was Armour who grabbed Zangara's arm and blames a gullible national press -- and lazy historians -- for embellishing and perpetuating the falsehoods. "Armour played the bashful hero," notes Picchi, who recently completed an unpublished manuscript called The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara. "People wrote affidavits disclaiming Mrs. Cross and sent them in to senators and network executives, but the national news media kept ignoring it."
Picchi also discounts the theories that Zangara was a hired assassin for the mob. "He didn't have the credentials to be a hit man," the attorney asserts. "And mobsters don't commit assassinations in crowds." Then what was Zangara's motivation? "He was committing suicide. He was expecting to die." Of course that's just a theory, too. Picchi, who is 47, never interviewed Zangara, and the Secret Service file on the gunman has disappeared. So the real truth may be, as they say, history.
The stories that sprang from the Zangara shooting are among scores of legends that have become imbedded in accounts of Dade's past. In many cases the legends are largely fictitious, but all have at least some basis in fact. They concern people who lived or places that really existed or events that actually happened, to which tales have tenaciously clung. They are stories, either unverifiable or unverified, that are handed down by tradition and that have gained credence by the simple act of their retelling.
The legends we hear most often are of the modern urban variety, the kind that proliferate throughout school hallways and around the water cooler at the office. The rat served among the wings and drumsticks at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The doddering woman who, attempting to dry her sodden poodle, nuked little Fifi in the microwave. Sometimes the urban legend acquires a local angle. Remember the one about the alligators thriving in New York's sewers? Vacationers returning from Miami (of course) are said to have flushed their recently purchased reptilian pets down the toilet.
For as long as people have inhabited the territory we now know as Dade, legends have arisen and taken on lives of their own as they have ranged far from their original sources. They are part of the community's accepted beliefs and attitudes, and inevitably they provide some insight into human nature, revealing our concerns and fears and loves and hates, our prejudices. Above all, they reflect what we know and don't know -- or prefer to believe -- about our past. "We all have to be careful about perpetuating this stuff," remarks Paul George, assistant professor of social science at Miami-Dade Community College. "Legends are really just wonderful to tell." But therein lies the rub: In their telling they can quickly take on the ring of hard fact.
Indeed, some of the cornerstones of Miami's historical narrative are imbued with legend and are shaky at best. For instance, the origins of the Devil's Punch Bowl, South Florida's most famous spring and one of its most mysterious historic sites, have become obscured in storytelling. Located near the edge of Biscayne Bay between Vizcaya and the Rickenbacker Causeway, this five-foot deep circular well was once filled with water from a bubbling spring. (It has since dried up.) According to one legend, the Punch Bowl is a sacred site where Jesus gave the Miccosukee coonti, a local root that when crushed and dried yields a starchy powder used for baking.
Another tale maintains that the bowl was, in fact, the Fountain of Youth sought by Ponce de Le centsn. Still another theory maintains that settlers in the early Nineteenth Century carved the bowl out of the rocky bluff for a water source.
Perhaps no other legend of early Dade has captured the popular imagination like that of Black Caesar, a pirate who prowled the seas off the coast of present-day Miami. "What makes Black Caesar so fascinating is that there is no proof that he lived; nor is there anything that can disprove that he existed," wrote Howard Kleinberg, former editor of the defunct Miami News, in a 1982 newspaper article about the pirate.
One tale, retold by Kleinberg, describes Black Caesar as an African prince who escaped slavers when their ship wrecked off the coast of South Florida. Clutching a fragment of the wooden ship, Black Caesar managed to drift into the area known as Caesar's Creek, just south of Elliot Key. Another story holds that Black Caesar was an escaped mulatto slave whose father was Scottish. Yet another legend describes his escape from a Haitian slave plantation in the late Eighteenth Century and his subsequent career as a pirate operating out of Caesar's Creek (in the middle of which is Caesar's Rock, where he reportedly anchored his ship).
Legends regarding Black Caesar's demise, too, are conflicting. In one, according to Kleinberg, the pirate went into business with colleague (and fellow legend) Jose Gasparilla on Florida's west coast, and both died together in a battle with an American warship. In another version of the pirate's death, Black Caesar was captured by the U.S. Navy, tied to a tree in Key West, and burned to death by the widow of a preacher from Baltimore whose eyes he had burned out. But according to Kleinberg, no mention of the pirate exists in U.S. naval records.
The stories are so widely believed that according to Dade County archaeologist Robert Carr, a group of businessmen put together a costly expedition in the 1930s to find the tons of silver Caesar allegedly buried on Elliot Key. "It's all pure hokum," Carr says. "Problem is that a lot got picked up by early writers of Miami and South Florida history, and they weren't discerning researchers. People were looking for a little romance."
For the same reason, the legend of the so-called Maine Chain has endured for generations. The massive iron chain, which actually exists and is currently on display in the lobby of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in downtown Miami, used to loop from one low post to another to mark two sides of a residential lot at SE Fourteenth Street and Brickell Avenue. According to Rebecca Smith, the museum's curator of archival materials, a story circulated for years among old-timers that the chain came from the United States battleship Maine, which was sunk in the Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. (The ship's loss helped to precipitate the Spanish-American War.)
In truth the appearance of the chain -- with links eleven-and-a-half inches long and weighing 31 pounds each -- in Miami occurred at about the same time as the sinking of the vessel. But according to Daly Highleyman, whose father owned the Brickell Avenue property, the chain was acquired in 1912 from a freighter, the William R. Wilson, which had been wrecked on Carysfort Reef near Key Largo. "The Maine Chain legend is one we've been fighting for years," says an exasperated Rebecca Smith.
Historians have joined the ranks of impressionable citizens in telling the tale of Julia Tuttle and her orange blossoms -- questionable details included. A widow who had moved her family down to Miami from Cleveland in 1891, Tuttle owned a large tract of land near the mouth of the Miami River. At the time, only several hundred people lived in the area now known as Dade County. But Tuttle envisioned grander things. During the early 1890s, she besieged railroad magnate Henry Flagler with letters urging him to extend his railroad from Central Florida down to Miami. But he was not interested and, the story goes, found Tuttle's persistence annoying.
Finally, when the winter freeze of 1894-95 hit the citrus groves of north and central Florida, Tuttle seized the opportunity. She again wrote Flagler and pointed out that the cold weather hadn't affected Miami. And, legend has it, she sent Flagler photographs of the area and some orange blossoms plucked from her plantation as proof. After seeing the photos and orange blossoms, Flagler agreed to visit Miami in June 1895. The first train steamed into town ten months later.
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.)
If the aforementioned TV personality could use a little damage control, she should consider hiring someone with the talent of Hank Meyer, the public relations giant credited with bringing Jackie Gleason to Miami Beach. Immediately after the Cuban missile crisis, tourism in South Florida declined precipitously. Vacationers were staying away for fear they might be vaporized. Until, that is, the national press reported that John F. Kennedy had announced he would vacation in Palm Beach. In legend Meyer is credited with having planted that message in Kennedy's remarks, and, as a result, having singlehandedly saved the local tourism industry.
Social upheaval and cataclysmic events, like the Cuban missile crisis and the FDR assassination attempt, are wellsprings of legend. Hurricane Andrew was no different. If the rumors were to be believed, governmental authorities lied about the number of people killed in the storm. The medical examiner's office said 15 people died during the hurricane, and 23 after. Legend has it that the real figure is somewhere in the hundreds, maybe thousands, crushed in collapsed buildings, trapped in mobile home parks, buried in the debris of migrant labor camps. Others were sucked out of their homes and thrown into lakes, where they drowned.
Some bloated corpses were whisked out of town in refrigerated trucks and deposited in morgues and high-security military facilities up north. Some were given mass burials. Officials kept the actual death toll a secret to prevent panic and protect the tourist industry. The media, of course, were in cahoots with the government. It was all a tragic and twisted conspiracy.
While it was a traumatic event of a slightly different nature, the wild performance by the Doors at Dinner Key Auditorium on March 1, 1969, has taken on legendary overtones, as well. An estimated 12,000 people were jammed into the converted seaplane hangar that night watching a drunken, incoherent, and abusive Jim Morrison virtually self-destruct on-stage. At one point, in what became the pivotal moment of the evening, Morrison threatened to expose himself in front of the crowd. Some in attendance say he did, others say he didn't.
The resulting media and political firestorm resulted in Morrison's arrest eight months later on one felony charge and four misdemeanors. In addition, the remainder of the Doors' national tour was canceled; Morrison biographers James Riordan and Jerry Prochnicky further contend that the Miami fiasco also encouraged the singer to shift his emphasis from live performance to poetry and film. The Doors' concert, and the embellished stories surrounding it, may also have prompted a rise in anti-rock sentiments in Miami.
Prohibition was another period of social turmoil that provided fertile territory for legend. Various stories relate how bootleggers used Vizcaya to store their brews throughout the 1920s, and others describe how Charles Deering, James Deering's half-brother, ran rum through the Deering Estate in South Dade. "Both of those men were extremely wealthy," Dade archaeologist Robert Carr points out. "They probably brought the stuff in for their own consumption, but there was no reason for them to run rum for extra dollars." (On the subject of the Deerings, a visitor to the estate once asked a guide if it was true that Deering was the first person in the world to die of AIDS.) Another Prohibition-era legend holds that police officers used to sell confiscated liquor out of burlap bags on the sidewalks around the county courthouse on Flagler Street downtown.
Perhaps the most tumultuous few years of social upheaval in Miami history were during the boom of the mid-1920s. Not only was it a time of rapid growth, but it was also a busy time for Miami's hucksters and con men. Realtors were particularly unscrupulous in their conduct, inventing stories about Miami history to make their property more appealing.
In one example, a real estate firm ran advertisements in the daily Miami Tribune, bragging that an area called Sherwood Forest (present-day El Portal) was actually the site of Huguenot settlements. Historians say there is no record that the Huguenots, French Protestants who fled to Protestant Europe and America in the late-Seventeenth Century, ever settled in South Florida. (On the subject of hucksters, some of the tourist traps in the Everglades would have you believe that alligator wrestling is a time-honored Native American virility ritual and method of hunting. In truth, the first person to wrestle alligators was probably a fat white man named Warren "Alligator Joe" Frazee who, around the turn of the century, performed for tourists at a site along the Miami River.)
Miami's rapid growth during the Twentieth Century has engendered countless legends about construction. Everest G. Sewell, the city's mayor during the late 1930s, allegedly proposed to fill in the Miami River and transform it into a freeway. Another legend, according to historian Paul George, describes how the county courthouse began to sink during its construction. Workers are said to have salvaged the project by hurriedly pouring cement into the basement, which until then had been intended for parking.
Some Miamians also insist that the contractors who built the Intercontinental Hotel made a tragic mistake. According to legend, the blocks that compose the building were supposed to be assembled in the exact order they were cut from the quarry, to preserve the harmony of the rock striations. When builders assembled the blocks out of order, the architect threw himself off the top of the building in despair.
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.
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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.