Upstairs at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, past smiling employees at the front desk and cubicles full of researchers and staffers, lies a secluded room behind a password-protected door. Inside, unmoving taxidermies of bears, snakes, and birds stand next to rows of sterile bones, shells, and antique instruments of science.
The L-shaped room with industrial ceilings and wooden floors has been dubbed "the Curious Vault." Shelves and drawers are crammed full of every kind of weirdness from the natural and human world, most donated by the public over the past 60-plus years.
On a quiet weekday afternoon in April, I was working in the vault with Kevin Arrow, the museum's art and collections manager, digging through old files. As a writer and researcher for the museum, I've discovered and told the stories of objects that the public has never seen, from a bizarre weather-recording device owned by the Deering family to 1920s paintings made underwater using an experimental pre-scuba machine. With the museum preparing to move everything to its new facility on Biscayne Bay downtown, we've been diving into the darkest corners to catalogue what's hidden there.
That morning, I was skimming through some musty documents, handwritten letters, and crumbling photographs in a vintage-looking green file cabinet. I'd picked up a browned and well-thumbed folder labeled "Florida Archaeology" when two letters and some detailed diagrams fell out onto my lap.
I scanned the documents quickly, glancing at a pair of odd-looking maps. Then an oft-repeated phrase in the letters leapt out: "Pyramids in the Everglades." I looked at the maps again and blurted out, "Kevin."
"Kevin!" I yelled more loudly.
"What?" he hollered from a distant corner of the vault.
I held up the papers excitedly. "Is this a damn treasure map?" I demanded.
He rushed over, and we both studied the yellowed papers.
The first map was printed on a large piece of paper, almost a handbill, with circles depicting what appeared to be settlements. A second, normal-size sheet was covered with markings pointing toward another obscure site near the Glades. Attached was a hand-drawn notecard depicting some kind of ancient dagger.
The attached letters only added to the intrigue. In straightforward prose, they described the remnants of a lost civilization in the Florida swamps, including a pyramid guarded by an underground room full of snakes. The writer had seen the ruins with his own eyes.
A buzz stirred my mind. My heart ran neck-to-crotch in a blurry race of excitement. All I could think about was trying to solve the mystery. What were these maps that seemed to point the way toward ancient pyramids in the middle of the Florida wilds, and where did they lead? I had to know.
For the past four months, I've jumped headfirst into tracing their origin. I soon realized they were tied up in the stories of two extraordinary and infinitely curious men.
The first, J. Manson Valentine, is perhaps Miami's foremost gentleman explorer -- a scientist, historian, and world traveler whose lifelong curiosity led him to some strange places, including becoming a world expert on the lost city of Atlantis. An enigmatic former honorary curator of the Miami Science Museum, he's responsible for filling many of the shelves of oddities inside the Curious Vault.
The second key character is a far more shadowy figure, L. Frank Hudson, the author of the letters, who claimed to have made the discovery of a lifetime.
Their tales are two untold chapters in Florida's rich history of treasure hunters, from big-business operations mining ancient shipwrecks in the Florida Keys to fringe characters obsessed with the swamp ape and psychic mediums leading the way to the supposed mysteries of humankind.
These maps, at least, sure looked real. So Kevin and I put on our Indiana Jones hats. We joked about how the discovery was a meal ticket, a passage to a lost civilization and enduring archaeological fame, but I knew the reality was that it was a call for further investigation, a quest I couldn't resist.
It was a call to find something.
Before I could try to decipher the maps or understand the letters, I knew I'd need to understand the man at the center of it. Valentine's name may not be famous in Miami, but for decades he was a major face of science around town -- and briefly, as I learned, rocketed to international fame for a more dubious achievement: a discovery hailed, for a time, as the key to the lost civilization of Atlantis.
Joseph Manson Valentine was born in 1902 in New York City. He earned a BA from Yale University in 1923 and went on to receive a doctorate in zoology from the Ivy League institution.
Soon after graduating, Valentine began traveling on scientific expeditions, including an ornithological survey to Panama with the American Museum of Natural History. He later taught zoology at Yale and the University of North Carolina while still exploring and focusing on entomology. Valentine traveled far and wide -- all over the United States, Europe, Northern Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America. It might be easier to pin the places on a map where he hadn't turned over a rock.
Along the way, he contributed to the scientific canon: He published extensively and even has a handful of obscure beetles named after him. In 1957, he moved to Miami and was soon made honorary curator at the Miami Museum of Science, a position he would hold for nearly four decades until just before his death, when he quit over philosophical differences.
Friends and relatives describe Valentine as a man with a larger-than-life personality, enthusiastic in his studies and extremely knowledgeable about a great deal of subjects.