Craig Pittman knows a thing or two about weird Florida. A native Floridian, the Tampa Bay Times reporter has spent his career wading through the wacky workings of the Sunshine State. His new book, Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, dives deep into the bizarre history and trends that Florida has inspired across the U.S.A.
In advance of Pittman's appearance at Books & Books this Friday, New Times asked him about the weirdest Florida stories he's ever heard. He didn't disappoint.
1. The Cedar Key mayor who was deposed in a military coup.
Before dawn May 17, 1890, a U.S. Navy cutter landed a party of armed sailors at Cedar Key. Their mission: Capture Mayor William Cottrell. He had been ruling the town as if he were an island dictator, even forcing people he saw on the street to head-butt one another — at gunpoint. Cottrell had made the mistake of roughing up the federal customs inspector, so President Benjamin Harrison sent the Navy to depose him. Cottrell evaded capture and fled but later died in a shootout with a sheriff in Alabama.
2. The phony Key West count whose love transcended death.
In 1930, a guy named Carl Tanzler was calling himself "Count Von Cosel." While working as an x-ray technician in Key West, he fell in love with a patient, and his love transcended death — after she died, he dug up her body and lived with it for nine years. Then the dead woman's sister found out and he was charged with grave-robbing, but ultimately acquitted — not because he was innocent, but because the statute of limitations had expired.
3. The wannabe mermaid who got in hot water with her Tampa-area homeowners' association.
In 2013, a woman living in the Fishhawk subdivision near Tampa decided to practice her mermaid moves by wearing her prosthetic tail in the community pool. But the homeowners' association told her to stop because the tail violated their "no fins" policy.
4. The Gainesville man who used an alligator as a weapon.
In 2004, a man fighting with his girlfriend reached for a weapon to attack her. The weapon he grabbed: a three-foot alligator he kept in his bathtub. Holding the tail, he swung the head at her. She was not injured, but the gator may have suffered psychological trauma.
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5. The Tallahassee llama that was tasered by cops.
In 2013, Leon County deputies trying to round up a runaway llama used their Tasers to subdue it. That same weekend, Pasco County deputies used their Tasers on a runaway kangaroo.
6. The time the U.S. Postal Service asked us to stop hitting it.
In 2012, so many people had crashed their cars into Florida post offices that the U.S. Postal Service ran ads asking everyone to please stop getting the brake and gas pedals confused.
7. Meyer Lansky's reaction when a court ordered the shutdown of his Hallandale Beach casino.
This happened in the 1930s. Lansky, probably the smartest guy in the Mafia, studied the court order and then issued some orders of his own. The casino, known as the Plantation, was torn down. Then an exact duplicate was built on an adjacent piece of property in Hallandale Beach that wasn't covered by the court decision. The new place, dubbed the Farm, opened and everything went back to business as usual.
Hear more tales of WTFlorida when Pittman visits Books & Books' Coral Gables location this Friday, July 29. The event begins at 8 p.m. and is free to attend. Call 305-442-4408 or visit booksandbooks.com.