Going Postal, 1920s Style – The Strange Case of Lena Clarke

This is another blog posting that found its way to me in mysterious ways. I was looking for information on the Clarke family that farmed the Lake Clarke area in the old Tropical Sun newspapers online. What I found instead was a story that belies belief. My timing in finding this story also showed it to be another Orlando Florida murder trial that ended as no one expected.

Three women in photo

Susan Clarke Warner, Lena Clarke and Maude Clarke in West Palm Beach. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County

Lena Marietta Thankful Clarke was by all accounts an outstanding, intelligent young woman, born in 1886. Her father, the Rev. Almon Taylor Clarke was a nationally known theologian. Lena Clarke devoted much of her time to the Red Cross, the Congregational Church, and selling war bonds during World War I. Her sister Maude was the West Palm Beach city librarian, and sister Susan and family were the first florists in Miami. The family hailed from Vermont and lived on Poinsettia Street (later Dixie Highway), in what today is the common area of the Alexander Loft apartments.

Lena was an intelligent and precocious child, reportedly reading philosophy books at the age of 6, according to author Stuart McIver who told of this twisted tale in his book Murder in the Tropics. Lena worked more than a decade at the West Palm Beach post office, where her brother John Paul Clarke was postmaster. He met a bizarre death on Christmas Day, 1920 when he died of a Coral snake bite. Paul was a taxidermist and snake charmer, and quit the post office in 1918 due to hearing loss. After the subsequent postmaster resigned in 1920, local businessmen circulated a petition to have Lena Clarke appointed postmistress. It was quite an important job for a woman at that time.

Clarke’s life began to unravel after her brother’s death. Post offices at that time took in quite a bit of cash beyond stamp sales and mailing parcels, mostly for money orders, cash on demand, and war bonds. On July 26, 1921 Clarke sent $32,000 in cash in two registered mail sacks to the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank for deposit.

When the mail sacks arrived in Atlanta, they were filled with mail order catalogs cut to the size of currency. Authorities sent a postal inspector and questioned Clarke about the theft. On Sunday, August 1, Clarke hired a driver (Baxter Patterson) to take her to Orlando. She checked into room 87 of the San Juan Hotel in downtown Orlando under an assumed name. She met up with a former mail carrier with whom she had worked and had an affair – Fred Miltimore. Miltimore, originally from Chicago, had left his post office job in West Palm Beach and was now running the Arcade restaurant in Orlando.

Later that evening a sweaty and disheveled Clarke walked into Chief E. D. Vestal’s office at the Orlando police station. She told Vestal that officers should go to the San Juan Hotel and arrest Fred Miltimore for the theft of the $32,000 he had stolen from the West Palm Beach post office. She claimed to have drugged Miltimore with a morphine pill. Vestal confirmed with West Palm Beach that she was indeed the postmistress. He sent officers out to the hotel, but they did not find a drugged Mr. Miltimore – they found a dead Mr. Miltimore, having been shot in the chest, with a gun lying nearby.

With Clarke still in his office, the officers relayed the information on Miltimore’s demise back to the chief. He immediately accused Clarke of killing Miltimore. She initially denied it, but did confess  – yes, she had shot him because Miltimore would blame the money theft on her. Within days, Clarke was indicted on charges of first degree murder in Orange County.

Chicago Tribune headline on Lena Clarke case

In the months before trial, her story became more sensational and her celebrity status rose. She received fan mail and flowers, and redecorated her jail cell. She even wrote an autobiography from jail which she sold through local newspapers for 25 cents. She recanted her confession and claimed to have no recollection of making it to Chief Vestal. She also took to writing poetry in her jail cell:

A Fool’s Wisdom
I told you the course you pursued was wrong
But you laughed and said women are poor, weak fools
So I hushed on my lips life’s merry song
To pray, while you all disregarded God’s rules
I knew how your castle would crash on your head,
How the flowers would turn in your hands to weeds;
I saw when you turned from the ruins and fled;
Do you think I can meet, now, your soul’s sorest needs?
You expect I will comfort you and show you how
To bring your mistakes to successes still.
You look to my cunning to save you now.
Weak fool of a woman, perhaps I will.
Of course, love will fill the bitter years;
Perhaps was too cruel of a word to say.
Angels, blot from your records my prayers and my tears.
Lest they hide them from God at the judgment day.

headline

New York Times article header on Lena Clarke Case

As the trial approached, she once again changed her story about the money. Now she claimed that the money had really been stolen in 1918, and that another man, Joseph B. Elwell, loaned her $20,000 to cover the theft. No one could interview Elwell – he was dead. He had been shot dead in New York in 1920 in a murder that remains unsolved. Most of the $32,000 was recovered among her belongings and bank accounts.

Clarke’s family hired two law firms to defend her – an Orlando law firm and the West Palm Beach law firm of Chillingworth and Chillingworth. Both firms had settled on an insanity defense and Clarke did much to support their case.

As she testified in her own defense, she gazed into a crystal ball she had on the witness stand, telling of the twelve previous lives she had lived. She had lived in the Garden of Eden, had been the goddess Isis in Egypt, then Berenice, the last queen of the Jews, King Herod’s wife, and that she had been eaten by lions. Now we jump forward many centuries and she is with William Shakespeare, and that Clarke served as the role model for his Ophelia character in Hamlet. Throughout these scenes, she claims Miltimore was there, and always tormenting her in various ways.

She proclaimed that she would be found innocent and that this would be the start of her national career, serving as vice president of the United States and then president. She predicted that President Eugene V. Debs, head of the socialist party, would be assassinated, and she would then be president.

Advertisement for Clarke’s autobiography

Several psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were then called, testified as to her mental state. Two found her to be insane, while one thought the whole thing to be a clever ruse. The all-male jury recessed and came back in less than three hours with their verdict – not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge committed her to the Florida State Mental Hospital at Chattahoochee. She proclaimed to the judge that she would have rather been sent to the gallows than a mental hospital.

Alas, her stay was short at Chattahoochee, less than one year. She quietly returned to West Palm Beach and resumed her work with the church and the Red Cross. She lived in the house with her sister Maude on Poinsettia Street, with neither woman marrying. The house, however, belonged to the Chillingworths; it was payment for their legal services. They trusted Clarke enough to send her to England to research their family history.

Clarke shows up frequently in articles with her relief efforts through the 1940s and 1950s. In later years Clarke did much writing on church history for several publications. She died in 1967, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach.

The echoes to an unexpected verdict from an Orange County jury after a short deliberation certainly brings to mind the 2011 Casey Anthony murder case. In 1921 the Orlando Morning Sentinel relayed that more reporters were in town to cover the Clarke trial than at any other event that had occurred in Florida. That certainly can be said of the Anthony case as well.

I think Lena Clarke took to the grave her true motivation for killing Miltimore. Was she a spurned lover? Did her mental illness finally break through? It is difficult to rationalize someone’s mind with such narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies. Mental health was a less understood illness in the 1920s, but Clarke’s demons went untreated.

Marker

Lena Clarke’s marker in Woodlawn Cemetery

This story was researched through the New York Times, the Tropical Sun, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach Post archives, and the book by Stuart McIver, Murder in the Tropics.

Hidden Shipwreck Photos discovered in Local Library Archives

February 4, 1898 was a stormy evening on the Florida east coast. A large ship, a three-masted barque, is sailing from Pensacola to Buenos Aires with a load of Southern pine. The captain had ventured too close to shore in the feisty storm and the ship hit the reef, just a few hundred yards offshore. The Lofthus, and her cargo of 930,000 feet of wood, was aground off Manalapan, Florida. 

These facts are not new. The Lofthus is a well-documented wreck on the National Register of Historic Places and the Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve. However, something was missing from its historical record – clear photographs of the wreck. Only one hazy photo seemed to appear in several online accounts. 

While researching what South Florida libraries had posted online, I came across the Broward County Library system’s digital archives. As I scanned the collection names, one looked intriguing – the John Henry Moore Collection. The thumbnail representative photo showed a group of workmen, and the photo seemed to be from the pioneer era.

I clicked on the link and entered the collection, described as 14 photos of Palm Beach County from pioneer John Henry Moore. I looked at the photos and one immediately grabbed my attention – it was labeled “Sail Boat with People.” I knew it had to be one of the wrecked ships near Boynton, but I didn’t know which one – could it be the Coquimbo…or the Lofthus? The high resolution scan left no doubt – there on the hull written in white letters – LOFTHUS.  

 

Ship Photo

The Lofthus name is seen on the hull of the ship.

I began to look at the other photos, and realized the photos had been misidentified. Far from being a “sail boat,” the Lofthus was a three-masted iron barque that was 222 feet in length, 37 feet in beam, and had a 23 foot depth hold. The ship was rated at 1,277 gross tons with two decks and a cemented bulkhead.  

As I looked at each photo, I realized the historic significance – finally, clear photographs of the Lofthus, which is one of the best remaining examples of an iron barque wreck. More than one story needed to be told – that of the Lofthus, and the new information that could be gleaned from photos and newspaper articles, and a more personal story of a forgotten pioneer, John Henry Moore. 

Part one of this blog will cover the Lofthus wreck and its newly discovered photos. Part two will tell the story of John Henry Moore and his role as an early pioneer in the settlement known as “Bocaratones” – today’s Boca Raton. 

Part One – The Wreck of the Lofthus

The Lofthus began her duties at sea under a different name. She was built in 1869 in London and christened as the Cashmere. She spent many decades plying the South Asian seas, even having false gun ports painted on her sides to warn Javanese pirates. She was sold to Norwegian interests, and the ship began hauling cargo throughout the Caribbean and South America as the Lofthus.

Her last voyage began January 21, 1898 in Pensacola, with Captain O. Andersen at the helm. She was loaded with Southern pine, destined for Buenos Aires. Sea captains would often ride the Gulf Stream north, then shoot out to sea and travel southwest towards South America. On the evening of February 4, the ship ran into a terrible storm. There were no lights along the largely uninhabited South Florida coastline; it was difficult for the captain to get his bearings. With 16 men aboard, several small boats from shore attempted to rescue the men, but it was too rough. The men made it ashore with their life preservers. 

Once word spread that a ship had wrecked offshore of modern-day Manalapan (then called Hypoluxo Beach), locals sent a telegram from Jupiter to Key West to inform shipping interests of the wreck.  Wrecks were common and a way to make good money from the cargo.  Some experts thought the ship could be refloated once unburdened from her heavy cargo. 

Shipwreck Photo

The Lofthus with her crew aboard wrecked at Manalapan

By February 9, her riggings (sails) were removed once experts doubted that the ship could be re-floated as she was stuck hard on the coquina rock reef. The ship’s dog and cat were rescued as well, and adopted by local families. The underwriters determined the ship and its contents would be auctioned on the beach. It was insured for $35,000.

Manalapan Cottage, built by Elnathan Field in 1894, was the only nearby building. In 1892 Field purchased the Hypoluxo beachfront and used the cottage as a boarding house and for selling beach lots.  One of the hotel guests served as auctioneer – Major Nathan S. Boynton, for whom Boynton Beach is named. Boynton purchased beachfront land further south to build his own hotel. Boynton auctioned off the ship’s provisions including canned goods, hard tack, barrel goods, cooking utensils and guns, and the ship’s remains and cargo.  W.M. Brown of Titusville, and L. C. Oliver of Miami paid $500 for the wreck and $550 for its 930,000 feet of wood. The wood’s estimated value was $30,000, so Brown and Oliver stood to make a nice profit. 

Removing the wood from the ship fell to L. T. Coody, who worked for Oliver. The right man for the job emerged with civil engineer and Boca Raton founder Thomas Moore Rickards. Rickards had been in Florida for decades and was settling Boca Raton for Henry Flagler. By the end of March, Rickards and his crew were unloading the ship. 

The April 7, 1898 Tropical Sun newspaper described how Rickards built a tramway and windlass to lift the wood over the steep beach ridge. Descriptions are no longer necessary. There among Mr. Moore’s photos was a photograph of the tramway and windlass, a winch-like device where a cart is drawn up the ridge. Rickards is seen in the photo by the tram loaded with wood, with a hat, white shirt and tie.  

Windlass Wood tram

Rickard’s wood tram and windlass on the beach to recover the wood cargo

As the tram cart was on top of the ridge, it used braking action to glide down to the lake side. The barrier island was narrow at that point. This too was captured in a photograph. Here we see the wood floating on the lake, what had been described as “Pontoon bridge and sail boat.” In fact the wood acted much like a barge, and could float itself. In the photo the schooner Dash served as the tow boat which took the wood north and south as needed; some was floated down to Delray while much of it was floated to West Palm Beach to load on trains bound for Miami. 

shipping wood on the lake

Wood being ready to float down Lake Worth to West Palm Beach and Delray

Many men worked on this large endeavor to remove the wood from the ship. In one of Moore’s photos, the workmen lined up for a photo in front of a young grove of coconut trees; both Moore and Rickards are in the photo. Many of the people are recognizable across multiple photos, such as the tall bearded man in overalls, who appears in the middle; he also appears in the photo with the wood floating on the lake. He fits the physical description of Charles A. Charter, who farmed hogs on nearby Hypoluxo Island. 

Workman on Manalapan

Men who worked to remove the wood cargo from the Lofthus. Rickards and Moore are seen in the photograph

According to the March 31 Tropical Sun, Rickards camped on Hypoluxo Beach. In this Moore photo, several men are seen at what looks like a hut and palmetto shack on the beach. This could be the hut in which Rickards stayed during the wood removal operation.  

Huts on beach

Moore is seen on the left sitting by a palmetto hut and wooden hut on the beach

Locals were startled on August 4 to see a United States Navy tugboat firing upon the hull of the Lofthus, probably for target practice as it headed south towards Cuba for the Spanish-American war. Several of the shells missed the target and flew into nearby coconut groves, splitting several trees. 

By September, the wood that was accessible had been removed from the ship but an estimated 300,000 feet remained in its hold. The Florida Star reported that ship inspectors decided to blow up the ship’s hull with dynamite to release the remaining wood. It worked, and the remaining wood floated out of the ship. The explosion scattered the wreck across the sea floor.

The Lofthus was not the only wreck to be seen at that spot. In 1897 another ship had wrecked in almost the exact same spot. On February 1, 1897, the wooden barque Oh Kim Soon wrecked on the beach. The captain thought he was 30 miles offshore, but the ship snagged the reef and was pounded for hours till it freed itself and beached, broken in two. Captain Lloyd Morton of Nova Scotia and  his wife were onboard; she was taken in by the Pierce family in Hypoluxo. Mr. Moore captured the scene of two wrecked ships – the Lofthus stuck on the reef, and the remnants of the Oh Kim Soon on the beach. 

Shipwrecks on beach

The Lofthus in the background and the Oh Kim Soon wreck in the foreground on the beach

Time dissolved the Oh Kim Soon’s wooden hull, but the Lofthus proved to be much more durable. It remains a popular dive spot with snorkelers and scuba divers, and some of the wreck is typically visible in the winter after storms. Local preservationists worked to have the wreck site placed on the National Register, which was achieved in 2004.  Access is gained by boat, or by walking about a mile north of the South Lake Worth Inlet (Boynton Inlet). 

Part II –  Boca Raton Pioneer John Henry Moore – Stay tuned for the post!

Special Thanks to:

Rochelle T. Pienn, Curator – Bienes Museum of the Modern Book, Broward County Library
Alexis Montero, Digital Initiatives Librarian, Broward County Library
Julian McNeill, Broward County Library
Susan Gillis, Curator, Boca Raton Historical Society
Janet Naughton, Librarian, Palm Beach State College

All photographs are courtesy of the Broward County Library