Boca Raton’s Forgotten Pioneer John Henry Moore

My last blog (click here) chronicled the newly discovered photographs of the Lofthus wreck and how Thomas Moore Rickards removed and transported much of the wood from the shipwreck. But who was the photographer of the revealing photographs?

John Henry Moore was born in 1860 in Macoupin County, Illinois, near Springfield. What brought him to Florida in the late 1800s is probably what brought many settlers – a sense of adventure and the possibility of earning decent money by selling pineapples in the summer and tomatoes in the winter in northern markets. 

When I found the photographs in the Broward County Library with the mention of Rickards, I made an assumption that Moore’s homestead must have been in the Boca Raton area. What specifically brought him to Boca Raton is unknown. I found a reference to him in the Spanish River Papers, a newsletter of the Boca Raton Historical Society; it mentioned Mr. Moore was raising two acres of pineapples. A map reproduced in the newsletter had a plot of land marked as “Rickards, Lewis & Moore.”

I went to the Palm Beach County Courthouse to find the exact plot of land that Mr. Moore owned. According to the county land records, in 1899 Mr. Moore purchased a lot in Rickard’s subdivision that went from what is today NE 5th Avenue to the Intracoastal Waterway that totaled 13 acres, He paid 200 dollars, equivalent to $6,000 in 2021 dollars. 

Boca Raton as a settlement was on the latter end of the pioneer area. Henry Flagler’s Model Land Company owned much of the land in the Boca Raton area, granted from the state of Florida for the building of the Florida East Coast (FEC) railway.  Thousands of acres were ready for settlement along the railroad and coastal canal, which came to be known as the Intracoastal Waterway. 

To help get the land in the hands of farmers, Flagler’s Model Land Company executive James E. Ingraham hired Thomas Moore Rickards, a surveyor and civil engineer who had much Florida experience, having arrived in the 1870s. Rickards surveyed the land and divided it into farming plots of various acreages, and planted a large orange grove for the FEC. Rickards also helped promote the fledging community of Yamato, an experimental colony of Japanese farmers north of the Boca Raton settlement. 

Boca Raton’s main crop area in the pioneer era was pineapples. The sugar sand soil along the coastal ridge wouldn’t support much more than citrus and pineapples.  African American settlers grew pineapples in the Pearl settlement near today’s Glades Road; other pineapple farmers were to the south between the FEC railroad tracks and the Intracoastal Waterway. 


John Henry Moore stands next to Thomas M. Rickards, who is on the right end with pith helmet. The other men are unidentified.

As pioneers settled their land, they typically built a temporary house of materials from the Florida landscape – a pine frame covered with palmetto fronds. Moore was no different. He is seen standing in the photograph, fourth from the left, with Rickards on the end with pith helmet.  Notice the sandy soil and a burlap bag nearby, which may have held sweet potatoes for planting. The tall slash pines had a ground cover of brush and saw palmetto, which had to be grubbed out to plant pineapples or other crops. Saw palmetto are anchored to the ground with tough thick roots that break tools and backs, resisting removal.

In a later photograph, Moore sits on the steps of his home, a typical wood frame house of the day. Nearby we see some wire fencing, and a fish trap sits propped up against the house foundation. The east end of Moore’s land fronted the Intracoastal Waterway, so a fish trap was handy. The other man is unidentified, but could be Moore’s brother. The unusual square openings on the side of the house are worth noting. It looks like there was a mechanism so that the small shutter could be closed from inside the house. 

John Henry Moore’s house in Boca Raton. He is sitting on the steps with pipe with scrub jays in hand. A wooden tramway may be where today’s NE 5th avenue runs in Boca Raton.

A few of the photos feature Moore feeding birds from his hand. They are most certainly scrub jays, which inhabit the Florida scrub and are easily tamed. These birds have lost much of their habitat in South Florida, and are now a vulnerable species, limited to large state parks and preserves. 

John Henry Moore with tame scrub jays.

Moore also photographed the lovely view across the waterway to Rickard’s home Poc la Mar. The photographic collection is missing two photos from the original donation, one being Rickard’s home. There is a good look at Rickard’s boathouse, and what appear to be beehive boxes.

It is doubtful that Moore was successful with his pineapple plantation. Although initial crops were profitable, farmers realized that pineapple growing was hard work. A combination of factors doomed the golden dream of pineapples – high freight prices from the FEC, combined with plant disease and drought cut into profits. Once the railroad went through to Key West in 1912, cheap Cuban pineapples flooded the market. Pineapple growers were finished. After a 1903 hurricane ruined his groves, Rickards bailed out of Boca Raton and moved to North Carolina. Moore sold his land in 1915 to George J. Cranston for $400. Maybe he thought he got a good price – he doubled his money, but it took 16 years. 

Thomas Moore Rickard’s boathouse.

I began my search to see exactly where Moore’s land was, and what was there today. Using Rickard’s subdivision plat map and a modern section township range map, I pinpointed the spot. To my surprise and joy, it wasn’t all paved over with houses or condos. Much of Mr. Moore’s land is the south end of Lake Wyman Park along NE 5th avenue in Boca Raton. This roadway appears on Rickard’s map as a trail, and could be the wooden rail tramway seen in the photograph of Moore’s house. The southern half of his land had a canal dug as part of the Golden Harbour subdivision platted in the early 1960s. 

Thomas Moore Rickard’s Map of Boca Raton, 1900. Moore’s lot was A-5, which stretched to the coast line canal.

I went to Lake Wyman Park on a Sunday morning to imagine what it must have been like – towering Dade County pines still exist on the property, the slow-growing pine that produces wood harder than maple. Some of these trees may even have existed when Moore was there. People passed me in the park, walking their dogs or conversing. I felt as if I had a secret that no one knew as I walked there expecting to see Moore at any moment. 

Pine Tree and Palmettos in Lake Wyman Park.

A conservative estimate of what those 13 acres would be worth today is 15 to 20 million dollars. Mr. Moore didn’t find the gold that was there – the gold wasn’t in pineapples, the gold was in the land. But his lifespan would have never seen that fortune. He left Florida for good; I found him on the 1920 census living in Missouri, running a grocery store with his brother. By 1930, he was in Oregon living near family. He passed away in 1937. 

That the photos exist at all is due to the care of Moore’s great niece Cecilie Wilton. In 1988 she wrote to the Broward County Library, wanting to donate the photographs – “I just couldn’t make myself destroy them…” she wrote in a letter accompanying the photographs.  

Little did Cecilie Wilton know that the photographs would be rediscovered 33 years later and piece together the story of the Lofthus shipwreck and of a Boca Raton pioneer who had been long forgotten. Her act of kindness gave the opportunity to find these treasures more than a century later, and allow their stories to be told.  




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

John Henry Moore photographs are courtesy of the Broward County Library

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.


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.


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

True age of one of West Palm Beach’s Oldest Homes Found – The Spencer House – 115 years old.

I love old pioneer homes, especially those with Victorian elements. West Palm Beach was once the “Cottage City,” and filled with these lovely homes with their towers, gingerbread, and shingle features. Very few of these homes have stood the forces of nature – whether it be hurricanes, termites, or worst of all, the bulldozer; their numbers ever dwindle. I posted a picture of the Leamington, a small boarding house that stood near where the Meyer Amphitheatre is today. A friend, Jeannie Hoban, commented that it looked very much like a house she once owned at 201 Monceaux Road in West Palm Beach.

201 Monceaux Road

Intrigued, I looked up the house on Google Maps, then did the usual research – looked up the property on the tax assessor site, looked at the build date, and located the plat. I also looked for references to 201 Monceaux Road in the Palm Beach Post archive. The tax assessor site had the build date as 1925, which didn’t make sense to me for that style of house. The state survey said the house was built in 1927, and the Historic Preservation plaque on the house has the date as 1908.  In the 1930s papers, I found that a Harold E. Spencer was living in the house at 201 Monceaux. The plat revealed that Spencer had platted the land in 1926 as Monceaux, a lovely French name in a sea of Spanish-sounding names such as El Cid. I wondered why Spencer would have chosen lot 6 for the house, away from the waterfront along Lake Worth, to place his house.

Monceaux Plat, 1926


I searched in the Palm Beach Post archive and found a 1920 reference to a 1903 fire. 1903 had been a bad year for fires in the area, with the original Breakers Hotel, Eugene Dimick’s house in Palm Beach, and a mention that Spencer’s house all had gone up in flames. So I searched for that event, and a tragic one it was. In August 1902, Spencer had come to West Palm Beach looking for land. He bought acreage in the farming area that was once along the waters of Lake Worth, between West Palm Beach and what would become the town of Lake Worth. He built a two-story house overlooking the lake. Spencer’s brother Earnest, along with caretaker Herbert Zentis, were working on the house, readying it for his brother and their elderly parents imminent arrival. Several train cars of furniture were in the house, and the grounds had been planted with pineapples and orange trees.

Tropical Sun Article, 1903

The October 17, 1903 Tropical Sun reported that Earnest Spencer awoke to find his upstairs bedroom filled with smoke. He opened the door and was hit with flames, burning his hands and arms. He shut the door and crawled out a window onto the veranda roof, and jumped down. He heard Zentis scream, and tried to rescue him with a ladder, but the flames were too much. Clad only in his nightshirt and badly burned, he bicycled to the nearest neighbor, George C. Matthams, a prominent pineapple grower. Dr. Richard Potter was summoned to care for Earnest. A rescue party went to Spencer’s property, and found only a smoldering ruin – of poor Zentis, only some bones remained from the inferno. His remains were buried in Lakeside Cemetery, in a child’s casket.

Harold Spencer arrived in West Palm Beach in November, 1903. According to the November 4, 1903 Tropical Sun, Spencer planned to start rebuilding as soon as possible. And it was from that article that the true date of the Spencer house can be reasonably deduced – 1904. That makes it one of West Palm Beach’s oldest surviving cottages. When the land was platted in 1926, the house was moved from its original site to lot 6. According to Lewis Sorrell, who grew up in the neighborhood, the house stood in the middle of what would become Monceaux Road. Spencer moved the house north and turned it so the front door faces the east.

Tropical Sun Article, November 4, 1903

I became more intrigued about Spencer – who was he? Research through and revealed him to come from a blue-blood family of Tarrytown, New York.

Spencer Passport Photo, 1917

His father, James S. Spencer, was a rector in the Christ Church parish for 61 years. Harold Eldredge Spencer was born in 1871, and graduated from Columbia Law School and also attended Oxford University. He practiced law in New York. During World War I, he volunteered as an ambulance driver in France. His parents and brother lived with him in the house in what would become the south section of West Palm Beach. He sold the house in the 1940s to a widow, Mrs. G. Ray Sparks, whose son would become a West Palm Beach mayor. Harold Spencer passed away in 1955 at the age of 84. Jeanne and George Hoban bought the house from the Sparks family and lived there for many years. Jeanne’s instincts told her that the house was older than most thought, and she was right. She provided to me a floorplan of the house. Its layout, with bedrooms at each corner of the second floor, perfectly matches the description of the terrible fire.

And finally, the name Monceaux – what was its origin? Newspaper accounts had said it was named for Monceaux, France where Spencer’s mother had been born. But that proved not to be the case. In fact, his mother’s maiden name was Mary Francis Mounsey, and she was born in New York. Phonetically, Mounsey and Monceaux do sound much the same. Mounsey could be mistaken for “Mousy,” a rather unromantic name for a subdivision. Monceaux had a much better sound.

Now, the history of the cottage is complete. We can safely wish the house a happy 115th birthday.

Frances Mounsey Headstone

The Hidden Treat in the Hedges – The Cocoplum

Cocoplum fruit

Cocoplum fruit

You have seen them, and perhaps wondered what they were. Purple oblong fruits, tucked away in hedges in mundane places – at the supermarket, drug store, church, school – wherever this popular hedge plant has made its home.  The Cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) has become a favorite landscape hedge of South Florida over the last 30 years. Its attractive red and green foliage creates a dense hedge that is drought and salt resistant, but a visit from Jack Frost would not be welcome. A true South Florida native, Cocoplums are found throughout the Caribbean, even as far away as West Africa.

I knew they were edible from a class I took in high school on all the native plants that can be eaten, and I had read accounts of the pioneers using them to make jelly. I even tried a few fruits over the years, but found them rather bland and tasteless.  The purple skin of the red tip variety hides a white pulp and large pit. I had a Bahamian cookbook my mother gave me from a trip to Abaco, and in it were some recipes for Cocoplum jam. I had dabbled in jam making through the years, but had not cooked jam in many years. A recent trip to a central Florida blueberry farm left me with several pounds of fresh blueberries, so I got to cooking. I had forgotten how delicious homemade jam was.

1850 Advertisement for Cocoplum preserves

1850 Advertisement for Cocoplum preserves

A friend asked what Florida native fruits there were to make into jam. I thought of the cocoplum, so I began to search them out. I saw a few in some hedges, and many of the white “Coastal” variety growing in a park, but harvesting isn’t allowed in public parks. A chance trip down a side street off of Parker Avenue in West Palm Beach brought me to an untrimmed shrub loaded with the purple fruits, some the size of ping pong balls. I collected a good many in a paint tray I had just bought, as I didn’t have anything else in the car.

Cocoplums growing near a parking lot.

I looked up some recipes and started them simmering on the stove – I washed them, removed any stems, and put them in the pot. As they began to boil, I must say the smell was not too pleasant – kind of reminiscent of old socks. But I didn’t want to give up just yet. Once the fruit had boiled, I squeezed the juice from them, and measured it out. Once I began to heat up the juice, a delightful aroma emerged from the simmering juice. I added a box of powdered pectin, got that to a boil, then added an equal amount of sugar to juice. It took a while to get back to a boil, and then I boiled it about 3 minutes. I ladled the beautiful burgundy colored hot liquid into prepared jelly jars, sealed the lids, then processed for 10 minutes in boiling water. It took about 24 hours for the jelly to fully “set” – then came the telling moment – how was it? Delicious…kind of a cross between blackberry and grape, maybe with a bit of boysenberry thrown in.

I imagined all sorts of possibilities beyond jelly – syrup for pancakes or drinks, or to drizzle over a piece of key lime pie; perhaps a basis for a tropical barbecue sauce. The cocoplum is also proving to be a medical wonder. It is being studied as a possible treatment for colon cancer, and also for use with chemotherapy to stop DNA damage. It is very high in resveratrol, that magic blue substance found in blueberries and red wine. Some people also “pickle” the cocoplums and claim they taste like olives (I have not tried that), or they dry them in the sun or in the oven. It also has a “bonus” treat – inside the pit is a “nut” or seed that is very high in oil and tastes sort of like a boiled peanut. The oil was used throughout the Caribbean to make candles or in cooking before cheaper substitutes took over.

So next time you see bushes full of these magical fruits, why not try some? Do make sure that you are permitted to pick, and that the bushes haven’t been sprayed with insecticide (look for spiders or ants).

Fresh Picked Cocoplums

Cocoplum Jelly or Jam

80-100 Fresh Purple Cocoplums (the white ones can be used but will not result in the delightful purple color)
1 box powdered Sure Jell Pectin for low sugar recipes (pink box)
Sugar (see below)
1/4 cup lemon juice (bottled)

Wash the Cocoplums well, removing any stems. Place in a large pot and cover with water. Place pot on medium heat till they simmer, and simmer for 1 hour, occasionally crushing the fruit with a potato masher. If you want to make a clear jelly, strain the hot fruits through a colander lined with cheesecloth and let the juice drip out into another pot or bowl (or use a jelly bag). If you want a heartier jam, squeeze the fruits through the colander without cheesecloth so more fruit bits end up in the juice.

Measure your resulting juice. Then measure an equal amount of sugar, or up to 1/2 cup less if making jam (i.e., 4 cups of juice would mean 4 cups of sugar for jelly, 3 1/2 cups for jam) and set aside. Prepare your jars for canning (see this link for details – Return the juice to a clean pot, mix in the box of pectin and lemon juice, and stir according to pectin box instructions. The mixture is ready for the sugar when it is boiling and cannot be stirred down. Add the sugar all at once (careful of splashing) and stir constantly as the mixture returns to a boil. Once it has reached boiling and cannot be stirred down, boil for three minutes. I find this does not foam up at all, probably due to the oil from the kernels inside the pit. Remove a hot jar from the water bath and fill the jar using a wide mouth funnel (you really need a funnel and a pair of jar tongs – less than $5 at WalMart). Fill each jar within 1/4 of the top, clean the rim with a wet paper towel, and place a sterilized lid on the jar and tighten the band. Once all the jars are filled, return them to the hot water pot where you sterilized the jars and process them 10 minutes. Carefully remove the jars with the jar tongs and place on a counter to cool 24 hours. You will hear each jar “pop” as the vacuum seal forms. Check after 24 hours and make sure all the seals are depressed down. If you find one that is not properly sealed, store it in the refrigerator. Otherwise the jars can be stored up to one year in a cool dark place. But once you taste it, the jars won’t last that long.


Spiced Cocoplum Jam – Add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon of cloves to the pressed juice.
Cocoplum Syrup – Make as above for jelly, but omit pectin, and store in the refrigerator.

Postcard Romance from the North

Note: This blog does not really pertain to Palm Beach County, but it is a fun story from afar.

A penny postcard at the beginning of the twentieth century was the text message of its time.  People sent them by the millions to friends and family near and far to send a short message, complete with a pretty scene of where they were, just like texting a photo. I’ve collected postcards for years, mostly for the rare photos of places near where I live in Florida, or places I have visited. At a postcard show held February 22 in Pompano Beach, Florida,  I decided to look for Racine postcards. My dad Jack Pedersen and his parents John and Lillian Pedersen were born in Racine, and I enjoy learning more about Racine’s rich history.

One vendor at the show had bought out several collections and was selling all postcards for a dollar a piece – a bargain hunter’s paradise. I dove into the collection and found six cards from Racine – familiar scenes such as Monument Square and Horlick’s Malted Milk.

Monument Square

I bought them all, and tucked them away in my bag.

Later when looking at them with a friend, we noticed that three of the Racine cards were to and from the same people.  A man who signed the cards “Shorty” sent the postcards to his sweetheart, Eva M. Brown, who was living in Whitewater. He addressed them to Eva in care of the Wisconsin Telephone Company. The three cards were written in February, April and September, 1909.

The messages were sweet and innocent; “Just simply I can’t think of anything else but little Eva Brown.” This drew me into the story – who were Shorty and Eva? Did their romance blossom?

I started searching with, using Eva’s information since I had her full name, and guessing her to be born about 1890. I first found her on the 1905 Wisconsin State Census, living in Whitewater with her parents, George and Lucy Brown, and six siblings. Eva Maude Brown was born in Hebron, Wisconsin, May 27, 1888. The 1910 U.S. Census confirmed I had the right family – Eva’s job was listed as telephone operator.

It is interesting that Shorty sent the postcards to her place of work – did he want to hide their romance from her parents? Eva was also in several family trees in Ancestry. Many of those trees listed her as being married to E. Bruno Waldin, and that they lived in Beloit. Waldin was a pharmacist, eventually owning his own pharmacy in Beloit.

The crucial question – was “Shorty” and Bruno Waldin the same person?

Bruno Waldin was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin in 1888, and married Eva in 1912.   On Bruno’s 1917 World War I draft registration card, he listed his profession, address, and physical characteristics – and there it was – he listed his height as short!  The World War II draft registration card listed his height at 5 foot 4 ½ inches.

World War I Draft Registration Card for Bruno Waldin

But what was Bruno’s tie to Racine? A search of the Racine Journal-Times archive at didn’t have any articles mentioning a Bruno Waldin from that time period.  I could see though how his name was probably often misspelled as Walden – and that search cracked the case.

A January 10, 1910 article mentions Bruno Waldin and four other men who had taken the druggist’s exam in Milwaukee – and all had failed! So Bruno Waldin and Shorty were one in the same. He was in Racine, probably interning with a pharmacist after his college studies, preparing for the pharmacy exam.  He did pass the exam in 1913, and became a registered pharmacist.

Bruno and Eva had a lifelong marriage, ended by Bruno’s passing in 1966 at the age of 78. There were no children in the marriage. Bruno and Eva retired to Fort Atkinson. For decades, Eva was very active in the American Legion Auxiliary, serving in many roles including district president in 1946. Her activities in the organization brought her all over Wisconsin, including many meetings in Racine. She passed away in 1973 at the age of 85.



Eva Brown Wardin (left) in 1950.

Yes, sometimes a good story does have a happy ending. And for a chance finding at a postcard show more than 1,000 miles from Wisconsin, the sweet love story of Eva and Bruno might have never been told.






Postcard send in 1909 – now the Racine Museum








Remembering Fred S. Dewey – A Century Since his Passing

January 5, 2019 marks a century since the passing of Fred S. Dewey, one of the most important South Florida pioneers. Frederick Sidney Dewey was born October 10, 1837 in Bloomfield, Indiana. His family had moved west from Massachusetts, where father Lonson Nash Dewey was born.

Lonson N. Dewey

Fred was a descendent of Thomas Dewey (often called “Thomas the Settler”), whose seven sons and their descendents count such notable names as Admiral George Dewey, the hero of the Spanish-American War, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York and presidential candidate, John Dewey, educational philosopher and professor, and Melvil Dewey, developer of the Dewey Decimal System and professor.

Fred’s father Lonson ran a hat factory in Indiana, where he had homesteaded much land. He married, but first wife Harriet Day died in 1835. He then married Nancy Jones, and Fred was their first child. Soon four more boys followed, and a daughter, Hattie. The family continued their trek westward, with Nancy serving as teacher for the children. Their next stop was Scott, Illinois, then on to Marion, Illinois.

Nancy Jones Dewey

In 1862, Fred joined the Union Army serving in the 31st Infantry from Missouri. He was quickly promoted to Master Sergeant, and saw action in Mississippi. But Fred was removed from duty not from war injuries, but illness, which killed more soldiers than the battles did in the Civil War. He had contracted tuberculosis, and was hospitalized for months in Mississippi. Finally, in 1863, he was discharged from the Union Army, not expected to live.

The young Fred S. Dewey

Fred made his way back to Illinois and settled in Salem.  He was a trusted public servant in many roles including deputy sheriff, notary, and bank clerk at the Salem National Bank. It was in Salem that he met Julia Bird Spilman (the later Byrd Spilman Dewey) and they married September 25, 1877. Fred was still suffering from the effects of tuberculosis; the doctor’s recommendation was to seek a warmer climate. In 1881, Fred and Birdie headed to Florida, and first bought land in Zellwood, Florida. Their attempt at citrus growing was a failure, so Fred took up his old job as an accountant in Eustis before the pair headed to Jacksonville. Fred worked in Jacksonville at a few lumber companies as an accountant and bookkeeper. After the loss of their only child, the two sought a new adventure in the wilds of South Florida. In 1887, Fred staked a claim to 78 acres in the highlands north of West Palm Beach in what today is Northwood Hills. On that land Fred cleared a few acres for growing tropical fruits and built a four-room house. He worked in Palm Beach, at the Hendrickson Store and the Brelsford Store, along doing carpentry work as it presented itself. He also served as the Health Officer in Jupiter to inspect incoming ships and boats for possible Yellow Fever victims.

Fred Dewey in the 1870s

In 1890, the Deweys purchased a 5-acre plot of land with a small house on the shores of Lake Worth about a mile south of West Palm Beach. Fred expanded the existing structure to become a beautiful lakeside cottage. He also became a county officer, serving as notary, county commissioner, tax collector and tax assessor for Dade County, which at that time stretched from the upper Keys all the way to Stuart. This meant that he would have to be away from home for days or months as he traveled from homestead to homestead collecting taxes. He served in that role until 1892. One of his tax collecting trips was chronicled by Mrs. Vincent Gilpen, and later published in the Tequesta Journal in 1942. The hardships of such a job were chronicled in this adventuresome tale.

Fred and Birdie began to buy lands in Dade County, many times quickly flipping them for nice profits. In 1892, Birdie purchased 160 acres at the foot of Lake Worth, in what was called the “Hypoluxo Garden Lands.” Her $700 investment was quickly flipped to William S. Linton (founder of Delray Beach)  for $6,000. The deal fell through when Linton defaulted. The Deweys sued Linton and got their land back in 1897. They platted the land in two developments – The Town of Boynton, a 40-acre townsite, and Dewey’s Subdivision, 5-acre farm plots along the intracoastal canal where tomatoes grew well. The Deweys began selling the lots and farming plots. Fred planted a seven-acre citrus grove just south of where the Ocean Avenue Bridge is today in Boynton, on the north end of what is Sterling Village.

Fred and Birdie, 1885

Fred’s talent in real estate and genial nature didn’t go unnoticed. He became a land agent for the Florida East Coast Railway Company, the Boston & Atlantic Land Company, and the Sawyer Land Trust. These interests held thousands of acres of valuable South Florida land, gained through the building of the railroad and digging of the canal from Boynton to Fort Lauderdale, today’s Intracoastal Waterway.

Fred’s territory went from Boynton south to Fort Lauderdale; according to newspaper reports, no one sold more land than Fred. The couple lived in West Palm Beach until 1906, when they returned to Jacksonville as Fred’s health was beginning to falter. The couple sold their West Palm Beach lakefront home in 1909, and built a new home in Boynton at the southwest corner of what is today Federal Highway and Boynton Beach Boulevard. According to Bertha Chadwell, Boynton pioneer, she would drive the Deweys to Palm Beach so that Fred could meet with Henry Flagler on real estate matters in South Florida.

They lived in Boynton briefly before Fred’s health again took a turn. At the age of 73, Fred was admitted to the Mountain Home Veterans Home at Johnson City, Tennessee  with multiple ailments. He was then transferred to a soldier’s home in Virginia, and then on to the Sawtelle Soldier’s Home in Los Angeles, California. Birdie sold her Palm Beach house on Seabreeze Avenue and moved to California to be near Fred. He passed away January 5, 1919, and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.

Fred Dewey in 1901

Fred Dewey’s Headstone, Los Angeles

I visited his grave site in 2016, and the experience was quite moving, to visit the earthly remains of a Florida pioneer. He served his country and he served his adopted state in so many different ways. His offspring, the little Town of Boynton, is today a thriving community of over 69,000 residents.

Read the complete biography of Fred S. Dewey and Byrd Spilman Dewey in Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier  – Available on Amazon – 

Our Louise – The tragic death of a pioneer daughter

Every month during the fall and winter, Janet DeVries Naughton and I conduct cemetery tours at Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach, Florida. At Woodlawn, many of Palm Beach County’s pioneer citizens forever rest in the paradise they helped tame more than a century ago.

Opening of the first store on Clematis Street

One of the citizens we feature is Otto Wilhelm Weybrecht. Born in 1866 in Germany, Weybrecht came to the United State as a child in 1871. The family had first settled in New York. By the mid 1880s, Weybrecht was working as a plumber and tin smith in Jacksonville. With wife and first child, the family moved to Palm Beach in 1892, and to West Palm Beach in 1893. Weybrecht was one of the first lot buyers on the newly minted plat for the town of West Palm Beach. He bought a lot on the south side of Clematis, where the Harris Music Loft now sits.

Weybrecht Store Advertisement

Weybrecht built a 22 by 10 foot wooden building to house his dry goods store and tin smith shop, the first store on the peninsula between Fort Pierce and Miami. The family lived in an adjacent tent. The opening was captured in a famous photo that is often seen in publications, with Seminole Indian Billy Bowlegs. The store burned in 1896 in a fire that consumed most of the wooden buildings on Clematis Street.

Several Weybrecht family members are interred in Woodlawn. During the tour, I noticed daughter Louise Weybrecht had died in 1910, a branch adorning her head stone, bearing the inscription “Our Louise.” She was but 12 when she lost her life. I had assumed that a childhood illness had taken her life, as unchecked disease was so rampant. Curiosity about Mr. Weybrecht revealed a much grimmer fate for poor Louise. She had been murdered.

Mary Weybrecht, Otto’s wife, ran a winter boarding house in a building Otto constructed in 1905. The building was located at what today is 422 Clematis Street, just west of the Dixie Highway. At that time, the courthouse was located at that corner, in the former school house building. Next door was another boarding house called the Virginia. Mrs. Weybrecht’s boarding house the Ilex housed seasonal workers in West Palm Beach.

Sanborn Map of the Ilex boarding house

A young man, F.V. Pierce, hailing from Rochester, New York, was in South Florida for the winter season. He and a friend were selling “flatirons” (clothing irons heated on a stove) to make ends meet. Pierce was well known in West Palm Beach and Miami as a friendly man of about 30, but became sullen and violent when drunk. Pierce had been arrested in the winter for public drunkenness and fighting; he attempted suicide in the jail cell by cutting his wrist. He owed Mrs. Weybrecht back rent and again found himself penniless. He gave a check to young Louise to take to her mother upstairs, who had laid down not feeling well. He bounded up the stairs after Louise; she attempted to shut the door but Pierce burst through, and shot them both. He then turned the gun on himself, dying instantly from a gunshot to the head. Louise was hit in the abdomen, and Mary in the upper chest.

At that time, West Palm Beach had no hospital. The two were probably treated at the doctor’s house, or at the boarding house. The outlook for Louise was grim as there was little the doctors could do. Louise died the next day, April 10. Mary survived the shooting, and lived on Fern Street until her passing at age 58 in 19; Otto passed away in 1912 at the age of 48, perhaps never recovering from the tragedy. We know little of Louise, save for a series of articles about a 1909 piano competition in South Florida, where she was one of the top contestants.

Newspaper account of the murder

Newspaper accounts came from several Florida and national papers, but none from West Palm Beach as.  the Lake Worth News or Tropical Sun were not preserved. Given the tragedy, and the standing of the Weybrecht family, the community certainly must have been shocked at the tragedy. Her siblings must have carried that burdon the rest of their lives; her brother August Weybrecht was the last to pass away in 1991 at age 90. We see the violence in our world today, but even the pioneer days saw their share of tragic death.


A Tropical Paradise…A Cold Murder – The Richard Hone Murder Case

Note: I had been working on the Hone case during the past week when The Palm Beach Post published their version August 26, 2018. Coincidently, Eliot Kleinberg and I were working on the same story from 116 years ago! But a good one it is, and my version offers more in-depth details on this most infamous crime. I was going to run this as a serial story due to its length, but the story is presented here in its entirety.


This blog is the result of the first complete investigation and report of the most infamous crimes in the West Palm Beach pioneer era. Although frequently mentioned, most of the information written about the Richard Hone case in newspapers or on the Internet is incomplete, and in some cases, wrong. Every available issue of pioneer-era newspapers (The Tropical Sun and the Miami Metropolis) were researched, along with probate records, baptismal and marriage records, land transactions, and maps.


A storm is raging along the shores of Lake Worth, an unusually violent Fall thunderstorm. Richard Hone, a 44-year-old Englishmen and naturalized citizen, sat in his country estate home three miles south of West Palm Beach, composing a letter to one of his sisters in England. Nearby sat Hone’s wife Mary, reading by lamp in the dark, dusky evening. Among the fits of light and cracks of thunder, a figure lurks outside near the window. The muzzle of a rifle bursts through the window screen; a shot is fired, hitting Hone. He grabs his head and yells “MY GOD, I AM SHOT!” It was the last words he would ever speak.


The Hone daughters with mother Lucinda

Richard Hone was born in 1859 to Harry and Lucinda Clarke Hone in Stoke Orchard, Gloucestershire County, England, the youngest of nine children.  Hone’s father had amassed a 640-acre estate in Stoke Orchard, about two hours northwest of London. Richard Hone last appears with the family on the 1881 census, living with his mother Lucinda and siblings on the estate. With so many older brothers and sisters, little of the estate would be left to Richard. He decided to try his luck in America and arrived in New York November 20, 1894, and made his way to California.

Church book marriage entry for Richard Hone and Mary Jones

Not finding his fortune in California, Hone arrived in the-then Dade County, Florida, which encompassed what is today Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Martin Counties. On February 9, 1895, Hone bought 20 acres of land for $1,000 from Colonel John Huntington Jones and his wife Elizabeth Ross Jones.  They were Rhode Islanders who owned much land in the West Palm Beach area.  They were not related to Mary Jones, as has been said in other accounts. James Wood Davidson, a noted scholar and author from South Carolina, had acquired 108 acres along the shores of Lake Worth in 1885 through the Homestead Act.  Davidson sold off the track in pieces, and Hone was now the owner of 20 of those acres, ready to start his farming enterprise.

Homestead Patent for Lot 3

Hone contracted with well-known pioneer-builder and architect Charles C. Haight for a house. “The building will be two stories high, with wide porches all around it, an ornament along the Lake. About the middle of July, Mr. Hone will leave for England, but will soon return with the lady who will preside over this new home.” (The Tropical Sun, May 23, 1895). Hone sailed back to England to marry a woman from his hometown, Mary Jones, 34, the daughter of Henry Yates Jones and Elizabeth Buckle Jones. The Jones were also farmers, owning a 320-acre estate. Richard and Mary married August 20, 1895, in Gloucestershire and sailed immediately from Southhampton, England, arriving in New York August 31, 1895. From there they would take the train to West Palm Beach to begin their wedded life.

Hone went into the pineapple farming business, which was most lucrative for early West Palm Beach farmers. Local plantation owners included J.W. Comstock, George Matthams, James N. Parker, George Swift, and Nellie Clow, who planted the pineapple “slips” in the sandy soils in which they thrived. Fresh pineapple was a summer delicacy that could be shipped quickly north on the train and commanded high prices in northern city markets. Hone raised the popular varieties of the day including Natal Queen and Red Spanish. He built wood lathe shades over the three acres of fields he had in cultivation to keep the sun from burning the fruit.

In March 1897, a baby girl was born to the Hones, but her life was short. Two more children were to follow; Edmond in 1899, and Robert in 1900, but they too were to meet the same cruel fate as the little girl. The Hones remained a childless family.

Clipping from The Tropical Sun, March 1897

The Hones became American citizens May, 1897 at the Dade County Courthouse in Juno, Florida “Richard Hone passed through town a few days ago on his way to Juno where he went to take out his final naturalization papers. In the future Mr. Hone will fly the American flag over his ‘Lake Shore’ place.” (The Tropical Sun, May 27, 1897).

As the years went on, Hone continued with raising pineapples and vegetables as the land would support. He is listed as visiting England in 1897 as a returning citizen, but it is not known if Mary also accompanied him on the trip. Hone was a popular and respected figure around town, and the Tropical Sun staff were most appreciative of his generous nature: “This office is under many obligations to Richard Hone, whose gentlemanly features, accompanied by a sack of fancy pines, put in an appearance just before we were going to press.” (The Tropical Sun, June 10, 1897).

Monday, October 20, 1902 was a typical evening in South Florida. The Hones had finished supper, and were busy with their reading and correspondence. The storm raging outside had come in off the ocean. As the shot rang out and hit Richard Hone, he arose and quickly stumbled backward, falling in the hallway. His wife put a pillow under his head, but she knew there was little she could do for her dying husband.

The October 21, 1902 Extra Edition of the Tropical Sun

Mary ran to the nearest neighbor, James Willis Comstock, who lived a few hundred yards to the southwest of the Hone property. He heard her screams, and she told of what had happened at the house. Comstock put out the lamp in his house, grabbed his revolver, locked the door and the two hurried back to the Hone house among the claps of thunder.

When reaching the Hone house, Comstock saw that Hone was dead, a pool of blood beside the body. It was an hour walk to town to find the sheriff, and another squall line was about to hit with sheets of pouring rain. Comstock could not leave Mary by herself, so he thought to bring her to the next neighbor to the south, pineapple grower James Hunter and wife Gertrude.

They went down the trail by lantern, passing Comstock’s house. Comstock noticed that his front door was now open, and that a rifle was resting against the door. The screen door had been propped open with a pair of shoes. Someone was inside the house. He urged Mary to stay back while he went inside, but instead she rushed to the porch. Comstock went to grab the rifle from the door, and out of the darkness he was tackled from behind. A fight ensued over the rifle, with both men struggling to gain possession. Mary took part too, but was quickly thrown aside by the assailant. The scuffle knocked over the lantern, making it difficult to see the assailant, but the lightning flashes revealed him to be African-American. Comstock went for his revolver, lost his grip on the rifle, and fell backward. The assailant kicked the revolver away. Comstock expected to be shot in cold blood like Hone, but instead the assailant fled west with the rifle through the sand pines and palmettos.

Comstock found his revolver, and Mary and he walked down the trail to the Hunter home. Another neighbor, Mr. Carlson, joined the group. All walked back to the Hone house, and stayed there the rest of the night as the monsoon rains returned.

Diagram of the properties in the crime scene area

At daybreak, Mr. Comstock went to West Palm Beach and found Deputy Sheriff Noah Jones. A posse of men armed with Winchester rifles went south down the lake by boat and on the bicycle trail. As was the custom of the time, the designated coroner, attorney Hutson B. Saunders, formed a jury to examine the body and crime scene so the cause and manner of death could be investigated.  Coroner Saunders swore in his jury – J.C. Harris, William Heim, C.W. Schmid, Bernard M. Potter, George Zapf and Wilhelm Weybrecht. Dr. Henry C. Hood examined the body and found that the bullet had penetrated the right arm, entered the chest and had probably pierced the heart. Dr. Hood extracted the bullet and found it to be a .32 caliber rifle ball. The jury examined the scene and the evidence and proclaimed the cause of death was gunshot, and the manner was murder by unknown assailant.

Deputies assembled at the Comstock house to examine the crime scene there. The deputies could see the bare footprints of the assailant where he had the scuffle with Mr. Comstock. The small trail through the palmetto scrub led to the county road (where Dixie Highway is today) and on to “Potter’s Station” on the Florida East Coast Railway. Although not described in detail, it was probably a loading dock where farmers could bring produce for shipping north. The officers concluded that the assailant had headed north or south on the train tracks.

On walking back to the house, the deputies found the assailant’s cap. They also examined Mr. Comstock’s door, which showed it had been broken with the muzzle of a rifle, which left a clear .32 caliber sized impression on the door.

The shoes left behind were particularly interesting. They were a brand of shoe called “Walkover” and appeared to be new (the company was founded in 1758 and is still in business). The man who sold shoes at Anthony’s Store stated that only 3 or 4 pair had been sold in the last week. Further inquiry into the shoes showed that an African-American man, William Melton, had reported his new shoes stolen to the police on Monday morning. This would later provide an important clue linking the murderer to the crime scene.

Walkover Shoes advertisement

Richard Hone’s funeral was attended by many West Palm Beach residents. The Reverend S. D. Paine of the Union Congregational Church conducted the funeral services at the Hone house. The body was then transported to Lakeside Cemetery via boat for burial, which did not take place until 5:30 in the evening, when dusk had set in. A few months before his death, Hone donated $5.00 for the improvement of Lakeside Cemetery – little did he know he would be so soon among its residents. “The scene at the grave was weird and impressive, in the extreme. A few flickering lanterns cast a fitful glare on the friends gathered around the open grave, while a solemn stillness reigned, save for the voice of the officiating minster who performed the sad last rites.” (The Tropical Sun– October 24, 1902). Marion E. Gruber, L. Marvin, George Wellington, George C. Currie, and James J. Hunter served as pall bearers. Following the services, Mary Hone stayed with the Wellington family in town, fellow Englishmen who could offer her solace in her time of need.

The small town of West Palm Beach was in shock. The reward money quickly piled up, with W.P. Hatchett pledging $500 for “For the arrest and delivery to me, in the woods, with satisfactory proof of guilt of the murdered of Mr. Richard Hone.”

The investigation as to the identity of the assailant turned quickly to men who had worked on the Hone plantation.  Hone often employed laborers who would help him tend the pineapples, which is a labor-intensive crop, especially during the summer harvest months. In the Fall, new plants would be set so they could begin their two-year growth cycle to bear fruit. One person questioned soon after the crime was Billy Kelly, who had worked for Hone the Friday before the murder and did not show up for work Monday. Kelly was questioned a few days after the murder, arrested, and jailed in Miami. Recall that Mr. Melton’s new Walkover shoes were stolen; Melton’s razor was also taken in that burglary. Another burglary was committed nearby Melton’s at C.S. Archer’s house, where a rifle, bicycle, bicycle pump and bedspread were taken. A search at Kelly’s home turned up the razor and the other stolen items, except the shoes and rifle. This evidence clearly tied Kelly to the shoes found at the crime scene.

1894 Winchester Rifle of the type used in the crime.

A boy walking on the scrub trail to Potter’s Station found the rifle November 22, about a month after the murder. He gave it to an adult who then turned in the rifle to a deputy sheriff. The sheriff took the rifle to Hatchett’s hardware store in town where the rifle was identified as one an African-American man had brought in looking for ammunition to fit the rifle. Mr. Comstock too was able to identify the rifle. It was no ordinary weapon, but an 1894 Winchester rifle. The original owner of the weapon, Joseph Borman, purchased the rifle in Palm Beach in 1894 at the Brelsford Store when it was located where the Flagler Museum is today. There were only three such guns sold on the lake. Mr. Borman had loaned the rifle to Mr. Archer when it was stolen by Mr. Kelly for use in the crime.

William Kelly’s trial for murder was on the Spring circuit court docket in Miami with Judge Minor S. Jones presiding; Kelly’s case would draw the most attention. Two attorneys were appointed by the judge to represent Kelly – Mitchell D. Price and H.F. Atkinson. Judge Beggs was the state attorney, assisted by H.B. Saunders, who had served as coroner in the original inquiry. The trial took place February 18, 1903 and lasted one day. “The evidence in the case was all circumstantial, but the presentation had procured a whole chain, and link by link it was fastened together until it had bound the prisoner in the hopeless fetters.” (The Miami Metropolis, February 20, 1903). By 7:30 PM, the judge had turned the case over to the jury. The jury returned a guilty verdict at 9:00 PM, with sentence being death by hanging. The case was somewhat novel in that it only involved circumstantial evidence – no one could identify Kelly as the assailant as a direct witness.  “The case was perhaps of the clearest and strongest ones, of only circumstantial evidence, ever tried in this state.” (The Miami Metropolis, February 27, 1903).  There was an attempt by Kelly’s attorneys to be granted a new trial based on how the jury delivered the verdict. Judge Jones had them correct the verdict and the request for a new trial was denied.


Kelly Confesses

While awaiting execution in the county jail, Kelly confessed his crime to Sheriff Frohock. Kelly believed that Hone kept large amounts of cash in the house. Kelly had practiced firing the rifle, and threw the spent shells between the two buildings where he lived. Kelly had first stalked Hone on Sunday night before the murder. He returned Monday and proceeded to kill Hone. After he fired the shot, Kelly hid behind an oleander bush as Mary ran from the house toward Comstock’s house. Kelly then entered the Hone house, looked for the money, and found none. He gazed upon the lifeless body of Hone as it lay in the hallway. Kelly was asked why he did not shoot Mary as well – he explained that his feeling of revulsion was so strong after killing Hone that he could not shoot Mary; his thoughts only went to finding money and escape.

He sat on the porch, thinking about his escape when he saw Mary and Mr. Comstock walking toward the house. He hid again behind the oleander. As they entered the house, he crept to the window and watched as Mr. Comstock examined Hone’s body. Kelly then proceeded to Comstock’s house where he broke the door with the rifle. Kelly said “I killed a man, and I want to give my life for his – he was a good man too.” (The Miami Metropolis, March 27, 1903).

Friday, April 10, 1903 would be William Kelly’s last day. It was now time to pay society for the crime committed. Kelly was taken to the gallows in an automobile, as the headline in the Tropical Sun proclaimed, a novelty in 1903. Kelly was hung with fellow prisoner John Bright who was also convicted of murder. Gallows had been constructed for the two in the new Miami jail yard. Kelly’s last statement said that the devil had “prompted him to the deed” and that he would be going “to meet Jesus.” Black hoods were placed over their heads, and the trap sprung on the gallows. Both men were declared dead after being cut down from their ropes.

This should logically be the “end of the story,” but many interesting facts remain about the Hone case. Mary mortgaged the house and 20-acre pineapple farm to James Olmstead on December 30, 1904 for $3,000. Olmstead then sold the mortgage to George G. Currie only a year later for $5,000; Mary paid off the mortgage in 1907. In 1923, Currie sold the property to William Ohlhaber, a well-known Chicago architect. Ohlhaber wanted the property to park his yacht, according to family members. Ohlhaber subdivided the property to become Bel-Air, one of the “Roaring Twenties” developments in what was then called South Palm Beach.

Mary continued to live in West Palm Beach, living in a house at the northeast corner of Olive Street and Evernia. In 1919, she applied for a passport to visit her ailing mother in England.

Mary Hone, 1919

She sailed back to England from New York on the Cunard Line, never to return to West Palm Beach. George Currie visited Mary while on a tour of England and found her well, back in her childhood town. Mary never remarried, and passed away in 1946.

The big storms of 1926 and 1928 and the subsequent Great Depression left Ohlhaber’s Bel-Air subdivision with dozens of unsold lots. In 1947, Max Brombacher, a Henry Flagler employee, bought the Hone house and surrounding property. The house remains in the family hands today, and is considered by most historians to be the oldest house in West Palm Beach (portions of a log cabin built by Elbridge Gale are said to be a part of a house in Northwood, but the house is not in its original location). It is in all likelihood the sole remaining structure that Charles C. Haight built in West Palm Beach that is still standing.

Mary Hone house, 1918

Richard Hone’s resting place has also seen its share of news over the years. Hone was buried in Lakeside Cemetery, which was at one-time a private cemetery owned by the Lake Worth Pioneers Association. The Association deeded the cemetery to the city of West Palm Beach in 1920 to become Pioneer Park. Most of the burials were moved free-of-charge by the city across the street to Woodlawn Cemetery. Most – but not all. Art collector Ralph Norton proposed building an art museum and school on Pioneer Park, and the city agreed. As part of the agreement, the Lake Worth Pioneer Association holds their annual picnic on the grounds of the Norton Museum. How many burials remain under the Norton is a question that never will be answered. A plaque that once hung by the Norton entrance listed 40 names, but with no mention as to why these 40 names were inscribed. There among them is Richard Hone and two of his children. In the 1920s, the widening of Olive Street revealed many burials that had been forgotten.

Plaque at the Norton Museum

Bel-Air Lots

In a 1985 discovery, a Norton Museum employee entered a crawlspace under the auditorium in the building and found several forgotten headstones. Most prominent among those was the headstone of Richard Hone, thus inscribed from Job 3:17 “There the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.” This again stirred up the controversy on the fact that the Norton Museum was built on hallowed ground. At the current time, the whereabouts of the headstone are unknown.

The Hone house and its survival,  and the rediscovery of Richard’s headstone, ensured that his story would not be lost to history. The old newspapers accessible through the Internet, and genealogical records, helped to finally crack this case.  May Richard Hone rest in eternal paradise.

Rediscovery of Richard Hone’s headstone





Life is a Circus – Even on a Ship

I love old Florida pictures, especially those that capture a time or a place that is today completely transformed. An old photo intrigued me on Facebook; its owner was looking for the location of where the photo might have been taken. The image, seen below, is of a smiling young woman fishing from a bridge. On the right was an intriguing clue – a vessel called The Circus Ship. The name was stenciled on the side of the ship along with several painted animals. A small sandy parking lot and a roadside sign also announced the ship’s berth. Many of the early comments on Facebook speculated that the picture was taken in the Sarasota area, given that the Ringling Brothers Circus had its winter headquarters in Sarasota.

Woman fishing from a bridge

My first look at the picture though told me it was probably South Florida, given the coconut palms in the photo. I went to to see if any mention was made of The Circus Ship. There were many articles from 1947 about a tragedy at sea with a circus ship in the Caribbean, where many lost their lives, but that didn’t seem to fit. I found a small classified ad from the Miami News, January, 1950, that began to tell the story: “Eat, drink and be merry? Don’t you miss! You’ll always remember The Circus Ship. Board at MacArthur Causeway. Dancing, entertainment, free parking. $1.50 plus tax. 3 hour voyage.”

I then found an article by Carlton Montayne of the Miami News that gave the history of the new attraction. The ship was a surplused World War II Navy Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) troop carrier that had seen action in the Pacific. It was repainted in bright colors and animal murals, and would set sail from Watson Island by the MacArthur Causeway, opposite the Goodyear Blimp station. It sailed the Intracoastal Waterway to Ojus, where the Cole Brothers had their wintering grounds for the circus. Montayne wrote “And so the weapons of war have been changed to the panoplies of peace. The swing of the pendulum of events, changing the whole pattern for which this former navy vessel and other implements of war were originally created, seems to paint a graphic topsy-turvy that parallels the summersaults of a clown.”

The ship was again in the news in March, 1950 when the 185-foot vessel ran aground five miles south of Miami. This article provided the actual name of the ship as the Delphi. Then, inexplicably, the ship is never mentioned again in the newspapers. A Google search also failed to find any more information about the ship. I knew that Watson Island was the original “cruise terminal” of sorts in Miami, and I was lucky to find an old linen postcard that provided a view that was the

Postcard of Watson Island

exact location of where The Circus Ship docked, and where the woman was standing on the bridge. The key feature was a small rounded embankment at the causeway, clearly visible in both the fishing picture and the postcard and noted with the arrow. The woman was standing about where the small red box is on the postcard. There was the small man-made Watson Island on the MacArthur Causeway, with the Goodyear Blimp base and several small ships moored along the western edge of the island.

Watson Island of course is still there, now home to the Miami Children’s Museum and Jungle Island, the renamed old-time Parrot Jungle attraction. The cruise ships now dock a few hundred yards away on Dodge Island.

The small round embankment is long gone, encased in layers of concrete, and today no one fishes from the MacArthur Causeway. But 1950 was a very different world, as Miami emerged in post-war America. That casual fishing shot captured a little piece of forgotten Florida history, and The Circus Ship’s place in history is assured.

Watson Island today.









Special thanks to Lawrence Kraemer for permission to use the photo of the woman fishing from the causeway.