Tuesday, June 15, 2021

History of Flogging in Tampa

Flogging holds a prominent place in Tampa history; in fact, from the turn of the 20th century into the 1930s, "professional flogger" was an acceptable, if not entirely respectable occupation. If you didn't like someone and didn't want to get your own hands dirty, you could hire a flogger to deliver a public whipping. There are reported cases of men, women, and children who died from injuries received in a flogging. It is a sad fact that flogging in Tampa and Hillsborough County was widespread and accepted deep into the 20th century. 

As with most other punishments, flogging took the worst toll on people of color. Instead of the leather strap, a whip or chain might be used. Other targets of the lash were Jews, Catholics, women of ill repute, and criminals. Prisoners were systematically abused. The use of the lash in law enforcement was a daily practice. It continued for decades and no prisoner was immune to the threat of flogging on the whim of city and county officials. Judges even beat children in the courtrooms of the city. 

Judge Whitaker of the Tampa municipal court is said to have set the legal precedent, "by personally applying the lash to two boy offenders convicted in his court." The judge believed a good whipping would be better for their character than jail time. Perhaps he was right, but by the time of Ybor City Blues, Hillsboro County had instituted a policy of flogging four prisoners a day even if there had been no infractions of the rules. 

Hillsborough County Chain Gang 1925

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to serve time in the county jail. First of all, jail usually meant the county work camp. Prisoners worked twelve-hour days building roads, cleaning ditches, and cutting brush using hand tools. They were shackled together to form a "chain gang." Then, every afternoon a flogger would walk down the row and pick out four random men to flog. If you were disliked, unlucky, or a shade or two darker than the next man in line, you could end up with daily floggings through your entire sentence.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The Magic Kingdom of Henry Plant

This past weekend, Sarah and I were in Tampa for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of Sisters in Crime meeting, which was held in the media room of the Oxford Exchange. This was the first time since the pandemic began that we have been able to meet in person. As the members are spread out along the West Coast of Florida, we appreciate having the option of doing an in-person meeting while others join us via Zoom. 

Since we were right across the street from the University of Tampa, we took advantage of our location to take a little trip into Tampa's first Magic Kingdom, the Kingdom of Henry Plant. Plant's Kingdom was made up of railroads, steamships, lavish resorts, and tropical islands. It even had its own flag.

Plant Flag

There is no place the flag more proudly waved than over his castle, AKA The Tampa Hotel. As you can see from the picture below, the hotel was as close to a castle as Plant could make it. It was built at the center of a lavishly landscaped 100-acre park. It had an 18-hole golf course, its own stables for horseback riding, tennis courts, croquet and badminton courts, horseshoes, fishing, boating on Tampa Bay, and even hunting was available. There were shows and concerts by some of the world's best performers, a rail station, and a casino with a floor that opened to the swimming pool. 

He spared no expense on constructing and furnishing the castle. Moorish spires rose above the roofline, each adorned with a crescent moon. 

One wing of the Tampa Bay Hotel


There were life-sized statues decorating the lobby, art, and furnishings imported from Europe and the Orient. Phone service was available in every guest room (which was unheard of at the time). Every guest had access to a bath with hot and cold running water.

Typical Hotel Bathroom

The hotel was finished in February of 1891, at a cost of over three million dollars. When the Spanish-American War loomed on the horizon, Plant lobbied hard to make Tampa the main port of embarkation of the troops. His prized hotel was filled with officers, plus Clara Barton and her Red Cross nurses as they waited for orders to leave for Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders camped on the banks of the river and held drills on Plant's carefully landscaped lawns. 

After his death in 1899, the family lost interest in the hotel, which was sold to the city of Tampa in 1905 for 125 thousand dollars. It closed in 1932, and in 1933 part of the building reopened as a museum; the rest is used as offices for the University of Tampa.

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Review: Catriona McPherson's Scot on the Rocks

Catriona McPherson’s latest Last Ditch mystery is hard to put down. If you haven't read one of her books about a Scottish ex-pat, Lexy Campbell, trying to make a go of life in California, this one is a great place to start. The prose sparkle and her humor shines through on every page. Don't let the laughter lull you into thinking this is a fluff read. There is depth to the quirky characters at the Last Ditch Motel and enough twists and turns in the plot to please the most avid mystery fan. 

In Scot on the Rocks, one of Cuento's beloved statues, Mama Cuento is stolen. All that's left is a bronze toe and a sinister note.  Lexy and her crew decide to "help" the police find the missing statue. They are pulled into finding Bran, Lexy's ex-husband's missing wife, Brandee. When Bran shows Lexy and crew a similar kidnapping note he received with an acrylic nail enclosed, it’s anybody’s guess as to what is going on, what’s connected, and what’s not. 

This is the third book of the series. Lexy is a relationship counselor in Cuento, California. Todd, the anesthetist who lives at the motel with his pediatrician husband Roger, and germophobic Kathi, who is married to the motel’s live-in manager Noleen, have inserted themselves into Lexy’s counseling business, creating Trinity Services. 

In fact, her pals have inserted themselves into any business that comes Lexy’s way. Her friends have twin passions, finding Lexy the perfect man, and solving mysteries. She wishes they would give up on the perfect manhunt, but that is another story. 

The Last Ditch Motel is a large diverse family. It doesn't take long for the entire family to get involved in this wild and wooly chase for answers, although the standing members of Trinity Services, Lexy and Todd and Kathi take the most dangerous risks and find themselves on a road trip to Patriarchyville. There are lots of surprises in this tale of who or what went where and why. 

Catriona McPherson knows how to tell a great story, and in this series, readers also can depend on McPherson to make them laugh. She is also a master of creating a magnificent cast of characters. Readers will be entertained and surprised at every turn of the road.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Mary Roberts Rinehart America's Queen of Mystery

Mary Roberts Rinehart in Shadowlands

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer best known for her mysteries. She published her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, in 1908, which introduced the "had I but known" narrative style. Rinehart is also considered the source of "the butler did it" plot device in her novel The Door (1930), although the exact phrase does not appear in her work. 

Her books were wildly popular.  All through the 1920s, Mary Roberts Rinehart's books made the bestseller list. The prolific writer is often compared to Agatha Christie in terms of her career. While it is true that both women wrote books, short stories, an autobiography, essays, and long-running plays (Agatha Christie's The Mouse Trap and Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Bat), I don't really like to do that sort of comparison between writers who were so very different in their approach to the art of storytelling. 

Before going further with this post, I must make the following confession: I am not an unbiased judge of why Christie's books have remained in print and Mary Roberts Rinehart's have not. I am a huge Agatha Christie fangirl. I was once barred from an Agatha Christie trivia contest because I had answered too many of the questions. 

I first discovered Rinehart's books when I ran across The Circular Staircase in an old house I was helping my brother demolish. The book was a bit musty, but you take your books where you can find them in a town with no bookstores or libraries. I took it home and read it that night. I enjoyed the story, but didn't run across another of her books for many years. One book does not a fandom make. I passed the book on to a fellow bookworm in town and didn't think about it again until years later, I discovered another among a stack of other Rinehart first editions. 

It was then that I began to read her work and learn more about this remarkable woman. Rinehart knew what it was like to grow up poor. She worked hard to put herself through nursing school. During WWI, she was a war correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. She and her husband lost everything in the stock market crash, but her writing success enabled them to recover and prosper. 

Hardship was not entirely behind her, though. In 1946 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which led to a radical mastectomy. She eventually went public with her story, at a time when such matters were not openly discussed. The interview "I Had Cancer" was published in a 1947 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal; in it, Rinehart encouraged women to have breast examinations. 

Her work reflects a life lived to the fullest. I can understand why the "had I but known" style of writing fell out of fashion, but much of Christie's work is also stilted. If there is a real comparison to be made as to why Agatha Christie still remains popular and Rinehart is less so, it is the detectives they wrote, or rather in Rinehart's case, the lack of a recurring detective in her books. Neither of her recurring characters Hilda Adams or Tish Carberry appear often enough in her books to be considered series characters. 

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Time Away from the Everyday

I am sorry that I didn't post this earlier in the week. I have been selfish with my time and traveling to a few historic Florida towns. That is, historic by American standards; we are still a young country. 

There are few things more rejuvenating than taking a little time to relax and spend time with people I love. This week, Sarah and I took a trip into Florida's past with my sister and her friend Tom. Some of the places we went may become settings for short stories or new books. This week, they were a break from the everyday. 

Our first stop was Winter Park, a beautiful town set on the shores of five small, spring-fed lakes. The town dates back to the 1840s when white Americans chased the Seminoles off their native lands and formed the state of Florida. Most of the tribe was relocated to Oklahoma. Those they couldn't catch fled to the Everglades, where they still live. Meanwhile, Winter Park became a winter home for wealthy industrialists of the nineteenth century. 

There is an advantage to having lots of money when building a town. The good citizens of Winter Park had canals dug to connect the lakes and built spacious mansions along the shores. They spared no expense in creating their winter playground. Some of the houses still remain, but many have been torn down by today's wealthy residents who built even bigger homes. The four of us took a tour of the lakes on one of the five custom-built pontoon boats that cruise the canals hourly. The tour is considered one of the most scenic in Florida. There are cypress trees and live oaks growing along the canals that were here when Seminoles walked the lake shores. Today, beautifully landscaped lawns slope down to the water's edge and the campus of Rollins College occupies seventy acres of lakefront property. 

Our next stop was Daytona Beach, the location of one of the oldest automobile races in the world, the Daytona 500. In the 1920s, the race was on the beach. There is still a section of the beach that cars are allowed to drive, but for the safety of the beachgoers the city no longer allows cars to race the length of the shore. The race has been moved to Daytona Speedway, but it is still one of the premier auto races in the county. 

Sarah and I are planning to set one of the Three Snowbird books in Daytona, maybe centered on another popular sport there: speedboat racing. I understand Daytona is one of the more challenging places to race, boats often having "washing machine surf" that they have to just plow through and waves that are five or six feet high. The Professor would love the excitement, but poor Cornelia might have heart failure if he goes out on one of those racing boats.

Our last stop on the trip was Silver Springs and a glass-bottomed boat tour that dates back to the 1800s. Silver Springs is now a state park, and the grounds are beautiful. The shopping pavilion was closed for renovations, much to my sister's disappointment. The tour was wonderful. The deepest of the underwater springs is 85 feet, but the water is so clear that it doesn't appear to be more than a few feet deep. Alligators lounge on the shore of a small island where birds nest. They settle on the ground under the nest and wait, hoping that one of the fledglings will fall and provide them with an afternoon snack. 

Many movies have been filmed at Silver Springs and some of the props still remain, including a boat that was intentionally sunk for the film Don't Give Up the Ship, and three seven-foot-tall statues of Greek gods that were props for an I Spy episode. There is also a dug-out canoe made of Florida cypress that is older than the United States. A sample of the wood was sent to the University of Florida to try to determine just how long the canoe has been resting at the bottom of the spring.

Now that we are back from the trip, I hope to be back on schedule with the blog next week. In the meantime. I hope you enjoyed hearing about my little adventure into Florida's past.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Signs of the Time

The Gandy Bridge

One of the most difficult problems I struggle with when writing historical mysteries is how to accurately portray the times without having our troubled history take over the story. This week the Three Snowbirds had to cross the Gandy Bridge to question a suspect in St. Petersburg. To understand how a simple drive across a bridge can be a problem, you have to be aware of an ugly historic fact. When the Gandy Bridge was completed in 1924, a car crossing toward St. Petersburg side would see a sign that read “No Jews Wanted Here.” Pow! History just delivered a punch to the gut. 

Okay, history, what do you have to say for yourself?

As it turns out, the anti-Semitic history of St. Petersburg is well documented. Signs at resorts and restaurants that read “Restricted Clientele” or “Gentiles Only” reflected the exclusionary policies of many local institutions. Throughout much of the early and mid-century, the city was considered one of the most anti-Semitic in all of the United States. 

When Sarah and I approached writing Murder at the Million Dollar Pier, we had to take that part of the history of the city into account. The difference in this particular sign is the all-encompassing nature of where it was posted. This was not an individual business or a single institution. The city of St. Petersburg rolled out an unwelcome mat in big black letters. 

Despite the bigotry, the Jewish citizens of St. Petersburg didn't leave or start forming Jews only groups. It wasn't easy. Keeping their Jewish identity in the Sunshine City required a strong will and dogged determination. As a result, the Jewish community in St. Petersburg is still thriving, and the unwelcome sign has rotted away.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Elizabeth MacKintosh, aka Mystery Writer Josephine Tey, aka Playwright Gordon Daviot

Elizabeth MacKintosh, pen name Josephine Tey, was born on July 25, 1896, in Inverness, capital of the Scottish Highlands. Her father was recorded on the birth certificate as a fruiterer. “Strange as it may seem, few of us had ever known the real person,” recalled Mairi MacDonald, a contemporary at Inverness Royal Academy. “We had rubbed shoulders with her in our busy streets; admired her pretty home and picturesque garden—and some had even shared schooldays with her—yet no one enjoyed her companionship, for Gordon Daviot was and wished to be what she herself termed herself, ‘a lone wolf,’ discouraging any attempts at fraternization.” 

In school, she was a reluctant pupil, she preferred playing tic-tac-toe with a neighbor in class, or drawing mustaches and spectacles on portraits of the Kings of Scotland, or scampering off to a cloakroom “where, upon an old set of parallel bars—housed there for no apparent reason—she delighted herself and others by turning somersaults.”

Her first career as a physical training instructor was in her opinion the happiest time of her life. This admission is a rare insight into very private life. She never married, and rarely spoke about herself or her life. According to most sources, including an obituary in the London Times, her teaching career was curtailed by family obligations. After teaching physical training at schools in England and Scotland, she returned to Inverness to care for her invalid father. It was there that she began her career as a writer. She never returned to teaching but her experiences there provided the backdrop for Miss Pym Disposes, set at a physical-training college in the English Midlands. 

She did more than create pen names for herself. Writing life was as compartmentalized and well developed as any of her characters. Elizabeth MacKintosh, Gordon Daviot, and Josephine Tey were distinct personae. Even her correspondence has that chameleon quality: a letter from “Gordon” is quite different in tone from a “Mac” letter or a “Tey” letter. Perhaps her reluctance to meet people stemmed from a need to keep all three of her identities in their individual compartments, a task much easier on paper than in person.

It is no wonder Josephine Tey never belonged to the Detection Club. The social nature of the group would have been difficult for her. She also had no desire to pledge herself to the constraints of the oath they swore. Unlike Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey ignored golden-age British crime fiction rules. The results were brilliant.  During her career as a crime novelist, from The Man in the Queue (1929) to The Singing Sands (published posthumously in 1952), she broke almost all the commandments. 

Her disdain for formulaic fiction is confirmed in the opening chapter of The Daughter of Time (1951). Detective Inspector Alan Grant despairs the books on his bedside table while in the hospital recuperating from a broken leg, among them a writing-by-numbers mystery called "The Case of the Missing Tin-Opener." “Did no one, any more, no one in all this wide world, change their record now and then?” he wonders despairingly.

Her work may have fallen out of favor during the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it stands the test of time. With strong, well-developed characters, and nimble, witty prose, it is well worth revisiting her work.