Guest Post by Robert Waters
(Floridian Robert Waters is author of several true crime books, including Outgunned! True Stories of Citizens Who Stood Up to Outlaws—And Won, an exciting, well chosen set of crime stories. He recently came across a curious, century-old postcard, did some research into his crime souvenir, and shares a bit of what he found. It's a story of barbarism and scandal, of a private prison system gone all wrong. Thanks, Robert, for sharing it.)
Reconstruction left Florida financially destitute. Since the state had few prisons and no money to build more, politicians developed a system of leasing prisoners to businesses.
Participating companies paid the state $26.00 per year for each convict. In 1900, for instance, 778 convicts lived in thirteen camps: seven of the companies mined phosphate and six produced turpentine. (Later, as the system became more financially sound for both the state and the companies involved, the fee increased, finally leveling out at $150.00 per year in the 1920s.)
By all accounts, the system was brutal. Men who had been convicted of minor crimes such as vagrancy or writing bad checks were forced to work in the mosquito-infested camps from sunup to sundown six days a week.
In the camps, anything went. An article in the Panama City News Herald stated, “For the slightest infractions, [convicts] were prodded with bayonets or whipped with straps dipped in salt until they could not walk.”
In 1890, J. C. Powell wrote a book entitled The American Siberia. In it, the former camp guard described a series of tortures used by guards such as “sweating,” “stringing,” and “watering” convicts. A high percentage of prisoners died of the tortures.
Dated November 16, 1907, the firm offered a $100 reward for the capture and return of a Norwegian native, Adolph Fetch. According to the card, which was sent to the sheriff in Deland, the prisoner “escaped on the 12th, 1907, from the camp of Taylor County Stores Co., located at Perry, Fla.”
After describing the prisoner, the card stated that he had been convicted of Grand Larceny in Duval County and sentenced to one year in prison a month before his escape. Two photographs of the prisoner are attached to the postcard.
The convict leasing system lasted until 1923. It came to an end after the brutality of the system was brought to the attention of the public. Several incidents contributed to the demise of the system.
On October 7, 1905, the stockade of the Aycock Naval Stores caught on fire. Fifteen prisoners were trapped: six were rescued by trustees, but nine died. The doomed men had been chained to the walls of the stockade where they burned to death.
According to a contemporary account in the Pensacola Journal, those who saw the blaze told of “hearing the way the chained men [who] hung from the window begged witnesses to cut off their feet or legs so they could be free before being burned alive. Others told of jeering, drunken guards...who taunted victims and ignored their pleas for help.”
Although the state tried to cover up the legal investigation into the tragedy, publicity generated by local and national newspapers further eroded the public’s waning support for the convict leasing system. The system limped along until 1922.
The final straw was the death of Martin Talbert, a North Dakota resident. He’d been arrested near Tallahassee for “hopping a freight train.” He was ordered to pay a fine of $25.00 or serve three months in a labor camp. He had no money but his parents sent enough to pay the fine along with funds for a return ticket home. The funds arrived at the Department of Corrections but disappeared. It was never found.
Talbert was leased to the Putnam Lumber Company in Clara. While working in the north Florida heat, he developed a fever (he was diagnosed by a company doctor as having malaria), sores, and severe headaches.
An article on the Florida Department of Corrections website reports, “When he could no longer remain in the woods, Walter Higginbotham, the whipping boss, propped him up on his swollen feet and flogged him about fifty times with a 5-foot leather strap because Talbert failed to do his day’s work.” The prisoner died later that night.
Talbert’s parents wasted no time blasting Florida’s convict leasing system. National newspapers heaped ridicule on the Sunshine State. The Panama City Pilot wrote a scorching indictment of the system entitled, “Florida’s Disgrace.” Other newspapers followed suit.
In 1923, Governor Cary Hardee signed a bill that abolished the convict leasing system and provided money to build prisons.
In his book, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928, Matthew J. Mancini writes that the S. A. Rawls Company leased convicts from state prisons and local jails and sub-leased them to “turpentine and phosphate operators. Rawls’s own profit from this venture in 1906 alone was $100,000.”
[Information for this article came from the Florida Department of Corrections website, various collectors of Florida memorabilia, and my own collection of vintage Florida material.]