I spent a not-small-enough portion of my Thanksgiving break rummaging through ancient, partially dry-rotted legal files stored in a small trailer on my aunt’s property in Palatka, my hometown. Among the dregs of my great grandfather and great aunt’s legal career, I was looking for files related to my Cross Creek Trial/Palatka Klan project that I wrote about here a few weeks ago. [Insert now shameless plug: check out the site “Blogging the Cross Creek Trial”.]
This was researching with accountability. You never knew which file would fall open to reveal superroaches, otherwise known as palmetto bugs, large enough to bark. I think the CDC could trace the balky throat I brought home and have carried around this week directly to the toxic air inside the trailer.
Anyway, one of the files I found both relates to my Cross Creek/Palatka project, and, in a way, to that other endlessly rewarding family project–annoying predatory railroad companies. And I want to note it today in honor of the deeply entertaining special rail session of the Florida Legislature currently underway.
In the summer of 1929, my great grandfather Judge Vertrees (JV) Walton sued the Florida East Coast Railway Company for $50,000 over the misconduct of a private law enforcement contractor named Walter I. Minton. (See, Blackwater is heir to a long tradition.) As one of the documents I found in the file stated stated: “Perhaps a majority of the great transportation companies have special agents or detectives whose duties include the apprehension of all persons who have committed crimes by which the property of the corporation has been embezzled, stolen, or destroyed, or its interests otherwise prejudiced…” Minton was one of them.
It turns out that Minton in 1929 wrongly arrested someone on behalf of FEC. After the charges were thrown out, that man, D.C. Jameson, hired JV Walton to sue Minton and FEC for malicious prosecution. Minton is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Between 1924 and 1928, he served as chief deputy of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. He was also one of 13 men listed with on the charter of Putnam County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which came into existence on Jan. 12, 1921. Minton’s title within the chapter was “Kludd,” which meant chaplain, according to David M. Chalmers, author of the magisterial Klan history, “Hooded Americanism.” For what it’s worth, Chalmers also writes that “…the major outbreak of reported Klan violence [in Florida] took place in Putnam County, west of St. Augustine.” He’s talking about the mayhem of 1926-1928, the precise period and incidents I’m researching now. A letter I have from the time fingers Minton, while actively serving as chief deputy to Sheriff R.J. Hancock, as the leader of Klan pogroms in Putnam. That makes him perhaps the most important Klan member in Florida, and arguably, one of the great undocumented villains of our state’s history.
Which is why it should surprise no one that a railroad hired him to do dirty work after Hancock lost the 1928 election–and that Minton quickly got the railroad in trouble by abusing his authority. I don’t know the actual outcome of the suit, which lumbered on until at least the late 30s. It looks as though FEC may have outlasted it and gotten it dismissed, but I’m not sure. The file appears incomplete. But it does include a letter referring to a separate case against FEC, in which a jury returned JV’s client a verdict of $22,500 in a 1930 wrongful death trial, “where a woman was killed while riding as a passenger on the railroad.” Not bad money in the middle of the Depression, I suspect. Man, FEC must have hated JV–and lawyers generally.
Fast forward 79 years, and the often sold FEC is still a major figure in Florida’s freight rail industrial complex. It played a significant–if somewhat forgotten–role in the grand rail plans DOT and Jeb Bush’s buddies pursued in 2005-06 and that Lindsay Peterson and I wrote about in 2007. The CSX portion of that plan is, of course, still roiling Florida politics as we speak. Legal liability questions and dirty trial lawyers have helped thwart CSX’s control of rail policy in the state for a couple of years running. I must confess that the thought of my dirty trial lawyer great grandfather exacting his own ounce of flesh from Big Rail all those decades ago makes me smile.