A Jail. A Mob. A Sheriff. A Book

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So, after regaling you all periodically with shamelessly self-serving hints about the book I’ve been writing since spring of 2008, I’m happy to announce that I have completed a solid draft. “Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida” exists. Can’t nobody never take that away from me, or so I hope.

My lovely and talented wife designed this preliminary cover, and I am actively seeking a publisher. Because I am a classic libertarian entrepreneur–or something–I thought I would try augment those efforts with a bit of marketing. If you like what you read here and think you might pay to know more about this astonishing period of Florida and American history, leave me a comment or email me (townsend@lakelandlocal.com), so I can get you on an update list. I’m going to do the Facebook liking thing and all that, too, eventually. Please share the link here with friends if you are so inclined.

What follows is a dramatized scene of a real event–the March 1923 storming of the Putnam County Jail by a band of white road crew workers from Gainesville bent on lynching the black man accused of murdering one of their co-workers. The white man, Hugh Cross, had instigated a quarrel when the black man, Arthur Johnson, after Johnson refused to yield the sidewalk to a white man. Johnson went inside his house, got a gun, and shot Cross dead. He was taken to neighboring Putnam County and placed in the custody of Putnam County Sheriff Peter Monroe Hagan.

Hagan’s stand at that jail is one of the great moments in American history that no one knows about. I hope to change that. This excerpt essentially marks the midpoint of my story, which stretches from 1915 to 1930. Enjoy. (Warning: there’s a bit of objectionable racial language.)[/box]

Political ad captioned - A vote for Pete Hagan means enforcement of the law.

In days before detention facilities developed the giant budgets and full-time staff that help sustain the modern rural economy, election as sheriff in places like Putnam County, Florida often came with a duty and perk: a home at the jail.

It wasn’t the White House, but Peter Hagan and his family lived comfortably during his tenure in a two-story residential building attached to the Putnam County Jail on Seventh and Reid Street in downtown Palatka. In exchange for the housing, Hagan, much like modern state park rangers, took personal responsibility for the running the jail and keeping the prisoners secure. A handful of deputies lived in apartment rooms also attached to the jail.

At any given time, two or three men, including Hagan, would guard and care for the 30 to 40 prisoners the jail held. In the post-war era, crime spiked in country generally, and Florida and Palatka, specifically, to levels never before seen, levels far worse statistically than those most cities and towns face today. Many factors contributed, prohibition foremost among them. But America in the 20s was an angry and mobile society, with much of its social and economic continuity shattered by all the effects and trauma of the war effort. Florida was its southeastern frontier, poorly policed, with a nearly even population split between races, at a time of great racial antagonism. 

As Hagan declared in December of 1921, “Never were there in the history of our state so much crime as there is now, and it is growing worse all the time.” 

The decaying old jail in Palatka, a relic of a more orderly American era, was understaffed and bursting with ill-favored men. Replacing it became a perennial debate among city and county officials, who endured at least one mass escape of five convicts in the early 20s. But by March 1, 1923, the city fathers had still failed to act. 

On this night, Hagan and deputy sheriff W.H. Brown were inspecting the inmates just before midnight. Brown would remain on duty overnight, requiring him to remain awake in his apartment above the jail, while Hagan slept in his.

As Peter Hagan walked the corridor of cells late that Thursday night, the inmates, most of whom were black, largely ignored him. Tomorrow, many of them would take to the road gangs again, swinging scythes and scraping up gravel where called for. To earn their stays in the Putnam jail, they might have illegally hopped a freight train, or got caught with a few bottles of whiskey, or stolen a gun from an unlocked car. Those were typical crimes. 

But at least one man would not join them, and he shared his cell with no one. Five night before, on a Saturday night, Gainesville police had arrested Arthur Johnson, an illiterate laborer, and charged him with the murder of a white member of a state road crew named H.C. Cross. A lynch mob formed quickly that night in Gainesville, but before it could act, Sheriff Ramsey of Alachua County sent Johnson off to Hagan in Putnam County.

Ever since then, Johnson, dressed in the blue work overalls that served as a sort of unofficial uniform for lower class black workmen, had sat in a cell behind rusty bars, wondering if this was the night the boys from Gainesville would come to get him. He had good reason to worry. North Florida, in 1923, was the national epicenter of lynching, a practice beginning to wane elsewhere. The Rosewood massacre—not far from Gainesville—occurred less than six weeks before. An unrelated lynching of a Gainesville man, accused of stealing cattle, happened on Jan. 17. In first six months of 1923, eight of 16 reported lynching deaths in the country came from Florida, six from north Florida. No other state had more than two.  

A black man accused of killing a white man in Gainesville in February of 1923 would have little expectation of ever seeing a trial. But five days after the alleged crime, Arthur Johnson was still alive under the close supervision of Peter Hagan and his deputies.

“Mr. Sheriff,” he said, as Hagan walked by. “How are you tonight?”

“I’m fine. Is there something I can do for you, Johnson?”

“No, sir. You treating me fine.”

Hagan nodded. 

“I just…You know, you seem like a honest man. Like who a man who will listen. I ain’t done what they said I done.”

Hagan had heard this a thousand times before, from a thousand other men, black and white.

“In your case, Mr. Johnson, that’s not my concern. I’m just here to keep you safe.”

“Until they hang me. For nothing. They might as well ku klux me.”

Hagan said nothing.

“That Sheriff Ramsey over in Gainesville, he say, ‘Boy, I’m sending you to Putman County so we can keep you safe ’till we hang you.’ That ain’t right. They say I kilt that man because he talked to me like a dog when I bumped into him on the sidewalk. Now you know we coloreds know we can’t say nothing to a white man if they want us off the sidewalk. Even if they got it coming.  I ain’t book-learnt, but I know that much. You think I ain’t got off the sidewalk 100 times in my life? You think I would kill a man for talking to me like a boss on the sidewalk. ”

“People kill for all sorts of reasons.” Hagan said. “But I don’t know anything about your charges. You’re talking to the wrong man. When you get your lawyer, you can tell him these things.”

“But you know they ain’t gonna listen to a nigger like me. They gonna string me up.”

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“That’s not my problem.”

“No, I guess it ain’t.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“I’m about out of soap, sheriff.”

“OK. I’ll have one of the deputies see to that in the morning.”

“Thank you, sir,” Johnson said. “Don’t know why I want to wash myself when I’m a dead man.”

“Good night,” said Hagan.

Johnson just nodded. 

“They don’t care about your story, Johnson,” Hagan heard one of the inmates call as he walked away. “But you hold your head high, boy. You done did what us whiskey boys would love to do. You gonna be like Jesus.”

“I ain’t done nothing.”
Hagan unbolted the locks on the heavy door separating the cell block from the residential part of the building. He looked back at Brown, who stood at the far end of the corridor lined by cells, and gave him a wave. Then he swung open the door and walked into his foyer. He slammed the door shut again, and rebolted it, leaving behind the institutional smell of sweat and piss that hung in the dank air around the cells. The door to the outside, also bolted with a heavy slide lock, stood opposite the cell block door. Hagan walked past a hat rack and up the stairs. He turned left at the top and followed the hallway toward his bedrooms and living quarters. Brown, the duty guard, had a room at the far end of the hall, with sliding door in the floor that allowed him to check on the inmates below at regular intervals through the night. 

Hagan went first to his daughter Gertrude Hagan Black, his only child. She lay in bed, still awake at 11:30 p.m., staring at the roof with an open book resting against her chest. A flash of grief tore through him, as it had a half-hour ago, and 45 minutes before that, and a dozen other times over the course of the day. Gertrude, 27, was dying, probably from cancer, and in pain much of the time. She and her six-year-old son Peter had come to Palatka from Jacksonville earlier in the year when Gertrude could no longer take care of herself. Her husband, and Peter’s father, Harold Lamar Black, was not part of the family.

“Sweetheart, you can’t sleep?” Hagan said.

“No, daddy. I hurt all over.” She smiled at him. “But it’ll be fine. I took a couple of pills to help me.”

Hagan nodded. “That’s good. I’ll sit with you if you want.”

“Thank you.” Gertrude smiled as her father began to stroke her forehead. Hagan smiled back. 

“Is Peter asleep?” Hagan asked. 

“I think so,” said Gertrude, who yawned. “Mother took him to his room a couple of hours ago. I haven’t heard anything. Are the men behaving themselves downstairs?”

Hagan nodded. “For now.”

“What about the man from Gainesville? The colored man who shot the white man. Are you still worried that they’ll come after him?”

Hagan shrugged. “I hear rumors from Sheriff Ramsey and others who know some of the road crew over there who say they are plans in the works. But I think every day that passes makes that less likely. Passion cools. I’ve made it known they’ll find resistance if they come. Are you worried?”

“I was a little, at first. Not now, really.”

“Good.” Hagan pulled the chain on the bedside lamp, and the room went very dark and quiet. The window near Gertrude’s bed opened onto a cool, early spring Florida night. Nothing was stirring. After a while, Gertrude finally fell asleep, and Hagan walked across the hallway to his bedroom. He climbed into bed beside his wife, Sallie, about 12:30 a.m., a reasonable time for him. He’d be up by 4:30.

Much sooner than that, about 1:15, Hagan awoke at the sound of sharp banging on the outside door downstairs. He sat bolt upright in bed, listening to the impatient, incessant raps on the door. He jumped out of bed and grabbed the loaded pistol in the top drawer of his dresser in one hand and a loaded shotgun leaned against the wall in the other.

“Stay here,” he told Sallie, who was also awake now, standing in her nightgown. On his way to the stairs, he stuck his head into Gertrude’s dark room.


“Stay here, sweetheart. Don’t get up.”

Hagan moved quickly down the stairs to door, where the staccato knocking continued. He did not see Sallie follow behind him. Hagan set down the shotgun to the right of the door.

“Who’s there,” he called. No answer, but the knocking stopped. I have no idea why, given what he almost certainly expected to find on the other side, but Hagan took a deep breath, slid back the bolt on the door and opened it.

Out of the night, a half dozen men with guns leveled them at his face. Another 10 or so stood behind. Hagan saw a large rope. Instantly, the sheriff brought his pistol down like a hammer on the forehead of the man closest to him. The click of metal against skin-coated bone reported almost like a shot through foyer area. The man crumpled, and Hagan darted and spun to the left of the threshold as he slammed the door back shut and and jammed the bolt back into place with his left hand.

Just as he spun away from the door, gunfire exploded through the wood, and the room filled with sound and kinetic debris. Splinters flew from the door, mixing with an odd cloud of dark particles. With his back to the wall, Hagan for the first time saw his wife on the stairs. Inches from her face, plaster spray leapt from the wall and coated her right cheek in white flakes and dust. 

“Go back,” Hagan shouted, noticing a surge of pressure, but not quite pain, in his left hand. Sallie turned and raced back upstairs. Hagan glanced to his hand and saw that a portion was missing, opposite his thumb, where a bullet had blown off a bit of meat from the thick part below his pinkie. Ragged, raw flesh roughly outlined the indention it left. Blood trickled to his wrist and dropped on the floor. 

He had just become at least the fourth Hagan brother to suffer a bullet wound and at the least the second to bleed in physical protection of blacks.

“Brown,” Hagan shouted for his deputy. “Goddammit Brown. The mob is here. Get down here. I’m shot.”

Outside, Hagan heard gunfire continue, but the foyer no longer seemed alive with projectiles and debris. Hagan thought he heard glass shatter upstairs. “Gertrude,” he shouted. “Get away from the window.”

No answer but gunfire. “Brown,” he growled again.

He finally heard the heavy steps of his deputy on the hallway. He raced down the steps, nearly falling, as he contorted himself and ducked to make a hard target for the men he couldn’t see outside.

“Sheriff, I think they’re retreating. They shot at me twice when I looked out the window, and then a bunch of ’em were just shooting in the air, trying to scare people away, I think.”

“What about my family?”

“I think they’re fine. They shot into Gertrude’s room, but missed her, she said. I checked when I was coming.”

“Bastards. Damn bastards.”

Both men heard loud voices outside.
“Their cars are out running Seventh Street,” Brown said. “I think they’re leaving.”
Hagan nodded. “We’re going after them.” He bounded across the doorway to grab his shotgun. He tried to peer through one of the holes in the door but couldn’t see much in the darkness.
Hagan opened the door, and he and Brown raced into the darkness toward the sound of running engines. They saw the last of the men climb into two Ford cars and peel out the spot where they were parked in front of the jail. Other cars had already driven away. The last two turned onto Lemon Street, one of Palatka’s prime commercial streets. Hagan opened fire on them with his shotgun, and Brown with a pistol.
Hagan thought he saw a silhouette in the car slump, as if shot. But he couldn’t be sure. About that time, a half-dressed Deputy Will Cannon, who lived in an apartment across Seventh Street from the jail, raced out to meet Hagan and Brown.
“Nice of you to meet us, Cannon,” Hagan said. “I’m sorry, sheriff,” Cannon said. “Came as quick as I could.” He noticed Hagan’s maimed hand. “You’re shot, sheriff. They shot you.”

“I know. It’s not bad. Just some flesh.”

A few feet away, near where the cars had been parked, a 50-foot length of hemp rope lay on the ground, presumably the same one Hagan saw at the door.
Hagan and the deputies ran back inside to call sheriff Ramsey in Alachua County, hoping he could intercept the men before they returned safely to Gainesville. Back in the foyer, they found Sallie Hagan holding a coat that had hung on the rack at the time of the shooting. She poked a finger through a hole left by a bullet.
“They ruined a perfectly good garment,” she said. Hagan smiled and embraced his wife with his good hand. “I’ll buy you a new one, dear. Now please go attend to Gertrude and Peter.”
“Little Peter slept through the whole thing,” she answered with a shrug. “He’s still asleep. I don’t want to wake him. Gertrude is cuddled up next to him.”
Hagan nodded. “OK.”
“Wait, Peter, look at your hand. You’re wounded.”
Hagan nodded “Yes, it’s not bad. Don’t worry”
“Don’t worry? You could get an infection and lose that hand. You need to go to the hospital.”
Hagan looked at it. The wound was ugly, if not particularly debilitating. “I’ll walk over to Lawson’s in a minute. It’s a block away. I have to talk to the men first.”
He left the foyer and re-entered the cell block, which was in an uproar.
“What’s going on out there, sheriff?” one man yelled. Hagan raised his hand. “Give me your attention, men.” He whistled. “I need your attention. I want ya’ll to calm down.” He whistled again and raised both his hands, and quiet finally spread thought the cells. “A mob of fellows has just tried to storm the jail. We stopped them and they’ve left. You are safe. All of you.”
He looked at Johnson, who looked back at him, expressionless, as if unsure of what to feel. “They was coming for me?”
“Probably. But the truth is they never said a word.” 
Hagan noticed Johnson looking at his hand. “They shot you, sheriff?”
“Yes, sir.”
Hagan half-smiled and nodded.
“Don’t it hurt?” Johnson asked.
At that moment, with the adrenaline subsiding and his other hand shaking, Hagan noticed that yes, it rather did hurt. And was getting worse.
“Yes, it hurts. But that’s not your concern. We will have additional police here soon. But tomorrow is a straight lockdown. No outside work. No road gang. Everybody stays here in their cells until we figure everything out. I will probably need to go to Gainesville very soon. I expect you all to behave and help us restore normalcy.”
The men said nothing.
“Any questions.”
“Good night, men.”
Hagan turned and walked away from the cell block, back to the foyer.

Arthur Johnson had not become a number. No one would try to lynch him again. He lived to see his trial.

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Pete Hagan's grave marker

Each element of my story, except the dialogue and some of the internal geography of the jail, at which I made educated guesses, came directly from the ensuing newspaper accounts or other primary sources. The mob really did blow off part of Hagan’s hand. It did, in fact, nearly kill his wife and spray plaster dust on her face; Hagan really did fight the men at the door with handle of his revolver. As surely as we can know anything from primary documents, we know this.

We also know that Hagan’s only child, his adult daughter Gertrude, was in the jail at the time of the attack. We know she was dying and that the mob shot into her bedroom. That was the nature of the good God-fearin’ white men that reared up against Pete Hagan in 1923. Rather than surrender to the guns trained on his face, like virtually everyone else did, he cracked his pistol off the nearest vigilante’s head. Without hesitation.

I am in awe of that instinct. I don’t pretend to know how one develops or inherits it. But the sound of righteous violence echoing off that man’s skull is the sound of a great, unknown American making his country’s pretensions real. It was the sound of victory at a time when victories over the mob came all too infrequently. But it came with consequences.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you the punchlines to Peter Hagan’s story–a bit of the context that preceded that night at the jail and a bit of the accounting that followed for Florida’s greatest sheriff.

And he’s just one character among many in the drama that swept Florida between the Great War and the Depression. I very humbly (at least somewhat humbly) submit that my new manuscript documents and explores this Florida story more thoroughly than any before it.[/box]

9 thoughts on “A Jail. A Mob. A Sheriff. A Book

  1. The population is made of of sheep, wolves who threaten the flock, and sheepdogs who protect it.  Clearly the Sheriff, in this case, was a sheepdog in the best sense of the word.

    Great story — looking forward to the book.

  2. The population is made of of sheep, wolves who threaten the flock, and sheepdogs who protect it.  Clearly the Sheriff, in this case, was a sheepdog in the best sense of the word.

    Great story — looking forward to the book.

  3. Congrats, Billy, it has been a long time coming. Please put me on your list, I can’t wait to read it. 

Comments are closed.