Sheriff Hagan Wants You Patriots To Buy “Age of Barbarity”

This didn’t happen on July 4th. It’s a public statement released by Putnam County Sheriff Peter Monroe Hagan on March 7, 1924, announcing his re-election campaign. But I think it honors the concepts of self-government and equality set out by the founders.

A year before, Hagan had been wounded while single-handedly thwarting a lynch mob at the Putnam County Jail. And just days before, Ku Klux Klansmen from Gainesville and had abducted, beaten, and castrated a prominent Catholic priest serving at the University of Florida named John Conoley. They dumped Conoley on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Palatka.

4th of July or Fourth of July

One of the men I suspect as one of Conoley’s attackers, Israel James Fennell, decided to run against Hagan for sheriff.

With that as a backdrop, Hagan issued this statement to the Palatka Daily News:

“I have recently been asked repeatedly if I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan. To this question I answer, no. I believe I know many members of the Putnam County Klan, and I know them to be good men individually. I do not believe any of them would stoop to organized crime or mob tactics. I am not, and would not be a member, however, of any organization which appears to differ in policies from those who do not belong to its ranks, for the reason that as Sheriff I believe it to be my duty to be perfectly free to serve all the of the people and not an organized part of them; I wish to feel perfectly free to perform my duties without obligations to any order, however high the ideals of such order may be. I have no personal quarrel with the Klan; many of its members are my friends whom I respect and honor, but as Sheriff, I am free, and will remain free to administer the law impartially to all.

“In addition, I feel that no that no public servant has the right to ride into office by the hidden help of any secret organization. In my first campaign [in 1916] for Sheriff, I was confronted with the organized opposition of the so-called “Guardians of Liberty,” [an anti-Catholic precursor of the revival Klan] many of its members I knew, almost all of 200 whom now greatly regret their error in becoming members of an organization that proved so injurious to Florida as that one did.

“Opposed as I was to that order, and knowing its members as I did, yet there is no man who can truthfully say such members did not receive the same treatment from my office as did all others. I cannot control secret organizations and I neither assist or interfere with them so long as their works do not violate the law.”

That’s what an American sounds like. And like all real Americans, Hagan suffered for his ideals and commitment to duty. The patriots of Putnam County voted him out of office a couple of months later, and the Klan took over for four years with horrifying and disastrous results.

But as some of you may know, Peter Hagan wasn’t quite done. And Florida’s greatest sheriff used his gun and his politics to help secure one the greatest — and least known — victories for decency in American history.

You can learn all about that battle from my book Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, which you can buy right here. Help me get to 200 copies sold. I’m fewer than 10 away.

More importantly, think about the example on display in Hagan’s statement, at a time when the Klan was both immensely popular and immensely violent. At a time when we literally bore the wounds of the mob.

And think about the importance of politics and elections in shaping history and combatting tribalism. Politics and elections matter. And as always, guts matter. We have to fight for a decent and just society every day.

Happy 4th.


Creative Commons License image credit: Timothy K. Hamilton

2 thoughts on “Sheriff Hagan Wants You Patriots To Buy “Age of Barbarity”

  1. Billy,
    Whereas this is hardly the place for my inquiry, I thought I might have a chance of contacting you this way. I saw, in today’s Ledger, notice of your book, and was immediately intrigued by both the content and your name. You see, I’m a 3rd generation Palatkan whose father worked for years with a Bill Townsend at the post office. As I recall, that Bill Townsend lived in a sprawling historic home in the area north of Reid St., and near the river. In addition, that Bill Townsend’s son–also named Bill–taught me history at Palatka High School around 1967/68, and exerted a strong influence on my critical thinking and politics. There was a small cadre of us who spent a number of hours at his home and the home of his aunt, who was an attorney, talking politics. I’m wondering if you may be the son of my high school teacher? If so, I would love to connect with you. (And, of course, I’m ordering a copy of your book, and have sent the notice to my daughter–a PhD candidate at the Univ. of S. Carolina in southern history, post Civil War!) Regards.

  2. I am doing family history research on Hagan family and wonder if Peter Monroe Hagan’s info that I have is correct:

    Mother Jane Swindle born in North Carolina
    Father Jessie Hagan born in Georgia
    Peter was born October 15 1871 and died in Palatka, Putnam County, October 24 1930.

    This information so closely matches other information in my database, it makes me wonder if I have an error someplace. Would appreciate anything anyone might be able to give me.

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