Jan192010

Chapter 1, Scene 1

This the first draft of the first section of the first chapter of my book. I envision three sections to the first chapter, which will set up the parallel narratives of the trial and Battle of Palatka. Here we go.

The drinking mob made a racket as it surged down North Third Street toward the swamp and the river. Bloodhounds bayed. Men shouted. Lanterns swayed back and forth on their metal handles, creaking and clanking as they moved past increasingly neglected carriage steps that lined the brick street in one of 1926 Palatka’s most affluent neighborhoods.

The lights were out in the Brown House, the two-story, dark-shingled Walton family home. Its silhouette commanded the large swampy lot at the northern end of Third Street, a few hundred yards from the St. Johns River.

The approaching commotion roused Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton from uneasy sleep. From the bay window of his second-floor bedroom, which looked south, J.V. could see the lights and the outlines of the men approaching in the dark.

So, this was it. Minton and the Ku Kluxers, or their minions, or some combination, were coming. Time to make his long-imagined stand. In truth, the moment suited the apocalyptic streak of his personality, long frustrated in its longing to go to war.

By now, his wife Sophie was up. As J.V. calmly, but quickly, opened the gun cabinet by his bed, he sent Sophie to rouse their four girls and take them at the bottom of curved staircase on the western side of the house. J.V. took one loaded shotgun and leaned it against the ledge of the window. He took another and held it across his chest, left hand under the barrel. The Brown House was, and remains, set back from the street. To get near anywhere near the house or one of its doors, the mob would need to cross at least a hundred yards of flat open yard. In doing so, some large percentage of them would die.

J.V. stood in the window and waited, his one-piece nightshirt flapping around his knees, slippers covering his feet.

“Katie.” J.V. heard his wife call out the name. And a second later, in strode his 13-year-old daughter, Kate Lee Walton, named for J.V.’s mother and the Confederate hero, who was a distant cousin, just as he was to every other white family in the south.

Katie carried the dark wooden bow she and older sister Sophie, named for her mother, had made that summer at a camp in the mountain of Vermont. Long and sleek, elegantly arched, the bow, unstrung, still exists. It sits in a closet under the same staircase in the Brown House. The twine of its grip still feels rough to the touch. From tip to tip, it’s much taller than Kate Walton would have been in 1926. If you had a string and an arrow, you could still kill a man with it.

As Kate Walton rushed to stand next to her father, the bow was strung and an arrow notched. Others were stuck in a quiver, slung across her shoulder. By now the mob was less than 100 yards from the driveway that marked the near edge of the Walton property.

“Katie, take Lois downstairs.” Lois, J.V.’s youngest daughter, had followed her other sister and stood in the doorway of the bedroom.

“No, Daddy, I want to stay with you.”

“No. Go downstairs. Now.”

Kate slumped her shoulders and looked back at 8-year old Lois, who would become my grandmother some decades later. And then she looked at J.V.

“But…”

“Now.”

Kate obeyed, reluctantly, and turned away from the window.

“Come on, Lois.” As she walked away, J.V. raised the shotgun and pointed it out of the window into the night.

Their mother met the girls in the upstairs hallway and led them back to the staircase, where Sophie and Mary, the fourth sister, waited. The elder Sophie left them all there and ran to front of the southern wall of the house, to the door that looked out on the men as they approached.

The mob spilled across the driveway, into the yard, following the bloodhounds on a path that would take them away from the street toward the eastern side of the house, and what was considered the back yard, which abutted the thickest part of the swamp and would flood with river water during hurricanes or strong Nor’easters.

Maybe J.V. asked himself why a band of unhooded Ku Kluxers would need bloodhounds to mount an assault on one the city’s most prominent residences. Or maybe he heard what Sophie heard downstairs, as the men seemed to gather and hesitate as before moving deeper into the Walton property.

“If we’re going to come on to Judge Walton’s property, then we better tell him what we’re doing here,” said one of them.

Rather than fire, J.V. shouted from the dark bedroom. “I will kill the next man who takes step in my yard.”

Heads turned to the bay window. Arms sprung upward. Pistols dropped, thudding into the ground. “Wait.” “Hold on.” The shouts for calm came in a chorus. “We’re not here for you, Judge,” one of them said. It was the Palatka Police Chief Cole Tavell. “We’re just chasing a nigger convict that got free of Cannon.”

Will Cannon, a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy, known widely as one of Minton’s Ku Klux whipping underbosses, looked at the chief and then up at J.V., but said nothing. “He got away from the jail, and Cannon got some boys together to track him. I joined them up the road a bit. It’s my town to police, after all. I apologize for not wearing a uniform.”

“That’s a good way to get killed, Chief,” said J.V., with the shotgun leveled. “You think he ran down into the swamp?”

“Yes, sir,” said the chief. “You didn’t hear anything, I suppose?”

“No, we didn’t.”

The chief gestured downward with his hands. “Judge, do you mind not pointing that at us? We’re not here to do you any harm. I’m sorry if we woke you and Mrs. Walton and the girls.”

By this time, Sophie had stepped outside with her arms crossed, watching the men silently. “Good evening, Mrs. Walton,” the chief said.

“Good night, Chief.”

Finally, Cannon spoke up, a sense formal aggravation creeping into his tone. “Judge, we need to find that prisoner. Can we follow the trail down into your swamp?”

“No, sir. You cannot.”

“Judge, this is sheriff’s office business. Law enforcement business. We have the right…”

“No, sir. You may go around my property. You will leave it now.”

The chief put up his hand to quiet Cannon before he could protest. “Will, that boy is long since gone. He came through two hours ago or more. We can’t track him down in that muck and brush anyway. He’ll resurface at some juke and get picked up. Then he’ll be all yours again.”

Cannon said nothing, but seemed to accept it. He looked up at J.V. and nodded.

“All right, boys,” said Chief Tavell. “Let’s let these good people get back to sleep.”

And with that they departed, and J.V. put away his weapons.

——–

I’ve heard some version of this story, laundered by family pride and myth, all my life: Great-granddaddy’s lonely, armed defense of his home and family from avenging Klansmen, who turned out not be, or at least not acting in that capacity at that time. The definitions blur.

In any event, what you just read is true, to a point.

I created it from the conflicting memories of old women approaching death, from touchable artifacts, from readable letters and newspapers, from inferences drawn from other people’s historical research. And from the inescapable point-of-view of proud great-grandson and loving grand-nephew grandson.

This is how narratives form and harden. I’ve just created entities called Will Cannon and Walter I. Minton, real men, with real records on census forms and court papers, with living descendents, presumably. I’ve made them Klan members and purveyors of racial, cultural, and political violence. I’ve given one of them a voice. And you’ll hear much more from the other.

I have good justification.

Ku Klan Klan historian David Chalmers identifies the outbreak of Klan and mob violence in1926 Palatka as the most severe in Florida history. We know that on Sept. 13 or 14, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin summoned the Palatka mayor and Putnam County sheriff to Tallahassee and threatened to declare martial law if the mob violence did not stop. It was the first major anti-klan intervention by a Democratic Florida state politician. We know that the Putnam Klan’s charter named Minton as the chapter’s Kludd, or chaplain. And we know that a letter sent to Martin from Palatka businessmen named Minton the “whipping boss” and linked him and Cannon, both active sheriff’s deputies, to numerous extra-legal floggings of citizens black and white, male and female.

The same letter says this about J.V. Walton. “He has been fighting this lawlessness openly and fearlessly without fee or thought of reward, as you know from his visits and statements to you.”

But then there’s everything we don’t know, or even have accounts for. I don’t know the exact date, although the Vermont trip places it later than the summer of 1926. I don’t know that the convict escaped from Will Cannon. I don’t even suspect it. I don’t know how many men made up the mob or the types of weapons they carried. Were Cannon or the police chief there? Impossible to know. I invented the dialogue, except for “I will kill the next man who takes a step in my yard,” which my grandmother Lois recalled clearly.

“I remember that because I was so impressed. I thought it was a good thing to say,” she told me in May of 2009.

In truth, virtually that entire scene emerges from my imagination. I picked the heroes and villains, the quick-witted and the dull. I can call it history, non-fiction, fiction, even a memoir of sorts, from five decades before I was born. And you are powerless to prove me wrong.

You won’t find a detailed account of Florida’s worst outbreak of Klan violence, nor of Gov. Martin’s politically brave intervention, urged on by J.V. Walton. A thorough state attorney’s investigation – also the first of its kind in Florida – documented more than 70 extra-legal floggings and two murders. Martin refers to it in news stories from the time period. But the investigation itself has disappeared to history. And Martin’s act, the biggest story in Florida at its time, is largely forgotten. Why? Three days after a massive hurricane destroyed the port of Miami, killing hundreds, accelerating the collapse of the first Florida land boom, and essentially marking the early onset of the Great Depression in Florida.

One of my favorite modern writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote not too long ago: “The writer is a species of God–they create our world. There will always be limits on what we can experience and truly understand. We turn to writers to fill in the gaps. I trust, for instance, that India exists, but what I know of it has largely been shaped by what other writers have told me. I have never stepped on the soil of Africa (even if I had, that wouldn’t be enough) and what I think of the continent is shaped by what’s been written. Malcolm X is real, and Spiderman is not. Both are products of writing, and frankly, I’m at pains to tell you which of the two had a larger influence on my life.”

The Battle of Palatka, a multi-year economic and social struggle culminating in the 1926 eruption, doesn’t exist in history because no species of god ever created it.

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