The Full First Chapter

By Billy Townsend
Copyright 2010

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 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 his apocalyptic streak, long frustrated in its longing to go to war.

As J.V. calmly, but quickly, opened the gun cabinet by his bed, he sent his wife 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 50 yards of flat open lawn. In doing so, some large percentage of the men 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.



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, unrobed 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 Walter 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 still 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 of 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. He walked from his room to the stairs, where the girls sat under command of Sophie and Katie, who was looking out of window, watching the men walk away, still clenching her bow in her left hand.

“What did they want, Daddy?” asked Sophie. Katie turned her head to her father, standing a few steps above her.

“Just a misunderstanding,” J.V. answered. “No harm done.” He looked at Katie. “Can you hit anything with that?”

“I killed a squirrel in a tree last week. From 50 feet.”

“I see,” said J.V. nodding. “Maybe you can bring us supper tomorrow.”

Katie smiled.


I’ve heard some version of this story, laundered by family pride and myth, all my life: Great-granddaddy’s 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 my own eyes, which know North Third Street and the Brown House intimately. And yet, virtually the entire scene emerges from my imagination, inescapably colored by my point-of-view as proud great-grandson and loving grand-nephew. Much of it is likely wrong. Until I saw and held my Great Aunt Kate Walton’s bow for the first time last year, I imagined it as a toy, like something from the Walmart of the day. It’s not.

I don’t know the exact date this scene happened, 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. Was 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.

What you know of the characters, you know from me. I picked the heroes and villains – and their personalities. I created the entities called Will Cannon and Walter I. Minton, real men, with real records on census forms and court papers, with living descendents, presumably. And 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.

This is how narratives form and harden, through the tyranny and will of the narrator. I can call the story of the Brown House standoff history, non-fiction, fiction, even a memoir of sorts, from five decades before I was born. You’re powerless to stop me because everyone involved is dead.

However, had I published this book before she died in the summer of 2009, my grandmother Lois Walton could have sued me over her cameo appearance in that story and enjoyed a reasonable expectation of winning. For that, she and all other Floridians who aren’t public figures, can primarily thank her older sister Kate Walton, the little girl with the arrows who grew into the Florida’s first ferocious female trial lawyer.

Almost exactly 20 years after that night in bay window, Kate Walton’s family instinct to resist impunity brought her and J.V. into intellectual combat with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek” and arguably the most famous person in Florida at the time.

When Marjorie and her then husband Charles Rawlings arrived by boat in Jacksonville in 1929 for their first extended stay in north Florida, a woman named Zelma Cason, a friend of Charles’ mother, met them at the dock. Zelma quickly became Marjorie’s first Cross Creek friend.

In 1930, Marjorie, then an unknown part-time writer and orange grove owner, accepted an invitation to accompany her Zelma Cason on a horseback Census canvassing of Cross Creek, the shorthand name for a north central Florida collection of hamlets associated with the marshy creek that connects Orange Lake and Lochloosa. It sits about 30 miles west of Palatka and 10 miles east of Gainesville.

Thirteen years – and one mutually petulant falling out later – Marjorie decided to include her account of the ride with Zelma in Cross Creek, Marjorie’s lucrative follow-up to her classic novel, The Yearling. The evocative chapter 5, called “The Census,” is one of the book’s artistic highlights. But Marjorie never sought or received Zelma’s approval to write about her. And the famously prickly Zelma did not cotton to how Marjorie rendered her in Cross Creek. She decided to sue.

Enter Kate Walton. When Zelma approached her in 1942, my Aunt Katie was a 29-year-old associate in J.V. Walton’s prominent Palatka firm. Dr. T.Z. Cason, Zelma’s brother, was Kate’s physician – or at least treated her from time to time. Zelma apparently learned about Kate Walton though T.Z. and sought her out. Kate Walton took up Zelma’s case, accusing Marjorie of libel, and for the first time in Florida law, invasion of privacy.

Distilled to its essence, the invasion of privacy doctrine meant that Marjorie did not have the right to publish and profit from a description – flattering or otherwise — of Zelma Cason, who was not a public figure, without her permission. The implications of that concept for publishing, not to mention journalism, are, and were, obvious.

Most people who know anything about the case, within my family and without, agree that J.V. had no interest in indulging Zelma’s pique and pursuing a traditional libel action, particularly when most witnesses would testify to the description as accurate, as far as it went, and it focused on appearance and personality rather than disprovable actions. But the invasion of privacy angle, derived in part from a legal theory advanced by Louis Brandeis, intrigued J.V. He allowed his daughter to pursue it, and Kate Walton’s ingenuity and enthusiasm soon converted him.

As J.V. wrote in a 1944 letter to another lawyer.

“When Miss Cason first came to us, I was quite hesitant in advising her to enter into litigation, but my daughter immediately formed a favorable impression of Miss Cason and readily appreciated how she felt; and as she looked into the law and discussed the case with me, I became equally interested. Now it is really something more than an ordinary lawsuit to us.”


With the success of The Yearling and Cross Creek, there’s little question Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin was Florida’s leading popular artist and writer in 1946. When she raised her tiny right hand to swear the oath of truthfulness in the ornate Gainesville courtroom, she did so as the state’s most potent human marketing force, the embodiment of the peculiar pioneer appeal Florida has maintained for decades.

In rummaging through various transcripts, depositions, and letters of support for Zelma in what’s left of the Walton case file, I came across a small manila envelope containing five immaculately creased and folded copies of Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union state news pages from March 4, 1945. That date marked Florida’s centennial as a state.

There’s nothing about the case in that edition. But Marjorie shows up twice, as the star of unrelated stories that ran statewide.

The first story, a wire dispatch headlined “Movement to Honor Negro Teacher Starts,” noted Marjorie gave the keynote speech at an event honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, who got her start as a teacher in Palatka and maintained deep ties there, and calling for a nationwide day of honor for the famous educator.

A separate story, describing Florida centennial festivities, reported that Marjorie provided a “special message” printed in the Congressional Record in honor of Florida’s big day. The state contains “such an array of garden flowers and of garden vegetables as to make one wonder why the Capitol of the United States was not placed in the Floridian eden instead of Washington, D.C.,” wrote Marjorie, according to the news story. “And the climate, take the lies of California, and in Florida, they are truth.”

Zelma, Kate, J.V., and were challenging arguably Florida’s most prominent citizen, who had the financial resources to fight back and widespread public goodwill to support her. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, in a 1943 editorial titled “Mammon in Cross Creek,” declared:

“The $100,000 defamation suit filed the other day against Mrs. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings by one of the characters in the Florida author’s book, “Cross Creek,” amounts to a personal tragedy for thousands of Mrs. Rawlings’ readers.

“In “Cross Creek,” Mrs. Rawlings offered every urban dweller with a speck of imagination the perfect means of escape from the hurly burly, the financial worries and the artificiality of the modern big city. In this account of her life as a transplanted resident of the hammock section of north central Florida the author invited us in beautiful prose to cast off the bonds of urban routine and come live among the kindly, simple people of the backwoods.”

At first, Marjorie mocked Kate Walton’s legal pleadings, with their fanatical insistence on Zelma Cason’s right of privacy and self-sovereignty.

“I think the declaration is one of the funniest documents I have ever read in my life,” Marjorie wrote in a letter to her primary lawyer, Phil May, on Feb. 5, 1943. “I laughed out loud all by myself, which I seldom do. The particular grievances and the way they are phrased make me feel our so-called “defense” is infinitely simpler than I expected.”

But the laughter stopped. Eventually, Kate Walton, with an assist from her father, forced the Pulitzer Prize winning author to answer critical questions about the quality and morality of her work in front of a jury under oath and pain of perjury.

No other major American writer ever endured such a thing, and people flocked to the sweltering courtroom to watch it.

As the Gainesville Sun reported: “…The crowds that overflowed the courtroom during the week were not interested in the legal angles. They were there to see a famous author and the real-life characters from her book, to hear the testimony spice[d] with profanity and wit and perhaps pick up a well-known autograph.

“It became the town’s biggest social event. Gainesville’s most prominent women were there in front row seats, university professors returned day after day, and college and high school students students freed from final exams swarmed in by the scores.”

In the end, the case became a bloody stalemate. The jury of Marjorie’s peers – there’s no other way to put this – laughed Zelma and Aunt Katie and J.V. out of court. It took them 28 minutes to find for Marjorie. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict in 1947, finding that Zelma – and Aunt Katie, who wrote the appellate briefs and argued them – had established that a right of privacy exists in Florida and proved that Marjorie invaded Zelma’s privacy in Cross Creek.

However, the justices also limited damages to $1 plus attorneys fees, finding that Zelma had been wronged, but not harmed. From my vantage point nearly 65 years later, that Solomonic decision looks awfully wise.

But it hurt almost everyone involved, especially Kate and Marjorie, both of whom were convinced they lost and both of whom carried bitterness about it until their deaths. Marjorie Rawlings never again wrote a significant Florida story and never completed another successful book.


In his magisterial Ku Klux Klan history “Hooded Americanism,” David Chalmers identifies the 1926 outbreak of Klan and white mob violence in Palatka, which is the historical backdrop of the Brown House standoff, as the most severe in Florida history. The criteria Chalmers used isn’t spelled out; but he likely based that judgment on the sheer systemic volume of the violent incidents and the official reaction to them.

On Sept. 13, 1926, Florida Governor John Martin, the former mayor of Jacksonville, summoned Putnam Sheriff R.J. Hancock and Palatka Mayor Frank E. Waymer to Tallahassee and ordered them to “put down the mob rule declared to exist in [their] territory,” according to an account in the Gainesville Sun, which ran under the headline “Martin Threatens Drastic Measures Putnam Mob Rule.”

Although he never said the words Ku Klux in his public statement, Martin told the men he would declare martial law in Putnam County if the violence did not cease. His announcement marked the first major anti-Klan intervention by a Democratic state politician in Florida. There is strong evidence that J.V. Walton, a political supporter of Martin’s, personally visited the governor more than once and pushed him to intervene.

“Governor Martin,” read the Sun story, “in announcing that he had asked the sheriff and mayor to come to Tallahassee for [a] conference, stated that he had found in [State Attorney J.C.] Adkins’ records evidence that 63 floggings had been perpetuated during the last year, with one to five each Saturday night. ‘Two cold blooded murders’ had been committed, he said, and white women beaten.”

The murders most clearly tied to Klan activity occurred in mid-August of 1926. They followed the Klan’s late-night abduction of “Teetsie” Pinkney, described in a local paper as a “notorious negro woman” known to deal in illegal liquor. For her sins, a masked mob kidnapped Pinkney from her house in “colored quarters,” along with some guy who just happened to be there. They were driven to a remote, wooded area just west of Palatka, not far from where my high school girlfriend lived decades later. There the mob stripped Pinkney and beat her and her companion severely, presumably with leather straps or hoses or some other lash.

Pinkney’s son, Willie Steen, and nephew, Ed Chisholm, learned of what happened. They located Pinkney and the other man and loaded them into a car, bound for the Lawson hospital for colored in downtown Palatka.

On their way back into town, on one of Putnam County’s main highways, a car full of masked men stopped Steen and Chisholm, got out, and opened fire on the unarmed men and women. Steen and Chisholm were killed and several other men apparently wounded.

In one of life’s profound coincidences, Sheriff Hancock, who just happened to be driving an employee home in the middle of the night, discovered the shot up car 15 minutes after the shooting, or so the local newspapers, those great institutional checks on power run amok, informed the public. The Palatka Times-Herald labeled the killings a “so-called outrage.”

In the weeks and months preceding the double-murder, J.V. and others in town had been pushing Gov. Martin to act to stop the regular Klan beatings. J.V. visited the governor personally at least once, following a Klan attack on a Mrs. Casad, a white woman. As the Pinkney abduction typified, most Klan violence aimed at vice, such as prohibition violations or adultery, and blacks were not the only victims. But the brazen, unprovoked double murder of Pinckney’s son and nephew finally caused Martin to act. Although Martin’s words made big state news and temporarily brought calm to Palatka, they didn’t end the violence.

In addition to the multi-racial floggings and the Steen/Chisholm murders, a young white man of “good family” was gunned down on a fancy Palatka street in late 1926. One of his friends, a young lawyer, was found shot to death, body bound and dumped in the Oklawaha River, a few weeks later in early 1927. Both had ties to bootlegging. And several large business fires were deemed the work of arsonists. It’s not clear what direct role the Klan played.

This doesn’t count the run of the mill street violence, which pervaded Palatka and Florida in late mid to late 20s. By 1926, Palatka and the rest of Florida had become a land rush and illegal liquor-driven paradise of death. Florida had always represented the country’s tropical frontier, with much the same diffuse law enforcement and pioneer culture of the American west. Think of 1920s Palatka as Tombstone, with oranges.

The most conservative possible count of Putnam homicides in 1926 puts the county’s rate at about 41 per 100,000 population. It was almost certainly significantly higher. At the time, the national rate, which itself had spiked, was less than 10.

For modern comparison, poor, beleaguered Detroit led the US in homicide rate in 2008 with 37.4 per 100,000 of population. Jacksonville and Tampa led the nation in 1926 with extraordinary rates of 76.9 and 67.6, respectively. White on white. Black on black. Black on white. White on black. Everybody killed everybody, although white on black crime tended to go unprosecuted and unpunished, particularly it seemed to fill the role of extra-legal regulation. The Pinkney murders, for instance, never yielded an arrest.

On Aug. 12, 1926, just days before the Pinkney murders in nearby Palatka, Gov. Martin appeared before the Gainesville Kiwanis Club and lamented Florida’s record of violence.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gainesville Sun account:

“Let us put a stop to the taking of human life in our fair state,” Governor Martin said. “Let us create a feeling of abhorrence against homicide. Here is a challenge worth of the attention of every law abiding and law loving citizen.”

The governor referred to the fact that he has recently returned from the conference of governors of the various states held this year in Wyoming, and that while a this conference the governor of Maine had declared that in that state there have been no murders during this year.

“That s a remarkable record the stat of Maine has made,” Governor Martin asserted, “and our record does not compare favorably with it. During the next few months I am going to try to arouse the people of this state to their duty in this matter.”

The Ku Klux Klan was by no means the only source of all of this violence. But its action epitomized the barbarism of the times.

The Putnam County Klan formed on Jan. 21, 1921 as chapter number 13 in Florida. Its charter named Walter I. Minton as the chapter’s Kludd, or chaplain. By 1926, Minton was chief deputy to Sheriff Hancock. A letter sent to Governor Martin in 1927 from Palatka businessmen named Minton as the Putnam Klan’s “whipping boss.” It linked him and Will Cannon, also an active sheriff’s deputy, to dozens of thextra-legal floggings of citizens black and white, male and female

The same letter, never before published, 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. He has the ability and courage that these conditions require, and he was openly your supporter and friend along with ourselves and a great number of other citizens who have always stood together for progress and law.”

The businessmen were lobbying — unsuccessfully, it turned out — for J.V.’s appointment as Putnam state attorney. And they pleaded with the governor to follow through on his strong words, noting that the lull in violence that followed his 1926 threat had ended by the end of the year.

“It did help for a while,” they wrote, “but we have since had two more incendiary fires, two more gang murders (both white men) and a number of additional whippings…Just think that with four murders, four cases of arson and over eighty whippings, there has not been a single indictment found against any of them.”

Unfortunately, that three-page letter is probably the most detailed account in existence of Florida’s worst outbreak of Klan violence. Chalmers gives the entire episode just a paragraph or two, referencing state news stories from the day.

State Attorney J.C. Adkins’ 350-page investigation – also the first of its kind in Florida – provided witness testimony that documented the regime of extra-legal floggings – sometimes five per weekend — and much of the other violence. But any government record of the investigation itself has disappeared to history.

The remarkably well-kept and detailed Palatka City Commission minutes from those days show no indication that anyone ever discussed the matter during a City Commission meeting.

Consider that for a second.

According to the minutes, no commissioner thought to mention the fact that the Gov. Martin had summoned the mayor, along with the Putnam sheriff, to Tallahassee for a stern talking to. No commissioner asked about the governor’s threat to impose martial law, a threat reported extensively by statewide newspapers and even the New York Times. The matter simply didn’t come up.


In 2001, Kate Walton’s older sister Sophie, the oldest of J.V..’s four girls and named for her mother, sat down with one of her grandchildren to canvass her memories of family history. Talk soon turned to J.V.’s fight with the “Ku Klux,” as she called it.

“Well [the Klan] was actually started because after the Civil War,” Aunt Sophie said, “the war between the states, the blacks were put in positions by the Yankees, put in positions of authority and they didn’t any more know how to handle authority then a bean, but anyway they organized the Ku Klux Klan, not in Palatka, but in the south, to protect households from the authority, because authority was in the hands of people who didn’t handle it.”

My cousin tried to demur.

“Well, I’m not going to argue with you about it in this time,” replied Aunt Sophie. “Nobody will ever persuade me that it wasn’t the time when…. Most of the southern men were killed in the Civil War, and there were many, many households that were just women and children, and they were in danger.”

As a narrative, this is demonstrably false, particularly in Florida. Exactly one black man, Robert Gibbs, rose as high as cabinet member in the post Civil War state government. And by virtually all accounts, had the extremely capable Gibbs risen higher, Florida would have been the better for it. Blacks were never close to a majority in the legislature.

In several jurisdictions with large black populations, such as Fernandina Beach and Jackson County, enough black politicians held office that they might charitably have been said to share power with whites for a time. But at no point in Florida’s reconstruction history did blacks supplant all the white men who supposedly didn’t exist after the war. At no point were whites at the administrative mercy of black politicians or militias. The Florida historians Cantor Brown and Paul Ortiz have both documented this quite well.

In “Hooded Americanism,” Klan historian Chalmers examines at this idea of the Reconstruction Klan as a dashing insurgent force protecting the virtue of white women and children from marauding black hordes. Through all his research, in the entire post-war south, he can document exactly one act of black retribution against whites, when two army veterans killed an old male Confederate veteran in South Carolina. One act. He also identifies credible reports of black lawlessness in north Georgia. And that’s about it.

If you take two seconds to think about it, the entire myth makes no sense on its face. For the most part, black Americans, as any human beings in that situation would, did the math. They were vastly outnumbered, free in hostile territory with limited economic resources, and protected primarily by a remote and corrupt federal government. They knew where mass uprising and payback would lead.

Indeed, Ortiz and Chalmers make convincing cases that the original Klan, whatever its origins, came to function in practice almost entirely as a paramilitary force aimed at ensuring that black labor remained dependent on white business, primarily agriculture and railroad construction, and that black society remain subservient to white. The night riders targeted burgeoning reservoirs of black political organization and economic independence.

Protecting the sacred vagina of the white woman made for a more compelling narrative than enforcer for big business. But it’s unlikely that many night riders bothered to consider any difference between the two. After all, a powerfully insolent worker — perhaps a veteran who had killed white men — was unquestionably more likely to rape, and/or seduce, a virginal princess, whose virtue always hung by the thread of her sex’s weakness.

Sophie and Kate Walton came of age as persumptively virginal princesses in a time deeply influenced by a romantic revival of that myth. Nobody will ever persuade me. Not even in 2001.

This was undoubtedly the story Sophie Walton had heard and perceived from every source of authority she trusted throughout her entire life. She certainly heard it from J.V., whom she adored, and who, by all accounts, staunchly believed in a sort of good-faith segregation until his death in 1964.

Fascinatingly, Aunt Sophie used the myth to distinguish the good Klan – of old Bedford Forrest — from the bad Klan of World War I and the 20s, which had the backing of much, if not most, of the country’s center right political and conservative Protestant establishment. If you want to know what Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are heir to, just read a few newspapers from 1923.

The right-wing, nativist, conservative religious populism behind the revival Klan remains the political and cultural force that came closest to plunging the U.S. into fascism. The Civil Rights era Klan pales. The revival Klan was a movement, structured much like a political campaign, with field organizers raising volunteers and money from locals, all too many of whom enjoyed the thrill of abducting and beating and killing behind the impunity of their hoods.

Yet the huckster leaders of the revival Klan relied on precisely the same myth to sell their reborn organization that Aunt Sophie used to denounce it, the same myth told in Thomas Dixon’s novel “The Clansman” and the far more important film it spawned, The Birth of a Nation.

The same weekend that The Birth of a Nation opened in Atlanta in 1915, with its scenes of Sherman’s march and reconstruction Klan valor, revival Klan founder William Simmons and a few dozen pioneers climbed to the top of Stone Mountain, constructed a kerosene-soaked cross of stones, and lit it on fire. That’s how they announced the creation of the revival Klan.

The timing was no coincidence.

Sophie Walton was four when D.W. Griffith unleashed The Birth of a Nation on the United States in the middle of the nationalistic fervor and convulsive labor pattern changes wrought by World War I, which the U.S. had yet to join. The film reportedly received this famous endorsement from President Woodrow Wilson: “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Amid the explosive national controversy that surrounded the film, Wilson’s personal secretary, Joseph Tumulty, denied Wilson issue endorsement of the film. But Tumulty’s statement is strange and non-specific.

And considering that The Birth of a Nation itself quotes liberally from Wilson’s A History of the American People, which propounds virtually the same myth, it seems highly unlikely that Wilson didn’t have sympathy for the film’s view of history.

More importantly, in the early 20th century, most of white America considered the chivalrous knights of southern reconstruction, who defended widowed women and orphaned children from black brutes cynically used by northern scalawags and carpetbaggers, as folk heroes. The Birth of a Nation was their Saving Private Ryan. The men who wore the hood were revered.

Remarkably, for a time, Palatka was one of the few places in the South – or in the U.S., for that matter – where a Klan-struck young man or woman could not buy a ticket to experience The Birth of a Nation’s spectacular imagining of this myth.

In 1916, as the film was still making its way through American cities, a group of black businessmen approached Louis Kalbfield, the man who ran Palatka’s Grand Theatre, and asked him not to show the film because of its portrayal of blacks.

Kalbfield agreed. In November of 1916, the Palatka Advocate, the city’s black newspaper at the time, ran a story praising Kalbfield’s stand:

“[Kalbfield] assured that this film which has excited the most bitter comment from the better classes of both races the country over would not be released in his house which about settles the question so far as Palatka is concerned. Already, The Birth of a Nation has invaded most of the larger cities of the state and the fact that Palatkans have shown no relish for the Dixon masterpiece is but another moral victory for the Gem City in her stand for fair play to all her citizens.”

The moral victory would prove short-lived. The film played at a different theatre, the Howell, on Valentine’s Day in 1917. A society column in the Palatka News and Advertiser, a paper whose editor in 1918 would call for the establishment of a Putnam Klan chapter, made these little remarks, in this precise order, on the eve of the Putnam premier.

“The Birth of a Nation, which is to be seen at the Howell Theater next Wednesday and Thursday was founded on Rev. Thos. Dixon’s novel The Clansman. You have all read it – at least all of you who are up on modern novels.

Mr. and Mrs. Louis Kalbfield have both been laid up this week with severe colds. These people are missed greatly by the people of Palatka when they fail to make their regular appearance on the streets and at the Kalbfield Grand.”

The Howell went on to become the dominant theater in Palatka for years to come. It was still operating in 1946, when the Cross Creek trial hit Gainesville and the highly acclaimed film version of The Yearling played to overflow crowds at the Howell in Palatka, forcing white and black Palatkans to sit together in the theatre’s balcony, which segregation normally reserved for blacks.


Some intellectuals, like Wilson, a former president of Princeton, talked of the necessity of the reconstruction Klan with regret. I think you hear Aunt Sophie, and almost certainly J.V., in Wilson’s lament of the terrible truth of The Birth of a Nation.

Today, that seems a distinction without a difference. But the revival Klan’s failure to live up to the noble, false myth of its predecessors, is what destroyed it in the end. It’s what allowed J.V. Walton to fight the Klan in Palatka, while living morally untroubled in a world of segregation and nostalgia for the Old South

You also hear this regret of truth from The Birth of a Nation itself.

It opens with this narration: “The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion.”

A subsequent pane introduces an attack on Piedmont, South Carolina by a group of black “irregulars.” It reads:

“The scalawag white captain influences the negro militia to follow his orders.”

The blacks, wearing regular federal uniforms, by the way, bounce around like the monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, generally terrorizing old men and white women. Of course, the disciplined, bloody assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, depicted just as mythologically in Glory 75 years later, doesn’t merit a mention at any point in Griffith’s classic film.

And therein lay the vulnerability of the myth, dependent as it was upon a truth concerning the behavior of the abstraction known as the Negro. As individual black men and women chipped away at the truth white Americans thought they knew, the entire edifice of white supremacy grew weaker and weaker. By the time of the Cross Creek trial, it was teetering.

But in 1923, when Aunt Sophie was turning 13, coming into womanhood, local screenings of The Birth of a Nation still merited quarter-page ads in newspapers — eight years after its original release.

“D.W. Griffith’s American Institution,” screams an ad in Gainesville Sun from March of 1923. “You owe it to your children to let them see this great picture.”

That ad ran just two months after the infamous pogrom in Rosewood, a black hamlet just west of Gainesville.

It ran in the same week that a Gainesville lynch mob stormed the Putnam County jail looking for Arthur Johnson, a black man accused of killing a white road worker in Gainesville.

Putnam Sheriff P.M. “Pete” Hagan repulsed the mob single-handedly, but not before it shot him through the hand, nearly killed his wife, and left more than dozen bullet holes in the jail itself. It was the third lynch mob assault in four years on the Putnam County jail that Hagan either fought off or diffused without the target being seized.

Pete Hagan is the single-most remarkable law enforcement official I have ever encountered, either in real life, or on paper. Telling the story of his astonishing physical and moral courage, his devotion to doing his job, and the sheer entertainment value of his huge personality is one of the great pleasures of writing this book.

But for now, consider that the people of Putnam County rewarded Hagan for his bravery by narrowly voting for R.J. Hancock in the 1924 sheriff’s election, setting the conditions for the Klan rule that followed.

In the second of the three attacks on the Putnam jail, J.V. Walton represented the accused man, Nat Richardson, before the Florida Supreme Court. After the lynching attempt failed, Richardson had been quickly tried and found guilty of killing a white train conductor and sentenced to hang. J.V. Walton successfully overturned that murder conviction on self-defense grounds. Despite that, J.V. and Hagan remained close political allies.

When Hagan came back for a rematch in 1928, in the wake of Martin’s intervention and the Klan violence, J.V. helped him eke out a narrow win. According to family lore, Hagan gave J.V. an ivory-handled, .38 Special revolver as a token of thanks for his help in the election. The gun still exists. An eagle is carved into the ivory on each side of the handle, with some type of gem serving as an eye.

If you’re for looking simple markers, Hagan’s 1928 election can be seen as the endpoint of the Putnam Klan outbreak. But the truth is probably more complex, bound up as much in the economics of prohibition, the Florida land boom and crash, and the onset of the Depression — as was the outbreak of violence itself.


No major figure in the Cross Creek case is black. Yet, the “Negro question,” as Marjorie often referred to it, the twilight world of extra legal status in which black men and women toiled before the post World War II civil rights movement, informs nearly every aspect of the case and the experiences that led to it. In fact, easily the best, most personally revealing chapter in Cross Creek, called “Black Shadows,” concerns precisely this status and Marjorie’s ambivalence in confronting it.

In my Simon and Schuster edition, chapter 16 announces itself with a pencil sketch of one caricatured black man shooting another in gut with a rifle. (If you ever get a chance to see it, note the lips.) A well-dressed woman, presumably Marjorie, looks on with a hand pressed against her cheek in a statement of Oh My-ness. Palm fronds form the backdrop.

Here’s how Marjorie opened the chapter:

“I am not of the race of southerners who claim to understand the Negro. There are a few platitudes dear to the hearts of these that seem reasonably accurate. The Negro is just a child. The Negro is carefree and gay. The Negro is religious in an amusing way. The Negro is a congenital liar. There is no dependence to be put in the best of them.

“Back of these superficial truths lies the mystery of the primitive African nature, subjected precipitously first to slavery and then to so-called civilization, the one as difficult and unjust as the other. The Negro today is paid instead of being rationed. He is left to shift for himself for the most part instead of being cared for. In the south his wages are a scandal and there is no hope of racial development until racial economics are adjusted. Meantime, he continues to be, ostensibly, childish, carefree, religious, untruthful and unreliable. Back of it all is a defense mechanism as ingrained as the color of his skin. He could adopt himself to the injustice of his position and to the master of the white race only by being childish, carefree, religious, untruthful, and unreliable.

“The prettier side of the picture does indeed lie in the possibility of real affection between individuals of the two races, conditioned by the fact that one is master, and the other, for all of Lincoln, still a slave. The servant has two weapons. He can make life not worth living for his employer. And he can walk out. When a southern Negro uses neither of the two, it is likely to mean, not necessarily that he is well treated, but that he is truly attached to master or mistress. And he can feel an actual love, and yet make life miserable or walk out. Therein lies his unpredictability, and beyond the half-truth of its fact is a mental and emotional turmoil past the comprehension of the most old-school southern aristocrat who ever slurred his witticisms over a mint julep.

“I have made one grave mistake in dealing with Negroes at the grove. I have expected that, given justice and kindness, a reasonable attitude toward their problems, and wages higher than the customary ones, they could carry considerable responsibility and learn to discipline themselves. I should have known better. I should have understood that only in rare instances can a Negro work for long on his own initiative. For long years since actual slavery he has been told what to do and what not to do. He has used his little time of freedom to cut loose, to escape for the moment the lowliness and the poverty and the puzzle of living. Left to himself to work toward an unseen goal without jurisdiction or direction, no matter how reliable ordinarily, he realizes suddenly, not that he has responsibilities, but that he is free, he is on his own, and he pounces without warrant on that freedom as though it were already the Saturday night he had earned. I do not blame Kate and Raymond for going wild. I blame myself for asking of them what most of us manage so painfully and so inadequately for ourselves.”

What’s striking here isn’t the racism, which was probably fairly humdrum in its time, but the absence of intellectual rigor. It’s weak, and it’s mindlessly cruel. For a novelist and journalist who personally knew many individual black men and women of differing classes, who rendered them as individuals in her fiction and non-fiction writing, it’s striking how willing she is to lump them all into a formless abstraction she dubs “the Negro” and then insult them. But then grand racial theories tend to share a certain flimsiness of supporting data and often require the theorist to ignore basic human nature.

In that way, the persistence of The Birth of a Nation myth is unmistakable in Marjorie’s racial thinking. It’s extremely important to understand, for the purposes of this book, that Marjorie anguished about the “Negro question” throughout her public life. She considered herself enlightened, if ultimately timid. She considered herself an ally in the pre-civil rights era effort to make daily life better for that abstraction known as “the Negro.” She considered that opening to “Black Shadows,” despite the casual brutality of phrases like “religious in an amusing way,” a sympathetic and insightful analysis.

And clearly the guardians of the day’s intellectual discourse perceived it as such.

“It’s hard to see how anyone can read Cross Creek without pleasure amounting to glee,” reads a blurb on the back cover of my copy of the book. It’s from The Atlantic Monthly, the very apotheosis of American public intellectualism for more than 150 years.

Marjorie’s pop racial sociology and the Atlantic’s heft-conferring blurb highlight the radical evolution of the standards for what public intellectuals find culturally acceptable to say and write. They underscore just how long ago 1942 really was, considering it as a time only six decades removed from Barack Obama’s election. It was much closer, literally and figuratively, to the era of the revival Klan, and the political, cultural, and economic upheaval that grew out of World War I and prohibition.

In that time, in Putnam County and Cross Creek, the narrative of the thousands of individuals of varying wealth, color, talents, personalities and names that comprise that mass dubbed “the Negro,” simply didn’t matter much to the white supremacist society that enveloped them. The Palatka Advocate, the city’s impressive black newspaper at the time, was not well preserved, and there only a few copies available here and there in clipping files.

White papers covered blacks, as a community, almost exclusively as labor. Accounts of northward migration and the peculiar combination of pleas and threats designed to halt it litter the pages of white newspapers of the teens and 20s. With only extraordinary exceptions, individual black men and women appeared by name only as “negroes” committing crime or victimized by it at the hands of fellow “negroes.”

I grew up in Palatka and started my reporting career at the Palatka Daily News, which grew out of the merger of the Palatka Times-Herald and the Palatka News and Advertiser, both of which I’ve already used as sources in this book.

I can remember sitting in my little cubicle thinking up stories and debating with myself whether to make a stink over Confederate dead monument that towers over the center of the Putnam courthouse grounds, far overshadowing the memorials to the dead of other wars.

In that combination of faux worldliness and intellectually laziness that has come to characterize far too much institutional reporting, I decided not to. After all, the Confederate monument was there first. It’s understandable that the people of the day would want to honor their dead in a powerful way. Why try to revise history? Why dredge up old animosities?

Had I bothered to actually look closely at the monument, or research it even a touch, I might have learned how distorted my own narrative was. In fact, Putnam’s inscribed stone paean to “the heroism, fortitude, and glory of the men who wore the gray in the sixties” and “their love of country, devotion to principle, and fidelity to the cause they believed was right” was dedicated in 1924, six decades after the fall of the Confederacy.

Today, it so completely dominates all other monuments on the lawn that it’s difficult to conceive that it actually came second.

The first, a simple bronze plaque stood up in 1921, honored the dead of the World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s war to end all wars. Of the 29 names on the Great War memorial, my research confirms at least 13 were black men. Their names are: William George, Essa Griffin, Eugene Jones, John D. Levain, Amos Mack, DeLoss Nelson, Andrew W. Reid, Clemon Robinson, Eugene F. Russell, Frank Shuman, Fred Weston, and Herbert Williams. Each of them died from disease in wretched army labor camps, some in the U.S., some abroad.

The massively patriotic response of black Floridians and Americans to the Great War is a criminally undertold story today. But it wasn’t at the time. To a point, it’s the one other exception to the rule of how white newspapers ignored their black populations in this era. But only to a point. In my research, I’ve not found a single announcement of the death of a black World War I soldier in a white Palatka paper.

In many ways, comprehensive black participation in the war effort, coupled with women’s suffrage, and radical changes in labor patterns caused by the war, marked the true beginning of the Civil Rights movement and America’s painful, grinding, ongoing development into the first truly multiracial, multiethnic democracy in the history of the world.

The people of the day obviously didn’t recognize it as that. They just saw black Americans aggressively participating – through freewill and conscription – in a national undertaking. It became a source of both celebration and consternation for the white power structures, in Palatka and elsewhere.

Consider the Saturday evening parade that opened Putnam County’s fourth Liberty Loan war bond campaign in late September of 1918. J.V. Walton’s mother, Mrs. J.N. “Kate” Walton, served as chair of the tableaux committee. She and her friends decorated windows along the Lemon Street parade route – the same exact route every parade in Palatka takes today – with patriotic murals with titles like “The Knitters for the Allies” and “No Man’s Land.”

The 19 exhibits/marching groups of the parade moved along Lemon Street past enthusiastic crowds lining the streets. The parade ended at the courthouse square, where Liberty Loan rally followed. A newspaper account names the final float of the parade as “Our Colored Patriots.” Marching just behind came a collection of Florida knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an exclamation point on the procession.

Shortly after the Great War, the Palatkans of the day, led in great part by J.V. Walton’s sister Susie Lee, a pillar of the city’s Daughters of the Confederacy chapter, actively chose to emphasize a monument to a conflict and a society very few of them remembered. They placed it in a position of honor and dominance over the grounds of the courthouse that enforced the laws of the very country the honored dead fought, killed, and died to abandon.

They offered a monument to a narrative.

They attached no such emotion to the inglorious, violent, industrial, and fractiously inclusive model of America they were actually living in. And it wasn’t just the black men whose stories were forgotten. At least 14 of the names on the Great War memorial belong to white men. The dashing stone Confederate figure that stands sentry 15 feet above the pedestal towers over them, too. Examine Palatka’s World War I plaque today, and you won’t even find the date of its dedication. I had to look it up in old newspapers.


Although Zelma Cason is a character throughout “The Census” chapter of Cross Creek, she particularly objected to this description from the chapter’s first page:

“Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.”

The questions of femininity implicit in that passage form a sort of twinned core of the Cross Creek case, both separate and related to the questions of privacy and power. It seems obvious that Marjorie’s perceived insult of Zelma revolves around the critique of her womanhood. But what was the critique? What did Zelma think Marjorie said? And what did Marjorie actually say? Those are different questions than “Did Marjorie have the right to publish what she published?” But they drive the intensity of feeling on both sides.

To begin to answer those questions, it helps to imagine how Marjorie might have rendered her own appearance and femininity had she turned on herself the fiercely held power to create literary characters from her actual neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, using their real names.

Marjorie was a fleshy woman, a rather physically imposing collection of breasts and curves signaling an unrealized fertility and her embrace of appetites. Her cloudy blue eyes glinted prettily. And the tight curls of her thick dark hair allowed her not to care how it fell because it always looked casually sensual, even moreso when dappled by the sweat of a Florida July.

Or so I can gather from blurry black and white photos, Marjorie’s letters, and the memoir of Idella Parker, Marjorie longtime live-in maid and servant.

All these portrayals suggest an unconventional attractiveness, more alluring than one might otherwise assume for a woman who “usually weighed about 180 pounds,” as Parker wrote. In truth, 180 seems high to me, perhaps a bit of cool, loving vengeance from a much-loved and much-ordered-around fellow woman, who was quite striking in her own right.

During the trial, Marjorie disappointed the cracker fashionistas by taking the stand wearing a dress she’d already worn to court at least once that week. A transplanted Yankee in a Gainesville courtroom could risk no airs. When a newspaper reporter described her as “outdoorsy,” it’s hard to imagine she objected. But Marjorie’s friends and intimates might have caught a whiff of affect from the mistress and hostess who loved nothing better than to elegantly entertain the powerful and learned at the ably-staffed gourmet table of the backwoods bed and breakfast that doubled as her home.

“She loved hostess gowns, and she had many lovely ones to wear when she invited her higher friends,” wrote Idella Parker. “These were long flowing gowns, and they often seemed out of place for the occasion. When she went off to give talks or travel, she wore tailored two-piece suits, usually topped by a little pillbox hat.”

One can assume that Marjorie envisioned no higher friends on the jury of six men that mattered more at that time to her life and career than anyone else. So she went with what worked. Marjorie had always played the gun-toting, heavy-drinking, orange-picking, dog-cusser for one audience and the arch, literate, gourmet, for another. The neurotic, sickly, child-lonely writer, who struggled to produce books, she reserved mainly for her second husband, Norton Baskin. But we’ll cover that later.

Labels of female taxonomy swarm writings surrounding the trial and Marjorie’s letters from around the time. Mannish. Man. Self-sufficient. Of a type. Hussy. Lesbian. We have few accompanying clear contextual definitions for them, and yet, at the time of their use, they all appear to have had different meanings. The Cross Creek trial previews the exploding influence of professional and working women on our economy and culture, which I think is the most far-reaching social transformation of the 20th century – more influential even than civil rights. You can see it coming in this trial. All key female characters in the lawsuit were college-educated, professional, childless women. Kate Walton was part of the first generation of American women who gained the right to vote simply by reaching a birthday.

And yes, you could try to play pin the tail on the lesbian with the women of the Cross Creek trial if you really wanted, particularly when you consider Marjorie’s great friend Dessie Smith and Julia Scribner, the aristocratic tomboy who became a sort of surrogate daughter to Marjorie. All five of those women were apparently subject to whispers over the years. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have little insight to offer into how they chose to do it, and with whom, outside of their marriages.

Marjorie’s second marriage, to Norton Baskin, lasted until her death in 1953. Kate Walton married not long after the Cross Creek Trial. The groom was Fritz von Engelken, a German immigrant, agricultural tycoon, and former director of the U.S. Mint, who was formally investigated – and cleared by Woodrow Wilson himself — for disloyalty during World War I. J.V. Walton intervened on his behalf in 1915 when a mob began to attack his property in East Palatka. Fritz was at least 30 years older then Kate Walton when they married, over J.V.’s strong objections.

Zelma never married.

By the time of the Cross Creek lawsuit, the mongrel America set in motion by the Great War, the suffragettes, the bootleggers, and the assembly line was asserting its global dominance through World War II. The final whimper of settlement in the case occurred in August 1948, less than a month after President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the U.S. armed forces.

In one of her key pleadings leading up to the trial, Kate Walton wrote:

“It is peculiarly fitting that the right of privacy should have been first recognized and integrated as an actionable right under the common law of the United States, for this right is a necessary corollary from the principles of individual sovereignty and of maximum personal freedom under laws which are corner stones of our theory of government; and it is not inappropriate that this cause should come before this Court in a year of war when the very status of man is in issue, for it is with the dignity of man as a free-willed individual that the law privacy concerns itself, and, in the last analysis, we were constrained to wage this war, not for numbered freedoms, not to assert the superiority of one form of government over another, but by urgent need to maintain our concept of the equality of man and of his status as a free individual.”

Although change was coming, Aunt Katie wrote that passage in a cultural and legal setting that still assured no black men or women in 1940s Florida could think about suing Marjorie Rawlings in state court for invading their privacy in Cross Creek, as she did repeatedly, in far more personally offensive descriptions than anything Zelma Cason endured.

And at the onset of the suit, Florida law required the husband of any woman party to a legal action to join as co-plaintiff or co-defendant. That law changed during the litigation.

Yet custom still forced Kate Walton to sit and watch her beloved father question her most important witnesses, like Marjorie, and make most of the important points. A lady lawyer in 1946 dared not test the modernity of a Gainesville jury. Instead, the woman who conceived and executed the arguments that continually won at the Florida Supreme Court, who wrote the passage above, had to listen to her father say this at the public trial of those arguments.

“If your Honor please, we are going to call some ladies and is it permissible for my daughter to conduct their examination?”

I doubt Judge Murphree’s assent offered much consolation.

Fairly early in Marjorie’s two-day testimony, Phil May asked her how she chose the handful of sentences that created the entity she dubbed “My friend Zelma.”

“I ask you to turn to Chapter 5, to the characterization that you say was written in 1941, and interpret it as it was written in your mind and heart,” May said.

Before Marjorie could answer, Kate Walton called bullshit.

“Object to the question,” she said, presumably rising before the court. “A written instrument is its own best evidence as to what she meant or intended. If she uses words she is presumed to intend a reasonable meaning of those words, and to vary the terms of that description by her own testimony would not be proper.”

That objection, spoken without ums or tangents or ellipses, contains the only 50 words Kate Walton ever said during Marjorie’s testimony at the trial.

The judge overruled the objection and let Marjorie try to explain why Zelma shouldn’t have perceived I can’t decide whether she should have been a man or a mother as an insult.

“In my mind there was no thought of describing [Zelma] as mannish,” Marjorie said, answering May’s question. “By that I simply meant that her abilities were more or less wasted. If she had been a man she would have been an executive; she might have gone into law; might have been a doctor; but she had had great talents and great ability that a man could have done more with…”


Kate Walton went on to a long and distinguished career as hardnosed litigator, still tearing apart opponents of both sexes well into the late 1970s and earning her reputation as “one woman legal-aid society” for the boundless pro bono work she provided to people of all races. My father became her law partner.

From the time I was about five, roughly 1976, until my family moved to Tallahassee for two years in the summer of 1979, I spent nearly every Saturday morning with Aunt Katie – driving a golf cart around her property on the St. Johns River, cane pole fishing off her dock, listening to her recite poetry, watching her smoke cigars. Her death in 1985 was my first real experience with grief.

My wife and I had our wedding party in front of her simple cracker house on the river, now owned by a younger aunt. My kids all caught their first fish off the same dock where she and I sat together. Anyone reading this should know my loyalties lie with her, even though I never really knew the person who sued Marjorie Rawlings. The woman I knew and loved jammed worms onto my hooks and bought me Icees whenever I wanted them. She was far more fairy godmother than intellectual and professional pioneer.

In the immediate aftermath of the successful 1947 Supreme Court appeal, Aunt Katie wrote a one-page letter to Jacksonville lawyer George Bedell, a much respected legal mind who had offered Aunt Katie and J.V. some unofficial advice on approaching the case. It’s never been published before. And to my knowledge, it’s the only substantial commentary she left on the trial or the case:

“Since May of last year I have wanted to tell you about what happened to us in Gainesville at the trial. I haven’t gone to see you because my father said, and I knew it was true, that I would talk too much and take too much of your time. He figured I should wait until I cooled off but that’s apt to be a long process because of the manner in which the trial was conducted, as well as, the total disregard by the trial judge not only of the declared law of our case but of long established and fundamental principles of justice.”

As various historians and literary suitors found, as the years wore on, Aunt Katie never cooled off. She had no real interest in discussing this case with anyone, inside the family or outside. And my extended family always felt great ambivalence in talking about the trial, not wanting to offend her wishes. Now, with my grandmother’s passing, no one from Aunt Katie’s generation is left. And I’m going to take my chances, fully aware that I may have to answer to her one day.

Family and friends have always attributed Aunt Katie’s silence to a radical and principled attachment to privacy, which was real. But there’s something more. The trial itself was uniquely painful. The Gainesville Sun newspaper in 1982 wrote a retrospective of the case, and the reporter managed to get a brief statement from Aunt Katie.

“The trial was a Roman circus. I am quite bitter about it.” That was all she would say.

The absolute height of the circus came as J.V. questioned Marjorie about a scene in the Black Shadows chapter in which she and her prissy, martinet brother storm Marjorie’s tenant to roust out one Marjorie’s maids and her two suitors. The questioning devolved into a debate over whether the men and women in that tenant house could consider it their “castle,” legally protected from invasion, while they lived in it. At one point, Marjorie, while on the stand, asked J.V. about his interpretation of the law. Phil May objected.

When Judge Murphree interjected “I think we have this backwards,” the courtroom erupted in laughter. Murphree himself was said to choke back a guffaw. The sequence, with Marjorie asking a question and her own lawyer objecting to it, featured prominently in every major news account from the day that I’ve seen.

“The author was an uninhibited and unorthodox witness. She threw the courtroom into an uproar at one point when she reversed the usual order of procedure and had J.V. Walton, counsel for Miss Cason, answering one of own questions,” read the Tampa Tribune story.

I can’t imagine that this debate over an armed assault on a man’s castle, with its racial and legal components, would not have returned J.V. Walton’s and Kate Walton’s thoughts to the bay window and the larger Battle of Palatka they fought and survived. And while J.V. got to engage Marjorie on behalf of individual sovereignty, at least in regard to the tenant homes of negroes, his daughter had to sit quietly and listen to the laughter that overwhelmed the principle she had worked to establish. That must have been brutal.

In any event, Aunt Katie’s unwillingness to discuss the suit publicly, to tell her narrative, left a vacuum that the other side understandably filled by emphasizing the public importance of free inquiry and the right to publish to modern America.

Aunt Katie’s silence orphaned her countervailing ideas about individual sovereignty and its equal importance to modern society, which she expressed in this excerpt from the pleading that helped secure the trial:

“The advance of civilization and the consequent necessary development of manners and customs suitable to our society, wherein specialization, speed of transportation and communication and increased population have made men inter-dependent, have been reflected in the growth of law. Duels are outlawed, self-help to right a legal wrong or to avenge an injury is frowned upon. We look to the courts for recognition of rights of individuals and for remedy for personal injury…

“…With the passing of years, it becomes increasingly evident that the right to privacy, as there enunciated and defined, is a fundamental right arising from the very nature of man and demanding recognition and protection with the same voice that requires of the courts redress for wanton physical injury to the person.”

Privacy meant more to Kate Walton than a right of personal secrecy. It meant no one else owned you. Each human being was his or her own sovereign, protected from unwanted invasion. Like her father before her in 1920s Palatka, she was fighting to establish that no one, not famous writers, not hooded police officers and hooligans, gets to act with the impunity of ownership over another in a society governed by law.

But that message has been lost. To the extent that people know the case anymore, it’s largely a novel First Amendment defense, a fleeting moment during which a beleaguered and beloved writer fought and suffered for the public’s right to know in a way that no other American writer ever has.

Later in life, Zelma is said to have lamented, “I’m the bitch that sued Marjorie.” Aunt Katie made two.

The people who wrote, marketed, and studied Cross Creek often differed in what to call it – novel, non-fiction, journalism, memoir, autobiography. The fact that even supporters of Marjorie struggled to characterize Cross Creek, a book describing real people, foreshadows the case, I think.

Marjorie herself said during her testimony: “I have used a factual background for most of my tales, and of actual people a blend of the true and the imagined. I myself cannot quite tell where the one ends and the other begins.”

Take it from me, a guy who once made a living writing about the actions of real people, that’s a problem waiting to happen.

For me, Cross Creek clearly presents itself as non-fiction, a type of journalism. In that sense, it fails. Now that I’ve read Marjorie’s letters to her husband, Norton Baskin, I can say without hesitation that Cross Creek is a deeply dishonest book. Its narrator and lead character, Marjorie Rawlings, bears only passing resemblance to the Marjorie Rawlings of her letters. That Marjorie is a far more compelling person – funny, neurotic, fearful of many things, moody, guilt-ridden, insightful, gutsy, driven by conscience, depressed, very physically unhealthy, and often resentful of her neighbors in the milieu she described, and from which she profited.

A creative writing professor in college once told me, “To write is to sit in judgment on yourself.” Marjorie does that fiercely in her letters. She doesn’t in Cross Creek. It makes the effect of everything else she writes in that book suspect. The Marjorie that narrates Cross Creek wasn’t about to invade the privacy of the Marjorie in whom she lived. She saved that treatment for her friends and neighbors.

One of my favorite modern writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of The Atlantic no less, wrote this in 2009.

“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.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a better description of the power wielded by narrative and narrators.

Listen to how closely Aunt Katie tracks that thought in her tour-de-force appeal of the trial verdict to the Florida Supreme Court, the document that succeeded in overturning the jury’s decision in 1947 and formally established a right of privacy in Florida common law.

“The interest is not in Miss Cason, herself, the Miss Cason developed in 53 years of gentle and kindly living; but is a curiosity about the person the famous Mrs. Baskin unfairly epitomized as a profane census taker, described as resembling an angry and efficient canary, as having the more violent characteristics of both man and mother, as loudly cursing the people she helped, as referring to the unemployed of her area as bastards and sons of bitches, etc…”

Because of Marjorie Rawlings and Cross Creek, Zelma Cason will always be the woman with the foul mouth, the bitch who sued a Pulitzer Prize winner.

In much the same way, the men and women who caused, fought, and suffered in Florida’s worst outbreak of organized extralegal violence are defined by their absence from historical accounts, as is the outbreak itself. No one remembers John Martin as the first governor who stood up to the Klan. His brave intervention, the biggest story of its day in Florida newspapers outside of Palatka, is largely forgotten. So are the malign exploits of Walter Minton, one of the great undocumented villains of Florida history.

Why is that?

Three days after Martin’s dramatic announcement, a massive hurricane destroyed the port of Miami, killing hundreds, accelerating the collapse of the first Florida land boom, and essentially marking the onset of the Great Depression in Florida. In microfilm, you can watch tales of the hurricane and the hundreds it killed submerge every story that came before, including the Palatka violence. For weeks, the plight of the homeless and the struggle to clean up and and rebuild imposed itself as the state’s prime narrative.

The eyes that Martin had focused on Palatka turned their focus south, and the fickle species of gods that create our world went with them.

It’s too bad. The characters that populated the Battle of Palatka, and the decade that led to it, deserve better. However, it’s also worth noting that no one, from J.V. Walton to Martin, seemed interested later in life in reliving what happened in Palatka in those years. Indeed, Martin put out a dense, 20-page account of his accomplishments as governor in 1927. It contains no reference to Palatka or the Klan.

In the 1980s, a collection of Putnam County luminaries commissioned an official history called The River Flows North by a community college professor named Brian Michaels. The funders – Kate Walton Engelken among them — got ripped off.

My favorite bit of silliness is Michaels’ repeated citation of accounts from the time naming Bert Hodge, a Palatka fireman, as the “only white man” from Putnam County killed in the Great War. The Putnam County American Legion post still bears his name. Yet, there are also 28 other names on the Putnam World War I memorial, some of which are white and some black. Michaels never quite gets around to asking himself about the truth or implications of this phrase he kept quoting.

Later he wrote briefly about the Klan outbreak, noting, “It was probably just as well, at the time, for devout souls not to know just what ‘kind of business’ was being done by the Klan.” Except all evidence suggests the Klan enjoyed great support from churches and the general religious establishment, in Palatka and elsewhere. Many of “the devout souls” wore the masks themselves. It’s history as written by the Chamber of Commerce, which, by the way, formed in Putnam County in 1921. It’s history designed not to inform.

J.V. Walton receives one mention during the chapter on the 1910s and 20s, relating to his abortive role in trying to move the state capital to Palatka. Kate Walton doesn’t show up at all, anywhere. Yes, yes. Sour grapes. But many other important characters and events, with whom I share little or no personal bond, don’t show up, or received short shrift, in the history official Putnam produced for itself over the years.

Here are just a few:

• Albert Browning and Joseph Nottage were sitting Palatka city alderman as 1924 opened. They were the final two black politicians to serve on a board overseeing a multiracial city in the state of Florida — and probably in the entire South– after the Civil War but before the Civil Rights movement. They were swept out of office quietly on January 7, 1924, when a five-man charter form of government replaced the ward system in Palatka. A fanciful narrator, like me, might say that government change marked the final breath of Reconstruction in the south. But their political passing didn’t even merit a mention in the white newspapers of the day. The Confederate monument went up that March. Nottage died the same year. His name still graces the “Nottage Lodge,” the historically black Masonic lodge where men of certain age still gather. Browning lived until 1946, the year of the Cross Creek trial. He remained a pillar of the community until his death.

• In 1924, Father John Conoley was a popular and outspoken Catholic priest affiliated with the University of Florida in Gainesville. He ran afoul of the Gainesville Klan, which included the mayor and police chief at the time. Bowing to protestant pressure, the university president A.A. Murphree moved sever ties with Conoley. But that wasn’t enough. That mayor and police chief, in full Klan regalia, abducted Conoley from his church in Gainesville, brought him to Palatka, beat him severely, castrated him, and dumped him on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, the same church where we held the funeral for my grandmother – J.V.’s youngest daughter – in the late summer of 2009. By the way, A.A. Murphree’s son John was the trial judge for the Cross Creek case.

• In 1922, Mary Jane Lawson, a registered nurse, established a hospital for blacks in downtown Palatka in 1922 that far exceeded the quality of any contemporary white facility. Indeed, white doctors often sent their white patients to the Lawson hospital. Lawson’s husband, E.W. Lawson, established a funeral home adjacent to the hospital, which is still in operation today. Mary Lawson shared a deep friendship Mary McLeod Bethune, that Marjorie Rawlings favorite, who started her career as an educator in Palatka. The Lawsons’ granddaughter, Mary Lawson Brown, still runs the funeral home in Palatka. She has served for years as a Palatka city commissioner, the first black commissioner in Palatka since Nottage and Browning. Before she died, Kate Walton did all the legal work for the Lawson Funeral Home.

• In the middle of Palatka’s Klan summer of 1926, Blanche Brookins, a wealthy northeastern socialite, refused to surrender her seat in the white section on Florida East Coast train bound for south Florida. At the train station in Palatka, police forcibly removed her. One wonders today if Brookins had any notion of how lucky she was not to have suffered the same near-death lashing that the “notorious” Teetsie Pinckney endured just weeks later. In any event, a Time Magazine account promptly slandered Brookins, stating: “They (the passengers) heard one Blanche S. Brookins, Negress, snorting and scolding: ‘Yoh all let me ‘lone yoh whaht trash. I gotta ticket!’ ” Brookins got her revenge, though. She sued FEC in federal court and won a highly favorable settlement. Could you call her the Rosa Parks of trains? The immediate effect may not have been as profound, but the national NAACP later credited Brookins’ successful suit with establishing better conditions for black passengers on trains.

• In the heady days following U.S. entry into The Great War, the local newspapers of the day followed the dashing young Lt. Bill Walton, J.V’s younger brother, almost obsessively as he moved from training post to training post and then on to France. And then shrapnel from shell in France severely wounded him. The Bill Walton who returned to Florida was changed. Several members of my family say J.V. Walton greatly envied his younger brother Bill Walton’s service, but the arc of his story is almost a cliché of war’s seduction and pain. He became a heavy drinking recluse, who ran a small store near Crescent Beach on the Atlantic Coast of Florida and consorted with bootleggers running their booze through maze of Atlantic inlets.

These names and stories ground against those of Walter Minton, Pete Hagan, Fritz Engelken, Willie Steen, Nat Richardson, Susie Lee Walton, R.J. Hancock and so many others in this tiny spot in north Florida. In the pages that follow. I’ll explore how the daily particles of life generated by their collisions, emblematic of the collisions occurring across the country, slowly coalesced into what we recognize as America today. These stories illustrate how the lonely choices of individuals matter to the life and character of communities — that politics, and elections, matter, even when they involve just a few thousand votes.

In 1923, the national NAACP praised the sheriff Pete Hagan of Putnam County for his commitment to prevent lynching. Just three years later, because of mob violence, the governor of Florida threatened to remove the man who defeated him in 1924 election. The businessmen who wrote Gov. Martin in 1927 feared their town would destroy itself.

“It is needless for us to make a further recital of the conditions that have existed in this county for more than two years,” they wrote. “Neither of us seek anything but to better conditions that are nearly unbearable. All that we have, our families and our property, is in Palatka, Putnam County. One of our number runs a large machine shop and the other two of us each operate woodenware plants, employing a considerable number of men. These crimes have impaired labor conditions, have kept investors away from our county and city, are driving out many of our citizens and if a remedy is not found, it will not be long until the people take the remedy in their own hands and we will have a period of assassination.”

That didn’t happen. A community that lost its way in the midst of the national turmoil of teens and 20s imperfectly righted itself. How the people of Palatka, of all races and classes, negotiated, battled, loved, cooperated, and killed between 1915 and 1928 to form the essence of the city that exists today is a story that has never been told in anything approaching entirety. The process repeated itself in many cities and counties across the nation, much of which teetered on the edge of mayhem in the midst and aftermath of World War I.

In fairly short order, Palatkans and Americans rejected prohibition and the Klan as blueprints for living. But the fierce participation of women and blacks in American life endured. It created a world in which Kate Walton could rock the foundations of publishing, and Idella Parker could coolly critique her famous employer’s appearance and style in print — and get paid for it.

What the Battle of Palatka and the Cross Creek trial share, other than rural north Florida and J.V. and Kate Walton, is the inevitability of conflict over control of the narratives that define the present and shape the future. As Marjorie learned, human beings, regardless of sex or race or class, do not willingly submit to someone else’s narrative of who they are.

Like Marjorie and D.W. Griffith, in discussing each of these men and women, I am an unreliable narrator. Everyone I write about in this book will be who I think they are, and I am hopelessly compromised by family love, geography, taste, and millions other fragments of my own humanity. I hope to recognize and acknowledge this corruption, and perhaps even make it useful to you. This whole endeavor started because I wanted to know more about Aunt Katie and J.V. These other people are along for the ride, and I thank their corpses for it. In the pages that follow, I hope to render their lives with the honesty they deserve.

Because all of them, in the streets, woods, courtrooms, bars, and homes of Palatka and Cross Creek, performed at least their fair share of midwifery in the true birth of our nation.

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