|Skyline of Tampa, Florida|
Photo by Lauren Pitone
This is a story that the Tampa Bay Times would not not tell.
There is a place in Florida where beatings of jail inmates was commonplace. It is a place where those in custody were stretched out face down in public view and lashed with a leather whip for minor offenses. It is a place where the officials called upon to investigate the practice voted instead to legally authorize it. And it happened during the 20th century.
Marianna and Dozier School? Some other sleepy small town nestled in the pines and steeped in Old South tradition? No, that place is Tampa and Hillsborough County, home to the University of South Florida and the Tampa Bay Times.
The use of the lash by authorities in Tampa and Hillsborough County was widespread and accepted deep into the 20th century. It continued for decades and no prisoner was immune to the threat of flogging on the whim of city and county officials. Judges even beat children in the courtrooms of the city.
The Tampa Tribune reported in 1909 that the practice of flogging prisoners had been initiated there ten years earlier by Judge Whitaker of the municipal court. He "set a precedent," the historical account noted, "by personally applying the lash to two boy offenders convicted in his court."
The word "precedent" according to Merriam-Webster means "something done or said that can be used as an example or rule to be followed in the future." When Judge Whitaker beat two children in Tampa's municipal court, he set an "example or rule to be followed in the future." Hillsborough County was not shy in following that example.
|Road Gang Members in the 1920s|
The unidentified eyewitness said that she and several others were traveling by car between Oldsmar and Tampa on the afternoon of Thursday, April 7, when she witnessed "the most brutal act I have ever seen." In a letter to the editor of the Tribune, she described seeing a county road camp prisoner face-down on the ground beside the road as a guard beat him "with all his might with a leather strap." The sound of the beating was so loud that the witnesses could hear each of the blows as they struck the man.
The woman was unable to say how long the beating went on, but she said that it continued for the entire time she and others in the car were within sight of the road crew. She also said that it caused her to wonder what else happened in the county prison camp "where there was no public to look on."
The eyewitness raised a good question. If a guard was so bold as to force an inmate to stretch out face down by a public road for a beating that continued for an untold length of time, what else could have been taking place in Hillsborough County away from the eyes of the public? Could inmates of the county's prison camp have been maimed or even killed by the floggings they received?
The incident took place in the County Commission district of John T. Gunn, who told the Tribune that he had no reports of "extreme conduct on the part of the guards." He promised to make a "thorough investigation" of the allegations.
|Hillsborough County Courthouse in 1921|
Burgert Brothers photos, Courtesy Florida Memory Collection
On April 14, 1921, the Tampa Tribune ran letters from readers both supporting and opposing the beating of county inmates with whips. On the same day the newspaper reported that Superintendent McIntosh, who managed the work camp, had given assurances that "no color discrimination" was being made in selecting inmates for flogging. McIntosh proudly described the whipping of three men in one day, two of them white and one black. The road camp "boss" told the newspaper that floggings also took place in the state convict camp in Hillsborough County as well.
The county's investigation of the beatings at its road camp ended with a commission vote giving full sanction to flogging as a suitable punishment for inmates.
|St. Petersburg, Florida|
Photo by Lauren Pitone
The commercial floggers, however, went afoul of the law when they flogged... the law. On March 8, 1931, the group kidnapped and flogged Constable F.A. Howard of Ballast Point. Arrests followed.
Despite such evidence that flogging was reaching out of control proportions around Tampa Bay, the practice continued. On November 30, 1935, officers of the Tampa Police Department seized three Union labor organizers without a warrant and carried them to police headquarters. The men were illegally questioned about their political and organizing activities as a "mob" gathered outside. When the three Socialist Party members - Joseph Shoemaker, E.F. Pulnot and S.D. Rogers - were released, they were seized on the grounds of the Tampa Police Department by the "ruffian band" that lay in wait. Carried to a remote area, they were flogged and then scalding hot tar and feathers were poured on their bodies.
Pulnot and Rogers survived the barbarous treatment, but Shoemaker did not. He died one week later from hideous injuries. Rev. G.F. Snyder of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Tampa boldly spoke out against the atrocity, aiming his finger at "the very citadel of justice and law administration." A mass meeting was held, but public officials did not attend.
The focus of the nation fixed itself on Tampa. Florida Governor Dave Sholtz demanded a thorough investigation and labor leader Norman Thomas accused law enforcement of mishandling the investigation to "save the face of Tampa police and higher-ups." The president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) threatened to cancel his group's planned national convention, set for Tampa in 1936.
|Tampa Police officers in 1935|
Courtesy Florida Memory Collection, Florida State Archives
A second bombshell came on January 23, 1936, when Tampa Police Chief R.G. Tittsworth was indicted by a special grand jury as an accessory to the crime. In the end, a total of 10 arrests were made in connection with the incident and Governor Sholtz appointed a special prosecutor to handle the case, saying in the process that he meant no disrespect to the Hillsborough County Solicitor, C.Jay Hardee.
The police officers were acquitted. The family of Joseph Shoemaker never received justice. There was no closure.
|Nine hate groups are active around Tampa Bay|
Photo by Lauren Pitone
The Tampa Bay Times has run story after story on the allegations of murders at Dozier School, even though 52 of the 55 people exhumed from the Dozier Cemetery are believed to have been buried there more than 75 years ago. How many stories has it published in the last two years about the officially-sanctioned beatings and death in Hillsborough County from the same era? None.
I told Ben Montgomery, a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times, about the Tampa floggings in April 2013 and he told me he had never heard of them. I encouraged him to look into them. As of today, his paper continues to publicly ignore the horrors that took place in Tampa even while "seeking the truth" about Marianna. Montgomery has not responded to an email asking why he elected not to report on events that took place in his own community.
Think the official violence in Tampa and Hillsborough County ended long before the days of the "White House Boys" at Dozier School in Marianna? Watch this video and think again: 2008 Abuse at Hillsborough County Jail.
The Tampa Bay Times at least covered that one. And then there is this one, reported just today by the Tampa Tribune: Woman dragged by Tampa police officer.
So far as is known no Tampa area media outlet has tried to find either the survivors of beatings or the families of individuals who were abused by authorities in Hillsborough County during the early 20th century. They continue, however, to run interviews and stories about alleged events that took place in Jackson County at exactly the same time in history.
The University of South Florida, meanwhile, is spending more than $600,000 of taxpayer money in a "humanitarian effort" to identify 55 unknown graves at Dozier School. How much money has USF spent to identify the 187 unknown graves at Woodlawn Cemetery within 15 minutes of the doors of its Anthropology Department?
|Pam Bondi, Florida Attorney General|
She has made no calls for justice in Hillsborough County atrocities.
How much money has USF spent looking for a "lost" cemetery associated with the atrocities suffered by adults and children in Hillsborough County?
How many times has Attorney General Pam Bondi commented on the documented atrocities that took place in Tampa and Hillsborough County? How often has she called for closure for the families of the victims?
Officers from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department spent time in Marianna assisting USF in its exhumation of the graves from the Dozier School Cemetery. How much time did they spend last year looking into the skeletons of their own past?
I think you already know the answers to these questions.
This is the first in a series of articles on this topic. Watch for part two in coming days.