Sunday Favorites: The Murder of Sarasota’s First Mayor

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SIESTA KEY — It was an unusually cold Thursday on Jan. 7, 1921, the kind of day that made one’s extremities go numb. That morning Bert Lutzier and his son, Merle, discovered something far more chilling than the temperature—a man, soaking in a pool of blood, was lying in the middle of Beach Road.

Bert and Merle, construction workers tasked with shoveling and hauling shell to developments along Sarasota Key—present-day Siesta Key—came across the sinister scene at the start of their workday.

Harry Higel
Harry Higel

A closer inspection revealed the man had a pulse although he was unresponsive and gurgling blood. His face was so badly bludgeoned he was unidentifiable.

Immediately, they put him in the back of their truck and raced to Dr. Joseph Haldon’s home in Sarasota. Upon diagnosing the man’s critical condition, (he suffered from a deep laceration above the right eye), Haldon ordered him taken to the closest hospital in Bradenton.

While making the journey south, the caretakers noticed the injured man wore several pieces of gold jewelry. On one hand, a ring with the initials “H.H.” gave away his identity.

The caretakers decided he was Harry Higel, one of the most prominent developers in Sarasota and a former city mayor who served during Sarasota’s 1913 incorporation.

Considered a new-age politician, Higel pushed for Sarasota’s development. When no bridge connected Sarasota Key to the mainland, Higel would sail potential land buyers across the bay to show them properties. He built the prestigious Higelhurst Hotel, and had his hands in other numerous land deals and developments on the key.

But Higel never saw Sarasota Key reach its potential. That cold January day, he died before ever reaching the hospital. He was 53.

While police were looking into a confrontation Harry had with an African-American construction worker a few days prior, members of the public were pointing fingers in another direction.

A mob of local residents formed and kidnapped Sarasota Sun editor Rube Allyn, who had a long-standing beef with the businessman. The short-tempered Allyn had a reputation for behaving erratically.

The mob hung a rope around his neck and was about to string him up when police intervened and transported him to jail in Bradenton to ensure his safety.

In the 1910s, Higel quarreled with Allyn over an unpaid debt after he’d lent Allyn money for a home near his prized Higelhurst Hotel on the north end of Sarasota Key. Allyn not only lived at the location, he also printed the Sarasota Sun inside a dockside office.

Aside from the debt, Higel cringed every day when a donkey-drawn cart carrying Allyn’s disabled son passed the property, and disapproved of Allyn allowing his chickens to run amok instead of keeping them cooped up.

In 1917, the Higelhurst Hotel mysteriously burned down one month before the bridge to Sarasota Key was completed. Higel suffered a major financial loss and had to rebuild.

No one knew whom or what was responsible for the fire, but many folks believed it was Allyn, mostly because of his close proximity to the property and his assertiveness toward Higel. During the 1916 local elections, Allyn is said to have criticized Higel’s character in his newspaper.

Regardless of the relationship the two men had, there was not enough evidence to convict Allyn of Higel’s murder.

On March 10, 1921, a Grand Jury acquitted him of all charges, taking only 10 minutes to deliberate. They found the evidence to be circumstantial.

While Allyn’s jail time meant the end of his career at the Sarasota Sun, he was still working as an editor of Florida Fisherman, a publication put out by the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times stood by Allyn, considering that he had spent much of his time surrounding the murder in St. Petersburg perfecting the start-up magazine.

Upon his arrest, his wife took over management of the Florida Fisherman to ensure it would print on time.

While Allyn’s eccentrics were condemned in Sarasota, co-workers who described him as a “story-book character” heralded him. The Times article goes on to describe him as “a man of high romantic imagination, a philosopher, a poet in prose and a lover of nature.”

Allyn moved away from Sarasota, finally settling in Ruskin. There is a coral reef named after him in Pinellas County.

As for Higel’s murder, it remains unsolved. Although authorities suspected the African-American laborer because he had been shoveling for Higel the day before and a shovel could have caused the injuries, the charge lacked evidence.

A handsome reward was offered to anyone with evidence, but nothing ever came of it. Instead, the murder of Higel remains cloaked in secrecy and always will be one of Southwest Florida’s greatest mysteries.

Sunday Favorites: Ringling’s Female Counterpart

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 12.21.15 PMSARASOTA — It’s almost impossible to mention Sarasota without naming its greatest advocate John Ringling. The circus tycoon is synonymous with the city’s development investing heavily in property and helping to shape the area, as we know it. However, Ringling had a female counterpart who is rarely mentioned by residents.

While the name Bertha Palmer might not ring a bell, you probably have driven down a road that bears her maiden name Honore.

Bertha Honore Palmer
Bertha Honore Palmer

Both Palmer and Ringling arrived in Sarasota in the 1910s during the height of the land boom. Both invested heavily, buying large tracts of land around the county, which they hoped would appreciate quickly. Both were charismatic and stylish (Bertha also touted curves that would make Kim Kardashian jealous). Both platted land and laid out roads and both left lasting legacies, which are still around today.

Palmer was just as wealthy and connected as Ringling. She was the widow of Potter Palmer, a land developer who famously established Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Now an expressway running parallel to Lake Michigan, the spans was originally intended for leisurely carriage rides.

Palmer is credited with coercing city officials to build Lake Shore Drive because he thought it would add value to his adjacent property; his home overlooking the lake was known as “The Castle.” Palmer also designed and built the famous Palmer House Hotel, a swanky inn located in the Chicago Loop area.

But Bertha was a legend in her own right. Coined the “Queen of Chicago,” she was known for her social connections, charity work and political stance supporting women’s rights. She chaired the Board of Lady Managers for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and she always seemed to appear in the newspapers, mostly for her designer clothes and lavish jewelry.

Automobiles were a new invention at the time of Bertha’s arrival and the thick Florida underbrush was hard to clear so most folks sailed when they wanted to get from one place to another.

Palmer bought Spanish Point from the Webb’s, and also purchased thousands of acres that started in Oneco and ran all the way to Venice.

While Ringling was busy building a bridge connecting Siesta Key to the mainland, Bertha was enticing the Seaboard Air Line Rail Way to provide commercial transportation to the area.

She is also largely responsible for dredging a channel in between Sarasota and its barrier islands. The project eventually led to the federally funded Intracoastal Waterway.

Bertha introduced more nutritious grasses to area pastures for cattle grazing and began fencing the open range. At the time, a fruit fly epidemic was killing cattle in Manatee, so Bertha petitioned the city for mandatory cattle dipping.

While some might criticize her for helping to bring Florida’s open range and cattle driving to an end, it is her high-tech ranch that now makes up Myakka State Park. That’s right; Bertha donated her 30,000-acre ranch, originally called Meadowsweet Pastures, now a state persevere.

Ironically the property is attached to part of a 67,000-acre tract owned by John and Charles Ringling that was once the site of an oil-drilling venture. That property is now the county-owned Carlton Preserve.

The southern portion of Bertha’s estate eventually became the City of Venice. Her two sons, along with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, essentially drained 8,000 acres of wetlands to create Palmer Farms and Palmer Farm Growers Association, a co-op celery packing and shipping organization.

But Bertha’s heart and soul was the winter estate she purchased from the Webb’s called Spanish Point. She renamed the landmark Osprey Point, and planted exotic gardens, most notably the sunken garden that is still around today. She told people that the bay reminded her of one she’d encountered on a trip to Italy.

She restored the cottages once inhabited by the Webb’s, and used them as guest quarters for her guests.

Today, Bertha Palmer is rarely mentioned by locals, but the next time you drive by a landmark bearing her name, hopefully you will picture the buxom socialite who made just as much of an impact on the area as her male counterpart … what was his name again?

Sunday Favorites: The First Golf Course

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SARASOTA — Golf courses today speckle the state, expertly cut out of just about every possible Florida terrain one could imagine, but did you know one of the first courses in the U.S. was located right here in Sarasota?

Built in 1886 on a 110-acre tract bordering Main Street, the nine-hole course was the start of golf in Florida, and the U.S., as we know it.

John Hamilton Gillespie poses under a large palm. Photo: State Archives of Florida
John Hamilton Gillespie poses under a large palm. Photo: State Archives of Florida

Scottish people claim to have invented the game of golf. I say ‘claim’ because the fact is based on a quote by a Royal and Ancient Golf Club spokesman who famously said, “Stick and ball games have been around for many centuries, but golf as we know it today, played over 18 holes, clearly started in Scotland.”

Whatever the case, it was definitely a Scot who first brought the game here. John Hamilton Gillespie, who was elected first mayor of the Town of Sarasota in 1902, is credited with building the first golf course in the U.S., according to the State Archives of Florida.

Back in the late 1800s, when Sarasota was just beginning to take shape, Gillespie had a crazy pipe dream that included the course, a clubhouse and a five-star hotel. Lucky for us, the dream actually came to fruition in 1905.

Gillespie was an aristocrat and the son of a man by the same name except J.G. Senior sported the title “Sir,” an honor conferred by royalty. Both Gillespies were lawyers as well as members of the Royal Company of Archers, an organization that served as bodyguard for the queen.

However, in 1885, John Gillespie Junior was one of several Scottish immigrants who boarded a steamer departing Glasgow, Scotland that was bound for Sarasota. They were promised a trip to a new land filled with, well, promise.

What they found when they arrived was a freezing barren landscape with no crops, no housing and no dock for the boat to pull up to!

So why were these immigrants duped into crossing an ocean for a budding town not quite ready for habitation? According to historian Janet Snyder Matthews, it was all part of broadside settlement enacted to help some wealthy politicians get out of debt after the Civil War.

In 1881, Governor William Bloxham crafted an agreement with former Union officer Hamilton Disston, basically allowing him to drain the Kissimmee River Valley, south of Lake Okeechobee, in order to provide millions of acres of fertile soil for grazing cattle and farmland. Disston of course would get half of the acreage. He ended up paying $1 million for four million acres; talk about a good investment!

Disston sold half his land to Edward J. Reed, an international land developer from England. Towns soon popped up across the state donning English and Scottish names.

Those Scottish immigrant families boarded a steamer bound for a place the clever land developers designated “Ormiston Colony,” a rebranded version of Sarasota, itself a modern version of its former Spanish name Zarazote. The colony was described as a brand new town with profitable citrus groves and vegetable fields that grew during the winter, a luxury Scotland did not provide.

Imagine the surprise when the weary travelers had to wade ashore only to find they needed to build their own shelter out of something called ‘palm fronds’ or stay with a family they didn’t know. When snow began falling the next month, most of the Scots packed their belongings and headed back home. You can read more about their experience here.

But young Gillespie stayed. He smelled potential.

Matthews describes the next few years in her booklet, “Sarasota Over My Shoulder.”

“Some (of the colonists) stayed and worked while the developer’s plans took shape. They described it as ‘the busy place with a ring of axes and the crash of falling pine trees, accompanied by the songs of Negroes and smell of burning brush.’ Homes, stores and a dock went up. Roads were cleared and graded. Avenues were named for fruits exciting to the 1880s European — Mango, Lime, Lemon, Strawberry, Pineapple, Orange, Coconut and Banana.”

Gillespie was considered a construction manager of the undertaking. In 1886, he cleared woods along Main Street and laid out a long fairway. By 1905, he had completed a nine-hole course and clubhouse on the 110-acre tract.

At the time, golf was just emerging in the U.S. Although the Savannah Golf Club can be traced back to 1794, the majority of clubs opened in the late 1800s, with the first official U.S. Amateur Champion taking place in 1895.

Probably inspired by his own disappointing arrival, Gillespie also built the Desoto Hotel, which he placed at the foot of Main Street to serve as accommodations for those visitors and investors arriving by ship.

Gillespie died playing the game he loved, suffering a heart attack on his course in 1923. While Gillespie’s life was cut short, his legacy is still apparent today. Aside from Florida being one of the world’s top golf destinations, his Scottish heritage is still present locally. Up into the 1990s, the Riverview High School band wore kilts and engaged the “Highland Dancers” who regularly performed Scottish ditties during football games.​