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.

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