EARLY HERNANDO COUNTY HISTORY
Historical Sketch of Hernando County (WPA)
Mrs. Sarah Leaming
By an act approved by the Legislative Council on February 24, 1843, Hernando County was created from a section of Alachua County. It was bounded on the north by Alachua, on the east by Mosquito County (see footnote), on the south by Hillsborough County and on the west by the Gulf of Mexico, embracing what now comprises Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties.
The name “Hernando” was given this county in honor of Hernando De Soto, a Spanish nobleman, conqueror and explorer, who landed in Tampa Bay and marched through this territory in July, 1839.
Upon the passage of an act in 1842 which gave every desirable settler a section of land below the Withlacoochee River as an inducement to bring people into the state, there came pioneers with their wives and children. To their courage and hardihood is Hernando County indebted for its development and progress. Among the first newcomers were Col. Byrd Pearson, Mrs. J. S. Brunner and Captain Bradley.
The first settlement in this county was in 1843 at Old De Soto, located one and a half [miles] northeast of the present site of Brooksville, on Gorden Lake, and named for Hernando De Soto, as was the county. Several families lived in this settlement built of sturdy pine logs. A block house, or meeting house, and several cabins were enclosed by a high log stockade in which loop-holes were cut for the sentry to stand guard against surprise attacks by the Indians. The old stage road ran in front of the settlement and brought in supplies at irregular intervals.
Because a hard limerock sub-surface made it impossible to reach water, the settlement abandoned Old De Soto and moved to the present site amidst the springs, which later was named Brooksville.
In 1855 the Board of County Commissioners decided to erect a courthouse on the site where the present courthouse now stands. This building was constructed of wood and a cannon mounted on the west lawn to be fired in case of fire or other emergencies.
In 1860 Major John Parsons, elected to the Legislative Council, contending that Bay Port was more suitable a site for a county seat since it was accessible by water as well as by land caused the county seat to be moved to Bay Port.
At the change of the county seat political friction and personal feeling ran high. However, when the Federals bombed the city in 1863 during the Civil War the county records were moved out in the dead of night and Brooksville again became the county seat. Only two terms of court were held in Bay Port.
In 1877 the courthouse was burned, destroying all records. It is believed that the fire was incendiary, inasmuch as two murder cases were on the calendar for the next term of court.
The courthouse was rebuilt in 1878. This was a two-story frame structure of unfinished wood which had been sawed by the first saw mill ever to operate in the county, owned by T. S. Coogler. At the completion of the building a volunteer fire brigade was established to facilitate fire fighting.
Due to the march of progress and the increasing number of settlements, it became evident that the county seats were too far apart for their affairs to be efficiently administered. Thus, a series of legislative acts followed, resulting in 1884 in the division of Hernando County and the creation of Pasco and Citrus counties therefrom.
By the act of the General Assembly the boundary lines of Hernando County were declared as follows: commencing at a point on the Withlacoochee River on the section line dividing sections twelve and thirteen, township twenty-one, south, of range twenty, east, and running thence up said river to the junction therewith of the Little Withlacoochee River to the head of the same; thence south on the range line to the line dividing sections twenty-three, south, of range twenty-two, east; thence west to the line dividing townships twenty-three and twenty-four; thence west along said line to the Gulf of Mexico; thence northerly along said Gulf, including islands, to the south line of Citrus County; thence along the south line of Citrus County to the place of beginning.
At a called mass meeting of the citizens of Brooksville on September 9, 1880, there was elected a mayor, a marshall, a clerk, five aldermen, a treasurer, an assessor, and a collector of revenue. At this meeting Mr. John L. May donated fifteen acres of the land east of the main street and Mr. Joseph Hale donated fifteen acres west of the main to the town of Brooksville for public property. The proceeds of the sale of any or all of said acreage to be used for the operating expenses of the town.
On June 5, 1911, the Board of County Commissioners asked for bids for the erection of a new fire-proof courthouse according to the plans and specifications of Chamberlin & Co., architects. The new brick structure of two and a half stories was erected on the site of the former building and occupies the entire square in the center of the business section reserved by the county for that purpose.
In 1925 Brooksville was incorporated.
Footnote: Mosquito changed to Orange, Jan. 30, 1845.
Negroes Tried To “Take” Brooksville 70 Years AgoThis article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on July 3, 1955. It was contributed by Judge E. C. May of Inverness. May refers to John W. Davis of Lecanto as a source. The event actually occurred in 1882.
By JUDGE E. C. MAY
About 1885 an uprising of Negroes tried to take Brooksville. Of course they should have known better, for Brooksville was a hard place to take in those days. I heard the story many times when I first came to Citrus County, but in a talk with John Davis recently I was brought up to date on the details. Mr. Davis tells it substantially as follows:
Three young Negroes named Turner were born, slaves, belonging to a man named Edrington. They were babies when slavery was abolished, and so far as was known there was no resentment against their former master. They were just naturally bad.
Came a time when Jim Turner was summoned to work the road. At that time the only roads were trails through the woods, and every man was required to give three days work annually to keep them in good shape. The road overseer could permit you to hire a substitute if he wished, but if he required it, one must work the roads personally, and there was no appeal from his decision.
Jim Turner refused to work the road, which was a misdemeanor, and he was brought before the court and fined. He announced that he would not work the road nor pay the fine, and he would kill any man who tried to collect.
Many meetings of Negroes took place in the hammock near-by, at which Jim Turner held forth, and the Negroes were thoroughly aroused. It was decided that on a certain day they would attack Brooksville and take it. So far as was known, they had no plans after that, but on the appointed day they tried.
An old Negro preacher learned of the plot and that one of his sons was to be in the “army.” He talked to the boy and ordered him to stay away from Brooksville, especially on that day, and when he would not promise the preacher went to the Law family, who were his former masters, and in whom he had implicit confidence. He told of the plot and of his son's refusal to obey him.
On the appointed day a large number of Negro men and boys gathered at the trysting place in the hammock, and in the middle of the morning they advanced on the town. The officers and a large number of citizens were prepared. One of the Turners had a loaded shotgun, which he was told he could not carry in the street, and he left it in a saloon.
Jim Turner and one of his brothers went into the court house and when ordered to pay his fine Jim fired his pistol at the crowd. A rifle spoke from one corner of the hall and Jim Turner fell dead.
His brother walked to him and seeing that he was dead tried to escape by the door, but finding it blocked he ran to a window, but a rifle bullet knocked him through to the ground, dead.
The last brother started walking toward the saloon where he had left his gun. Rifle and pistol bullets knocked the dust from his clothes but he kept going. As he mounted the step of the saloon someone shot his face off with his own gun.
When the “army” of Negroes saw what had happened and that all their leaders were dead, they stampeded down the road like a bunch of cattle. Officers and citizens began firing into the crowd and many were wounded, but there were no more deaths. So ended the plan to “take Brooksville.”
The preacher's boy got a bullet in his arm, which stuck there. When he got home he asked his father for a doctor, but was told that he would get no doctor. His mother would dress the wound until it got well, but he must keep the bullet as a souvenir and as a reminder that “when the old man tells you to stay away from a place for your own good, you will remember to stay away.”
The old preacher went to his reward not many years afterward, but the boy grew into middle life, still carrying the bullet souvenir. Tom Allen, a deputy sheriff, killed him in Crystal River about 1915.
Gaiety and AnguishBy D. B. McKAY
Of another woman's tragedy during the war, a blue English china platter is the only relic surviving to this day.
Henry Van Patten, descendant of an old Hernando County family, and well known himself in Hillsborough County, as deputy sheriff and jailer, related this tragic story:
In the early days of the last century his great-grandmother, Mrs. Frances Pyles [see note below], set out on a trip from Brooksville to Hancock Lake, to visit a branch of the family. She traveled in a small buggy, in the back of which was loaded a small trunk, full of gifts for the relatives, as well as her extra clothing and some jewelry. Among the gifts was a set of blue English china, the solve surviving platter of which is now a treasured heirloom in the home of Henry and his wife Martha.
Riding in the buggy with Mrs. Pyles was a young grandson [see note below]. They were escorted by several men on horseback and a few dogs. All went well, and the party was inclined to scoff at the idea of danger, since no signs of Indians had been seen in that vicinity for some time. So, when the dogs picked up a scent and gave chase, the men followed them into the woods, gaily assuring Mrs. Pyles they would soon add a fine venison to her other gifts.
Scarcely were they out of earshot, when the dread war-whoop sounded and the buggy was surrounded by Indians. Mrs. Pyles was badly wounded by a shot through the shoulder. The Indians saw the trunk, and breaking it open, scrambled for its contents. In the ensuing confusion, the young grandson escaped and went after the men of the escort. Their return caused the Indians to vanish, and the men found Mrs. Pyles tied to a tree where the Indians were evidently intending to burn her. She had been stripped to the waist and the upper part of her body was stuck full of fat-pine splinters. Tenderly releasing her, and salvaging what the Indians had discarded, among other items, the blue platter, they returned to Brooksville. Mrs. Pyles soon expired from the wounds in her shoulder.
Some time later, several Indians came into Brooksville. Some of the people recognized pieces of jewelry they were wearing, as having belonged to Mrs. Pyles. This being taken as prima facie evidence that they had taken part in the attack on Mrs. Pyles, the Indians were quickly apprehended and summarily hanged.
It was said that Mr. Pyles had long traded with the Indians and that they had considered him their friend. When the tribe learned that it was his wife who had been murdered this caused much internal strife among the Indians.
Note: The writer of the above article is D. B. McKay, a Tampa newspaperman who wrote of his ancestor Capt. McKay and other early figures. The subject of this story is in fact the great-grandmother of the person McKay interviewed, although she is actually Charlotte Wynn Piles Crum, the mother of Frances Sophia Pyles, wife of David Hope. Riding with her was not her grandson but her granddaughter, Mary Catherine Harn. These errors caused Charity Hope to believe that her mother was the one killed on Sept. 12, 1842. Information from Charles Blankenship.
The Varnada Hotel Becomes Popular Venue With LocalsThe following article appeared in Hernando Today on Oct. 6, 1999.
BROOKSVILLE—The Varnada Hotel in Brooksville was built about 1900 by L. B. Varn and considered a very fine hotel during its time.
It was a popular meeting place for social and business occasions.
It was located on East Jefferson Street in the same block that the SunTrust Bank is now located.
Varn owned and operated the hotel that had three floors and 30 rooms. The hotel had running water but did not have a bath for each room. Instead, there were two or three bathrooms on each floor. The hotel maintained a dining room and many local people ate Sunday dinner there.
In 1907, the Tampa Northern Railway came into Brooksville and at a later date, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The railroads brought many people into town who stayed at the hotel when they were in the area. In addition, traveling salesmen, or “drummers” as they were known then, stayed at the hotel.
The Varnada was also host to many winter tourists, ordinary travelers, and prospective settlers.
The late Jean Truett, a member of a wealthy family, lived at the Varnada part of the time. At times, she played the piano.
The hotel burned on Sunday April 28, 1918.
L. B. Varn also had a home in Bayport and built a telephone line from Bayport to Tooke Lake. Varn also established one of the first dairies in the county, introducing an improved milk stock. He owned 25 acres of orange grove and built at least 40 houses in Brooksville, owned a garage, the ice plant and a cannery. He came to Hernando County as a man of “modest circumstances” and through hard work built a considerable life for himself and his family.
Slaves Were Used To Pay Debts When Master DiedThe following article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 29, 2007.
By ROGER LANDERS
Down in de cornfield
Hear dat mournful sound:
All de darkeys am a-weeping,
Massa's in de cold, cold ground
Some will recognize the chorus from the Stephen Foster 1852 tune Massa's in de Cold Ground. The song, written for minstrel shows, romanticizes the "peculiar institution" of slavery in the South.
Many of my generation and older will remember Foster's songs and their depiction of slavery: a paternalistic slave master, beloved by his "children" and grief-stricken when he died.
The slaves were grief-stricken, but not for the reason that many of us were led to believe.
The reality was that when a slave owner died, his slaves were "valued" and often sold to pay his "just debts." This frequently meant that families were separated, children taken from parents and older slaves from caregivers.
For example, when Sterling McCarthy of Hernando County died in 1861, his will specified that his 17 slaves were to be "valued" for the benefit of his seven children.
February is Black History Month, and it is a good time to explore and share these stories of early African-Americans in Hernando County.
Antebellum Hernando represented the southern tip of the plantation belt of Florida. The rich, fertile lands of the area gave way to the open spaces of South Florida. As settlers came into the county, they found American Indian fields and pastures ripe for rapid planting. The first settlers in 1842 brought 59 slaves.
In 1850, there were many slaves working the farms and plantations in the county. The area boasted "fine plantations" with the taxable land valued at $540,000 and slaves valued at $480,000.
By 1860, there were 42 slave owners in the county. Most were small farmers who held fewer than 10 slaves. However, there were 16 farmers, known as planters, with as many as 20 to 45 slaves.
Two large planters, John May of Brooksville and David L. Yulee of Homosassa, held more than 50 slaves each. Collectively, these farmers and planters constituted a planter aristocracy in Hernando.
Few realize that free black people lived in Florida. But they were small in number - fewer than 1,000 - and most lived in larger towns such as Jacksonville, Key West, St. Augustine and Pensacola. Free black people had, in reality, fewer "rights" than their enslaved brethren.
The white population, fearing a slave insurrection led by "free men of color," passed stringent laws limiting the freedoms of such men.
With the exception of free black property owners during Spanish and British rule, a free black man could not own property or travel within the state without a pass. All free men were required to have a "sponsor," or guardian.
Hernando County had one such man, Mills Holloman. Holloman, a mulatto, was born in Virginia about 1796 and lived in Florida before 1838. He applied for a land grant in Hernando County on Dec. 14, 1842.
His application was denied Jan. 23, 1843, because of his color, according to records.
He and his wife, Anna, lived and farmed near the Cedar Tree post office in the southern part of the county. Nathanial H. Moody, who served as Hernando sheriff from 1851 to 1853, was his longtime friend, neighbor and guardian.
The records of the time, scant as they are, do mention many other individuals by name. For example, the minutes of Union Baptist Church - First Baptist of Brooksville - list several slaves who joined the church or engaged in some activity that required special mention on record.
Several of these former Union Baptist slave members became ministers in their own right.
Deeds, journals and news articles provide other names.
The earliest is that of free mulatto Juan Bautista Collins of St. Augustine. In 1808, Collins traveled through Central Florida and at Chocachatti purchased 18 head of cattle from a black Seminole woman named Molly.
The storm of June 1856 almost ruined the agricultural pursuits of the county. "Cultivated lands of Hernando County (were) covered with 12 to 15 inches of sand," the Florida Peninsular newspaper reported.
By 1860, the region had regained its agricultural prominence; there were 1,200 white inhabitants and 855 slaves in the county.
Most of the slaves were born in Florida, South Carolina or Alabama.
There was one stark exception. A former slave named March (no last name), born in 1795, reported his place of birth as Africa in the 1870 census. He lived next to the Delane, Going, Wilder and Duncan families.
During the Civil War, several Hillsborough families sought refuge in Hernando. One such refugee was William Hooker. Relocating his family and 55 slaves to old Spring Hill, he became the fifth-largest planter in the county.
The Union raid on Hernando in summer 1864 ravaged the plantations of Hooker, Leroy Lesley, David Hope, John T. Lesley, William C. Ellis and Aaron T. Frierson.
Some of the slaves took advantage of the chaos and slipped away to the safety of Union territory or to that of friendly Seminoles.
Perhaps one of those "runaways" was Hampton St. Clair, a slave of the May family, known to have lived for some time with the Seminoles. Both Hampton and his brother, Arthur, later became prominent leaders in the African-American community of postwar Hernando.
In 1866, the Rev. James M. Breaker accepted the call of black members of Union Baptist Church to form a separate congregation. Shortly thereafter, Bethlehem Baptist Church was organized.
After the war, from 1865 to 1880, many of the former slaves and their families left the area.
Several moved to Marion County, like Tony May and his wife and son.
Often these men and their descendants rose to prominence in their new communities.
Holloman and some of Sarah Howell's former slaves organized the community of Bealsville in eastern Hillsborough in 1865.
Holloman lived from time to time in Hillsborough and Hernando. He homesteaded in the Seffner area, became a citrus grower and served two terms as a county commissioner in Hillsborough.
His son, Adam, replaced him on the commission in 1872. His son-in-law, Levin Armwood, became Tampa's first black police officer.
While early African-American records are limited because of the destruction of the old Hernando courthouse in September 1877, some records do exist.
Black History Month reminds us of the need to not let this important heritage slip away.
From Early Days, Lawyers Have LedThe following article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on April 30, 2007.
By ROGER LANDERS
Several years ago, members of the Old Hernando History Roundtable had the pleasure of hearing Joseph E. Johnston Jr. speak of old times in the Hernando legal profession. Joe was the first full-time lawyer in town.
Sure, there have been many lawyers before him, but he was the first to earn a living solely from the practice of law.
The story of those early lawyers starts when the first attorney in the county, Byrd M. Pearson, began his practice. Born in Union District, S.C., in 1803, he arrived locally by 1845 and purchased a large tract of land at the top of a hill now known as Chinsegut Hill. He sold the plantation to Francis Edrington in May 1851 and moved to Jacksonville. Later Pearson became a justice on the Florida Supreme Court.
Another early attorney was Perry Green Wall. Arriving in the early 1845, he farmed and practiced law. Wall served as county judge from 1848 to 1864. His son, Joseph Wall, followed into the legal profession, as have three succeeding generations.
Theodore S. Coogler is one of the better-known early lawyers. Coogler, of South Carolina, taught school in the late 1850s for the Lykes family. After two terms of school, he returned to South Carolina. He came back to Hernando after the Civil War and began the practice of law. He also was a merchant, citrus grower and the first superintendent of public schools.
The early attorneys had a significant impact on the county. Often referred to as "colonel, " they commanded respect and served in roles of leadership.
In 1873, the young attorney Charles E. Harrison arrived in Brooksville. At that time, only one other attorney, W.J. Barnett, practiced locally.
In his first case, Harrison defended a local farmer on allegations of breach of contract. To the trial went Harrison, armed with his text, Parsons on Contracts. Before Justice of the Peace Rubin Wilson, he successfully defended his client. The losing party immediately attacked Harrison's client. Justice Wilson came from behind the bench and declared: "Harrison, you hold back that side. They had a fair trial and by God they can have a fair fight."
By 1889, Elliott's Florida Encyclopedia reports that Brooksville boasted 11 attorneys; Barnett, O.C. Butterwick, Coogler, W.S. Jennings, T.P Floyd, G.C. Martin, T. Palman, J.C. Phillips, J.C. Preston, G.V. Ramsey and T.M. Shackelford, who later served as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court from 1902 to 1917.
One of the more colorful attorneys of this period was George C. Martin. In 1906, Harry A. Peeples, a Tampa municipal judge, penned a memoir of his early experiences in Hernando, and he chronicled several stories about Martin.
In one he writes: "On my way to Tampa, I stopped in Brooksville and spent the night. The next morning there was some excitement near the courthouse ... Colonel George C. Martin, the famous Hernando lawyer, was to argue a 'pint of law' and old man Tuck told me that George Martin was the best expectorator before a judge in the whole State of Florida." So Peeples decided to stay for the trial.
At trial, the issue was fraud, and the defendant, known to be a rough character, usually carried a weapon. Martin, knowing the defendant's reputation, placed a pistol in his hip pocket before entering the courthouse.
As Martin rose from his chair, the pistol caught on the back of the chair and flipped onto the floor near the judge's bench. It was a spectacle watching Martin as he tried to pick up the pistol without the judge seeing him. At one point, Martin almost knelt down with a finger raised in the air as he was making his "pint of law" and retrieved his errant property.
In 1895, Francis B. Coogler became the second member of the Coogler family to enter the legal profession. Three later generations of this family also became attorneys.
In 1899, there were three members of the Florida Bar Association in Hernando County: George C. Martin, William Sherman Jennings and Francis B. Coogler.
Just after the turn of the 20th century, Fred Lykes Stringer returned to Brooksville to practice law. In 1927, he became a circuit judge.
The 1920s and '30s saw some new blood come to town. Herbert Smithson became the attorney for the city of Brooksville. He was murdered in 1930. W. Clyde Lockhart opened a practice in Brooksville, as did the Whitehurst brothers - James, John, Leon and Onan.
In 1931, Edward S. McKenzie of Leesburg moved with his wife, Romie Daniel, to her home county.
Marion L. Dawson, after three terms in the Florida Legislature, relocated to Brooksville and began his practice in 1934.
Following World War II, Joseph E. Johnston graduated from law school and returned to Brooksville. Until that time, Brooksville lawyers supplemented their livelihood with income from such endeavors as real estate, ranching, citrus and farming. Determined to make the practice of law his full-time vocation, the young Johnston opened his law office in 1947.
In 1952, Johnston placed a bid to become School Board attorney. His uncle, Alvin Coogler Sr. the board's attorney at the time, remarked to the School Board: "Give the boy the job before his family starves to death."
So began a new era in the full-time practice of law in Hernando County.
In the early 1950s, Richard McGee returned home to practice. Shortly after McGee's return, Frank McClung joined the local ranks of attorneys. By 1962, Joseph Young moved to Brooksville from Clearwater and established his practice, and Hernando boasted about a half dozen attorneys.
As each successive generation of lawyers returned home and with the rapid growth of the county in the mid 1970s, the attractiveness of Hernando became apparent. New partnerships and alliances formed and dissolved. Some of the lawyers elected a career in public service.
Some never returned, yet have left their marks in professional circles, including Florida Attorney General William McCollum and Lynn Thompson, a public defender assigned to the Ted Bundy defense team.
Some have blazed trails, including Brooksville's Hazel M. Land, the first African-American female to graduate from the University of Florida Law School. Linda J. Treiman graduated from law school in 1976 and soon became Brooksville's first female lawyer.
The career of Joseph E. Johnston served as a benchmark in the development of the Hernando Bar. When no assistant state attorney was assigned to Hernando, Johnston stepped in to serve. He insisted on the maintenance of an up-to-date law library and adequate court facilities for the county.
As sons joined their fathers, brothers joined brothers, and daughters followed fathers into the profession, new attorneys began practice and others retired. This year, the Florida Bar reports 156 attorneys now reside in Hernando County.
1877 Burning of Courthouse Symbolizes
This article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on June 25, 2007.
|Wm. M. Garrison } Chairman|
|Thos. P. Gary }|
|Wm. D. Eubanks }|
De Soto Lodge, Hernando Co., Florida January 25, 1862
The foregoing transcript of ***** and Resolution is a true copy of the Minutes of De Soto lodge No. 32 unanimously adopted on Saturday 25 January 1862 Witness my hand and Seal of lodge this 25th day of January AD 1862
Wm. M. Garrison Secretary
[Transcribed by Charles Blankenship from a digital camera copy of the original. Original in possession of Henry R. Nicks, Dallas, Texas. Both are descendants of James Rinaldo Nicks (1808-1861)]
This article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 4, 2013.
By DAN DEWITT
The big, brick Hernando County Courthouse in downtown Brooksville is 100 years old — plenty old, by Florida standards, to deserve the anniversary celebration planned for later this week.
But to understand why the county once needed not just a solid courthouse, but a solid symbol of justice, we need to go back even further, to at least 1877.
That was the year a deadly feud erupted over an interracial marriage. There was a gunfight at the newlyweds' home in Brooksville and, later, the ambush and killing of Arthur St. Clair, the black minister and former county commissioner who had performed the wedding ceremony.
In September 1877, a fire destroyed the county's old wooden courthouse and, not coincidentally, a witness' statement identifying members of the mob that had confronted St. Clair.
Hernando, in other words, wasn't just crime-ridden, it was lawless. The construction the courthouse didn't immediately change that, as we'll see later. But starting 100 years ago, this substantial building at least made it appear as though the county cared about justice and, maybe, just by being there, nudged the county along to the point where it did care.
But that would take awhile.
The 1877 fire accomplished what was probably its goal: bringing about a hiatus in legitimate law enforcement and ushering in the reign of a group of vigilantes called "regulators."
If by taking that name they claimed to be regulating crime, they failed miserably. Eleven murders were committed between 1877 and 1879, local historian Roger Landers wrote in a 2011 report for the journal Tampa Bay History.
These were among more than 40 killings in Hernando in the first 14 years after the Civil War. And even after the end of that especially bloody era, the bodies piled up at an amazing rate for a county with a population of roughly 4,000.
Five people were killed in a three-week span in 1881, including three of the sheriff's young sons, who allegedly were shot or stabbed by a black man working off a burglary charge in the sheriff's home. This man, inevitably, became victim No. 4, according to the Sunland Tribune newspaper:
"The fiend . . . was captured, confessed his crime and was lynched in the presence of 200 citizens."
In 1882, three black brothers had the nerve to object to a requirement that they work for free on county road gangs, and were shot dead in downtown Brooksville. The year after that, according to an unnamed newspaper quoted on the website of the West Hernando Historical Society, there was yet another lynching in Brooksville:
"Two negroes, arrested for shooting two whites, were taken from jail and shot dead."
So a lot of the killings in the early days were part of the post-Civil War hangover and in some way related to race. But any history of the Hernando criminal justice system should note how dangerous it was to be a part of that system; among the victims in these early days were two judges and a sheriff.
And another apparent attempt to thwart justice — an 1879 fire in a court records storage room — made it clear that when the county was ready to build a permanent courthouse, it needed to be a brick courthouse.
As with many other fires in the county in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the question about whether this blaze was intentionally set can't be answered because fire protection was as substandard as law enforcement.
The two grandest hotels of their era, the Hernando and the Varnada, both burned down, the first in 1899 and the second in 1916 — both in fires that consumed several other downtown buildings.
Devastating house fires were routine, Richard Stanaback wrote in his 1976 History of Hernando County, which also listed a half-dozen factories and downtown stores that went up in flames over the years.
So you can imagine that it was reassuring to see the brick courthouse with the substantial columns rise up in the middle of town. It was completed in 1913, according to Stanaback. And though his book does not include the price, we can assume it was in the ballpark of the amount of a failed courthouse tax levy: $75,000.
Not long after investing all that money in its legal system, the county entered an infamous period of working outside of it — the "hanging times," as a now-deceased lifelong Hernando resident, Charlie Batten, called these years in a 2007 interview.
According to an analysis of the most reliable database of lynchings available, housed at Tuskegee University, Hernando had the highest rate of lynchings of any county in the nation between 1900 and 1930. At least five of these young black men or teenagers were lynched in the 1920s — none of them, as far as I know, from the oak trees on the courthouse lawn, which were barely saplings at the time. Given the county's history, though, you can see why that myth is so persistent.
W.D. Cobb, who was sheriff during these times and who was about as interested in real justice as those old regulators, also shot and killed two prominent white residents before he was voted out of office in 1932. And one of Cobb's victims was supposedly shot for getting drunk and saying too much about another killing — that of Brooksville City Attorney Herbert Smithson in 1931.
Smithson probably was helping federal agents crack down on the illegal alcohol trade in the county, which would put Hernando's sheriff on the side of moonshiners and bootleggers, which would not be at all surprising.
Prohibition was a major boon to Hernando, Richard Cofer wrote in a 1979 article in Tampa Bay History:
"According to one local citizen, whiskey was made in 'nearly every other house.' . . . The entire county's social and political structure was infused with the illegal liquor trade."
That no doubt was a major reason Hernando, unlike surrounding counties, voted to stay dry until 1963. And the suspicions that law enforcement was protecting the illegal liquor operations hung around until at least 1946, when Sheriff Neil Law was suspended on the never-proven grounds that he knew that moonshiners had killed a farmer north of Brooksville but did nothing to prosecute them.
One last story of injustice in the criminal justice system returns, appropriately for Hernando, to the issue of race. A now-deceased former deputy, Nelson "Red" Brass, recalled in a 1998 interview that in one 1950s-era session of circuit court, "two black boys" were sentenced to two years in prison for stealing a pig, the same punishment a black woman received for killing her boyfriend.
"(This is) what the state attorney told me: When one black kills another, that's a good deed done," Brass said.
In a lot of interviews over the past few weeks, lots of longtime lawyers have told me about the courthouse and its grand second-story courtroom, which started looking grand again after the drop ceiling and fake wood paneling were removed during a renovation in the 1990s.
In the 1950s, "it wasn't air-conditioned, and it would remind you of the Scopes monkey trial movie (Inherit the Wind) because all the windows were open," said Brooksville lawyer Bill Eppley, who grew up in Brooksville and remembered when residents packed the courtroom for dramatic trials such as Marie Dean Arrington's in 1966.
She received a death sentence, later overturned, for killing an employee in the Lake County Public Defender's Office, which she blamed for lax representation of her two recently imprisoned children.
You have to wonder if the prosecutor, who described Arrington as a "wild, cunning animal," would have used those words if she weren't black. But I have to say it was refreshing to finally see someone who had used terror to try to undermine justice get what they deserved.
There were many more successful prosecutions of awful crimes in this courthouse, and, of course, I could have written more about them and the brave work done by the people to bring us to the present, when we've never been safer, when we can generally have confidence that our legal system is upholding the law and that this great, old building actually stands for justice.
But tell me: Don't you appreciate the present more now that you know about the past?