A Century of Murder, Mayhem, and Fraud in Jacksonville

Do you really know your next door neighbor? Over the last century, Jacksonville has been the home of several interesting characters and residents who operated on the other side of the law. Here's a few from Jacksonville's notorious past.

Published November 10, 2014 in History - MetroJacksonville.com

10. Judge John W. Dodge: The Great Skyscraper Extortion Scheme of 1911

Judge John W. Dodge. Image courtesy of Bench and Bar of Florida.

Not all development announcements are made with the intention of actually constructing a real building. Judge John W. Dodge was a Jaxson who bankrolled a profit without applying for a building permit.

In 1911, John Joseph Heard, an Arcadia-based capitalist, announced plans to construct a skyscraper that would house his bank while also being the tallest structure south of Atlanta.  Soon Heard broke ground on his $1 million, 15-story, 248' tall Heard National Bank Building, at the corner of Forsyth and Laura Streets.

Heard would soon find out that his experience in Jacksonville would not be all peaches and cream. This is where former Duval County Judge John W. Dodge enters the picture. Born in Camden, SC in 1875, Dodge relocated to Jacksonville in 1900 and became a Duval County Criminal Court Judge in 1904.

Dodge liked Heard's high profile project so much, he decided to build his own tower.  His company, the Dodge Building Company, "just so happened" to own a 25' wide parcel of property on Laura Street, immediately to the south wall of Heard's project.  With Heard's tower well under construction, the newspaper reported that a second 15-story skyscraper would be developed by Dodge. Dodge retained the services of Mark & Sheftall Architects to design his tower.  

However, Dodge's floor plans had extortion written all over them. Each floor was 25' wide overall and 105 feet deep with no windows on the long, north facade that faced the Heard skyscraper. While the overall design of Dodge's skyscraper was impractical, it would make Heard's building practically worthless if it were constructed. According to a draftsman for Mark & Sheftall, Dodge commissioned the firm to design the building fifteen stories high, the same height as the Heard Building, and 105' deep, also matching Heard's project. This would place a solid block wall against Heard's south windows, cutting out the view and building's cross ventilation system.  Since Heard was already under construction, it was said that he had no choice but to pay Dodge not to build his skyscraper.

Heard completed his tower and opened his new bank in 1913 but the bad luck would continue.  Heard's bank was forced to close in 1917.

Mark & Sheftall's design for Dodge's skyscraper. Image courtesy of The Architecture of Henry John Klutho, Fantasy Skyscrapers and Small Realities


9. William Frederick McCoy: The Real McCoy

The term "The Real McCoy" is said to originate from a prohibition-era Jacksonville boatyard owner and rum-runner named William Frederick McCoy. While popular crime figures like Al Capone and the Purple Gang were running Chicago and Detroit, McCoy was in control of Atlantic Ocean rum-running between the Bahamas and Canada.  That's a pretty big accomplishment for a Jacksonville boatyard owner.

The McCoy family moved to Holly Hill near Daytona Beach in 1900. As the years went on, William and his brother Ben operated a motor boat service and a boat yard in Holly Hill and Jacksonville. Building vessels for Andrew Carnegie and the Vanderbilts, the McCoys gained a reputation for being skilled yacht builders. During Prohibition, the McCoy brothers fell on hard times. Their excursion and freight business could not compete with the new highways and buses being built up and down the coast and across Florida. Needing money, the two brothers made a decision to go into rum-running. They sold the assets of their business, traveled to Gloucester, Massachusetts and bought the schooner Henry L. Marshall.

McCoy then began to smuggle whiskey into the U.S., traveling from Nassau and Bimini in the Bahamas to the East Coast of the United States, spending most time dealing on "Rum row" off Long Island. After a few successful trips smuggling liquor off the coast of the United States, Bill McCoy had enough money to buy the schooner Arethusa. Placing the schooner under British registry in order to avoid being subjected to U.S. law, Bill renamed the vessel Tomoka (after the name of the River that runs through his hometown of Holly Hill).

McCoy made a number of successful trips aboard the Tomoka, and - along with the Henry L. Marshall and up to five other vessels - became a household name through his smuggling activities. Capt. McCoy mostly hauled Rye, Irish and Canadian whiskey as well as other fine liquors and wines. He is credited with inventing the "burlock" -- a package holding six bottles jacketed in straw, three on the bottom, then two, then one, the whole sewed tightly in burlap. It was economical of space and easy to handle and stow. These were generally known in the Coast Guard as "sacks." McCoy's legend grew as his quality liquor and fair-dealing perpetuated the phrase: "it's the real McCoy."

McCoy also became an enemy of the U.S. Government and organized crime. When the Coast Guard discovered McCoy, he established the system of anchoring large ships off the coast in international waters and selling liquor to smaller ships that transferred it to the shore. McCoy also smuggled liquor and spirits from the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon located south of Newfoundland.

On November 23, 1923, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Seneca, had orders to capture Bill McCoy and the Tomoka, even if in international waters. A boarding party boarded the Tomoka, but McCoy refused to surrender. The Tomoka tried to flee, but the Seneca placed a shell just off the hull, and Bill McCoy's days as a rum-runner were over.

McCoy described the chase that led to his capture:

"When the Tomoka was boarded under cover of the Seneca's guns, I immediately set sail and ran away with the boarding party - one lieutenant, one bos'n and thirteen seamen - and only upon their pleas did I heave to and put them back on the Seneca. The damned radio was too severe a handicap for me. I surrendered after the Seneca had fired four-inch shells at me."

When asked what defense he planned to make at the hearing before the trial, McCoy introduced the details of his operations by replying:

"I have no tale of woe to tell you. I was outside the three-mile limit, selling whisky, and good whisky, to anyone and everyone who wanted to buy."

Instead of a long drawn out trial, Bill McCoy pleaded guilty and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail. He returned to Florida and invested his money in real estate. He and his brother continued the boat building business and frequently traveled up and down the coast.

Stowed Hams of Six awaiting the trip across the Straits of Florida to the promised dry land. The Arethusa was a smuggling boat operated by Bill" McCoy, the Real McCoy. Photography courtesy of http://fksa.org/showthread.php?t=12139

8. Charles Ponzi: The Ponzi Schemer

Charles Ponzi's 1911 mug shot. Image courtesy of http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/In-Ponzi-We-Trust.html

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to its investors from their own money or the money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from profit earned by the individual or organization running the operation. Today, most don't know that the man who gave the Ponzi scheme its name, was a Jacksonville resident.

Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi was born on March 3, 1882 in Parma, Italy.  In 1903, having gambled away most of his life savings during his voyage to America, he arrived in Boston with $2.50 in cash and $1 million in hopes. He spent his first few years in the country working small jobs around the East Coast including being sign painter in Jacksonville.

After serving time for forging a check and smuggling illegal Italian immigrants across the border, Ponzi moved to Boston, founded the Securities Exchange Company, and quickly schemed millions from investors. After serving four years in prison, he was indicted on 22 charges of larceny by the State of Massachusetts and sentenced to an additional seven to nine years. Out on bail, Ponzi fled the state and set his eyes on Jacksonville.

At the time, Florida had become a real estate moneymaking dream for speculators and Ponzi wanted his piece of the pie. Looking to make quick cash, under the alias of Charles Borelli, he and his wife, arrived in Jacksonville on September 28, 1925, residing 1331 Main Street in Springfield. Then he established the Charpon Land Syndicate, offering investors a 200% profit within 60 days. Unknowing to many, much of the property was 65 miles west of Jacksonville in rural Columbia County.  Some of it was even under water.

Ponzi made his first sale on November 9, 1925, six weeks after arriving in Jacksonville but his stay would not be long. Soon he was arrested for failing to file proper papers and selling certificates of indebtedness without permission. In February 1926, he was indicted by a Duval County grand jury, charged with violating Florida trust and securities laws. Not wanting to spend time in a Jacksonville prison, Ponzi grew a mustache, shaved his head, faked a suicide, and skipped town in an attempt to return to Italy. Eventually, he was caught and arrested in New Orleans before leaving U.S. territorial waters and returned to Boston to serve his sentence in the Massachusetts State Prison.

7. John Batson Hysler, Sr.: The Whiskey King of Duval County

John Hysler was gunned down during a moonshine run on the Acosta Bridge in 1928.

In the early 20th century, the Hysler family was known for committing several crimes during and after the Prohibition.
Tom Hysler, a different John Hysler, and Dan Hysler, were all convicted or arrested of murders during the early 1920s. Their smuggling network was so significant, in March 1930, Al Capone visited them, staying with Jim Hysler.
In later years, nephew Clyde Hysler was electrocuted for killing Mr. and Mrs. John H. Surrency during an attempted robbery in 1937.

To law enforcement, the Hyslers were Jacksonville's bootlegging version of Al Capone's syndicate. To family members, they were just good old boys trying to make a living. In particular, John B. Hysler, brother of Tom and Dan Hysler, quickly emerged as one of Duval County's most notorious bootleggers. From the day Prohibition started, John B. was involved in bootlegging. Soon he became known as the "Liquor King," "Liquor Czar," and "Whiskey King" of Jacksonville. Due to police corruption, the Lackawanna resident had evaded the law for years.

Unfortunately, John B. Hysler's rabbit's foot lost its mojo on September 26, 1928. On the way back to Jacksonville from picking up illegal hooch that came ashore in Mineral City (present day Ponte Vedra Beach) from Rum Row, Hysler was confronted by dry agents on the Acosta Bridge. Details of what went down are unknown but when it was all over, John B. Hysler was slain and dry agent Hope King was hospitalized in critical condition.

The tombstone of John Batson Hysler Sr. in Baldwin's Gravely Hill Cemetery. Photograph courtesy of Barry Swindle at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=57000277&PIpi=51144450.

"You mean you really have not heard about what happened to John Hysler today?"

The owner shook his head, put the $5.00 in his pocket and leaned in a little closer to the reporter who told him,"He's dead".

The owner turned and yelled to his short order cook, "Oh my God. Hey Mert, come out heya. Johnny's dead!"
A sweat covered fellow popped his head around the door way and said,"Ya kiddin'? Dead? How? He was here this mornin' for some scrambled eggs and calves brains..."

The thought of that delightful breakfast dish made the meatloaf he half scarfed down not so bad after all to the newsman.

"Two Probbies got him... the prohibition agents ...from Jacksonville.They got word he was to be running red whiskey up to Jacksonville. They shot him on the St. Johns River Bridge. Seems they don't know who shot first. Agent King or Hysler. They both emptied their guns. The agent was hit in the chest and ankle but kept firing his 45 automatic. Hysler was hit in the shoulder, twice in the neck and twice in the chest. He was alive when Agent Eaton got him to St. Vincents hospital, but he died about 7 tonight."

The reporter looked over at the cook,who still stood by the door. He was wiping away what seemed to be tears.
"He was a good joe,ya know? So he ran some shiner around these parts. Folks gotta survive. Them yankees pay real good money for that Cuban rum I hear. Shoot, he even was bringin' in some real classy folks-- some of them Italians from Chicago. 'Member that boss? That flashy guy named Al?"

The reporter perked up. "I heard the Hysler boys were in business dealings with Al Capone".

Mert just shook his head and backed into the kitchen, "He was just a real good joe."
Days later, the funeral for John Hysler was the most anticipated quasi-social event of the decade. Almost 1,500 upstanding "law abiding" citizens packed the funeral.

Flower arrangements from some of the nations wealthiest flowed from the building into the street. Cops, lawyers, politicians were all there... as pallbearers.


Barbeque at J. D. Hysler's house during the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Robert E. Fisher Collection. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/167289

6. Sheriff W.H. "Ham" Dowling

Convicted of stabbing Arnold Brymer with a pocket knife, Hersey Mitchell was hung at the Bradford County Jail in 1913. This is said to be the last hanging in Bradford County. Sheriff S.B. Denmark, who was responsible for carrying out the execution, is behind other witnesses including Alachua County sheriff P.G. Ramsey (white shirt and suspenders) and Duval County sheriff W.H. Dowling. Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/27060

Ham Dowling was a man who thought he was above the law. Dowling, a former Seaboard Air Lines Railway train conductor and son of a Baptist minister, was elected Duval County sheriff in 1912 on a strong law-and-order campaign against "a carnival of crime." In 1917, Governor Sidney Catts suspended him for lax enforcement of anti-liquor laws but he was reinstated a few months later.  Five years later, he was suspended by Governor Cary Hardee on a conspiracy charge but was later reinstated. In 1928, W.B. Cahoon was elected over the long-time sheriff and commenced bare-knuckle law enforcement that Jacksonville had not seen during most of the Prohibition era under Dowling.

Not surprisingly, two years later Dowling was in the news again. This time, busted for the ownership of two stills with 14,000 gallons of beer, 250 gallons of whiskey and 79 bottles of home brew. Dowling's "Nothing to see here, move along" claim that he didn't know the stills were on his property, fell on deaf ears. In 1931, Dowling was sentenced to serve two years in a federal prison in Atlanta.

5. John J. Mendenhall

Image courtesy of Jax Psycho Geo at http://jaxpsychogeo.com/all-over-town/murder-in-jacksonville/

John Mendenhall was known as the Pinellas County citrus king. In 1914, Mendenhall feel in love with a young lady who attempted to exploit a large sum of money from him. Mendenhall responded by shooting the young woman and her mother to death in July 1915. He attempted to kill the chauffeur carrying them too but he successfully fled. Mendenhall was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

In prison, Mendenhall became a model prisoner and was put in charge of construction. In 1923, Jacksonville physician Ralph Greene, designed the electric chair while Cook's Cabinet Shop on Newnan Street fashioned it.  In 1924, Mendenhall installed it at the Florida State Prison in Raiford.

60 and stricken with cancer, Mendenhall was pardoned in July 1930 after being incarcerated for 15 years. Finally free, Mendenhall moved to Jacksonville, working construction and shipyard jobs to support himself. Living in an Adams Street rooming house, he befriended Mary Rae Anderson and her Laura Matilda Green. In 1934, both ladies were found beaten to death. Mendenhall declared his innocence, claiming he was home playing rummy when they were murdered. However, his fingerprints were found on a knife, hammer, and his blood on a sheet. He also had scratches on his hands and wrists.

However, Mendenhall claimed he had done handyman work for the ladies, which is why his prints were on the knife and hammer. The scratches and blood came from him saving the senile mother from attempting to run into the St. Johns River.

Mendenhall's second murder trial lasted several days. Finally, the jury deliberated and John J. Mendenhall was found not guilty!

Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Times.

4. Henry "Skimp" Tillman

A resident of Northshore, Henry "Skimp" Tillman's house still stands at 111 Tallulah Avenue.

Henry "Skimp" Tillman was the epitome of a vibrant downtown Jacksonville era that featured an undertone of violence. The city's lawless streets were littered with bars and juke joints in the years immediately following the downfall of Prohibition. During this time, newspapers were filled shootings at saloons, chili parlors, hash houses and dance halls.

Known for having a bad temper, Skimp Tillman was the one-eyed bar owner of Skimp's at the northwest corner of Main and State Streets. Over a twenty year period, Tillman had been charged six times with assault to murder. In one 1935 case where he was acquitted, a customer named Leslie Oldham told the bartender, "I'll get you yet, Skimp." Skimp responded by telling him, "I'll get you, Leslie," then shooting him from behind the bar.

In 1935, Tillman shot to death a customer named Leslie Oldham in Skimp's bar at Bar and Lee streets. Witnesses said Oldham said, "I'll get you yet, Skimp," and Skimp replied, "I'll get you, Leslie," and shot from behind the bar. He was acquitted and the world turned and the life and times of Skimp Tillman went on.

Skimp's luck with beating the law ran out on the afternoon of August 12, 1948. That day, he shot Frank Wood inside of his bar. Moments earlier, Skimp had an argument earlier with his customer about cases involving the Hyslers.

Labeled a trigger-happy hot-head by Assistant State Attorney Nathan Schevitz, the jury found him guilty of first degree murder. The punishment was a ride on "Old Sparky." At 8:30 a.m. on June 5, 1949, Henry Van "Skimp" Tillman was electrocuted at the age of 51.

3. William "Big Bill" Johnston: Florida's Mr. Big

Photograph of William Johnston in the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1964.

William "Big Bill" Johnson was a one-time mutuels clerk at Sportsman Park, a Chicago horse track owned by Al Capone during Prohibition. He eventually rose to the position of public relations director for Edward O'Hare. O'Hare, also known as "Easy Eddie", was one of Capone's top lieutenants. O'Hare International Airport was named in honor of Easy Eddie's son and Medal of Honor recipient, Butch O'Hare.

The Miami Herald's coverage of Easy Eddie's murder. William Johnston took Edward O'Hare's place as president of Capone's dog tracks after O'Hare's death. Photograph courtesy of http://wolfsonianfiulibrary.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/picture5.jpg

Easy Eddie helped federal prosecutors convict Capone of tax evasion in 1933. A week before capone was released from Alcatraz, Easy Eddie O'Hare was slain by gang bullets in 1939. After O'Hare's death, William "Big Bill" Johnston became the head of the Capone syndicate's dog tracks in Chicago, Jacksonville, Orange Park, Tampa, and Miami. Working under Johnston was John Patton. Long associated with the Capone gang, Patton was known as the Boy Mayor of Burham, the Chicago suburb that was the center of vice, gambling, and booze for the Capone syndicate.Wanting a piece of the S & G Syndicate's bookmaking business in Miami, the Chicago mob sent Harry "The Muscle"

Russell to make them a partnership offer they couldn't refuse. Initially, S & G, which was led by a group of South Florida businessmen, refused. Denied by S & G, Johnston proceeded to illegally contribute $154,000 to the election campaign of Governor Fuller Warren. All told, between Johnston and his associates, $404,000 was funneled into Fuller Warren's campaign, accounting for more than half of his fundraising.

Soon, the new governor from Jacksonville appointed W.O. Crosby, a Jacksonville private eye with a criminal record, to investigate Miami's gambling syndicates.  Crosby teamed with Duval County sheriff Jimmy Sullivan in a series of raids. Interestingly enough, only S & G parlors were hit. The raids abruptly stopped once Johnston and his associates got of piece of S&G's pie and a major share of Florida's contracts for road-building materials.

In later years, Johnston, who lived with his wife Anna at 1090 Arbor Lane in San Marco, added downtown Jacksonville's luxurious George Washington Hotel to his list of properties. A benefactor of public education, Florida State University's William Johnston Building and Bishop Kenny High School's William Johnston Stadium are named in honor of the alleged associate of Al Capone's Chicago mob.

Big Bill Johnston's former house in San Marco.

2. Paul John Knowles: The Casanova Killer

Knowles is considered to be among America's most unpredictable serial killers, due to his murders not following a pattern.

Paul John Knowles was known as the Casanova Killer. According British journalist Sandy Fawkes, that named was earned because of his good looks, which she likened to a "cross between Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neal." Fawkes had met Knowles in an Atlanta bar and was quickly infatuated by the killer, who happened to be driving a Chevy Impala from a victim he had murdered a few hours earlier.

Over a seven month period, Knowles murdered between 18 to 35 people. Knowles was born in Orlando in 1946 and given up by his father to live in foster homes and reformatories after being convicted of a petty crime. By the time he served his first jail sentence for kidnapping a police officer, he was a 19 year old with a 11-year history of crime.

Knowles began his killing spree after being rejected at the alter by a fiancĂ© who called off their wedding after a psychic warned her of a dangerous man in her life.  According to the Casanova Killer, that rejection resulted in him killing three people in San Francisco that night.

After returning to Jacksonville, he was arrested after stabbing a bartender during a fight. While being held in a detention cell, knowles picked his lock and escaped on July 26, 1974. Soon, retired Jacksonville schoolteacher Alice Curtis was found dead.

During his reign of terror in 1974, Knowles killed the old, young, men, women, and children by a several methods. Methods of death included strangulation, shotgun, and stabbings with scissors. During some of his murders, he sexually assaulted women. With others, he stole cars, money, and credit cards.

Knowles killing spree ended in November 1974, when he was captured by a hunter in the backwoods of Georgia, while trying to escape a roadblock. In custody, he bragged about the deaths and claimed his motive was a thirst for fame.

The Casanova Killer time in custody would not last long and he didn't live to see 30. While working with detectives to locate hidden murder weapons on December 18, 1974, Knowles attempted to pick a lock on his handcuffs with a paper clip that he had hidden in his socks. Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Ronnie Angel responded by firing three shots into the chest of Knowles, killing him instantly.

1. Ottis Elwood Toole

Ottis Toole. Photograph courtesy of Crime Library at http://www.crimelibrary.com/blog/files/2013/05/ottis-toole.png

Ottis Elwood Toole was born in Jacksonville on March 5, 1947 to an abusive mother and an alcoholic father who abandoned him. As a child living in Springfield, he was a victim of sexual assault and incest. In addition, he claimed that his abuse started when he revealed to his family that he was gay.

By the time he was a young adult, he had become a male prostitute and a serial arsonist, sexually aroused by fire. Although he was first arrested at the age of 17 for loitering, Toole claimed that his first killing occurred three years earlier when he ran over a traveling salesman who propositioned him for sex.

Between 1966 and 1974 and being supported by panhandling and prostitution, Toole drifted around the country racking up murder accusations in the Southwest and South.  A wanted man, he returned to Jacksonville in early 1975.

After meeting Henry Lee Lucas at a Jacksonville soup kitchen in 1976, the two lovers went on to commit several murders. In 1982, Jacksonville's streets would get a little safer when Toole was arrested and sentenced to 20 years for arson. While in custody, he admitted to barricading George Sonnenberg in a boarding house and lighting it on fire after an argument between the two, although according to Dr. Tim Gilmore of Jax Psycho Geo and author of Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, Toole also retracted his story. After being sentenced to life in prison, he admitted to committing several more murders. These included the strangulation of a 19-year old Tallahassee woman, four more murders in Jacksonville, and the confession of the 1981 murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh.

Walsh had been abducted from a Sears department store in Hollywood, FL and his decapitated body was found two weeks later in a Vero Beach, FL canal. Adam's death promoted his father John Walsh to become an advocate for victims' right. Walsh would go on to become the host of the television program America's Most Wanted. In addition, President Bush signed the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act in 2006 and the Code Adam program for helping lost kids in stores is named in Adam's honor.

As for Jacksonville's Toole, he never stepped foot outside of a prison again. He also retracted, and confessed, and retracted to killing Adam Walsh. According to Dr. Tim Gilmore, "the Jacksonville detective credited with obtaining Toole's confession was removed from the case after it surfaced that he'd fed Toole information and offered him a book deal--especially ironic since Toole was illiterate and had an IQ of about 75."

On September 15, 1996, he died of cirrhosis at Florida State Prison in Raiford. Toole's associate, Henry Lee Lucas, died in prison of heart failure on March 13, 2001.

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2014-nov-a-century-of-murder-mayhem-and-fraud-in-jacksonville

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