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Journal describes Hernando County's blood-soaked history

Ku Klux Klan members pose outside the Hernando County Courthouse in 1923, an era when the group touted itself as a respectable civic organization.

Special to the Times

Ku Klux Klan members pose outside the Hernando County Courthouse in 1923, an era when the group touted itself as a respectable civic organization.

You think reporters are hard on Hernando County now? Check out this apparently well-deserved slam in a New York Times story about a string of five murders here during July of 1881:

"There is scarcely a week that passes but what some sort of crime is committed in that county. There appears to be a dreadful fascination, with the people of that locality, both white and black, in the taking of human life."

This passage was reprinted in an exhaustively researched article in the December edition of Tampa Bay History by Roger Landers, an amateur historian and retired school administrator from Brooksville.

I highly recommend it for all Hernando residents. I'd even require it if I could. But because this academic journal (available for order through the Tampa Bay History Center for $19.95) is not posted online, and because I think as many people as possible should know the gist of Landers' report, let me summarize.

Hernando County, from the end of the Civil War to the early 1930s, was extraordinarily violent, even by the standards of rural Florida, Landers wrote.

Nobody put much effort into prosecuting the killings during the most violent periods, so it's probably no surprise there isn't an official count. But in frequent, damning editorials after the Civil War, newspapers around Florida routinely referred to Hernando County — with an 1870 population of less than 3,000 — as the bloodiest in the state.

Some of the events in Landers' report will be familiar to anyone who has read much Hernando history:

The murderous Reconstruction-era feud set off by an interracial marriage, the burning of the county courthouse in 1877 to cover up evidence of these killings, the 1920s-era reign of the Ku Klux Klan, which helped make Hernando home of the most lynchings, per capita, of any county in the South between 1900 and 1930.

Then there was the infamous last gasp of this lawless era: the 1931 murder of a local lawyer, Herbert Smithson, as he left a meeting at the city's best hotel, and then-Sheriff W.D. Cobb's killing of two residents from respected families — one of them after he got drunk and bragged that he knew who killed Smithson.

What's different about Landers' recent account?

He included some lesser-known incidents (at least to me) such as the attempted murder of one judge and the killing of another, William Center, who was expected to identify the courthouse arsonists in 1879. And Landers was able to document, in detail I've never seen before, eras of nearly complete lawlessness.

When court proceedings basically ceased for two years after the burning of the courthouse, a rough justice was carried out by self-appointed "regulators," Landers wrote, who "often exacerbated hostilities. For example, on Christmas Eve 1878, William Cray, Jr., killed Louis W. Valentine during a domestic dispute. James M. Rhodes, a regulator, apprehended Cray and whipped him. A week later, Rhodes was killed at his home near Brooksville, the killing reported to be in retaliation for the whipping of young Cray. In a related incident on the night of January 1, 1879, the wife of Anthony May was seriously wounded and their son killed as the family traveled to their home in Marion County."

Such was the holiday season in post-Civil War Hernando.

Here's what else is different about Landers' account. He ties all this whipping and killing together with a central theory.

Hernando was the southernmost tip of the plantation economy. This withered and died after the war, driving away the county's wealthiest, best-educated residents, and leaving community leaders who "remained staunch in their old belief system — the obligation, necessity, and correctness of the institution of slavery."

The fear and enforced secrecy used to oppress Republican sympathizers and ambitious black residents also discouraged outside investment and progressive-minded newcomers. This helped keep the backward-looking leadership in place through Prohibition, when one of its main aims was protecting the county's highly profitable illegal liquor trade.

It created the kind of town (not unique in Florida or the United States, it should be noted) where the klan could operate as a respectable civic organization, touting law and order while practicing vigilante justice. Klan rallies at the time drew large, cheering crowds. Landers wrote that "it was not unusual for the klan to enter a church service in full regalia and make a donation to the building fund."

No, Landers can't quantify the negative economic impact of all this mayhem and, certainly, there were some advances over the years. The railroad came to town in the 1880s; lumber and mining companies arrived in the decades afterward to exploit the area's natural resources.

But there's no doubt Hernando's economic and population growth was stunted for decades. Around 1950, the county was still home to fewer than 7,000 people. Hernando didn't really start to put the old days behind it, Landers wrote, until the Deltona Corp. arrived to build Spring Hill in the late 1960s.

What do I take as the modern lesson? Well, there's a lot of reluctance to pay for public services these days — universities and libraries and, to a lesser degree, even law enforcement. To hear some people talk, you'd think we'd be better off with little or no government.

Landers' piece reveals the limits of this kind of thinking. Little or no government is the same as anarchy. We've been there before in Hernando, and it wasn't pretty.

Journal describes Hernando County's blood-soaked history 01/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 6:51pm]
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