Gasparilla pirate's life flows from history's spin doctors

Published Mar. 5, 1998|Updated Sep. 12, 2005

The story of Jose Gaspar, the patron scoundrel of Tampa's yearly Gasparilla pirate invasion that occurs again Saturday, has the feel of a genuine Florida legend.

It has pirates and bloody mutiny, stolen gold and captive maidens, stories of betrayal and friendship, murder and, well, more murder.

None of it is true, of course, but that hasn't kept the party from going on or, in the early years of the Gasparilla festival, the city from believing the myth.

"Until about the late '60s or maybe early '70s, the press still operated on the basis that this was a historical event," says Charles Arnade, distinguished professor of international affairs and history at the University of South Florida.

Arnade is one of several local scholars who has looked behind the public relations face of Jose Gaspar and found that there isn't much there.

"So far as we can find out, there was no Jose Gaspar whatsoever," says James Covington, retired professor of history at the University of Tampa. "Everything is fabricated." But, he adds, "it's a good story."

Rather than being a colorful piece of Florida folklore, Gaspar is a good example of what's known as fakelore: the use or outright creation of a legendary character, usually as part of some make-a-buck boosterism. The most famous example of fakelore is the story of Paul Bunyan, which was promoted to national prominence by the ad agent for a lumber company.

The best-known accounts of the Gasparilla legend often include a spare historical framework on which to hang the more lurid aspects of the tale.

Several authors have taken it for granted that Gaspar was born in 1756, entered a naval academy in Barcelona at age 18 and was commissioned as an officer in the Spanish navy before leading a mutiny aboard the Florida Blanca and turning to piracy.

"At this point," scholar J. Russell Reaver wrote in Florida Folktales, "the historical records vanish and . . . legend takes over."

Actually, the historical record drops away well before then, but, as with Paul Bunyan, it helped that Gaspar had someone to handle his spin. That was Edwin D. Lambright, an editor at the Tampa Morning Tribune and author of a pseudo-history about Gaspar that for years he passed off as the real thing.

"Yes, there was a Gasparilla," he wrote in a 1936 book, The Life and Exploits of Gasparilla, Last of the Buccaneers. "His actual existence, many of his depredations, are authenticated by unquestionable records."

Before Lambright, there was an aged fisherman named Juan (or perhaps John) Gomez in South Florida who claimed to be the last surviving member of Gaspar's crew, Gaspar's brother-in-law or, when it suited him, Gaspar himself. At one point, the public relations flack for a South Florida railroad line printed up Gomez's claims in a brochure used as a come-on to tourists.

Lambright, however, took the tale to another level, claiming to have access to a diary that Gaspar's right-hand man stole and turned over to a sweetheart in Spain. "That is complete fiction," Arnade says. "There was never any diary."

Even if he had such a diary, Lambright would have been shamelessly guilty of stretching his material well beyond the limits of credence. His book, for instance, includes scads of purportedly direct quotes from Gaspar himself, as well as from his own crew and their victims. In one passage Lambright wrote, a pirate calls Gaspar's attention to a ship on the horizon: "She's Spanish. A trim ship and a rich one, or I'm a churchman!"

Lambright rendered his tale in prose worthy of a Harlequin romance. Telling how Gaspar captured a young woman from England, he embraced the lurid with an enthusiasm that would make Jerry Springer blush:

"Abashed by her unspoiled beauty and restrained by her helpless innocence, the lustful captor spared Ann the harsher measures usually speedily employed with his women victims. . . . Luckily for you, Ann Jeffrey, the ruthless rapist became the gentleman gallant!"

The debunking of this gallant gentleman took place in the mid-1960s, when Covington and Arnade started looking for some proof of Gaspar's existence.

Arnade was a Fulbright scholar in Spain when a reporter from Tampa tracked him down and asked whether he could check into the Gasparilla legend.

Since he had some spare time, he decided he "might as well take a look."

The Spanish navy kept its officer records _ all of which were pristine and intact, going back centuries _ at a castle well inland. The director of the archives was a retired admiral, and his assistant, a younger man, had heard of the legend of Gaspar.

"They were already disgusted with people from Tampa," Arnade said. The assistant director told him, " "We get constant inquiries from people from Tampa about Jose Gaspar. We don't even answer them anymore.' . . . He said, "Let them have their celebration.' "

Arnade looked anyway and found that "there was never any Gaspar. If he would have graduated (from the naval academy), they would have had a record of it." As for Gasparilla Island, near Port Charlotte, Arnade says that is probably named for a Jesuit friar who tried a mission to Florida's Indians long before Gaspar supposedly showed up.

About the same time, Covington combed through the records of the U.S. Navy for references to Gaspar, his raids or, in particular, Dec. 21, 1821. That day, according to legend, Gaspar had meant to retire, but his crew persuaded him to take on one more ship, which looked like a merchant ship heading north, through the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a trap. As Gaspar's boat approached, the ship brought down its British flag, ran up the American flag to reveal itself as the USS Enterprise and uncovered its cannons. His ship under fire, Gaspar is said to have wrapped the anchor chain around himself and jumped overboard.

The only thing is, Covington said, it never happened.

Armed with "the goods," Covington said, he once talked to Lambright about just where he got all his information about Gaspar.

Not surprisingly, Covington recalled, "he was very evasive."