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Folksy book resurrects ghosts of St. Petersburg

The ghosts of St. Petersburg fascinate Scott Taylor Hartzell. For the past three years, he has felt compelled to delve into their past and tell their stories.

Mayor Noel Mitchell is a favorite. Mitchell introduced the city's famous benches _ painted orange before their well-known green _ and was later discovered dead drunk on one of them. Mitchell holds the distinction of being one of two St. Petersburg mayors to be booted out of office.

Mayor Frank Fortune Pulver is another Hartzell favorite. Pulver established White Suit Day in the city to mark the beginning of spring. Like Mitchell, Pulver also was forced out of office. Accusers claimed he took graft and was a bootlegger.

There is also Eugene M. Elliott, who headed a successful drive to finance the Gandy Bridge. He would leave town in disgrace after charges of murdering his wife were dropped.

These stories and more are related in Hartzell's recently published, St. Petersburg: An Oral History. The folksy book, one in a series titled Voices of America, is published by Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, S.C.

"The idea really didn't come from me," Hartzell said of the book that had its genesis in a history column he writes as a correspondent for Neighborhood Times.

"It came from people I talked to. Several of them kept saying, "You've got to put this in a book.' "

Hartzell took their advice and expanded and updated each of the 40 stories that appear in his book. He said he became interested in the area's history after writing an article about a Gulfport house.

"It got me started. The history of St. Petersburg and the local area, it is so interesting. People e-mail me with stories. They call me," said Hartzell, who moved to St. Petersburg 17 years ago from New Castle, Pa.

While his book is historical, Hartzell thinks it offers something besides a look at the past.

"It's facts, but at the same time, when people read it, it doesn't read like history," he said, explaining that he tracked down descendants and associates to help personalize the stories he tells.

This is an exciting time for him, Hartzell said.

"It's the highlight of my life . . . to have the book come out."