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  1. Life & Culture

Meet Charlie Wall, the dean of Tampa’s early underworld

His first arrest was in June 1895 for shooting the family cook. His last was in June 1950 for connection to a gambling ring. In between the two, he ran Tampa.

TAMPA — He’s not nationally known like Al Capone.

He’s not even Tampa’s most infamous gangster, a title that goes to Santo Trafficante Jr.

But ask local historians who they credit as Tampa’s most colorful notorious character and they say Charlie Wall, otherwise known as “dean of Tampa’s underworld” for controlling the city’s elections and illegal activities throughout the early 20th century.

“Charlie Wall was the most enigmatic figure in the history of Tampa,” historian Gary Mormino said.

The blue-blooded Wall could have run Tampa from City Hall, but chose to do so from the underground.

His criminal career was bookended in the month of June, with a first and last arrest more than five decades apart. In between, he ran Tampa.

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“He is Tampa’s most fascinating character," said Ace Atkins, who as a Tampa Tribune writer was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2000 for his series on Wall and later featured him as the main character in his fictitious book The White Shadow.

“He spanned two flip sides of Tampa. He was the Anglo cracker and had deep ties to Ybor City. He was one of the few figures who really straddled that.”

Perry Wall, his grandfather, was a pioneering resident of the Tampa Bay area who in the mid-1800s settled in Hernando County and served as a probate judge and postmaster. His father, John P. Wall, was a Tampa doctor who served as mayor from 1878 to 1880.

“Charlie Wall had the background, the lineage, every advantage to become one of Florida’s greatest public figures had he so chosen,” the Tampa Tribune wrote about him in 1955.

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His mother, Matilda Wall, died in 1893. His father married the housekeeper six months later and then died in April 1895, leaving Wall to be raised by a stepmother whom historians say he detested.

There was no authoritative figure to keep the wild Wall in line.

“He was probably already the black sheep of the family,” Tampa mob historian Scott Deitche said. “That made it worse.”

In June 1895, at the age of 15, Wall shot and injured the family cook, according to the Weekly Tribune. That was his first arrest. “The affair is seriously regretted by the whole community,” reads the article.

A Weekly Tribune article details Charlie Wall's first arrest. As a teen, he shot the family cook. [Times (1895)]

It has long been rumored that Wall also shot his stepmother, though there is no record of such a crime. He was sent to military school but expelled.

Back in Tampa, Wall is said to have avoided his stepmother by hanging out in casinos and brothels and then working for both.

In 1907, he was arrested for running an illegal casino, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Due to his family lineage, Wall could grow gambling clientele from blue-blooded families whereas competitors could not, Atkins said.

Then, in 1910, came Wall’s power play among the working class. Cigar factory workers went on strike throughout the Latin districts of Ybor and West Tampa and he stepped in. “He fed 900 workers that year,” the Tampa Tribune wrote.

His cousin Eddie Wall once told the Tampa Bay Times that Wall, wearing his typical attire of a white suit and straw hat, was known to hand out $1,000 in half dollar coins to the kids at the Children’s Home around Christmas.

“He became known as ‘The White Shadow,’” Atkins said. “He was the Anglo who looked out for the poor. He was the benevolent don of the time.”

That brought him power.

A Wall endorsement among the working class carried clout, and poll workers in the Latin districts would look the other way as he manipulated votes. So Wall made deals with politicians. He’d help them win elections if law enforcement allowed his illegal casinos and brothels to operate while they harassed competitors.

“He was the first gangster in Tampa who got into political corruption and got it in terms of controlling judges, politicians and voting,” Deitche said.

Mormino said that Wall’s high-water mark was the 1934 Florida Senate election between Claude Pepper and Park Trammell.

Wall supported Trammell, who, according to Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections records, won Precinct 34 in West Tampa by a count of 341 votes to two.

“Several suggested that Pepper receive no votes,” Mormino said. “Someone pointed out that they saw Pepper’s campaign manager and his wife vote. Pepper should have won the election, except it was stolen in West Tampa and Ybor City.”

Charlie Wall held a news conference while wearing pajamas after he escaped an attempt on his life. [Times (1939)]

But the Sicilian mafia was growing and wanted Wall’s power.

On one occasion, hit men fired and missed as Wall read the newspaper on the porch of his Ybor home. The late artist and author Ferdie Pacheco, a Tampa native, would later tell that story in a painting.

Pacheco’s favorite tale about Wall was of the time the crime lord escaped assassins firing on his car because the bodyguard drove in reverse while shooting back.

Attempts on Wall’s life became such the norm that he erected a steel passageway at his home for safety, connecting the bedroom and the garage, and held news conferences to detail his escapes, one time doing so in his pajamas.

He often told the press that he survived because “the devil looks after his own."

Still, the devil couldn’t save Wall’s good friend and business partner Tito Rubio, who was gunned down in front of their Lincoln Club gambling parlor in 1938.

A year or two later, Wall moved to Miami and faded into retirement.

“The Sicilian mafia was too strong,” mob historian Deitche said. “Wall had loyal men, but it wasn’t a family.”

But Wall resurfaced in June 1950. It was his final arrest, this time for a connection to a South Florida gambling ring. Charges were dropped, according to news archives, because Wall was among those who turned over books and records to a grand jury.

This Tampa Tribune article details Charlie Wall's final arrest. He was murdered five years later. [Times (1950)]

Wall returned to Tampa, promising the press he would be "a side-line observer.”

The late Ellis Clifton, a Hillsborough County deputy, once told the Times that Wall missed the limelight. That’s why in December 1950, Wall publicly testified before the federal Kefauver Commission that sought to expose organized crime throughout the nation.

He spoke little of that era’s mafia, but his colorful stories of Tampa’s underworld of the early 20th century landed him back in the headlines.

In the years that followed, Clifton said, Wall would often tell those same stories while sidled up to bars and publicly denouncing the Sicilian mafia.

Clifton called Wall to warn him to stop talking like that. “I said, ‘Mr. Wall, you know they are going to kill you?’” Clifton said.

Clifton said that Wall replied, “Yeah, I don’t give a damn.”

Charlie Wall's body is carried from his home after he was murdered. [Times (1955)]

Wall was murdered in his home on April 18, 1955. He was beaten with a blackjack, his neck cut, his head battered with a baseball bat.

The crime remains unsolved, though Clifton, who investigated the murder, maintained it was a hit ordered by Santos Trafficante Jr.

“People still talk about that murder, but the murder was the most uninteresting part of his life,” Atkins said. “For me, the most fascinating part of Charlie Wall were his years as this Anglo kingpin. He is such an important part of Tampa history.”