1. Life & Culture

Ku Klux Klan met its match in Putnam County in the 1920s

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Published Oct. 24, 2012


Peter Hagan opened the door to the jail warily.

Out of the night, a half-dozen men leveled their guns at the Putnam County sheriff's face. Another 10 or so stood behind. Hagan saw a long piece of rope. He knew which man the mob had come to torture and kill — the black prisoner locked in a cell behind him.

Hagan faced re-election in a year. And in that instant, he committed the ultimate act of political suicide for a sheriff in 1923 Florida. He smashed his pistol down like a hammer on the nearest forehead and slammed the door closed.

In the years after World War I, Florida was still a loosely policed frontier state. White Protestant mobs staged regular lynchings and beatings to intimidate black voters, drinkers and anyone else they felt threatened the social order. Sometimes they wore the hoods of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Other times they didn't bother.

Unlike the rest of the nation, where lynchings were on the decline, mob violence in Florida mounted relentlessly. By the end of the decade, Florida would be the most murderous state in the nation.

In the midst of this chaos, one lawman stood up more forcefully than anyone else.

By 1923, Peter Hagan had already used guile and threats to thwart two other lynchings in four years. But his act of defiance on the night of March 2 was almost unprecedented. In Florida, sheriffs were likely to hold the door for lynching parties, not beat them back by force.

The frustrated vigilantes poured bullets though the door and windows of the jail, where the Hagan family lived. One tore through Hagan's hand. The indiscriminate fire sprayed plaster dust on Hagan's wife's face and pierced the bedroom where their ailing daughter and her son slept.

The Palatka Daily News later declared, "The complete shutout of the mob came as a surprise, apparently, to the crowd."

Hagan's battle with the Klan was just getting started.

Peter Hagan was one of 16 children. Several of the boys became police officers, including Peter, who was elected Putnam County sheriff in 1916, as World War I raged in Europe.

Hagan policed a city that in 1916 was an oasis of racial tolerance. The city's largest theater refused to play The Birth of a Nation out of respect for its black customers. Black men named Albert Browning and Joseph Nottage were on the gerrymandered Palatka City Commission as late as 1924, which was unheard of in the South. And the city's black leaders long operated the only hospital in town.

But the Great War changed everything — for America and Palatka.

Even before Americans joined the fighting in 1917, industrialization in the North and the promise of better pay in the big city had begun to lure blacks from the mostly agricultural work allowed them in the South. White Southerners fought hard through law and violence to keep the bedrock of their labor force from leaving.

Later, when the United States entered the war, black Americans embraced the war effort with fierce patriotism.

In Florida, like other Southern states, more black draftees served than white ones. About 20 percent fought in segregated units. The rest were primarily restricted to brutal and filthy labor camps, where they died in huge numbers.

Too old to fight, Hagan served on the Putnam County draft board. On Aug. 6, 1917, his work was interrupted by news that his brother Frank, a Jacksonville detective, had been shot by a black man named Emmett Washington during a "rampage." Frank Hagan killed Washington in an exchange of gunfire but suffered a fatal wound in response. (Four years before, another Hagan brother had been shot and killed while on duty in Jacksonville by a black man.)

Peter Hagan buried his brother in Jacksonville on a Sunday and was back at work Monday morning in Palatka. But there is no evidence that he bore any anger toward black people as a result of his brothers' killings. Quite the opposite.

In the blood-soaked "Red Summer" of 1919, when white mobs repeatedly attacked black communities and veterans across the country, Hagan twice thwarted lynchings in Palatka with guile and the threat of violence.

In one case, the man Hagan saved from an out-of-town mob had his conviction overturned by the Florida Supreme Court. It ruled that the man had acted in self-defense in the killing of a white train conductor. That same mob had beaten an elderly black preacher, for no apparent reason, before Hagan could disperse it.

Afterward, Hagan released a public statement in the Palatka Daily News. It read in part:

"I want to say to the people of Palatka that there will be no repetition of this affair, and any effort on the part of outsiders to come here and create disorder and engender ill-feeling between the two races will be met with force sufficient to stop it where it begins …

"We have determined to see that the colored people of this town and county get the protection to which they are entitled, and that no hoodlums can come here and cowardly attack old and innocent colored men without having justice meted out to them for their offense."

Hagan's statement was well received in Palatka, and he was re-elected sheriff in 1920. It was the high-water mark of old Palatka. It wouldn't last.

The postwar politics of race and citizenship were particularly brutal in Florida. Black veterans and female leaders of the war effort like Mary McLeod Bethune worked to register blacks to vote in huge numbers before the 1920 election.

White Florida was outraged. The backlash to this voter drive helped launch the Ku Klux Klan back to prominence and made white vigilantes, generally, a powerful force across the state.

The battles culminated on Election Day 1920, when white Democratic Florida largely put down black efforts to vote for the Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding.

But it wasn't just race relations that came apart after World War I. Prohibition and Prohibition-driven crime, female suffrage and anti-Catholicism also turned citizen against citizen.

In 1921, Hagan told the Palatka Daily News, "Never were there in the history of our state so much crime as there is now, and it is growing worse all the time."

But the sheriff and a number of civic leaders managed to spare Putnam County from the worst of the vigilante horror that roiled its neighbors. Then came 1923.

As the year opened, the Florida Ku Klux Klan was nearing the peak of its power as a popular, mainstream governing force. It marched in downtown Gainesville on New Year's Day. The Gainesville Sun wrote an editorial praising the hooded men.

The Rosewood pogrom, just east of Cedar Key, followed within days. Over the course of a week, marauding whites burned the black hamlet to the ground, killing four residents and scattering the survivors for good. The year went downhill from there.

Catholics lived under constant fear and derision. And Prohibition-driven crime surged. Florida would lead the nation in lynching deaths by a large margin in 1923. Gainesville area mobs were particularly lethal. They lynched a black man in Newberry in late January for the alleged crime of stealing a cow.

After that murder, the same Gainesville Sun editor who praised the Klan wrote:

"What is the matter with us? Will the blood lust created by the World War never subside? Shall we go on until anarchy reigns supreme and government is dethroned?"

On Feb. 23, 1923, in downtown Gainesville, a black man named Arthur Johnson shot and killed Hugh Cross, a member of the road construction crew. Johnson and another man had passed Cross on a sidewalk, "crowding" him, according to the Gainesville Sun. Words ensued, and Johnson eventually got a gun and shot Cross.

Alachua Sheriff Perry Ramsey brought Johnson to Putnam Sheriff Peter Hagan for his protection. The Sun's editor all but begged the men of Gainesville not to lynch Arthur Johnson. The men of Gainesville ignored him, leading to the bloody standoff at the Palatka jail.

Legislators and news editors heaped praise on Hagan. Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union declared:

"Distinctions of war have been given to men who did no more … (Hagan) showed to all evil doers that a prisoner in his charge was safe as long as he was alive. He did not temporize with the mob. When it showed fight he fought, and the men who were seeking to overthrow the law fled. … The mob goes after only the man who is defenseless. It does not go after fighters who are prepared and ready to fight to the death."

Eighteen men were eventually arrested as the mob returned to Gainesville. Nine men were prosecuted, including four personally identified by Hagan.

At the trial, friends of the nine men testified that none of them had been in Palatka that night. The six white men acquitted everyone in 35 minutes.

A few days after the verdict, on April 29, the Sun gave this entire era a despondent name: "The Age of Barbarity."

In 1923, lynchings declined nationally almost by half, from 57 in 1922 to 33. The reduction reflected growing revulsion over the practice and coincided with pursuit of a federal anti-lynching bill that never became law.

But Florida defied these trends. Two men, both with Ku Klux Klan ties, leapt to challenge Hagan in the spring 1924 Democratic primary. Hagan took to the Palatka Daily News to describe his view of the Klan and its members, some of whom he described as "friends."

"I have recently been asked repeatedly if I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan. To this question I answer, no. I believe I know many members of the Putnam County Klan, and I know them to be good men individually. … I am not, and would not be a member, however, of any organization which appears to differ in policies from those who do not belong to its ranks, for the reason that as sheriff I believe it to be my duty to be perfectly free to serve all the of the people and not an organized part of them; I wish to feel perfectly free to perform my duties without obligations to any order …"

That was the wrong answer anywhere in Florida in 1924.

Hagan lost handily to a man named R.J. Hancock. With Hagan gone, the Florida Klan essentially took over Putnam County in 1925.

Virtually every weekend, vigilantes kidnapped men and women, black and white, and flogged them with straps or chains as punishment for some transgression. Sheriff Hancock's chief deputy was identified as a leader of the mobs.

Most of the time, the raids and abductions revolved around drinking. The Klan considered enforcement of Prohibition part of its larger mission to police social, sexual and religious mores.

Klansmen castrated a prominent Catholic priest at the University of Florida and then dumped him bleeding on the steps of his church. They flogged women they thought might be having affairs. Between 1924 and 1928, Klan mobs carried out as many as 80 of these nonfatal punishments in Putnam County.

It reached a head in the summer of 1926, the same fearful summer that saw Florida's land boom crash with desperate suddenness. That August, Putnam Klansmen abducted a black woman named Minnie Pinkney, who was supposedly known for drinking and carousing.

The men took her to a wooded area, stripped her and beat her nearly to death. Pinkney's son and nephew, Willie Steene and Ed Chisholm, came looking for her. Both men were murdered by vigilantes where they found her.

The killings gave ammunition to Palatka's formidable local opponents of the Klan — which included prominent lawyers and businesspeople, white and black. They forced a state attorney's investigation of Klan and mob activities in Putnam County. It was the first, and apparently only, investigation of its kind during the 1920s.

No one was punished. But in September 1926 Gov. John Martin summoned Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock, Hancock's top deputy and the Palatka mayor to Tallahassee for a dressing-down. He threatened to declare martial law in Putnam if authorities did not halt the mobs.

Martin's threat, which he seems to have never again mentioned, weakened the Klan politically. And Peter Hagan came back for another shot at Hancock in 1928.

In the closing days of the 1928 campaign, Hagan and his supporters produced a poster and newspaper ad that documented all the violence that had occurred under Hancock's watch.





Hagan and Hancock entered Election Day on June 5 dead even. The Palatka Daily News called the race "the most bitterly waged political battle in recent annals."

As the polls closed, crowds began to gather near a giant scoreboard set up in front of one of Palatka's leading department stores. The lead swung back and forth through the night. It wasn't until noon the next day that it became clear Hagan had won.

The final tally was 1,485 for Hagan and 1,433 for Hancock. Fifty-two votes made the difference between a sheriff honored by the NAACP for his bravery in confronting lynching and a sheriff who presided over the worst outbreak of Klan violence in Florida history.

The "Age of Barbarity," in Putnam County and much of Florida, had finally ended.

In an era in which prejudice and brutality infected every sinew of civic life, Peter Hagan practiced a professional impartiality that set him apart. His example was known at the time, but it was not known for long.

Less than three years after his re-election, Hagan was felled by what appears to have been a massive stroke.

The morning of Oct. 22, 1930, Hagan had finished some work in the barn of the small farm that he owned. As he climbed into his car for the return trip across the bridge to the jail in Palatka, he suffered what the local newspaper called a cerebral hemorrhage.

A vigil ensued at the county jail, as Hagan struggled for life for two days. He died with his grandson, Peter, and wife, Sallie, at his side. He was 59.

A procession of 150 cars ushered Hagan to Peniel Cemetery, where he was interred with full Masonic honors.

The Palatka Daily News wrote:

"Mr. Hagan was pre-eminently an officer of the law. He was born to the part, if ever any man was. Fearless, resourceful, suave, human, he possessed all the characteristics essential to success. His personality in itself was a deterrent to crime, for he commanded the respect of those of the under streets of life. His was a spirit that could single-handed quell mobs."

Yet Hagan died in debt and virtually broke. His grave is the size of a doormat, rising just an inch or two above the ground. A shrub and a layer of pine needles obscure half of it. His name appears on no building in the town he helped save from itself.

Billy Townsend is the author of "Age of Barbarity: The Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida." He can be reached at