INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — It’s fitting that Bond is in his name since his life story, or, at least as he told it, seemed ripped from a spy novel.
George Walter Bond Witten earned national renown as a desperado, explorer and soldier of fortune with self-told tales spanning the late-1800s through mid-1900s that included fighting in American and foreign wars, quelling a tribal battle in Africa, robbing a bank and earning the Wild West-like nickname of the Texas Kid despite hailing from Brooklyn.
He died in 1972, but his local legacy lives on through Crabby Bill’s restaurants, which the owners say were established in part due to his benevolence.
Now, the family wants everyone to know the name George Witten.
“Without him, none of this is possible,” restaurant CEO Matt Loder Sr., 57, said from the Original Crabby Bill’s in Indian Rocks Beach. “I owe it to him to tell his story that has been forgotten.”
Loder’s mother, Dolores, was Witten’s caretaker.
So that she could be close, Witten purchased the Madeira Beach cottage next to his and gave it to the Loder family. The five Loder children often hung out at the elderly man’s home, where he shared the exploits that enabled him to lead the Adventurers’ Club of New York — once a private organization with a headquarters for men who could spin a yarn.
“He’d say he’d worked security for Calvin Coolidge and had something to do with breaking a case involving La Cosa Nostra,” Loder said. “Stuff like that.”
Still, the widowed Witten preferred to talk about his wife, Bunty Witten.
“He used to say she was a famous artist who sold paintings around the world and did original drawings for Gerber,” Loder said. “We knew she was talented. Their beach cottage had a room that, from floor to ceiling, was painted to look like the Garden of Eden. But we didn’t know if she was really famous.”
They also wondered about Witten’s stories of heroism and near-death experiences. Were those tales true or tall?
Loder’s sister Eleanor Jenkins died in 2019. As they went through her possessions, the family found Bunty Witten paintings gifted to their parents.
Curious if the stories about Bunty Witten were true, the family searched online for information on the artist. According to news archives, she was once nationally known for illustrating books and painting portraits of war heroes.
“I realized there were threads of truth to what he told us,” Loder said.
Newspapers throughout the nation reported George Witten’s adventures as authentic, but did so years after stories supposedly occurred and printed only what he told them. Journalists did not fact-check claims beyond photographs of Witten in military uniforms and a look at his battle scars.
Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center has never heard of Witten, but said it’s possible his accounts were authentic. “People were larger than life back then, before the era of wasting time watching TV and spending endless hours on social media.”
News archives reported the following about Witten:
Born in 1885, he ran away at 10 to become a desperado. Out west, he befriended a boy known only as Red. They formed a gang and made their way to Cleveland, where they robbed a bank. Witten and Red fled and were arrested in Warren, Pennsylvania, but freed due to their age.
He then served as a dishwasher on a steamship for a ride to South Africa. Telling locals he was a Texan and sporting attire of a sombrero, spurs and neckerchief while taming wild horses, he became known as “the Texas Kid.”
He was later hired to guard a South African quarantine camp but abandoned his post. Witten — still a boy — was arrested and sentenced to serve time in a military camp. Back then, before they were adopted for exercise use, treadmills were torture devices. Witten was forced to endure daylong runs on a treadmill with only 20-minute breaks every 70 minutes.
Once freed, he reunited with Red. The two turned to stealing cattle in South Africa. Red was killed during a shootout with a gang, so Witten returned to the United States.
“He lived as few do but of which most boys and men dream,” the Knoxville New Sentinel wrote in 1933.
Accustomed to a life of adventure, Witten came to Tampa to enlist in the U.S. military’s Spanish-American War in Cuba but was turned away because he was only 14. So, he joined the British Army and served in the Boer War in South Africa for three years.
“He was a full-fledged soldier of fortune and helped win a war before he was 17,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1952.
Witten next joined the British mounted police in South Africa. His heroics with them included exploring Zululand as part of a mapping expedition that came too close to jungle animals and being one of five who raced into an ongoing battle between two tribes. He brought peace by demanding it in their tribal language.
He returned to the United States, where he was invited to partake in a coup in Venezuela. Instead, he outed the plot via an expose for a New York publication. The rebels promised to have him killed. They hired a female assassin to romance Witten at a New Jersey beach resort, but he detected the plan, pulled a gun on her and escaped.
“Real adventure when related by members of the Explorer’s Club makes truth pale,” wrote the Selma Times Journal in 1958.
Witten was then a hobo in Europe before serving with the British Army in World War I, during which he was wounded four times. He next turned to world exploration with missions that included leading an American expedition into a Honduran jungle.
He later joined the U.S. military, served in World War II and rose to the rank of colonel.
In retirement, he published at least three memoirs. Amazon carries one — Outlaw Trails: A Yankee Hobo Soldier of the Queen.
And, in 1951, Paramount Pictures announced a television series would be based on Witten’s tales, but the Tampa Bay Times cannot find evidence that it was produced.
A great love
Bunty Witten was born Mable Alice Mary Azue around 1900. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother was killed during a German air raid on London in 1914.
Still, her family had money, so she was sent to an exclusive all-girls school in Hampshire. In 1915, the headmaster introduced her to his friend Witten. They married in October of that year.
Witten nicknamed her Bunty. It was initially her artistic pseudonym but, as her fame grew, became her primary name.
The Wittens moved to Madeira Beach in the late 1930s on a lark. Residing in New York, they planned a trip to Guatemala with a stopover in St. Petersburg to visit their actress friend Ruth McDevitt. The Wittens instead canceled their vacation, purchased a home in Madeira Beach and became permanent residents.
Troubled by a big white refrigerator that she thought stood out, Bunty Witten painted a seascape onto it. That was the start of her work that turned nearly every wall in the home into a mural of an outdoor scene, including the Garden of Eden that Loder recalls.
Bunty Witten died in 1968. That was the same year Loder’s family relocated from New Jersey to Madeira Beach when he was 4.
“My dad was working construction and my mom was cleaning offices,” he said. “My mom’s friend mentioned an elderly man who needed someone to take care of him. She started cleaning and cooking for him. Not long after, he purchased us the house next to his.”
Loder recalls Witten’s home smelling of pipe tobacco and his diet primarily consisting of soft-boiled eggs and Tang.
Books and Tang containers used for storage were stacked throughout the house. Witten sat in a brown recliner and told stories with a unique accent that was part British, part New York.
Witten died in 1972. The Times cannot find a published obituary.
“That’s the sad part,” said Loder, who was 8 when Witten died. “He was this larger-than-life man who did all these things, but I don’t remember there being any fanfare. He didn’t get the publicity he deserved. I think if there was internet back then, his death would have been a big deal. People from all over the world would have gone to his funeral.”
Witten willed his cottage to the Loder family. His oldest sister, Eleanor, moved into it.
Three years later, the Loders opened Captain Bill’s Beach Kitchen. That family business would later become Crabby Bill’s, which now has two locations.
The family kept the Witten houses for another few decades, Loder said.
“Without the kindness he showed my family, I don’t know how long we would have stayed here,” Loder said. “He helped us plant our roots here. We owe him a lot. I think bringing attention back to him is the best way to pay him back. I think he’d want people to know his story.”