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Questions remain in drowning death of 1920s land developer D.P. Davis

Published Oct. 20, 2016

TAMPA — The passing of David P. Davis, the larger-than-life developer of Davis Islands, has been shrouded in mystery since one fateful night aboard the luxury liner Majestic 90 years ago this month.

In October 1926, Davis, one of the true characters of the Florida Land Boom, booked passage aboard the Majestic for a trip to Europe. His life, both professional and personal, had taken some severe hits over the previous few months. He had to sell his interest in Davis Islands, and Davis Shores in St. Augustine was proceeding very slowly.

In addition, his second marriage, to the former Elizabeth Nelson, was falling apart. Nelson had fled to France, as the story goes, and Davis was headed her way. He would not live to see her nor the end of the trans-Atlantic voyage.

The only undisputed facts are that he went overboard and drowned while en route to Europe aboard the large ocean liner on October 12, 1926, and that his girlfriend, Lucille Zehring, accompanied him on the voyage, but questions remain.

How did he end up in the water? Was it by accidentally falling out of a stateroom window, being pushed out, or jumping to end his own life? A multitude of stories fill the void.

Victory National Life Insurance Co. sold Davis a $300,000 policy a few months before his death. Davis held policies with other insurance companies and, since his body was not recovered, some felt that Davis faked his own death. Company president Sumter Lowry, "anxious to make a reputation for paying claims promptly," hired an investigator, who determined that Davis had accidentally fallen overboard.

Lowry's findings regarding Davis' death did not alleviate all doubts on the subject. Many felt that Davis leapt overboard to end his life. Chief among this theory's proponents was the captain of the Majestic. Another who thought Davis killed himself was Jerome McLeod, who had joined D.P. Davis Properties in 1925 as assistant publicity director after a stint at the Tampa Daily Times.

"He got drunk," McLeod said in a later interview, and "when he got drunk he got maudlin." A third story comes from a steward who stood outside Davis' room and overheard an argument between Davis and Zehring.

The steward claimed Davis said, "I can go on living or end it. I can make money or spend it. It all depends on you." The statement was punctuated by a loud splash. This runs somewhat counter to the testimony given to Lowry, in which the steward had to be told of Davis' fall by Zehring.

Davis' brother Milton had a different story. While acknowledging D.P. Davis had a drinking problem, he believed his death was an accident, learning from Zehring that he fell out of a large, open porthole.

There are many problems and inconsistencies with each of these stories. Some say that Davis and Zehring were alone while others say there was a party. The Majestic was the largest ship in the world, a sister to the Titanic, and undoubtedly had "large portholes," and Davis was a small man, but could he really sit in one and then be "blown overboard?"

Could the steward standing outside of the closed stateroom door hear a loud splash that occurred outside the ship and dozens of yards below the open window?

Motive and opportunity do not seem to be on the side of murder, but no one could lead his life without making enemies, especially after losing so much money in such a brief period of time.

Yet another theory intimates that Davis faked his death. While discredited by Lowry's investigation and Milton's assurances to the contrary, it remains a possibility, though very remote. Someone, be it his brothers or his sons, would certainly have said something at some point about this if it were true.

Perhaps the closest we will be to understanding what happened that night in 1926 comes from his oldest son, George Davis, who was aboard the Majestic. I had the incredibly good fortune to interview George and his brother, David Davis Jr., in California in 2004.

George Davis was 12 years old when he accompanied his father on the trip to Europe. Though 78 years had passed, he was still very emotional when talking about his father's death. In the end, he too felt that it was likely that his father had succumbed to his inner demons and leapt to his death into the Atlantic Ocean.

Though we are now closer to knowing the "how" regarding D.P. Davis' death, we are still left asking "why." Davis' life was unraveling, but this was the case with many people during this era. What pushed him, figuratively, over the edge will likely never be known.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the director of the Touchton Map Library and Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. His book on the history of D.P. Davis and Davis Islands was published in 2013. He can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone (813) 228-0097.