Try as they might, city leaders, Chamber of Commerce officials, and other influential persons have struggled mightily to define Jacksonville. Every decade or so, a new slogan or moniker is brought forth. “The Bold New City of the South”–a rather ambitious example from the late-60s consolidation era–seems to have only taken hold in the 2010s, after a few locally minded entrepreneurs ran with it. “America’s Logistics Center” is too niche a slogan to warrant impassioned feelings on either side. The city’s most recent attempt at a a fresh slogan, “It’s Easier Here”, was widely panned as tone deaf, if not absurdly farcical.
Still, a more notorious moniker has pervaded. Perhaps no statistic–not quantity of cargo, not cost of living–has defined Jacksonville more than its consistently high murder rate. And thus, the nickname “Murder Capital” has haunted the city for more than a century.
In a new book, Jax-based author Tim Gilmore explores the city’s sordid sobriquet through a collection of stories featuring complex, wildly interesting, and sometimes seedy Northeast Florida characters.
“As far back as 1927 and 1933, Literary Digest was writing about ‘Jacksonville’s staggering killing record,'” Gilmore told me about some of what he uncovered when researching his book, Murder Capital: 8 Stories, 1890s – 1980s. “The anonymous writers wondered if it had to do with race (though their phrasing, of the time, was cringeworthy), old Southern honor codes, or ‘leniency toward pistol toters.'”
A prolific writer, Gilmore has a social historians eye for alternative, unconventional narratives, as well as unique, overlooked historical figures and interesting places. His blog Jaxpsychogeo is a treasure trove of real (and often surreal) Jacksonville stories.
We caught up with the author to find out more about Murder Capital (Gilmore’s 20th book!), what he’s learned about Jacksonville’s pervasively high murder rate, and how the hell he stays so productive.
So “Murder Capital.” You’ve earned a reputation for digging up the stories of complex, sometimes seedy Northeast Florida characters. How’d the stories for this book come together? Were you actively looking for murder stories or did you stumble upon these whilst researching other topics?
The book began with a talk I gave to the Jacksonville Historical Society called “Malice Aforethought: A Century of Murder in Jacksonville” in 2013. My book Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic was just out, and Emily Lisska, then head of the Jax Historical Society proposed I do a talk on the history of murder in the city. The research and the storytelling grew from there.
Most of my life I’ve heard Jax referred to as Florida’s murder capital. I wanted to interrogate that a bit. However various political leaders have attacked the city’s violent crime rates, they’ve remained remarkably consistent. So, sadly, the book would have been apropos several years ago and probably would be several years from now.
I do start the book with Anna Lopez Brosche’s controversial campaign ads, like the one with the assault weapon fire and the crying baby, against Lenny Curry in 2018, but another political leader could’ve created such an hour in many a previous year.
The book tells the stories of some truly disparate characters–Cuban Revolutionaries, serial killers (real and phony), white supremacists, etc. How’d you decide which stories to include in this collection?
I tried to pick a story from each decade or two. Having long had this reputation for violent crime, Jacksonville’s story can also be told my its murders
There were some I’d long heard about, like the story of Marie Louise Gato in Springfield in the 1890s, with its the sensationalist newspaper treatment, the possible connections to the Cuban Revolution, and the high courtroom drama of women fainting left and right and a defense attorney who closed with a six hour speech and fainted.
With the reckoning over George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many other deaths, I hope looking anew at Johnnie Mae Chappell’s story in particular can finally teach us something. Her son Shelton Chappell, who was four months old when she was murdered, is still waiting. Johnnie Mae Chappell was walking a block from home on New Kings Road when she was murdered by four white vigilantes amidst the city’s racial turmoil in 1964. Then there’s the strange case of Marc Asay, executed in 2017, the white supremacist who became the first white man executed in Florida for killing a black man. That was the main angle in the media. But his killings may have been about something else. The first clue is Asay’s black male lover in prison.
Several stories have direct connections to people in power in the community. The disappearance of Beverly June Cochran in the early 1960s included heavy handed corruption from Sheriff Carson and Chief Homicide Investigator J.C. Patrick and the murderous bank robber who was also the son of the wealthiest businessman at the beach. There’s the story of three teenagers who called themselves the Trinity and murdered one of their grandmothers in Jax Beach in the late ’70s. The girl was the stepdaughter of Lex Hester, one of the architects of city-county Consolidation. The kids said the grandmother was the Devil. The boy said Hester was the Antichrist whom he would battle at the end of the world, 1980.
I could not not tell the story of the citrus magnate, J.J. Mendenhall, who had a habit of killing mother-daughter pairs after entangling himself with them in complicated relationships.
And the serial killers: Patrick Allen Herald, who murdered and staged prostitutes in the Pickettville area, and once again Ottis Toole. I’ve learned so much more since I wrote the book that prompting this one seven years ago. Also, I felt I needed to fix something. In the earlier book I tried to bounce all the different versions of Toole off each other, hoping the reader would come to the conclusion that Ottis was the Great Fake Killer. But many readers didn’t. So I revisit Ottis with a story called “Framing Ottis Toole.” Now the title isn’t about my researching or “stalking” him, but about how we, society—the media, the police, the true crime phenomenon—imagined him into the monster we wished him to be.
Statistics aside, do you think–judging by the stories you uncovered–the “Murder Capital” moniker is warranted?
Obviously “murder capital” is an embarrassing, even salacious moniker. Whether it’s warranted or not, I think we should interrogate the long history of violent crime in this city (and really in this country).
While some of the stories might seem totally sui generis and not really relate directly to the city’s long overall crime rates, others connect more directly. Several of the stories deal strongly with misogyny and/or gender roles, several with race, a couple with religion.
As far back as 1927 and 1933, Literary Digest was writing about “Jacksonville’s staggering killing record.” The anonymous writers wondered if it had to do with race (though their phrasing, of the time, was cringeworthy), old Southern honor codes, or “leniency toward pistol toters.” My own family, a century back, comes from the rural Georgia so much of which migrated down to populate Jacksonville, and I write about the fact that my father’s uncle was a police officer who once killed a black man.
So whatever we think of the title when it pops up in the news, it indicates a real problem and a problem that’s been consistent throughout the city’s history.
It kind of seems like all creative endeavors, whether or not they were conceived of in the last few months (during an open-ended global pandemic and a reckoning on social justice), kind of take on new meaning. How’d your perception of the purpose or impact of this book change from the time you started to now?
Absolutely right. I think I’ve always written with an angle toward social justice, whether it was writing my book about Eartha White, the black humanitarian and activist who lived for 97 years, in 2014, or Devil in the Baptist Church: Bob Gray’s Unholy Trinity, about how Jacksonville’s Trinity Baptist Church, and fundamentalist-evangelism at large, fostered and protected pedophilia in the pulpit for decades.
All of the stories in this book are jawdroppers, but reading about Johnnie Mae Chappell and the deep lynching culture that went all the way up to the sheriff—if that doesn’t make you want to get to your feet and demand change, you’d need to check your pulse.
Your last book Channeling Anna Fletcher came out in 2019. It was your 19th. How many books do work on at a time? Or do you just go hard at one at a time? What’s your process like?
I usually have one I’m all in on and a couple germinating or slowly picking up substance. Working constantly on stories for jaxpsychogeo.com means I’m constantly digging in various spots anyway. When you dig down far enough, all the roots are connected. I write as I discover. I don’t do a discovery process followed by a writing process. Hopefully my excitement at what I’ve just discovered spreads to the reader that way.
Gilmore will be reading from Murder Capital and signing books during a ticketed event at Southlight Gallery (1 Independent Dr. in DT Jax) on Thursday, August 20th. The event begins at 3 pm. Tickets available here.