Sheriff Willis McCall and Sheriff Peter Hagan — Bookends of Custom
Had the mob that formed for the Groveland boys in July 1949 formed instead in July 1923 or 1926, Gilbert King would have had a very different book to write. Florida history tells us clearly that every sheriff in every county in 1926 Florida would have likely turned the boys from Bay Lake loose on the beasts in captivity. Some might have tried to spirit the young men away before the mob came. But no sheriff would have confronted it. And most would have taken part. Believe me, they had opportunities to prove otherwise — in St. Petersburg, in Brooksville, in LaBelle, in Palatka — in just the first few months of 1926.
The only sheriff with a demonstrated penchant for imposing his will on a mob — Sheriff Peter Hagan of Putnam County — lost re-election in 1924. That was his reward for taking a bullet in his hand and seeing his wife and daughter nearly killed in 1923 to protect a man tried and hung just a couple months later.
Fast forward 23 years, and we’re confronted with Sheriff Willis McCall, the king of Lake County. King writes of McCall in Devil in the Grove: “The FBI knew, too, that in Florida in the 1940s and 50s, “County Sheriffs openly joined the Klan, and law enforcement officers boldly attended Klan meetings armed and in uniform,” as indeed did some of McCall’s good friend like Sheriff Dave Starr of neighboring Orange County. Lake County, though, was Willis McCall’s personal territory, and he bullied his county like no other sheriff in the state of Florida. Tom Hurlburt Jr., the former chief of the Orlando Police Department, whose father, a citrus buyer, had served as one of McCall’s deputies, said, “I believe the only thing more powerful than Willis McCall was the Ku Klux Klan in those days.”
Nor was Willis McCall’s power unallied with that of the KKK. So it was that Lake County’s “leading citizens”…had no recourse in Sheriff McCall when they received open threats from the Klan.
And yet, in 1949, even Willis McCall — Florida’s nastiest sheriff — felt that he needed to step in front of the mob — at some risk to himself — to keep them from lynching the four men accused in Norma Padgett’s “rape.”
It had nothing to do with commitment to equal protection or law. McCall would later murder one, shoot one, and maybe shoot another.
Rather, by 1949, lynching, as a custom, a ritual, had become a thing that was taboo. Cops could could maim, abuse, and kill at will. But society had turned sufficiently against the mob that a lynching was considered a thing that even Willis McCall needed to prevent. At least, that’s my theory.
Part of it was national revulsion at lynching as a practice that filtered down through congressional speeches and editorials. Perhaps even more importantly, following World War II, people and money streamed into Florida. Nothing marred the pretty postcards and Chamber of Commerce materials like talk of violent disorder around the streets and jails. Police misbehavior made for much less lurid news — most of the time.
But these same factors were in place after World War I. Land boom, influx of money and people, national agitation against lynching — and yet, Florida emerged in the 20s as the national capital of chronic lynching and mob violence.
That’s what Sheriff Peter Hagan struck the first blow against with his stand at the Putnam County Jail in 1923. With the help of Putnam County’s “leading citizens” and the investigation of Klan activity that Gov. John Martin ordered in 1926, Hagan struck an even greater blow in 1928 by defeating a Klan sheriff in the Putnam County sheriff’s election. This battle, which had implications across Florida, helped create a new custom for Florida law enforcement — suppression of the mob.
In many ways, it likely made law enforcement more powerful. And many men, like Sheriff McCall abused it. But the power of custom remained — so much so that Florida’s worst sheriff felt the same need to suppress the mob that its best sheriff felt 20 years before.