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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

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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,

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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

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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

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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.”

Why?

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

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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

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2 Comments

  1. Keep it up Billy. Maybe one of these days Peter Hagan will receive the place in Florida history that he so certainly deserves.

  2. GEORGE ZIMMERMAN AND TRAYVON MARTIN CASE To Whom it May Concern

    The subject and surrounding areas concerning the subject case have a history of racial tension. The following books designated Item A and Item B :
    Item A- “Before his time : the untold story of Harry T. Moore, America’s first civil rights martyr ” author Ben Green ISBN: 9780684854533
    This book delineates the Christmas Day 1951 murder of Harry Tyson Moore and his wife Harriette Vyda Simms Moore in Mims, Florida by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Harry and Harriette Moore were active in voter registration for the Negro in these Central Florida area(s). The KKK had a barbeque early Christmas Day at the Jessup Lake just off a down ramp off Route 46 between Sanford, Florida and Mims, Florida. Later that 1951 Christmas Day, the KKK planted a bomb under the Mims, Florida house of Harry and Harriette Moore. Upon the explosion, Both Moore’s were taken to the Afro-American Hospital in Sanford,Florida. Harry Moore died Christmas Day and Harriette Moore died a few days later. To this day the Afro- American Hospital still stands and is used as a quasi- roomming house but no longer a Black Hospital. No parties were ever prosecuted for this crime. Drugs are rampant in Sanford and are easily obtained in an area of Sanford, Florida called “THE HOOD”. Many of the small Florida towns in this and surrounding areas operate with the “Good Ole Boy” system of politics, law enforecment, and general racial prejudice and usually fall short of quality justice. Addiitonally, there are still pockets of KKK operations and meetings throughout the area: Crescent City, Florida and Paisley, Florida are two (2) quick Florida towns that come to mind; but there are lots more. I’m sure the FBI would be on top of this area of concern. A highly reliable Volusia County contact has mentioned that the KKK has offered or has provided funds for the defense of George Zimmerman and that this has been mentioned on television news and in the newspapers in Volusia County: I am not personally aware of this occurrence but it wouldn’t surprise me.
    Item B- “Groveland Four” by Gary Corsair (The last known phone/fax number for Gary Corsair is 352-750-2977- The fax number seems to be active continuously)) This book follows the events of an alleged rape of a seventeen year old white woman, Norma Padgett, by four (4) black men in July, 1949: The four Afro-American men were (1) Ernest Thomas, (2) Walter Irvin, (3) Sam Shepherd, (4) and Charles Greenlee. As of eight years ago Charles Greenlee, who was sixteen at the time of the alleged rape, was the only surviving member of the quartet: A close relative was the postmistress at the U.S. Post Office in Bronson, Florida. Charles Greenlee had been very reclusive and I didn’t even consider asking his whereabouts. I have read the books and talked to many people and have learned not to trust Sheriff Willis V McCall and his close Deputy James Yates. Yates was the Officer who shot Walter Irvin in the neck while lying on the ground after being shot by McCall. And Irvin survived! Norma Padgett was alive and living two-three miles south in the Bay Park (Florida) area between Groveland(Florida) and Stuckey(Florida). I made a trip to north Florida about eight years ago and talked with the long-retired Sheriff of Madison (Florida). At the time of the killing of Ernest Thomas, Sheriff Willis McCall was the one who killed/shot Ernest Thomas: Thomas’s body was taken to a second story of building in Madison that was being used as a mortuary . In returning to South Florida I stopped at a convenience store in Greenville, Florida and met an Afro-American who mentioned that there was an elderly Black Man(BM) who was quite familiar with this case/killing. The Black Man lived about 3/4ths of a mile north of the Shady Grove convenience store on the west side of Florida Route 221. The son of the Black Man(BM) was encountered and he requested that I not disturb his father BM who was in declining health and couldn’t deal with this controversial issue even after all these years. This elderly BM went by the name of “PONY”. I passed on this issue and went to see the tobacco farm where Ernest Thomas had been in hiding. Then I headed South. Sheriff Willis V McCall had lived living in Umatilla and Eustis, Florida. About a mile south of Umatilla (downtown) the Afro- Americans sold fruit from 12 foot wide utility/maintenance trucks and they would readily discuss the “trumped up” charges by Sheriff McCall and Deputy Sheriff James Yates who all along were trying to play the “cover your ass” (CYA) routine in a very theatrical manner at the expense of the Afro-American’s . I consider both men to be cowards. Eight years ago former Sheriff McCall was dead and retired Deputy Sheriff James Yates was hiding somewhere in Florida: Both had/have relatives in the Umatilla area. While the information I provide does not bear directly on the George Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin Case, It does reflect a long standing unsatisfactory bully racial mindset in the Sanford, Florida and similar areas in Central Florida.
    In 2006 , Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist provided a lengthy report indicating that Sheriff Willis McCall was not involved in the 1951 Christmas Day KKK bombing of Harry T Moore’s home. Fifty-six years (56) after the fact! I call the report a DAY LATE AND A DOLLAR SHORT. Copyright 2013 David Dailey

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