A young Dakota wayfarer falls victim to a notorious penal system, but
public outcry brings the system's abolition.
It weighed a hefty 7-1/2 pounds and from its handle stretched a two-ply
leather strap five feet long and four inches wide. It was called a "Black
Aunty"; often it was first smeared with oil and dragged over sand to
enhance its searing effects.
For over half a century, from post-Civil War days to post-World War I, the
"Black Aunty" had evolved into a sordid symbol of Florida's notorious
convict-lease system, a penal practice that encrusted the state's civil
image like a scabrous relic from the Dark Ages. The horror stories of
brutal beatings and abuse, disease and death seeped into the public
consciousness over the years, until outrage finally forced the state to end
the system in 1919.
But the new law applied only to state prisoners; the leasing of county
prisoners to turpentine, lumber, phosphate, railroad, and other private
interests continued unabated. The law was merely a palliative; a system so
entrenched and lucrative would not be easily wrested from the encysted
grasp of public venality and private avarice. It would take the unwilling
martyrdom of a North Dakota farm boy and the harsh glare of a national
spotlight to abolish the system completely.
Twenty-two-year-old Martin Tabert had worked hard since childhood on his
parents' 560-acre farm in Munich, North Dakota, and now, in the fall of
1921, he decided it was his turn, like his brothers and sisters before him,
to go out and "see the world." He had saved some money. He would travel
about, working part time, and then head south for the winter. All went
well until he reached north Florida. Jobs were scarce, and he ran out of
funds. He decided to leave Florida by train - without benefit of a ticket
- but was arrested in Leon County for vagrancy. Brought before Judge B.F.
Willis in Tallahassee on December 15, 1921, he was fined $25 or 90 days.
The penniless youth was then turned over to Leon Sheriff J.R. Jones, who,
under county policy, leased Tabert to the Putnam Lumber Company 60 miles
away at Clara in Dixie County. But first Tabert wired home; his parents
sent a letter and a $75 bank draft. But the sheriff returned the letter,
stamping it "Unclaimed . . . Party gone." Assuming Martin had found
another means of release, the Taberts waited to hear from him.
Then, weeks later, the Taberts received a letter from a Putnam Lumber
official saying their son had died in their camp on February 1 of malaria
fever. They had arranged for his burial. The aggrieved family was
perplexed, and they hired local attorney Norris Nelson to make inquiries.
The lumber company informed Nelson that Martin developed malaria and
complications because he would not take his medicine regularly. The
sheriff replied that he returned their letter because the draft was in
Martin's name, preventing him (the sheriff) from getting the funds. The
fuller explanation compelled the Taberts to accept Putnam's story of their
But, in July, 1922, a letter sent via the Munich postmaster reached the
Taberts. The writer, Glen Thompson, wanted them to know "the particulars"
of their son's death to which Thompson had been an eyewitness. The Taberts
wrote at once to Thompson who gave them the names and addresses of many
other eyewitnesses in other states. A flurry of correspondence followed.
Gradually, the story of a monstrous deception unfolded as one after another
of the former Florida inmates attested to "a horrible death" Martin
suffered at the hands of a camp whipping boss, Walter Higginbotham, and the
"many tortures" other black and white inmates had suffered.
Stunned and incredulous over this information, the outraged parents took
the matter to State's Attorney G. Grimson, who personally went to Florida
to investigate. A relentless Grimson soon substantiated the allegations.
He also reported Sheriff Jones to be "little more than a slave catcher" who
earned $20 a head picking up "unfortunate men" on trivial law violations
and sending them to Putnam. His findings went to the Dakota legislature
which, in turn, demanded that the Florida legislature make a thorough
investigation. Florida Governor Cary Hardee wrote North Dakota's Governor
R.A. Nestus, defending Florida's "humane" penal system but promising
"vigorous prosecution" if criminal acts were involved. By spring of 1923,
a joint Florida House-Senate committee began hearings with numerous
witnesses - former camp inmates, former guards, Putnam employees, and
others. On April 10, a Madison County grand jury also began a probe.
In testimony, an evasive Higginbotham repeatedly insisted that he gave
Martin only a light whipping of "ten licks" for shirking his duties. But
too many other witnesses presented a more compellingly graphic account of
Martin's camp stay. Former inmates testified that a "strong and sturdy"
Martin was soon reduced to a haggard 125 pounds, and that Higginbotham
refused the youth's request to exchange his undersized shoes. Martin's
feet were badly swollen from the swamp water the men were forced to work
in. He developed groin swellings, one of which the visiting camp doctor
lanced, and suffered chronic headaches and fever chills. The fever-ridden
youth received no attention except for the blankets "some of the boys"
threw over him. At the end of January, Martin was given a severe beating
with a Black Aunty before a group of 85 inmates. They alleged that the
whipping boss often flogged men "just for the sport of it." Former guard
A.P. Shivers testified that a healthy Martin soon suffered running sores
and feet so swollen he could "barely drag around" and only with difficulty
walked the two miles to the swamp to work. The night of the beating,
Shivers related, the already-ill Tabert had had 30 licks with the strap
when he groaned and screamed for mercy. At this point, Higginbotham placed
the heel of his boot on Martin's neck to hold him in place and gave him
some 70 more strokes. Thereafter, Shivers said, the fever-ridden and
delirious youth was unable to move from his cot and died two days later.
On April 23, Higginbotham was indicted by the grand jury for first-degree
murder. The Taberts also filed a $50,000 civil suit against Putnam.
Lawmakers also heard former Leon jailor Jerry Poppell describe how Sheriff
Jones made sizable profits in a deal "to railroad" men to Putnam, and how
court appearances often took place late at night without formal due
process. The camp physician, Dr. T. Caper Jones, suddenly changed his
story and alleged that Martin had actually died of syphilis but that he,
the doctor, wished to spare the Tabert family embarrassment. The committee
eventually recommended removal from office of Leon Judge Willis and the
sheriff and asked the medical board to purge this "seemingly unworthy
member [Dr. Jones]" from the profession. Nor did the committee have to
look far for other brutality cases: State Senator T.J. Knabb owned
turpentine camps. A supervisor, J.B. Thomas, said that Knabb ran "a human
slaughter pen" at which at least nine inmates died from brutal beatings.
Although a camp captain was later indicted for cruelty, nothing came of
efforts to remove Knabb from office.
Throughout the period, these revelations were aired almost daily in the
press, which was joined by church, civic, business, and social clubs
demanding abolition of "a barbarous system." On-the-scene stories by the
New York World were picked up around the country, igniting a barrage of
editorials and galvanizing a sense of national outrage. Thus, it was no
surprise when, in May, committee bills abolishing both the lease system and
corporal punishment passed and were signed by the governor.
The Taberts won a $20,000 settlement from Putnam, but this must have
remained a painfully ambiguous consolation for their son's unwilling
martyrdom, since retribution otherwise would prove elusive. Higginbotham
was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison
that July. Out on bond and pulling strings legal and otherwise,
Higginbotham won a case review before the Florida Supreme Court which, on a
technicality, reversed his conviction and granted him a new trial in Dixie
County. Records were then transferred to the Dixie Court Clerk in January,
1925. But a second trial was never held and Higginbotham remained free.
It seemed to "disappear" as cryptically as Martin Tabert's burial site,
which no one could ever exactly locate.
Word Count: 1409 Flesch-Kincaid Score 10.2
From: Burnett, Gene M. Florida's Past Volume 3, Pineapple Press,
Sarasota, FL (1988) p. 122-25