From the Florida State Archives
Pictures from Florida Archives
Link to Fl. Corrections History As Below:
In 1889, another Joint Investigating Committee urged the Legislature to establish a permanent penitentiary with
enough land attached to the site so that invalids and prisoners not otherwise employed could be self-sustaining. It
also recommended that the Legislature provide juvenile offenders under the age of sixteen a separate correctional
Although urged by Governor Bloxham to create a state farm for all prisoners, the legislators ignored his
recommendation and focused instead on creating a state reform school. In 1897, they passed an act establishing a
state reformatory designed "for the employment, instruction, correction and reformation of juvenile offenders." They
resolved that criminals between the ages of ten and sixteen should go to the reform school for not less than six
months or more than four years. The school would also provide a place to hold orphans or other wards of the state.
Notably, the act creating the state reform school included a provision for taxing the citizens of Florida for building
and operating the facility. This was the first act a Florida Legislature passed that levied a tax to reform criminals.
Sixty-seven Jackson County residents donated $1,400 and 1200 acres of land near Marianna for the construction of
the reform school. In 1899, two three-story brick dormitories were completed each designed to hold seventy-two
children. One building housed white children and the other black children. The reform school opened on January 1,
1900, finally providing a separate place to incarcerate some of the children in the Florida prison system.
The state provided a separate school for delinquent girls sometime between 1916 and 1920. There is some
indication that a "reform school" of some sort operated in one of the buildings on the Chattahoochee property after it
became a hospital for the insane, but the evidence is not definitive. When speaking to the Senate in 1911, Governor
Albert Waller Gilchrist mentioned that if the state ever decided to "remove the reform school from Chattahoochee," it
should be somewhere on the 16,867 acres purchased for a state prison. Governor Gilchrist explained further that he
recommended this since only ten percent of the 1800 acres the state owned at Chattahoochee was suitable for
cultivation. Any other record of a reform school refers to Marianna.
No mention of the Marianna reformatory appeared in the 1902 report of the Commissioner of Agriculture. A 1903
report of a "Citizen's Committee" to the Florida Children's Commission however, charged that the reform school was
"nothing more than a prison." This committee found forty- four children imprisoned at the reform school in Marianna,
including thirty-seven black males, five white males and two females. Committee members reported they "found them
in irons, just as common criminals, which in the judgment of your committee, is not the meaning of a 'State Reform
School' as defined by the law creating said school."
A member of the Reform School Board took exception to the citizens' report. In a public information release he
explained, the "corps of guards being so small it has been necessary to shackle many of the prisoners while they are
at work to prevent escape and to prevent the over-powering of the guards." Children at the school worked in
"step-chains," until 1930. Step-chains were "bracelets" welded on both of the prisoner's ankles and joined by a chain
long enough for the child to walk freely but not long enough for him to run.
In its first five years of operation, the school provided neither vocational nor academic education. Children were
"hired out" to work for people in the area, or they were compelled to cultivate the school's farm acreage and do
maintenance work. The Marianna Times Courier explained that the Board of Managers of the school told their
reporter "the Legislature has never provided money to pay a teacher."
The reformatory was meant to separate children convicted of a crime from the general prison population, but it is
obvious in several Prison Reports that not all juvenile offenders were sent to the industrial school. A writer in the
Tallahassee Weekly True Democrat reported that under a 1905 contract, the Board of Commissioners recently
signed, "men, women and boys would be leased."
In 1901 and 1902 one of the most frequent complaints Governor William Sherman Jennings received from citizens
about state and county convict camps questioned the propriety of leasing out the labor of juvenile prisoners.
Counties also leased all prisoners regardless of their age. In several instances, they leased the labor of children less
than twelve years old to turpentine and phosphate concerns where the work could be brutal. The lessees expected
those children to perform the same amount of work they required of other prisoners, and if they did not, the
complainants said, they suffered severe beatings.
As late as 1909 the Commissioner of Agriculture continued to complain in Prison Reports that the state forced him to
lease the labor of young children. This was almost ten years after the reform school opened. Reporting the age of
new prisoners inducted into the convict lease system stopped in 1911. The omission of this information significantly
diminished the public's complaints about leasing the labor of children.
The Pensacola Journal reported on two white girls and two black girls at the reform school at Marianna in 1912. J. H.
Sherrill, member of a Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, explained that "at present these girls live in
the same buildings with the boys but in rooms connected with the matrons who have them constantly under
supervision and busy at housework." Sherill said the committee members heard that the state intended to build a
residence for the girl inmates, but they felt it would be wise to locate the "girls and boys in different towns."
A 1913 law enacted by the Legislature resolved to create the Florida Industrial School for Girls at Ocala and ordered
the removal of the girls from the Marianna school. If the authorities removed the girls at that time, available reports
do not indicate where they held them until the new industrial school was ready for use.
Revelations of abuses committed on juveniles in county convict camps continued to appear in the Florida Times
Union and described in letters sent to the Governor. One report stated a sixteen-year-old white boy from Georgia
named Girrard H. Brake, charged with vagrancy, received a sixty-day sentence in the Alachua County jail. The
County authorities included Brake in a lease to a phosphate concern operating at Dutton. Witnesses reported that
two men held Brake down while the owner of the camp applied the strap. The boy died as the result of the beating.
Five physicians performed autopsies and they all attributed his death to torture.
Ex-convict W. F. Brown explained that a young prisoner named Oscar Anderson "was a docile boy, obedient to every
order, and tried to do the tasks assigned to him as manfully as he could." Brown reported that the boy had orders to
collect fifty-two buckets of turpentine every day, the same as required of an adult man, but the boy could not do it. "I
saw them beat Oscar Anderson each and every day upon the alleged ground that he had not completed his allotted
task. They beat him with a piece of leather, a strap, and they beat him until he was raw on the back." Brown
explained the productivity quota doubled what free laborers did in a day. "The boys are given the same tasks as the
men, and are obliged to work sick or well. I have seen them fall over in the fields and afterwards whipped because
Dr. S. H. Blitch, who the state hired to oversee the health of prisoners in the labor camps, represented Florida at the
American and International Prison Congress held in Washington, D.C., on October 2-8, 1910. His report to the
Commissioner of Agriculture on the Prison Congress expressed the consensus of its members: specialists who
"understand and sympathize with children" should interact with juvenile offenders. He argued that when arrests and
detention occur, the children should not share quarters with adults. Further, the members of the Prison Congress
agreed, cases of young delinquents "should never be heard at the same session with cases of adults."
Members of the Prison Congress did feel government needed to deal with the "idleness and vagabondage of
children in large cities." They recommended that states pass laws "making parents responsible for the wrong doing
of their children." They also urged the several states to "compel deserting fathers to return to their duty or to support
their children." Finally, members passed a resolution advocating that all state governments create laws that would
allow children to be removed from "unfit homes and properly placed for training and care."
The Prison Congress considered "legislative measures and moral and social propaganda necessary for the
protection of illegitimate children." The members advocated state intervention to benefit children. In an illegitimate
birth, they agreed "the decision as to which parent shall have the future care of an illegitimate child should be based
upon the child's best interest and its needs as a future citizen."
The members concluded "that no person, no matter whatever his age or past record, should be assumed to be
incapable of improvement." They recommended reformation of prisoners of all ages by "religious and moral
instruction, mental quickening, physical development, and such employment as would place the prisoner on a good
industrial basis." Describing this system of rehabilitation as "incompatible with short sentences," they advocated long
periods of such "treatment" with "special treatment" for adolescent criminals whether they were recidivists or not.
They further recommended that the long periods of institutional treatment combine with closely supervised parole.
New York and other northeastern states established houses of refuge for wayward girls beginning around 1825.
Although publicly financed, these institutions also received support from charitable groups and individuals. The
houses of refuge employed solitary confinement and corporal punishment to control rebellious or violent girls, but
the reformers were "remarkable for their honest attempts to help delinquents." Their method was to "subdue them by
kindness" by teaching self-discipline and clean living. The rate of success was, however, disappointing. Reformers
wondered if "the failure might not actually lie with the clients." Some reformers of that era suggested that perhaps
delinquents were innately bad, the offspring of "poor stock" and therefore unsalvageable.
In the 1850s, several states began Reform Schools in rural areas where they established the "Family Plan" placing
girls and boys in small groups that functioned somewhat like a household. While this practice improved the reform
school's effectiveness, many reformers in the early 20th century still believed that delinquents were not salvageable.
Dr. Blitch's report on opinions expressed at the National Prison Conference held in Lincoln, Nebraska, in October
1905, expresses this fear. He cited an opinion offered by one "expert" advocating the sterilization of habitual
criminals. Another opined that the authorities should incarcerate for life adult habitual criminals when "he or she has
proven, beyond doubt, that they will continue to war upon all that is right and proper." These ideas particularly
focused on girls and women who broke the law.
As late as 1913 girls were still at the Marianna reform school. Members of a visiting committee advised the
Legislature that "the state should make arrangements to have a separate school for girls, or the girls placed, to the
expense of the state in some institution where they can be properly cared for." Committee members recommended
this because they believed the "character of the girls sent to said school, as a rule, is such as to make their
presence there a menace to the boys."
In 1920, Commissioner of Agriculture W. A. McRae, asserted "there is no economic question of greater importance
to the State or Nation or one which is receiving more consideration than the question of delinquents of all classes."
Florida provided an Industrial School for Boys and another for white girls, but little change occurred in developing
juvenile courts, removing children from county or town jails, or providing trained probation officers. The state
provided nothing for black girls classified as juvenile offenders or wards of the state, and continued to sell their labor.
In Florida and in most other states, children were still arrested, detained, tried, and sent to prison by adult courts,
and under the same rules as adult criminals. In 1928, Lawyers and juvenile court judges of several states
representing the National Probation Association drafted a Standard Juvenile Court Law. The National Probation
Association published this proposed body of law as the national standard.
In 1931, the Legislature directed the Florida State Board of Public Welfare to study how the state's courts addressed
children. The Board found that only seven Florida counties had juvenile courts: Duval, Dade, Pinellas, Orange,
Monroe, Hillsborough, and Broward. (Broward County's legislation creating a juvenile court was waiting for voter
approval in 1931.) In other counties, "judges in juvenile session, justices of the peace and municipal judges, all
heard cases involving or affecting children." The entire state had only sixteen full-time probation officers, and they all
worked in the counties that had juvenile courts.
A Legislative committee formed to investigate juvenile courts reported that the "method of appointment of all
probation officers is faulty and invites political influence and incompetency." Committee members complained that "in
no county did we find [probation] work of high standard being done." Committee members also found probation used
as a "gesture of leniency or tolerance" when it should offer individualized treatment and an "opportunity for the state
to cure crime in its incipient stage." The members concluded that few children who left the state's industrial schools
received the guidance of probation to assure their finding a place in society.
Recommendations of the Legislative Committee on Juvenile Courts included a complete revision of state laws, to
meet the requirements of the Standard Juvenile Court Law as published by the National Probation Association. The
Committee also recommended the state stop charging children with crimes prosecuted in the criminal courts. They
urged that "Juvenile Court should have exclusive original jurisdiction over children's cases." They also advised
immediately changing the General Laws of Florida so the juvenile court would not lose jurisdiction when a child
under its purview married.
Potentially, the most critical modification of court procedure for children in Florida, was the committee members'
urging that "the fee system be abolished in proceedings with children." Most children brought into court were
"charged with a crime," when this happened, the juvenile court, if it existed, lacked jurisdiction. Florida's county
judges received a fee for each case they heard as a crime, but if they heard a case as a juvenile judge, they
received only their small salary. In one county, prosecutors brought criminal charges against forty-one out of
forty-five children in court in 1929.
The committee found that additional complications existed for juveniles brought into court. In one county, five
separate courts handled children's cases. "They were the county judges' court in juvenile session, the county
judges' court in criminal session, the justice of the peace court, the police court and the circuit court."
This confusion and the complete lack of available probation services resulted in a high incidence of children sent to
industrial schools. The report said "in one county having a population of 73,000, the county judge sent nineteen
boys to the industrial school in 1929. This county has inadequate probation service." Most Florida counties were the
same, but "in nearby Orange County, population 55,000, having a full-time juvenile court judge, two full-time
probation officers, and a local parental home, two boys were committed to the industrial school in 1929."
Commissioner of Agriculture McRae included in his 1920 Prison Report information that in the Industrial School for
Girls at Ocala, the records show "an average attendance of approximately forty girls since the opening of the school,
four years ago." McRae pointed out that a new building under construction would provide room for forty more girls.
The Legislature had appropriated money for this new building for delinquent girls. Construction was to begin in
1916. If this school existed for four years before 1920 as the Commissioner stated, it must have occupied a rented
building. James C. Lanier, Probation Officer of the Juvenile Court of Duval County confirmed this through a letter to
R. A. Gray, Secretary to the Board of Commissioners of State Institutions.
Dated October 31, 1916, Lanier's answer to a letter in which Secretary Gray explained that the state had not been
able to fund this "unusual and extraordinary appropriation." Lanier argued the "immediate need of some school for
the care of the Florida delinquent girls, who are entitled to the same consideration for reformation that the boys are."
He asked "what position the Board took on furnishing a temporary school for the urgent and immediate needs?" He
explained that "for instance, in the last two weeks we have rescued two fourteen-year-old white girls from the
restricted district in this city." He claimed the girls belonged to good families from Jacksonville, but older companions
led them astray.
Lanier complained that the only thing he could do in such cases was "to send them to a Catholic Convent in
Memphis, which is a great cost to the families of these girls and places them where we lose entire supervision of their
care or of their conduct." He argued that his office lacked detention places and "one of these girls is at this time in
the county jail waiting the time that her people can raise the money to send her off" to the Catholic Convent.
Janetta F. Johnson's study of girls committed to a training school in nearby Georgia, found that most of the charges
against these girls were "offenses against self," which included being "ungovernable", a "chronic runaway", and
drinking. The next category of charges listed was "offenses against society." These charges included promiscuity,
violation of school attendance law, incest, gang activities, and prostitution.
In 1933, the Florida Industrial School for Girls was completed and operating. The facility held ninety girls and had a
long waiting list. The industrial school first served girls from nine to seventeen, but later it stopped receiving girls
under the age of twelve. The girls held in the Industrial School engaged in "home economics," by "doing all the work
connected with the school, including dairy and poultry work." They received a "common school education through
the 8th grade, are in school three hours each day, and in sewing class one hour." The girls made all clothing used in
Commissioner McRae reported in 1920 that The Boys'
Industrial School at Marianna had an average attendance of "approximately three hundred since it was established
some twenty years ago, one-third of the boys were white and two-thirds were black." By 1920, the school operated
two racially separate campuses. McRae expressed much concern with the quality of the executive supervision of the
boys and girls schools. He asserted that the Governor and his cabinet, which also served as the Board of
Commissioners, provide supervision. McRae recommended "that the Legislature, at its next session which convenes
on April 5, 1921, provide for a "Board of Control of State Institutions." He explained that this Board should have
"direct control and supervision" of the State Farm, the State Hospital, the Industrial School for Boys, and the
Industrial School for Girls."
A 1931 report of a special committee representing the National Probation Association and the Florida Board of
Public Welfare criticized both of Florida's industrial schools as inadequate in education and capacity. On June 30,
1930 the Boys Industrial School at Marianna reported a rapidly growing population and a high incidence of escapes.
CHILDREN IN THE FLORIDA INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL FOR BOYS
In residence 194 258 Escaped 73 16 Paroled 298 369 Released 2 36 Discharged 2 27 Transferred 1 0
According to the Committee report, boys held in this institution were aged ten to eighteen years. The authorities had
continued "jurisdiction up to twenty-one years for both dependents and delinquents."
This committee's greatest criticism of the juvenile system stressed the number of parolees lacking supervision. Most
Florida counties did not have probation officers, but it appeared to this committee that even when a probation officer
was available, supervision did not occur. The Committee did not comment on the astonishing number of escapes
from the training schools, especially among the white boys. It criticized the practice of not separating older boys from
younger, or inmates convicted of crimes from inmates merely dependent on the state.
The committee also cited a jurisdictional conflict in releasing children from the schools. It explained that the
committing magistrate maintains "right to release" over children sent to the schools. However, the Laws of Florida
provide that the Board of Commissioners of State Institutions may release children on parole. Further, a Florida "law
passed in 1915, permitting the judge of any circuit court of record or county judge to commit any person over 10 and
under 18 years of age to the Industrial School was held to be unconstitutional."
Florida counties without juvenile courts or probation officers locked children in county jails pending their court
appearance. In Polk County, committee members found "children, white and colored, over fourteen and under
seventeen, were, in some cases, sentenced to the road gang." The committee recommended that a provision be
enacted ordering that "no child under fourteen years of age be detained in jail."
A 1927 law prohibited placing any children in jails, but according to the committee's report, most Florida counties
violated this law. "In one county we found forty-three children, both white and colored, held for various periods in the
county jail. Several were under fourteen years of age." The Committee learned that in this county it was the custom
of the police to "pick up" youngsters and put them in jail for a "day or so" and release them, just for the "lesson." The
children in question did not appear in court nor receive a legal sentence. The Sheriff held some of the jailed children
The children remanded to county jails without trial included girls, and the committee argued that the Industrial School
for Girls was "entirely inadequate for the present needs of the state." They also noted there was "no institution in
Florida for delinquent colored girls." The committee did not explain where the state or counties incarcerated
delinquent or dependent black girls. If prohibited in either the boys or girls Industrial School, there was no other
place to send them but the adult prison system.
The investigating committee's report urged the Florida Legislature to enact laws creating juvenile courts in every
county, rather than waiting for each county to create the courts. They also strongly urged the use of probation
officers and preliminary hearing reports in every county. Committee members advised close follow-up by state
probation officers on juveniles released from the state industrial schools. They made no recommendation
concerning the recapture of children who escaped from the school. Minutes show that members discussed the
problem of recidivism at length, but ignored the high number of escapes.
Several changes made in Florida laws in 1927 attempted to develop a better system of juvenile justice throughout
the state. Some of the changes sought uniformity, but in many cases confusion as to jurisdiction continued. Laws
affecting juveniles remained a patchwork. New and modern provisions existed, but so did many old statutes, some
conflicting with the new laws.
In a report based on a 1930 survey of criminal justice systems, the National Probation Association recommended a
complete revamping of Florida laws to bring them up to national standards. The Legislature created a Children's
Code Commission to recommend changes in the laws to provide Florida a juvenile justice system.
Florida's systems of incarcerating deviants changed and improved slowly. When authorities finally removed women
and children from the convict lease system, legislators imposed taxes to fund their housing and maintenance. Florida
citizens accepted the tax and still opposed the lease system, fully aware that building and maintaining a state prison
would require additional tax increases.
By the 1930s, following the recommendations of the National Prison Congress, Florida offered most juvenile
offenders the "separate and specialized treatment" designed for children. From 1913 to the mid-twenties, citizens,
state leaders, the press and one boy who was "out to see the world," transformed the state's prison system.
The state was without question, permitting road camp captains to use the whip to maintain discipline as late as 1921.
The Tallahassee Daily Democrat reported a mutiny in a state convict camp at Zellwood in Orange County. Of the
thirty-six state prisoners working on the road, two refused to work. The captain whipped them. The other convicts
joined the original men and all refused to work. The Board of Commissioners sent a new captain to restore order at
the camp and the men returned to work. A news reporter wrote that the state planned to bring charges against J. A.
Hayes, the original captain, for cruel and inhumane treatment of convicts
The lease that eventually placed Martin Tabert in the hands of Putnam Lumber Company began with a vote by the
Leon County Commissioners reported in the Tallahassee Daily Democrat on July 6, 1921. The Commissioners
decided to advertise a large number of the county's prisoners for lease because they had no work for them and "it is
a heavy expense to keep so many men for upkeep only."
The Commissioners agreed to lease most of their prisoners to the Clara Turpentine Company in Taylor County.
Either the prisoners transferred from Clara Turpentine Company later, or Leon County negotiated a new lease in
1922 that placed the prisoners with the Putnam Lumber Company.
It was getting more difficult for Florida counties to maintain the propriety of their lease systems. New people were
moving into the state, and public opinion firmly opposed the convict lease. Thousands of Americans poured into
Florida in the 1920s, resulting in considerable economic and demographic growth.
Urban Americans had the time and money to travel, and many had enough money to invest in Florida real estate.
More importantly for Florida, the automobile industry mass produced vehicles and lending agencies amortized
consumer purchases over time, creating a massive middle class automobile market. Many in the middle class now
Earlier immigrants from the north were elderly, wealthy, and typically visited Florida for a short winter visit. Florida,
however, was the staging ground for troops that went to Cuba in the Spanish-American War. Many of those men
wanted to see the state again and communicated their favorable impressions to others. The state was a training
ground for troops in World War I.
Northern newsmen glamorized Florida and what became a real estate boom, encouraging thousands of middle aged,
middle class Americans to invest in Florida land before the opportunity was lost.
This was the era of the "Tin Can Tourists," named for the large cans of spare gasoline and water supplies they
always carried. They could not always count on finding gas stations or restaurants when they needed them. In their
vacations to Florida as many as three families would travel in a single automobile or truck. They loaded the vehicle
with tents and food and headed for the beaches. Businesses along the major highways built tourist camps with
recreational facilities and, of course, gasoline stations and automobile repair shops. Constituents inundated
Florida's leaders with demands that they build new roads and "open up" the country.
The real estate boom started in Miami and spread through the peninsula, up to Jacksonville and finally west to
Gainesville and Tallahassee. In addition to tourists, new residents poured into Florida. The state's small farmers and
residents of little villages and towns did not benefit from the land boom unless they happened to be on a major
The Florida land boom happened in a time of general prosperity for middle class urban Americans, but the 1920s
was also a time of rising racism and nativism. In Florida, the extreme manifestation of those factors was the power of
the Klu Klux Klan. Many individual racial incidents occurred, including public hangings. Several times white mobs
attacked black communities and burned them out. Black's homes burned in Perry, Rosewood, and Ocoee. Racism
and nativism occurred nationally, not only in Florida. The xenophobia of those years, and its Florida component did
not have an impact on the state's real estate boom.
The peak of the national interest in Florida occurred in 1923. Officials hoped the land boom would never end. The
last thing they wanted was adverse publicity, but the legacy of the convict lease system still hung over the state. The
system had officially ended, but many of the counties still leased the labor of their prisoners to businesses or
individuals. County Commissioners found the system too profitable to give up voluntarily.
The End of the Convict Lease System: The Murder of Martin Tabert
Early in 1923, the Florida Legislature received a copy of a resolution from the North Dakota Legislature. The
resolution charged that Martin Tabert, a citizen of North Dakota, died in a Putnam Lumber Company convict lease
camp from torture and physical abuse. The resolution also said an employee of the Putnam Lumber Company
named T. W. Higginbotham, "Whipping Boss" of the convict camp killed Tabert.
Tabert's family, with financial assistance from various North Dakota organizations and individuals, formed a "Martin
Tabert Committee" in the town of Langdon, North Dakota. The Martin Tabert Committee also sought publicity to
support Tabert's parents in their effort to find out what happened to their son. The Taberts hired an attorney, Norris
Nelson, to investigate their son's death. The Martin Tabert Committee also sent Gudmunder Grimson, a North
Dakota State Attorney, to Florida to examine the circumstances of Tabert's death.
Florida Governor Cary Augustus Hardee replied to the North Dakota resolution in a letter to that state's Governor, R.
A. Nestos. Hardee asserted, rather testily, that the charges in the resolution had injured Florida's reputation. He
stated, "no state treated its convicts more humanely than Florida." Hardee assured Governor Nestos that if any
"criminal responsibility attaches to anyone connected with the affair he will be promptly and vigorously prosecuted."
Several Florida newspapers accused Governor Hardee of "feeling sore without just cause" because of his show of
When he completed his investigation of Tabert's death, Attorney Gudmunder Grimson announced his conviction that
the State of Florida was not a party to the abuse that led to the man's death. Grimson asserted he was sure the
state felt the same indignation as "is felt by the State of North Dakota represented by its Legislature." Grimson said
he felt certain that Florida would work to redress the wrong done to Tabert and take steps to make it impossible for
such abuses to happen again.
The Florida Legislature also ordered a full investigation of the Tabert case and appointed a Joint Committee to
pursue the matter. The legislators instructed the committee to mount an investigation encompassing the convict
lease systems throughout the state. The committee was late in issuing its report. Committee chairman, Fred B. Davis
explained that "the committee desired to go further into the resolution." Several newspapers, including North
Dakota's Minot News, and the Orlando Star criticized the delay and urged immediate legislation to end convict
Florida legislators were acutely embarrassed when the press charged them with cruelty to convicts. The Tabert case
was given front-page space for several months by the New York World and dozens of newspapers all over the United
States. The editors of the World saw that this story, of "a poor farm boy, tortured to death in a convict camp," had
national appeal if handled right. The editors sent staff writer Samuel D. McCoy, to Tallahassee to cover the story.
The editors planned a campaign with four goals. They planned to use the power of the press to attain "abolition of
the convict leasing system in Florida, abolition of the lash, punishment of Tabert's murderer, and damages for his
Several newspapers in North Dakota and the Industrial Solidarity newspaper in Chicago had carried the Tabert story
earlier, but the New York World had national influence and a reputation for championing causes of this kind. Also,
the World's editor knew that the people, the government and business leaders of Florida were "particularly sensitive
to Northern criticism, especially that of a great metropolis."
In the campaign orchestrated and led by the New York World, articles exposing every detail of the Tabert case
appeared in more than fifty important newspapers around the nation. Artfully included with the story of Tabert's
death was the complete history of Florida's convict lease system, revealing its whipping of prisoners and other
recorded abuses. This story also appeared in magazines throughout the United States and likely influenced the
people of Florida, and humiliated their legislators, Governor Hardee, and especially the state's business leaders.
The Martin Tabert story started as many Florida stories had since the state enacted its first harsh vagrancy laws
immediately after the Civil War. J. R. (Jim Bob) Jones, Sheriff of Leon County, arrested Tabert and charged him with
vagrancy on December 15, 1921. Tabert rode a train without a ticket, and when Sheriff Jones caught him, he had no
money to pay his fare. Tabert went before Leon County Judge B. R. Willis, who found him guilty of vagrancy and
fined him twenty-five dollars. When Tabert could not pay his fine, Judge Willis ordered him to serve ninety days in jail.
The Judge remanded Martin Tabert to the custody of Sheriff Jones, who immediately sold his labor to the Putnam
Lumber Company. Tabert was to serve his ninety days working in Putnam's convict camp at Clara, in Dixie County,
sixty miles from Tallahassee. He had two days in the Leon County jail before he went to the Putnam camp. The boy
immediately wired his brother, John Tabert, at Munich, North Dakota, asking him to send fifty dollars to pay his fine.
He asked the elder Tabert to wire the money in care of Sheriff Jones.
John Tabert did not wire the money to his brother. The money came to Tallahassee through the mail, in a letter
addressed to Martin Tabert "in care of Sheriff Jones." When the postmaster received the letter, he notified the
Sheriff. Instead of taking the letter to Tabert, Sheriff Jones told the postmaster to return it. Martin Tabert's mother,
Mrs. Ben Tabert, of Munich, North Dakota. received the letter back, stamped by the post office, "Returned to writer
unclaimed." Also written on the envelope was "Returned by request of Sheriff, Party Gone." Sheriff Jones did not tell
Tabert's parents that a Judge had convicted Martin of vagrancy and sentenced him to ninety days in jail, or that he
was serving his time in the Putnam Lumber Company convict camp. The Taberts believed their son had secured his
release some other way.
A little more than a month later, Martin Tabert's family received a letter from Putnam Lumber Company notifying
them of Martin's death. The writer explained that the boy had died "of fever and other complications," and the
Company had given him a Christian burial in a cemetery nearby, with a minister officiating. The Tabert family had
their lawyer, Norris Nelson, write to the Putnam Lumber Company asking why Martin did not receive the money they
sent to him. A representative of Putnam Lumber answered, suggesting he write to J. R. Jones, Sheriff of Leon
County for that information.
When Nelson contacted Sheriff Jones, he acknowledged that the money for Tabert's release arrived in Tallahassee.
He said "there was some money wired to him after he was gone, but I could not get it, as it was sent in his name. I
therefore returned it." Tabert's family thought they knew the whole story, but they were soon to receive disturbing
Glen Thompson, a prisoner in the Putnam Lumber Company camp at the same time as Tabert, wrote to the
postmaster at Munich, North Dakota. asking if Tabert's parents wanted to know the true circumstances of their son's
death. Thompson claimed that he was an eyewitness. The postmaster forwarded the letter to the Taberts. They
responded to Thompson, asking for more information and began a correspondence with Thompson, fellow prisoner
John Gardner and several other eyewitnesses to Tabert's death. These men gave the family enough evidence to
substantiate their growing belief that the Leon County Sheriff and the representative of Putnam Lumber Company
had lied to them about what happened to their son.
Gudmunder Grimson found evidence that the Putnam Lumber Company and Sheriff J. R. Jones of Leon County had
a corrupt understanding "that the Sheriff would endeavor to obtain the arrest and conviction of men for pretended or
petty offenses." Once the men received their sentence, the Sheriff leased them to the lumber company. "For each
convict so obtained from the custody of the sheriff he would receive a cash compensation, and that Tabert was a
victim of such conspiracy."
When confronted with the charges Jones answered them in a letter addressed to Fred H. Davis, Chairman of the
Special Legislative Committee of the Florida House:
It has just come to my attention that the Legislature of Representatives has now officially received a resolution from
the State of North Dakota, herein, among other things, official misconduct on my part has been charged. I have read
numerous press stories about the fact of such resolution, but had decided to take no action toward arguing the
matter in the press. Now that the matter has become an official one, I wish to publicly and officially deny the
truth of the charges made against me, and to ask the Legislature for the fullest investigation of the facts. Neither I nor
any official of Leon County, has anything to fear as the result of an investigation and the charges made in the
resolution referred to so far as they charge or insinuate any willful corrupt action on my part are utterly false.
Sheriff Jones would later testify that he had a private contract with the Putnam Lumber Company that guaranteed
him $20.00 for each man he delivered to their camp and he had received $20.00 for the delivery of Tabert. He also
admitted the postmaster notified him that Tabert received a letter, but he did not see it and told the post office to
return it to the sender. Jones denied receiving any inquiry from the Tabert family about their son.
On Governor Hardee's recommendation, the Legislature immediately removed Jones as Leon County Sheriff on
charges of malfeasance. The investigation revealed that B. F. Willis, the Leon County Judge who sentenced Tabert,
conspired with Jones and the Putnam Lumber Company to furnish men for their camp. The legislators also removed
Judge Willis from office.
Martin Tabert's fellow prisoners testified before the grand jury, describing the events that led up to his death. They
said Tabert, strong and sturdy when he first entered the camp, weighed only 125 pounds at the time of the whipping.
They explained that Tabert suffered with frequent headaches and his feet were badly swollen and covered with boils.
Several prisoners reported that they lined up, waiting for the guards to count them, on the night of Martin Tabert's
whipping. T. W. Higginbotham, head guard and "Whipping Boss" of the camp, first called three men out of the line
and beat them. When he finished with those men, he called for Martin Tabert. Higginbotham did not hear Tabert's
answer and became angry.
Tabert, the prisoners agreed, was weak from his illness. He spoke softly and moved slowly. Higginbotham was so
angry that he grabbed him and ripped off his undershirt. Then he began to whip Tabert. Glen Thompson reported
that Higginbotham "whipped Martin about thirty-five to fifty licks." He described the lash Higginbotham used as a "four
inch strap, five feet long, with three-ply leather at the handle, two-ply half way down." Another prisoner reported he
counted eighty lashes in all.
A third prisoner testified that Higginbotham told Tabert to get up when he stopped hitting him, but the man was too
weak to stand. This angered Higginbotham further and he said, "haven't you had enough?" and started whipping
Tabert again. Several prisoners testified that this second whipping lasted as long as the first and Higginbotham
placed one of his feet on Tabert's neck throughout the beating.
Another prisoner testified that when Higginbotham finished beating Tabert he hit him over the head with the butt end
of the whip and continued striking him with the whip until he was back in line. Several prisoners reported that when
they got Tabert in the sleeping shack and removed his clothes his "skin was all off his back in one chunk from his
shoulders to his knees." Another witness said the doctor did not come to see Tabert and they "dared not ask for
one" although they knew he was dying. This whipping took place on a Friday and Tabert died the following
Higginbotham refuted the prisoners' testimony, swearing he had only given Tabert ten "gentle" blows with the whip
because he refused to do his work properly. He denied putting his foot on Tabert's neck during the whipping and
claimed that he sent for the doctor as soon as he heard the man was ill.
Higginbotham's lawyer argued that the Putnam Lumber Company employed him to discipline the prisoners and he
had not broken any law because corporal punishment was legal in Florida. The court indicted Higginbotham for the
murder of Martin Tabert. He denied the charge, saying he did not deny whipping Tabert and others, but the whipping
he gave Tabert was light and according to law.
In November of 1922, the Board of Commissioners of Leon County voted to use all of their convicts on the roads
after January 1, 1923. The Commissioners instructed the clerk to notify the Putnam Lumber Company that they
would call the convicts in when their present lease expired at the end of December.
Members of the Legislature, The New York World and Florida newspapers began receiving letters and affidavits
attesting to the evils of Florida's convict camps. Several ex-convicts offered testimony on Higginbotham's brutality.
One reported, "One day he beat nearly every one of the men in the grading gang and there were more than twenty.
Seems like when he got started he wouldn't know when to quit."
Tabert's family began writing letters to every name the other prisoners could remember of men who had served time
in the Putnam Lumber Company camps. They began to receive letters from men in many states, who told essentially
the same story about life in the camps and about "Whipping Boss" Higginbotham in particular.
An ex-convict reported that Higginbotham regularly placed his foot on the neck of a man to hold him still while he
whipped him. Still another reported Sheriff "Jim Bob" Jones arrested him for riding a train without a ticket. Like
Tabert, he turned him over to Putnam Lumber Company. He said "the first week I was there I was licked with a strap
by Higginbotham three different times." He described the strap as about "four feet long, four inches wide and with a
handle two or three inches thick. It laid the skin bare from my shoulder to my knees. When Higginbotham got
through, he said, next time I have to beat you, I'll kill you."
Dr. T. Caper Jones, the physician for the convict camp testified that he saw Martin Tabert three days before his
death. He explained that he completed a burial permit saying that Tabert died of pneumonia and malaria. When
questioned about the cause of Tabert's death, Dr. Jones confessed he falsified the cause of death on the permit. He
then said Tabert had really died of syphilis. He hid his diagnosis to save embarrassment to the young man's family.
Other physicians testified that the whipping as described could have caused Tabert's death. An article in the Literary
Digest asserted that doctors throughout Florida denounced Dr. Jones as a "disgrace to the profession."
The Investigative Committee of the Legislature ordered Putnam Lumber Company to exhume Tabert's body and
deliver it to his parents at the expense of the state. Conflicting stories described Tabert's burial. A spokesman for
Putnam Lumber Company claimed that Tabert had a proper funeral, held in a cemetery in Clara. He described a
funeral including "a small group of kind-hearted township people singing hymns, wide-eyed school children looking
on and an itinerant pastor officiating."
An ex-prisoner claimed to have prepared Tabert's body and attended his burial. He claimed they put Tabert in a
cheap coffin and dropped him in a hole half-full of water. He said the only people present at the burial beside him
were the three prisoners who helped him carry Tabert's coffin. Further investigation revealed that despite Dr. Jones'
testimony, Tabert's file with the State Board of Health did not contain a burial permit. The Investigative Committee
ordered a thorough search for Martin Tabert's burial place so his body could be exhumed and returned to his
parents, but his grave was never found.
Walter Higginbotham faced trial in Cross City, Dixie County, for the first-degree murder of Martin Tabert. The state's
attorney asked for a change of venue, contending it would be impossible to get a fair trial in Dixie County,
considering the extensive influence of the Putnam Lumber Company. The attorney submitted to the court that if they
held the trial in Cross City, Higginbotham's friends and employees of Putnam Lumber Company would intimidate
witnesses and members of the jury. Higginbotham protested, but the court agreed and granted the change of venue
and the trial moved to Lake City.
Higginbotham's wife testified for him, vowing she was an eyewitness to the whipping of Martin Tabert and he was
struck only eight or nine times. She claimed her husband used a strap that weighed no more than one and one-half
pounds. Mrs. Higginbotham also testified that she personally attended the prisoner while he was sick with malaria,
plying him with hot soup every day. Other witnesses testified that the strap Higginbotham used on the prisoners
weighed approximately seven and one-half pounds and had a steel handle. Those witnesses also testified that
Tabert received no care other than the little the other prisoners could give him.
Jury members deliberated a little more than an hour before they returned a verdict of guilty to second-degree
murder. Higginbotham's sentence was twenty years in prison, but he obtained release on bond pending the result of
an appeal. In May of 1924, the Supreme Court of Florida granted his appeal and overturned the lower court verdict.
The Court attributed its decision to "the error in granting a change of venue from Dixie County, on motion by the
State, over the objections of the defendant without having made an actual test to decide that it was practically
impossible to obtain an impartial jury in that county." The judges ordered that "the judgment is reversed and a new
trial is granted."
The second trial of T. W. Higginbotham, held in Cross City in Dixie County, began in July 1925. The Martin Tabert
Committee hired Stafford Caldwell, a lawyer from Miami, to assist the state in Higginbotham's prosecution. Caldwell
wrote to Gudmunder Grimson, the North Dakota assistant state attorney, saying "the state, I think, has a fighting
chance in Dixie County. Some of my conservative friends in Dixie County are not so sanguine. I am under the
impression that Judge Kelly is not so sanguine of a conviction but is more confident of preventing an acquittal."
The State Attorney was correct in his assertion that the jury in Dixie County would have a strong bias in
Higginbotham's favor. The men selected for the jury swore they could be impartial, but although there were dozens
of eyewitnesses to Higginbotham's brutality to Martin Tabert, and the Supreme Court had even agreed in its ruling
that the evidence was sufficient to convict, the jury quickly found him not guilty.
Newspaper reports on the trial had an indignant tone, and referred to the acquittal as a "gross miscarriage of
justice." Several blamed the Florida Supreme Court. The Gainesville News declared the ruling was "unreasonable,
especially in this case, for Dixie County, in which the flogging occurred, was absolutely under the control of the
Putnam Lumber Company, which employed Higginbotham." The Miami News called the verdict a disgrace.
Martin Tabert's death and the ensuing legislative investigation into the county convict camps, sparked considerable
discussion and debate in the Legislature on the merits of abolishing corporal punishment in all parts of the prison
system. Coupled with the public's response to the World's publicity campaign, many legislators believed something
had to be done. Letters containing reports of many incidents of cruel whippings in various camps went to
newspapers and to members of the Legislature. The Joint Committee investigated the allegations and where they
found the charges true, they removed prisoners from the camps.
The legislative Committee also found evidence of prisoner abuse in turpentine camps in Baker and Bradford
Counties. These camps belonged to Florida Senator, T. J. Knabb. He regularly used convict labor in his businesses.
Paul Revere White, an ex-prisoner, explained that when arrested for vagrancy, he received six months in the
Alachua County jail and his labor was leased to Knabb's camp in Baker County. He said he was "kicked, beaten, and
whipped practically every day" because he could not do as much work as others could. Dr. Lamb of Macclenny,
testified that he treated White when he left the camp. He reported that White's "hands and feet were minus skin,
ulcers were found on his legs, and one or more ribs were fractured."
J. B. Thomas, Convict Supervisor, reported that White slept on a cot with no covering when the temperature was
eighteen degrees. He said he personally took White from Knabb's camp because he believed the man would die if
left there. Supervisor Thomas concluded, "Mr. Knabb is running a human slaughter pen."
Paul White made a request to the Congress of the United States for an investigation into the convict leasing system
in Florida and the turpentine camps of Senator Knabb in particular. The Congress ignored White's request at first.
He received no reply until the Martin Tabert case hit the national newspapers. A congressional aide then contacted
him and urged him to tell his story. White was suing Senator Knabb for $50,000 in damages for the abuse he
suffered in his camp.
The Legislature procrastinated in passing legislation to abolish the lease system and the use of the lash to punish
prisoners. A flurry of objections, petitions and letters urged it to act. Florida's United States Senator, Duncan U.
Fletcher announced to a New York World reporter that he hoped the Florida Legislature would abolish the county
convict leases, "for no matter how well they are fulfilled the system is wrong in principle and brings reproach to our
John W. Martin of Jacksonville spoke at a mass meeting of the Prisoner's Aid Society of Florida, saying the lease
system was "an abomination sustained in this state by men who make money out of it." The membership of the Miami
Rotary Club demanded that the Legislature abolish corporal punishment. The Tampa Board of Trade sent a
resolution to the Legislature complaining that the disclosures of cruel and inhumane treatment to prisoners and graft
in the convict lease system "brought disgrace to the state."
Other groups, including the Order of United Commercial Travelers of America, The Grand Council of Georgia and
Florida urged the legislators to act. A group of Master Masons from a Florida Lodge, the Rotary Club of Gainesville,
and other institutions spoke against the convict lease system and the use of corporal punishment. Resolutions
asking for the system's abolition came from other states, some from as far away as Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee
Woman's Club sent a resolution to the Legislature condemning the convict lease system and asking that the
legislators abandon it.
The Mayor of St. Petersburg wrote to the Speaker of the House urging the system's abolition. The Florida Chapter of
the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Union Congregational Church of Crystal Springs demanded the
Legislature take immediate action to abandon whipping prisoners and abolish the convict lease system.
Amos Pinchot, a New York attorney and brother of Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the United States Forestry Service under
McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft made Florida his winter home. He lent his name to the fight against the convict lease
and the use of corporal punishment in the system. Pinchot wrote an attack on the convict lease system in a letter
addressed to Mrs. William S. Jennings, (wife of the former Governor) and Miss Elizabeth Skinner. He charged that
the whipping bosses in the camps were only the instruments of Florida's laws and regulations, arguing that those
regulations and the men who supported them were the real guilty parties.
Acknowledging the difficulty of fighting the powerful lumber, turpentine and similar interests in the state that
supported the convict lease system, Pinchot, a great outdoorsman, pledged not to fish or hunt in Florida "as long as
peonage survives." Copies of Pinchot's letters went to the editor of the New York World and to Gudmunder Grimson,
the North Dakota State Attorney.
George Westcott Stearn, president of the American Agricultural Association, urged Pinchot to ask President Warren
G. Harding and the Attorney General of the United States to take "prompt and vigorous action" to put an end to the
convict lease system. Florida State Senator John Stokes, who served as chairman of the Joint Investigating
Committee, personally assured Pinchot that the convict lease system and corporal punishment were doomed in
Many out-of-state newspapers joined the New York World in calling for the abolition of the lease system and the use
of corporal punishment. Editorials appeared in the Dayton Ohio Journal, Bismarck North Dakota tribune, Chicago
Daily News, San Francisco News and nearly one hundred other papers. Most Florida papers joined the fight.
Influential state papers like the Miami Herald, the Pensacola Journal, The Ocala Star, The Florida Times Union, The
Tampa Tribune, and the Tallahassee Democrat all demanded that the convict lease system be abolished.
The people of Oldsmar, and others in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties sent a resolution to the Legislature on May
10, 1923. They resolved to "continue to hold mass meetings in Oldsmar just as long as it is necessary, in order to let
the State Senators understand plainly that we know they are misrepresenting the will of the people of this state." The
group mailed copies of the resolution to every member of the Florida Senate and the House of Representatives.
Even the Klu Klux Klan joined the crusade against the lease system. A letter from the Justice Committee of the Klu
Klux Klan went to Senator J. B. Johnson of Live Oak, and eleven other senators. The notice claimed the Klan was
watching the Senators' "conduct in connection with your work against doing away with the leasing of convicts and
applying the LASH to them." The letter accused the Senators of being traitors to their state and the people who
elected them. It warned "you and every other man who hereafter vote to continue such hellish principals as convict
leasing or using the LASH, that within thirty days after the senate and house adjourns, you will receive 100 lashes on
your nasty hide, and a cote of tar and feathers."
When the Legislature took up the question of the convict lease system and the use of the whip to discipline
prisoners, Representative Nathan Mayo made a stirring speech against corporal punishment. He waved aloft a
whipping strap, describing it as made of leather more than two inches wide and four feet long. Mayo held up the
actual seven and one-half pound strap with the heavy steel handle "Whipping Boss" T. W. Higginbotham used to
discipline prisoners at the Putnam Lumber camp where Martin Tabert died. Mayo explained that guards commonly
coated the whipping strap with syrup and dragged it in sand to make it more effective.
Representative Mayo then displayed a "pair of ragged shoes and a striped object that resembled convict breeches.
Holding these items aloft, he moved that the legislators waive the rules and "the measures seeking the abolition of
the lease system and corporal punishment be passed at this time." Representative Fred H. Davis also spoke against
flogging as discipline for prisoners in the Florida system, vehemently arguing that even the neighboring state of
Georgia had discontinued the use of corporal punishment in its prison system.
The many abuses of prisoners and other problems uncovered in the convict leasing system by the Martin Tabert
investigation and the public embarrassment Florida suffered finally prompted officials to act. The Florida Legislature
repealed the leasing statutes and prohibited corporal punishment in county convict camps for all time. The
lawmakers did not completely abolish corporal punishment in the state prison system, but suspended it for two years.
Until 1897, Florida officials achieved practically nothing in "prison reform" although public pressure forced the
creation of new rules to alleviate some of the worst conditions in the state and county convict camps. The Board of
Commissioners of State Institutions hired one Convict Inspector to travel from camp to camp to check on the
treatment of the leased prisoners. Later the Legislature provided for four inspectors. The Board of Commissioners
formulated rules designed to improve operation of the camps, but reports of prisoner abuse grew worse.
Increasing public criticism of conditions in the convict camps finally prompted the Legislature to appoint a Joint
Committee to investigate the charges in 1895. This committee report asserted that convicts that worked under the
lease system were better off than they would be in a prison building, shut away from Florida's "pure air and sunshine.
National efforts to reform prisons in the United States began in earnest with the establishment of the American
Prison Reform Association in New York in 1870. This group developed goals for the treatment of prisoners that
sought to follow a sequence of "classification, diagnosis, probation, parole, and reformation." Although reports the
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture collected indicated he and other Florida officials were familiar with publications
of the Prison Reform Association, little changed. Florida continued its practice of leasing out the labor of prisoners to
pay for their incarceration and earn a profit for the state.
In the early years of the 20th century, articles and letters published in Florida newspapers, reports to the Legislature
and letters to the Governor and other officials condemning the convict lease system increased many times over.
Stories of the brutal and inhumane treatment of prisoners appeared in newspapers throughout the state, but the
Legislature did not act.
Contracting out the prisoners' labor provided the state and county governments profits that benefited every Florida
citizen by reducing their tax bills. The letters and public statements of the people of Florida clearly demonstrated
their dislike of the harsh manner labor contractors treated the state's prisoners. People were obviously angry and
embarrassed to find women and children included in the convict leases, living and working in the camps with men.
Florida citizens, however, still did not support tax increases to abolish the lease system.
Increasing public complaints about the brutality of the lease system attracted attention from outside the state in
1905. The Missouri Department of Labor sent Special Agent Collis Lively to investigate penal institutions in Florida
and other Southern states. Lively published a report charging that prisoners in Florida and other southern states
lived in a "hopeless state of slavery, more cruel and inhuman than chattel slavery ever was." His report concluded
that the South governed its penal institutions solely for revenue.
In answering Lively's charges, Governor Broward spoke in praise of the lease system. He explained that the terms of
the lease contracts fully monitored and protected the welfare of the prisoners. Broward recommended that the state
employ an additional inspector to assist in visiting the convict camps regularly "to guard against the improper
handling or treatment of the prisoners." He dismissed as inaccurate the complaints of Florida citizens against the
abuses of the system, asserting contractors in the state's convict lease system were innocent of abuses. The
Governor asserted that reported brutality occurred only in county convict camps. He recommended that the
Legislature enact laws to require the "inspection and proper care" of prisoners and make those laws mandatory for
By 1911, the increase in public sentiment against the convict lease system led the Legislature to pass a bill
abolishing leasing convict labor to private contractors, but continued their use on the state's road system. Governor
Gilchrist vetoed the bill, asserting it did not include a provision for convict care. The state did not own buildings
suitable for a prison, and the Legislature did not appropriate money to build or operate such a facility.
But Florida's economy grew. The state's improved tax base made it possible for officials to balance the budget and
gradually improve public services. In 1913, work finally began on constructing buildings and moving prisoners and
equipment to the permanent state prison on property in Bradford County, near Raiford. 664
In 1923, the prison farm had over 4000 acres of land under cultivation growing vegetables, and inmates cared for
hogs, cattle, goats and chickens, and fifty dairy cows. The farm had more than 100 working horses and mules. The
prisoners' work made the institution almost completely self-sufficient in food for inmates and farm animals, reducing
costs to the taxpayers.
Responding to reforms adopted in other states, officials introduced a system of classification of prisoners but the
design of the Florida system supported work on the state roads, categorizing inmates according their race and ability
to labor. The state established a Convict Road Force in 1917 and placed it under the control of the State Road
Department. Convict leasing by the state ended in 1919, but some state prisoners were leased to private parties by
Public outrage over the unexplained death and probable murder, of a young white man on a county convict crew
created a climate in Tallahassee that allowed a bill to pass the Legislature in 1923 to abolish the lease system in
Florida counties. The Legislature and the people of the state re-directed their focus from the monetary cost of
making changes in the prison system, to negative publicity damaging Florida commerce and growth. The governor
signed the bill to abolish the county convict lease system in May 1923.
Once the convict lease system ended in the counties and condition of Florida's economy improved, the state created
more prison farms. Modern prison reform ideas began to make themselves felt. The goal of reforming lawbreakers,
and returning them to society as productive citizens slowly replaced the idea that imprisonment was to punish the
guilty and make money for the state. Prisoners continued to work on the state roads, and performed industrial jobs
within the prison system.
In the 1920s, Florida still had no formal parole system although most penologists viewed parole as the most
successful method available to aid a prisoner in returning as a productive member of society. Supervisors of
prisoners still made recommendations and appeals for individual pardons and occasionally the Governor granted
them, but it was not until 1941 that the Legislature created a formal system for considering and granting parole to
An improved economy, the state's rapid settlement and developing order, and a growing sense of civic responsibility
among citizens, enabled Florida to abandon its convict lease system. Florida leaders opted to join the 20th century,
finally taking full responsibility for the offenders incarcerated under its laws.
Men and women still lived and worked in chains and behind high fences in Florida work camps, under laws that
allowed employers to hold workers for debt. The same legislative session that passed the bill to end convict leasing
passed a bill that would commit many men and women to the brutality of the equivalent of a convict camp. The "Act
to Provide a Penalty to be Imposed Upon any Person in This State Who Shall, With Intent to Injure and Defraud,
Obtain or Procure Money or Other Thing of Value on a Contract or Promise to Perform Labor or Service and
Prescribing a Rule of Evidence Governing Same."
Historian Jerrell H. Shofner found "it was the 'rule of evidence' that was pernicious." Under this law, if a person
accepted anything of value from another, such as transportation to a work camp, or a purchase on credit at a store,
even if the value was disputed, a court accepted his failure to pay as evidence of his "intent to injure or defraud."
There were no niceties such as a "presumption of innocence." Labor contractors working out of New York, tricked
many immigrants into veritable slavery under this statute. The law forced needed workers into the turpentine woods
and phosphate pits and kept them there.
Peonage violated federal law, and when citizens asked the Florida Governor's office to investigate reported
instances in the state, he deferred to the FBI. An FBI investigation brought several men to trial, but local juries found
most of them innocent. Forced labor continued in Florida's forests, supported by disinterest or collusion on the part
of local officials and lack of concern on the part of the people of Florida.
When the state officially abolished county convict lease in 1923, The Florida Department of Transportation took
control of prisoners who then built Florida's roads. Reports indicate that the Department of Transportation's
chain-gang system may have been as bad as the convict lease system in some ways.
Historian Alex Lichtenstein says reformers "claimed that convict labor on the state's highways should benefit all the
people and in their view prisoners would find a kind master in the state." He argues however, that "when southern
convicts left the coal mines and turpentine camps for the roads in the early part of this century, 90 percent of them
were African-Americans." This system acted to support white supremacy because the image of "black men working in
chains, overseen by poor whites holding shotguns and authorized to shoot to kill, sent an undeniable message."
Prisoners in Florida's chain-gangs, working on the state's highways should have been better off than the men
women and children held in the convict lease camps where they were easily hidden in the woods, fields and
phosphate pits. Evidence suggests however, that they were not. Groups of men may have been visible when working
on the roads, but they lived in road camps hidden in the woods or moved from job to job in iron cages on wheels.
The cages were the same sort used to move circus animals that were described by Governor Gilchrist when he
spoke in opposition to the idea of copying Georgia and working Florida's prisoners on the state's roads. The
prisoners in the road gangs were finally the full responsibility of state employees, and under their complete control,
but the record shows this change afforded them little protection against physical abuse.
Lichtenstein charges that in the chain-gang system "corporal punishment and outright torture, casual blows from rifle
butts or clubs, whipping with a leather strap, confinement in a "sweat-box" under the southern sun, and hanging from
stocks or bars followed from the most insignificant transgressions." He found also that only whites served as wardens
in the Southern chain-gang systems. All of the literature and any statistics extant verify that the greater majority of
the prisoners, in some cases as many as ninety percent of them, were black.
The convict lease system created significant impediments to penal reform. Selling the labor of prisoners resulted in
profits for state and county governments, profits for the politically powerful firms who bought the prisoners' labor at
bargain rates and profits for government officials the leasing business corrupted. The record illustrates that the
firms, in addition to legally paying the state and counties, also paid sheriffs for each person they arrested who
served time on the lease. The judges who sentenced prisoners also received kickbacks. These corrupting conflicts
of interest resulted in incarcerations on trivial grounds, longer sentences than reasonable, and prisoners sometimes
serving beyond the expiration of their sentences.
In addition, some key state legislators leased prisoners for their own businesses, while others received campaign
support, directly or indirectly, from the leasing industries. Adding Florida's early financial problems and later
reluctance of its citizens to pay taxes to support government services, helps explain this dismal history. The
willingness of Florida's political elite to exploit the weak and helpless--children, economically deprived women and
politically impotent black men that state political leaders had stripped of their right to vote--provides the final
ingredient in this story of corruption, exploitation and greed.
Conversely, some Floridians, supported by much of the state's press, consistently demanded reform. Change
occurred incrementally, always with exceptions and setbacks, especially as it affected African-Americans.
Embarrassed by negative publicity stemming from the brutal killing of an out-of-state prisoner by a lessee's whipping
boss, the Legislature finally abolished the lease system in 1923. The year 1923 was also the peak of Florida's first
real estate boom. It is not coincidental that newspaper critics of leasing advocated using prison labor to build Florida
roads. Real estate developers and the hotel and tourist industry--two new and powerful economic political forces in
the state--would now be virtually subsidized by convict labor building their infrastructure.
The men who served on road gangs after 1923 still lived and worked under highly unpleasant conditions, but the
corrupt incentives to incarcerate them largely ended, and women and children prisoners now received some
Historian Edward L. Ayers argues that under Presidential Reconstruction, Congressional Reconstruction and
Redemption, "every party that exercised power in the postwar South shared responsibility for the lease's birth and
survival." Florida's state or county governments maintained a convict lease system from its territorial period to 1923.
The chain-gangs of the state's Department of Transportation were not much of an improvement over the lease
system, but they demonstrated that Florida citizens had finally assumed responsibility for the actions of their elected
|Bloody History: The Truth