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Key West: Politics

Key West: The Old and the New


The tendency of the America people to divide along political lines was manifest in Key West in the early days of its settlement, notwithstanding the fact that news of the result of a presidential election did not reach the city until six weeks thereafter.

The predominating influence was strongly Southern, and naturally democratic. The islanders' however, were more interested in municipal than national or State politics, and local political battles were waged with as much feeling as if the fate of the nation depended upon the result.

In 1831 Mr. Richard Fitzpatrick and Colonel Lackland M. Stone, then United States marshal, were opposing candidates for representative from Monroe county to the territorial council. Mr. Fitzpatrick was a candidate for re-election; communications signed "Voter," "Honestus," "One of the People," etc., appeared in the Enquirer in which the good and bad qualities of the respective candidates were set forth. As both gentlemen were men of culture and high standing, the charges against them were no doubt as false as those promulgated in the primaries of the present day. Among other things, Mr. Fitzpatrick was charged with having traduced and slandered the people of Key West, calling them a "set of dishonest and unprincipled men and that the people of this county were unworthy of trust." He came in for the greater share of the abuse, but was triumphantly elected.

In 1838 the city divided on the matter of paying occupational taxes. Mr. Whitehead resigned the office of mayor and a bitter contest resulted, as is elsewhere set forth.

Hon. Joseph B. Browne and Judge William Marvin were delegates from Monroe county to the 0 St. Joseph's convention in 1838, which framed the constitution under which Florida was admitted into the Union in 1845. It is rather a remarkable circumstance that they were the last two survivors of that historic body.

It was not until 1860 that contests over national politics worked any serious division among the people, but in that year the first rumblings of the cataclysm that was to destroy constitutional guarantees, reached Key West and stirred our people to the depths.

They knew that the great Democratic party which had shaped the destinies of the nation for half a century was menaced with defeat, on account of internal dissensions, and the conservative, Constitutional Democrats were anxious that their policies should prevail.

On the 23rd of May, 1830, a mass meeting of Democrats was held in the city hall with Hon. John P. Baldwin as chairman and J. L. Tatum, Esq., secretary. The object of the meeting was explained by Hon. Joseph Beverly Browne, who, after making a forcible address, introduced a resolution on the subject of electing delegates to the State Democratic convention to meet in Quincy, Fla., on the 4th day of June.

The resolution "tendered the thanks of the Democrats of Monroe county to Hon. A. B. Noyes for the manner in which he had represented the Democracy of Monroe and Dade counties, in the convention lately held in Tallahassee."

Hons. Jos. B. Browne, James Filor, Geo. L. Bowne, Asa F. Tift and Wm. H. Ward were appointed delegates to attend the convention at Quincy, and instructed to try and have Monroe county represented in the national Democratic convention to be held at Richmond or Baltimore, or both, on the second day of June. Owing to the difficulties that Key West people had to encounter to reach the mainland, the precaution was taken to name as alternates Hon. A. B. Noyes and Judge R. B. Hilton Of Leon county, in case the regular delegates were unable to attend.

The holding of the national Democratic convention at Baltimore in June, its balloting fifty-two times without any result, its adjournment without a nomination, the subsequent Domination of three Democrats for the presidency, with Breckenridge, the candidate of the advocates of the doctrine of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case; Douglas, the candidate of the advocates of Kansas-Nebraska legislation, and Bell, the candidate of the Constitutional-Union party, and the consequent election of Abraham Lincoln-who failed by nearly a million votes of being the choice of the people came with staring celerity, and the Civil War was upon us before we realized it. The political events of that period are set forth in the chapter on Civil War.

The earliest contest after reconstruction, in which the newly enfranchised negroes voted, was the mayoralty election of 1869, when Hon. Joseph Beverly Browne, the Democratic candidate defeated Mr. E. L. Ware, the candidate of the black Republican Party, as it was then called.

In 1866 the Democrats, after a hotly contested county election, with Mr. Browne as their candidate for representative in the legislature, carried the county for the first time since 1860.

In 1870 a spirited contest with Col. Walter C. Maloney, Jr., as the Democratic candidate, and James W. Locke, the Republican candidate for the State senate, the Republicans carried the county.

The two parties were very evenly divided in Monroe county until 1888, since which time the Republican party has been practically without any local organization.

As a result of a split in the Democratic party in 1888 the Republicans elected a negro sheriff and county judge; the latter was removed by the governor for malfeasance in office, but the former served his term. At the same election another Republican, Mr. George Hudson, was elected county clerk.

In 1878 Hon. Geo. W. Allen, a Republican, defeated Col. W. C. Maloney, Jr., Democrat, for the senate by twelve votes.

The most bitter election ever held in Monroe county was that of the senatorial election in 1882. The wing of the Republican party hostile to Mr. Allen, known as the custom house faction, controlled the convention, but even with that advantage they could not have prevented Mr. Allen's nomination, had they not persuaded Mr. John Jay Philbrick to become their standard bearer. Mr. Philbrick was a Republican, but had never taken any active part in politics. He was one of the foremost business men in the city, a college graduate, a man of great versatility of talent, and his liberality and public spirit made him one of the most popular men in the city. Mr. C. B. Pendleton was the Democratic nominee, but certain disclosures in his private life coming shortly after his nomination, caused the Democratic Executive Committee to request him to withdraw from the ticket. The wing of the party that had supported him for the nomination opposed this, and Mr. Pendleton declined to withdraw. Several prominent members of the Democratic Executive Committee. who felt that he was not a proper candidate for their party, resigned their positions and announced that they would oppose his election.

The court house faction, led by Mr. E. 0. Locke, clerk of the United States District Court, and Hon. G. Bowne Patterson, United States district attorney, were dissatisfied with the treatment that Mr. Allen had received, and when the split occurred in the Democratic party, they conferred with the Democrats who were opposed to Mr. Pendleton, and induced Mr. Allen to run as an independent candidate.

A campaign committee was organized on w which were some of the leading Democrats, including those who had withdrawn from the Democratic Executive Committee, and several of the leading white Republicans, and a systematic campaign for Mr. Allen inaugurated. The Cubans rallied to his support to a man. Political meetings were held once or twice a week, and the county was stirred up to a political frenzy, never witnessed before or since. Families were separated, life-time friends quit speaking to each other, and personal encounters were frequent. Mr. Allen was triumphantly elected, having a clear majority over both the regular Democratic and Republican nominees.

Immediately after the election, the Democratic Executive Committee, which was composed entirely of Pendleton's supporters, submitted to a primary election the question whether the governor should be requested to remove Mr. Peter T. Knight from the office of clerk of the circuit court, and Mr. George W. Demerritt from the office of sheriff, for having supported Mr. Allen. The friends of these gentlemen took no part in the primary and treated the matter as a joke. Several hundred people voted, and the ballot box was stuffed to the extent of several hundred more, and the returns made such a strong showing that Governor Bloxham felt it his duty to accede to the request of the Democrats of the county, and sent their names in to the senate for removal. It was known that Governor Bloxham did not want the senate to confirm his action, and the senate, by a good majority refused to do so, and these officials served out their terms. Mr. Pendleton contested the senatorial election, and notwithstanding the fact that the senate was almost solidly Democratic. Mr. Allen retained his seat, only two votes being cast for Mr. Pendleton. Mr. Allen served through the session of 1883, but shortly afterwards resigned his seat to accept the position of cashier in the newly established Bank of Key West.

In 1884 a special election was called to fill Mr. Allen's unexpired term. Mr. George B. Phillips was the Republican candidate, Mr. Andrew J. Kemp and Dr. J. V. Harris, the candidates of the two wings of the Democratic party, and Mr. Philips was elected. He had accepted the nomination, however, merely for the influence it would give him in the councils of his party, in the event of the election of a Republican president, a contingency that seemed almost certain of fulfillment. The election of Grover Cleveland destroyed Mr. Phillips' hopes, and rather than give up the important position of head bookkeeper in the E. H. Gato cigar factory, he declined the seat in the senate. Mr. Pendleton, thereupon, went to Tallahassee and had the old contest reopened, and the senate by a majority of one gave him the seat. No one from Key West opposed Mr. Pendleton's claims at this time, and several senators who voted for him did so under the impression that it was the wish of the Democracy of Monroe county that the twenty-fourth senatorial district should have a representative in the senate.

One of the most spirited mayoralty elections was in 1877 when Hon. L. W. Bethel defeated Dr. J. W. V. R. Plummer. There was speech making and torch light processions, and as much if not more interest manifested than in a general election.

In the presidential election of 1876 Monroe county was one of the determining factors. The morning after the election the Republicans realized that Mr. Samuel J. Tilden had defeated the Republican candidate, Mr. Hayes by thirty-three electoral votes, but that by fraudulently changing the result in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, they could elect Hayes by one majority. Instructions were sent to the Republican governors of these States to change the Democratic majorities into a majority for the Republican party, and men of great ability, although unscrupulous partisans, were sent to each of them to formulate a plan to carry out the proposed fraud. Monroe county, which had given a large Democratic majority, was one of those selected to be contested. The third ward at that time was almost solidly Democratic, Mr. John T. Barker's family being the only Republicans living therein. The vote of the third ward was four hundred and fifty-seven for the Democratic electors and three for the Republican.

Affidavits were procured to the effect that intimidation had been practiced in this ward, which prevented the negroes from voting. The election was quiet, orderly and practically without fraud on either side. The machinery of the election being in the hands of the Republicans, they alone could have perpetrated any fraud. The third ward was thrown out by the Republican returning board at Tallahassee, and the State was given to the Republican party by a majority less than the Democratic majority in this ward.

The third ward has always been the banner Democratic ward of the county, and its vote, on the side of decency, morality and good government. Until the change in the ward lines of the city, it occupied the same enviable position in city affairs.

In 1887 the county of Lee was created out of part of Monroe county, and the two comprise the twenty-fourth senatorial district. In 1888 Hon. Geo. M. Hendry, of Fort Myers, was elected senator of the new district. Since then Monroe county has furnished the senator, and Lee county has petitioned in vain for the privilege of occasionally being similarly honored.

In 1894 when Hon. J. M. Phipps of Monroe county was nominated, a district convention was held, and Lee county sent her quota of delegates.

In 1898 there was no district convention, and the Monroe county convention nominated Hon. W. Hunt Harris, and the Lee county Democratic convention nominated Mr. Menendez Johnson. Mr. Harris was duly elected.

Since Mr. Hendry's incumbency, Fernando J. Moreno, Hon. Jefferson B. Browne, Hon. J. M. Phipps, Hon. W. Hunt Harris and Hon. W. H. Malone, Jr., the present incumbent, have been successively elected.

Isolated as Monroe county is from the rest of the State, it has been difficult for her to receive the recognition at the hands of the State Democratic party that she is entitled to, although several of her distinguished sons have held State positions.

The first was Hon. Richard Fitzpatrick, who was president of the territorial council in 1836. lion. Stephen R. Mallory was elected to the United States senate while a resident of Key West. Other citizens of Monroe county to be honored were Hon. Livingston W. Bethel, lieutenant-governor from 1880 to 1884, Jefferson B. Browne, president of the senate, from 1891 to 1893 and chairman of the Florida Railroad Commission from 1903 to 1907, Hon. W. Hunt Harris, president of the senate from 1907 to 1909.

Since the organization the State Board of Health in 1889, Monroe county's distinguished citizen, who is one of the foremost experts on sanitation and hygiene in the United States, Dr. Joseph Y. Porter, Sr., has held the position of State health officer. Key West has had three delegates to Democratic national conventions; Hon. Joseph Beverly Browne in 1868, Hon. Jephtha V. Harris in 1876, and Hon. Jefferson B. Browne in 1888. From 1904 to 1908 Hon. Jefferson B. Browne was a member of the Democratic National Executive Committee for Florida.

The Republican party has on several occasions nominated distinguished citizens of Monroe county for high offices. Bons. E. 0. Locke, Geo. Bowne Patterson and Geo. W. Allen were respectively the nominees for congress in 1884, 1900 and 1908. In 1896 Mr. Allen was nominated for governor but declined the nomination.

In 1900 Captain John F. Horr was the Republican nominee for secretary of state and Hon. Geo. W. Allen in 1904. In 1904 and 1908 Mr. Geo. W. Allen was delegate to the national Republican convention, and Captain John F. Horr in 1892 and 1900. Mr. Ramon Alvarez was alternate to the Republican national convention in 1892.

In 1886 C. B. Pendleton ran as an independent candidate for congress against Col. Robert H. M. Davidson, but did not carry a county in the State, and in the county of Wakulla he failed to receive a vote.

The politics of Key West has not been without its share of excitement. On several occasions during reconstruction, we were on the verge of race riots.

On one election day when the negroes were driving around the city in a wagon with a brass band, shouting and jeering, making themselves generally offensive to the white citizens, they passed the corner of Front and Duval streets, where Captain Phillip Fontaine was standing. Captain Fontaine was a man of quick temper, and unable to submit to their impertinence, drew his pistol and opened fire on them. The rapid report of his pistol and the rattle of the bullets on the brass horns, so frightened the negroes that they jumped out of the wagon and sought refuge in and underneath adjacent buildings. When they discovered that their assailant was attacking them single handed, they emerged from their biding places, and made a rush for him. He had emptied his pistol, but fearlessly stood his ground, when he was struck down by a stone and would have been killed had not one of the negroes, who was greatly attached to him, dragged him to a place of safety, and concealed him until the authorities got the riotous negroes under control.

Captain Fontaine was a native of Key West and a man of undaunted courage and distinguished. bearing. He was an officer in the United States marine corps when the war broke out, and resigned his commission to enter the Confederate service. His daughter married Colonel Samuel J. Wolf of the Florida State Troops, a citizen of Key West.

In 1872 a number of the Republicans who disapproved of the reconstruction policy of their party, and its affiliation with carpet-baggers, negroes and scalawags, sought to purify it by organizing the liberal Republican party, and a meeting was held in the court house for that purpose. The negroes led by the carpetbaggers assembled in force, and attempted to break up the meeting. They became threatening, and a riot was imminent. Several old time Whigs, and some young men, who had never been in politics, attended the meeting in the hope that there might be organized a respectable white Republican party. They soon saw that the hope was futile, and were about to leave the hall when Dr. J. W. V. R. Plummer, the leader of the movement, called upon his friends to stand together and resist the threatened violence of the negroes. There was one young man among them who was just beginning his political career. He had been approached by a distinguished Democrat, who expressed surprise at seeing him in such company, and his allegiance to the movement was already weakened, when Dr. Plummer made his call to his followers to stand their ground. This young man was Mr. Peter T. Knight, who concluding that a riot among negroes and sore head Republicans was no place for him, jumped out of a window of the court house and landed in the Democratic party, where he has ever since been, a distinguished and active worker.

In the year 1872 the Democrats made their first organized effort to wrest the State from the Republican party, and Colonel John A. Henderson and Hon. W. D. Bloxham made a speaking tour through the State. When they reached Key West a meeting was held at the corner of Front and Duval streets, about where the First National Bank now stands. It was the first big political gathering since 1860, and there was great excitement on both sides.

The speaking had not progressed far when someone (said to have been Mr. John H. Gregory, a whole-souled, genial, big-hearted, generous fellow) discharged a pistol in the air. The wildest confusion followed, each side thought they were being attacked; shouts of "Murder!" "0 Hell!" "I'm cut!" "Somebody shot me!" were heard on all sides and a stampede began. The women screamed, the white people scurried to the third ward, and the negroes lit out for their homes in the first ward. Whatever slight injuries were sustained were caused by persons running into each other, in their desire to escape the supposed riot. Highly imaginative persons on both sides, for many years, believed that they had witnessed a serious race riot, but it was the source of infinite jest to the distinguished orators whose meeting had been so summarily broken up.

An exciting incident in the Allen-Pendleton campaign Occurred at a meeting on the corner of William and Fleming streets opposite Sparks Chapel. It was one of the last meetings of the campaign and -statements had been made from the platform, which one of the supporters of Mr. Allen, who was present, felt should be refuted, and be went on the platform intending to address the voters when The Pendleton people got through. On the platform were Col. W. C. Maloney, Jr., Judge Allen E. Curry and Mr. C. B. Pendleton. As soon as the gentleman arrived on the platform, he was courteously offered a seat, and asked his purpose, which he explained. He was told that he would not be allowed to speak. Judge Curry presided, and after a short talk, stated that the meeting was over and the folks could all go home. The crowd, however, saw the prospect of some fun and remained. When the gentleman arose to speak his friends cheered, and his opponents shouted, intending to drown his voice. He made himself heard sufficiently, however, to tell them that he did not intend to attempt to speak while they were holloaing, but would stand there until their voices gave out, and he would then speak. The Pendleton people on the platform, urged their friends to go home, but none moved. Finally someone suggested to tear down the platform. The speaker attempted to draw his pistol to prevent this, but before be got it out, strong bands had grasped the supports and pulled them out. Colonel Maloney, who was sitting with his chair tipped back, his feet on the table, relied over backwards into the store behind him. The others, who were also sitting down, met with the same catastrophe, but the speaker who was standing, preserved his equilibrium and landed on his feet. A rush was made for him, but having gotten his pistol out by this time, he managed to keep the crowd at a safe distance. The women screamed and rushed for their homes, and wild reports of rioting were scattered throughout the city. The incident, however, amounted to nothing, and the friends of the speaker seeing that lie had no opportunity to be heard, abandoned the attempt, and all hands quietly returned home to discuss the incident in a jocular, or angry manner, according to their respective moods.

Presidential elections may be pregnant with hopes of lucrative positions; State elections with matters of polity; city elections with personalities; but it remains for a "wet and dry election" to reach the acme of excitement and interest.

As the women are the greatest sufferers from the open saloon, they take the lead in such movements, and many men rally to their support from a spirit of chivalry.

In 1907 Key West had thirty-eight licensed saloons. One third of the population belonged to the Latin races who drink mild wines and beer, but rarely to excess. Here the liquor traffic Seemed safe from molestation. Suddenly an agitation was begun for a test of strength between the two forces. Rev. E. A. Harrison of the First Methodist church took the lead, heartily supported by Rev. Charles T. Stout, the Episcopal clergyman, Rev. M. A. Clonts of the Baptist church, and all the other Protestant ministers on the island.

Petitions were circulated asking the county commissioners to call an election to determine if the saloon should continue in Key West, and before the whiskey people realized the strength of the movement, the requisite twenty-five per cent of the registered voters had signed the petitions, and the election called for November 4, 1907.

The. campaign was a bitter one. Besides the ministers of the gospel, Hons. Jefferson B. Browne, William H. Malone, Jr., Allen E. Curry, and George L. Babcock, took the stump for the anti-saloon side, and Hon. J. N. Fogarty, mayor, George G. Brooks and E. M. Semple, for the wets. Rev. W. J. Carpenter of the Methodist Conference of Florida, and Rev. John A. Wray of the Baptist church, came to Key West and made powerful anti-saloon speeches. A joint debate between Rev. Mr. Carpenter and Hon. Robert McNamee of Tampa, in Jackson Square, was, attended by the largest audience ever assembled in Key West.

The "wets" carried the county by forty-eight majority.

Mr. Albert F. Shultz was campaign manager of the antisaloon campaign, and much credit is due him for his work in that capacity.

The whiskey people did not take out licenses when due on October first, and all saloons were closed during that month and for six days in November. During the period the saloons were closed, there were fifteen cases in the police court; in the month of September there were sixty-two, and for the twenty-four days in November, there were seventy-three.

Excerpt from "Key West: The Old and the New" by Jefferson B. Browne. Published 1912.


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