Florida's colorful history outshines present
Commentary by PAT MURPHY
So, the rest of America is realizing that Florida isnt just the
vacation land idyll of retirees or playground for tanned and carefree singles.
As a native son, child of the Depression of the 1930s, who earned his
spurs as a newspaperman during 20 years with The Miami Herald, I can testify that recent
scandals the questionable vote tally in Palm Beach County, the tug-of-war over
Elian Gonzalez, savings and loan scams, waves of drug money, vote fraud in Miami city hall
are amateur tomfoolery.
Yesteryear was rich with evil.
Floridas Gold Coast of the late `40s and early `50s thrived with
mob-run illegal gambling, luring fashionable northern elite, as well as moneyed Latin
Americans, to glittering casinos.
It was protected by the likes of Jimmy Sullivan, a popular traffic cop
whose whistling routine at a busy downtown Miami intersection led to election as Dade
County sheriff. Law enforcement treated violent mobsters, including Al Capone, as
Sullivan later was one of many jailed after U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver,
D-Tenn., took his televised racket-busting hearings to Florida.
Florida had the "Pork Chop Gang" of Panhandle legislators who
held back progress for decades. The KKK also terrified blacks in rural Florida.
For old-fashioned corruption, nothing equaled Monroe County, the 133-mile
stretch of islands from mainland Florida to Key West.
My year there (1952-53) as a young reporter was an eye-popping adventure.
The county was controlled by the Democratic machine of state Rep. Bernie
Papy, outwardly a small-time liquor dealer and small loan operator, always in a pork
pie-style straw hat and chewing an unlit cigar stub. Immensely powerful and wealthy,
Papys politically rotten Monroe County was his fiefdom.
Papys power flowed from ruthlessness and benevolence. Stories of
spontaneous generosity handing out $20 bills to passersby in front of his office
were legendary and important on Election Day, as were tales of disloyal Conchs
being roughed up.
Papys lieutenants were something, too. One was Sheriff Berlin
Sawyer, a glad-handing, aging hack with a blind eye for local wickedness. My most
memorable moment with Sheriff Sawyer was when Rose Miller, a Mae West almost look-alike
and owner of the wide-open Roses Tea Room bordello, showed up to openly hand out
Christmas cards to Sawyer and his deputies with crisp new bills showing through oval
peepholes her "Thanks!" for allowing illegal prostitution to flourish.
On Election Day, I watched Papys precinct workers hand out small
bills and bottles of booze to some voters within sight of polling places.
It was no secret that Papys friends got breaks on property taxes,
One of my most controversial stories was exposing a traditional Navy stag
party in a huge downtown auditorium, where male sailors had sex on stage with women. The
story resulted in several Navy officers being cashiered out of the service but no
action from local prosecutors, except resentment toward me.
Papys empire crumbled after Miami newspapers spread the word of
sleaze on the Keys, and state auditors found grandiose embezzlement in the Overseas
Highway Commission, which managed the island-hopping road in the Florida Keys.
My conscience says good riddance. But as a newsman, oh, how I miss those