The last time I was in Southwest Florida, I took a boat over to Useppa Island and visited the only museum in the United States with a permanent display honoring a major American foreign policy disaster. The display recounts how the Central Intelligence Agency used Useppa Island as a training ground to prepare for the 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion.
You might not think that would be something to brag about, or even mention in polite company. After all, the Bay of Pigs operation has gone down in history as an epic failure. You look up the term “ill-fated” in the dictionary, and there’s a picture of the CIA-backed dissidents wading ashore in Cuba, thinking they could topple Fidel Castro. But if you go, the folks at the museum will be delighted to show you their Bay of Pigs maps and artifacts. No one has ever questioned why the museum has such an exhibit, museum director Rona Stage told me. But then she added, “We have had comments by people saying they ‘wish we would forget that part of history.’”
Florida, of course, is full of such stories—tales of the odd and improbable, the weird and the wild, the things that are so offbeat or embarrassing that some people would rather forget them. Everywhere you go in the Sunshine State you’ll find kooky crooks, shady politicians, wacky behavior of every kind. That’s true in Southwest Florida as well.
After all, this is the corner of the state that gave us such headlines as “Collier Woman Accused of Torching Ex-Husband’s Home with Voodoo Candles,” and “Crocodile Finds New Home on Sanibel Golf Course.”
It’s the place where a 77-year-old Lehigh Acres man admitted to the cops that he’d shot his new bride, age 62, in the buttocks during an argument over their sleeping arrangements, and where a 50-year-old Naples man accused of kissing a teen sunbather on the bottom claimed he’d just fallen over and landed that way, after getting tripped up by some beach umbrellas.
It’s where a trio of women stole $20,000 worth of Mucinex from a Lee County CVS store, and where a Fort Myers man ran around a hotel in his underwear pulling fire alarms just because, he told the cops later, he didn’t like the hotel manager’s sexual orientation.
And that’s just a few of the things that have happened this year. So far.
Florida weirdness didn’t start with the current generation of residents now chasing each other around with machetes. It’s been around since before we were a state. Back when Florida was just a territory, it was known as “a rogue’s paradise,” where many of the residents did something illegal for a living and the law was either bent or absent. Statehood in 1845 didn’t change that.
Florida’s ranchers of the late 1800s drove their cattle to the docks of Punta Rassa, south of Fort Myers, for shipment to Cuba. Once the herds made it to the port, the cowhands were paid in Spanish gold, leading to card games and occasional drunken gunplay. The walls and floor of the barracks where they stayed ended up riddled with bullet holes.
The king of the Florida cowboys was Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell, famed for his ability to recognize brands, his drinking and his storytelling. More significant, though, was his apparent inability to keep his hands off someone else’s cattle. In 1896, Lee County authorities charged him with rustling and put him on trial. Mizell’s friends tried to sway the jury by tossing a rock through the open window of the jury room. Attached by a rope to the rock was a basket full of food and whiskey. It didn’t work. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Mizell’s pals got together a petition calling for him to be pardoned, but then they found out that he couldn’t be pardoned until he had reported to the prison to serve his sentence. They got him dressed up and liquored up and put him on a train. At the prison, the warden wined him and dined him and gave him a tour, then sent him back home a free man.
Bone Mizell wasn’t the only eccentric character roaming Southwest Florida back then. An 1894 story in the Fort Myers paper revealed that a notorious bordello madam, known as “Big Six,” was actually a man. He had apparently donned women’s clothing and adopted the oldest profession while avoiding a murder charge in Alabama.
Lots of people sought a new start in Florida. One was Cyrus Teed, a wealthy New York doctor who believed the earth was hollow. He decided he could create a New Jerusalem beside the Estero River. Promising that he had discovered the secret of immortality, he convinced more than 100 of his patients to tag along and join his new religion, called Koreshanity. They incorporated the town of Estero, only to see the Legislature un-incorporate it. After a mob attacked Teed on the streets of Fort Myers, his health declined. When he died in 1908, his followers eagerly awaited his resurrection right up to the point where the Health Department said he had to be buried. Membership dwindled after that, which was understandable, since the sect practiced celibacy.
Even then Florida was rife with scams and scoundrels. In the 1890s, a missionary group offered to pay Lee County for educating Seminole Indian children. The county opened a school for both white children and Seminoles, but no Seminole children showed up. The teacher gave all the white kids Indian names and thus conned the missionaries into paying for their education.
Some of the odder behavior that took place involved efforts to sell real estate to people from up North. That was the motivation for Wild Bill Belvin, who in the early 1900s stripped off his clothes and went to live for a year in the scrub near what’s now Cape Coral. The idea was to show how easy it was for anyone to live off the land. When he emerged 12 months later with skin turned as tough as a gator’s, he was promptly arrested for stealing the eggs from a pelican’s nest. The arrest was just another publicity stunt.
There are still plenty of people running around naked. Just last year, a woman drove her car into a canal in Naples, then ran naked down the road yelling about Satan and God, then slapped a deputy. Even better was the man who was busted for DUI in 2015 for driving 109 mph on Alligator Alley toward Naples while naked. He had three female passengers. The smile he wore in his mugshot told the rest of the story.
Florida’s economy goes through cycles of boom and bust, with wild behavior during the boom years giving way to desperation during the busted ones. The heyday for real estate shenanigans was during the boom years of the 1950s. For instance, the developers of Lehigh Acres simply stamped out a grid pattern over 100,000 acres, marking everything as lots for sale and paying no attention to any need for parks or anything else. They poured all their resources into convincing people to put $10 down for the lots and sign a paper promising to pay $10 a month until it was paid off. In winter, for instance, they would find a spot in a snowy Northern town, sweep away the snow, set up a pre-fab model home, fire up smudge pots around it for warmth, then bring in a squad of bikini-clad women to lounge under potted palm trees. To top it all off, they had an elephant parade around this scene with a sign on its sides that said, “Fly to Florida for Peanuts,” encouraging the suckers to sign up for a free airplane flight that would, of course, deliver them straight to the salesmen making the hardcore sales pitch.
But the sales were considered the be-all and end-all, and that posed a problem.
“We gave so much thought to selling the land that the normal reservations for commercial properties, schools, all the ancillary things you need in a community, weren’t made,” said one of the developers years later. “We even had canals that ran uphill. I don’t know any mistake you could make that we didn’t make.”
Meanwhile, Leonard and Julius Rosen were turning swampland into home lots in Cape Coral and Golden Gate Estates. Their company published glowing ads in the Midwestern papers depicting how you could buy an acre of land, subdivide it, sell it off and make a fortune, because of course Florida real estate would constantly increase in value, right?
The Rosens employed a boiler room full of telephone pitchmen—some of them former carnival barkers with criminal records—to persuade people to buy lots sight unseen, usually by lying to them about where it was and what amenities were built nearby. Sometimes they would even switch the lots that had been bought for the ones that no one would buy because they were too far inland to be accessible, and not tell the buyers. Newspaper exposés and government investigations eventually shut them down.
Even the CIA’s excursion into Useppa Island turned into a real estate bonanza. Many of the agents fell in love with Florida. When they retired, they bought homes in the area, mostly on Sanibel. They started the island’s newspaper and led the push to incorporate the town. One of them, Porter Goss, became Sanibel’s first mayor, was appointed a Lee County commissioner, and then got elected to Congress—proving the CIA can take over even American governments. He eventually went back to work at the CIA, as the director.
Some of the real estate brainstorms that went bust in the ’50s and ’60s got another shot at glory during the mortgage bubble of the 2000s. Others were overtaken by vines and mold and snakes and exist only as faded plat maps and faltering relics. Perhaps the creepiest of these declining survivors are the concrete igloos on stilts that oil man Bob Lee built off the beaches of Marco Island in 1981. The dome-shaped roofs were supposed to send rain sluicing into troughs that would collect the water for showering and dish washing, and the structures were built strong enough to withstand a hurricane. What Lee didn’t count on was beach erosion, and soon the domes were no longer anchored to the island but instead floating out in the water, inaccessible except by boat. Now they stand vacant, looking like some strange alien eggs that just hatched.
My first visit to Southwest Florida came in the mid-1980s, when I was invited to tour another island, Boca Grande. While driving along with my guide, we had to hit the brakes suddenly when what looked like a miniature version of Godzilla raced across the road on its hind legs.
I believe my exact words were, “What the—?”
My guide explained that the island had become overrun by iguanas, and that was one. How did this happen? There were several theories, but the most likely was that someone had bought a couple as pets and then they had either escaped or been turned loose when the owner grew weary of them. In this Eden-like paradise, this reptilian Adam and Eve had reproduced rapidly, and now iguanas were turning up everywhere. One man told me their scratching in the insulation of his stilt house kept him awake at night. Another story I heard involved a woman who had been just about to sit down on the toilet when an iguana poked its head out, leading to some very loud screaming and a frantic call to 911. The deputy who responded told me he had borrowed a pair of rubber gloves from the homeowner and removed the intruder, then carried him outside.
“Did you then blow him away with your service revolver?” I asked.
“Um, no,” the deputy said. “The prisoner escaped custody.”
The iguana problem grew to the point that a 2005 study by Florida Gulf Coast University estimated the lizards’ number at 10,000. As a result, Lee County decided to hire a trapper to try to get rid of them—and to pay him using a tax on property in Boca Grande. I am pretty sure that makes Lee County the only one in America with an iguana tax.
Unlike with the iguanas, the reason a lot of weird-Florida stories involve animals is because we built our homes in their habitat. That’s how you get bears hanging out in hot tubs and Florida panthers poking their snouts up to sliding glass doors. Sometimes it seems like every golf course water hazard in the state contains at least one alligator. In January, one grabbed a black Labrador named Carbon at the Olde Cypress development in North Naples. Donald C. Copps, who had been watching Carbon for a friend on a cruise, jumped into the lake and rescued the dog, although the gator bit Copps on the thigh before he himself could get away.
Not everyone is so lucky. In 2012, near Everglades City, Wallace “Captain Wally” Weatherholt was piloting an airboat full of tourists when he stopped to give them a good photo op. Witnesses said he slapped the water with his hand, a hand that wildlife officials said also contained a marshmallow. The sweet treat was designed to attract an alligator. It worked a little too well. The gator took the marshmallow and the hand that was holding it. Because so much of Florida is full of fakery (Cinderella’s Castle, for instance), the tourists weren’t sure if what they were seeing was real. One later told a TV station she wondered, “Is this thing really biting him, or is this a game?” It wasn’t a game to the state wildlife commission, which charged the one-handed captain with illegally feeding a gator.
Some Florida stories are just stories, though. Still, they can illustrate some aspect of life here that helps explain its appeal. While I was visiting Useppa, three different people told me the same anecdote, often using the exact same words. The story goes that a grande dame who had made an annual winter pilgrimage to Useppa for decades had gone to visit friends on nearby Sanibel. Someone there asked her, “What in the world do you find to do all day?”
“Well,” she said primly, “in the morning, we count our money. And in the afternoon, we all have group sex. And then in the evening, we write thank-you notes.”
When I hear a story like that, all I can think is, “Thank heaven for Florida.”
Craig Pittman is an award-winning environmental reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country is his fourth book. Read more about Pittman in this month’s editorial.