The perils of thanking power, pt 3: the Sheriff Peter Hagan standard for Civics, History, and fearful elected officials

You can find parts 1 and 2 of this linked below. Part 2 revolved, in part, around a fellow School Board member saying this to me about the irresponsible and dangerous voucher expansion: “I think we all oppose it. But it’s going to happen.”

She used that as a reason not to confront our legislators about it too forcefully or honestly, in our language or our official positioning. Keep that phrase in mind as you read this. The immediate stakes involved are very different, of course. As are the consequences for acting.

But in the end, we elected officials win power from the public when we’re elected to act on its behalf. We’re elected to use that power to do our duty. And then we face the consequences for what we do or don’t do.

Elected officials today risk so few personal consequences. Maybe we lose a committee assignment; or someone talks mean to us on twitter; or we lose an election. Yet, the fear of those things still paralyzes. Sheriff Peter Hagan’s story challenges that paralysis across generations like no other of which I’m aware. Enjoy.


On March 1, 1923, just after 1 a.m., a Gainesville lynch mob arrived in Palatka to attack the Putnam County jail. I would bet much money that this mob included some of the same men who wiped out Rosewood three months earlier; but I don’t know that with certainty.

The mob had come to abduct and murder a black man named Arthur Johnson, who was accused of killing a white road crew worker in downtown Gainesville. The two men had quarreled when the black man did not defer to the white man as they bumped into each other on a sidewalk. The accused killer was taken to Palatka for his own safety.

Putnam County Sheriff Peter Monroe Hagan met the mob at the front door. What happened next is a singular, largely unknown, moment in American history. I know of no historical act by any elected official that so completely unifies personal, physical, moral, professional, and political courage.

It is the most radical example I have ever studied of a person of official power doing a job with no regard to keeping his job or power. It is without question Florida’s bravest, most righteous act of state-sanctioned violence ever leveled against its citizens. That is probably true for the US, too. Prove me wrong.

Alas, you will not find Peter Hagan or that 1923 moment at the jail memorialized anywhere except my book, Age of Barbarity, and some newspaper clippings from the day. Peter Hagan’s grave in Palatka’s Peniel Cemetery is the shape — and half the size — of a typical doormat. You will miss it if you don’t look very, very closely for it. See below.

Excavating Hagan even a little from Florida’s all-consuming historical muck is my proudest and potentially only lasting accomplishment as a writer and amateur historian. But you still will not find the name Peter Hagan within a Florida education History or Civics standard, although no greater Floridian has ever lived.

With great ceremony, Florida is currently reviewing its public education standards. It should use this opportunity to include Sheriff Peter Hagan’s extraordinary career — both in the study of Florida History and, perhaps more importantly, the study of Civics. I do not expect it to do so.

Nevertheless, Hagan provides the object lesson in what it means for a politician to use official power in the service of abstract ideas, like justice and due process, and to endure deep political punishment and personal consequences for doing so. This includes his complete erasure from what we remember as a state.

Peter Hagan is the politician I use to shame myself when I need shaming. Let’s look at why.

Brought down his pistol like a hammer

This is how I dramatized the moment at the jail door in my book Age of Barbarity: the Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida. Every moment of this, except some of the dialogue, is documented in contemporary sources, like newspapers.

Hagan pulled the chain on the bedside lamp, and the room went very dark and quiet. The window near [Hagan’s terminally ill daughter] Gertrude’s bed opened onto a cool, early spring Florida night. Nothing was stirring. After a while, Gertrude finally fell asleep, and Hagan walked across the hallway to his bedroom. He climbed into bed beside his wife, Sallie, about 12:30 a.m., a reasonable time for him. He’d be up by 4:30.

Much sooner than that, about 1:15, Hagan awoke at the sound of sharp banging on the outside door downstairs. He sat bolt upright in bed, listening to the impatient, incessant raps on the door. He jumped out of bed and grabbed the loaded pistol in the top drawer of his dresser in one hand and a loaded shotgun leaned against the wall in the other.

“Stay here,” he told Sallie, who was also awake now, sitting up in her nightgown. On his way to the stairs, he stuck his head into Gertrude’s dark room.


“Stay here, sweetheart. Don’t get up.”

Hagan moved quickly down the stairs to door, where the staccato knocking continued. He did not see Sallie follow behind him. Hagan set down the shotgun to the right of the door.

“Who’s there,” he called. No answer, but the knocking stopped. Hagan took a deep breath, slid back the bolt on the door and opened it.

Out of the night, a half dozen men with guns leveled them at his face. Another 10 or so stood behind. Hagan saw a large rope.

Instantly, the sheriff brought his pistol down like a hammer on the forehead of the man closest to him. The click of metal against skin-coated bone reported like a shot. The man crumpled. Hagan darted and spun to the left of the threshold as he slammed the door back shut. He jammed the bolt back into place with his left hand.

Just as he spun away from the door, gunfire exploded through the wood, and the room filled with sound and kinetic debris. Splinters flew from the door, mixing with an odd cloud of dark particles. With his back to the wall, Hagan for the first time saw his wife on the stairs. Inches from her face, plaster spray leapt from the wall and coated her right cheek in white flakes and dust.

“Go back,” Hagan shouted, noticing a surge of pressure, but not quite pain, in his left hand. Eleanor turned and raced back upstairs. Hagan glanced to his hand and saw that a portion was missing, opposite his thumb, where a bullet had blown off a bit of meat from the thick part below his pinkie. Ragged, raw flesh roughly outlined the indention it left. Blood trickled to his wrist and dropped on the floor.

“Brown,” Hagan shouted for his deputy. “Goddammit Brown. The mob is here. Get down here. I’m shot.”

Outside, Hagan heard gunfire continue, but the foyer no longer seemed alive with projectiles and debris. Hagan thought he heard glass shatter upstairs. “Gertrude,” he shouted. “Get away from the window.”

No answer but gunfire. “Brown,” he growled again.

He finally heard the heavy steps of his deputy on the hallway. He raced down the steps, nearly falling, as he contorted himself and ducked to make a hard target for the men he couldn’t see outside.

“Sheriff, I think they’re retreating. They shot at me twice when I looked out the window, and then a bunch of ’em were just shooting in the air, trying to scare people away, I think.”

“What about my family?”

“I think they’re fine. They shot into Gertrude’s room, but missed her. I checked when I was coming.”

This was the first time in Jim Crow Florida history that a white law enforcement officer violently repulsed a lynch mob looking to murder a black prisoner. Prior to this moment, Florida law enforcement either led, assisted, or maybe tried to talk mobs out of violence. But they did not repulse them. Hagan was the first; and he risked the most.

He gave birth to the professional law enforcement custom that eventually did what words and abstract law could not: end lynch mobs as a governing force in Florida. He put his body and his family between the mob and his prisoner because American law and morality told him that was his professional duty. And he took it seriously. By doing so, Hagan made himself deeply vulnerable to voters. He did not think of it this way, but repulsing the mob was a profoundly political act. Doing his job was a profoundly political act.

As I wrote above, Hagan unified physical, personal, moral, professional, and political courage in one act like no person of power I have ever encountered. I summed this moment up like this in my book.

When the mob reared up against Pete Hagan in 1923, rather than surrender to the guns trained on his face, he cracked his pistol stock off the nearest vigilante. Without hesitation. I am in awe of that instinct. I don’t pretend to know how one develops or inherits it.

The sound of righteous violence echoing off that man’s skull is the sound of a great, unknown American making his country’s pretensions real. It was the sound of victory at a time when victories over the mob came all too infrequently. But it came with consequences.

Consequences define bravery

Let’s take a look at those consequences, chronologically:

— The attack wounded Hagan in his hand — and nearly killed his family. But a few weeks later, in April 1923, a Bradford County jury took just 35 minutes to acquit four men tried in the attack. My great grandfather was part of the unsuccessful prosecution team.

— In June 1923, Arthur Johnson, the black man Hagan protected from the mob, was tried and convicted of murder. Johnson was later executed, in what may have been the final Florida execution not carried out at the state prison on Starke. But the trial that Hagan bled to secure for Johnson became very, very important to defeating the Klan a few years later. You can read about that in my book.  Think about that and the phrase, “We all oppose it; but it’s going to happen.”

— On July 12, 1923, Hagan’s daughter Gertrude died of a long disease, just a few months after the vigilantes shot into her room at the sheriff’s residence in the jail.

— On or about February 16, 1924, uniformed Ku Klux Klansmen, including the Gainesville mayor and former police chief, abducted Father John Conoley, founder of the University of Florida’s Catholic Center and leader of its drama club, from his church in Gainesville. They beat and castrated him and took him to Palatka. There they dropped him on the steps of the St. Monica’s Catholic church parsonage, a few blocks away from the jail.

— On February 21, 1924, the Klan held a large parade in Palatka that streamed immediately in front of St. Monica’s. The pastor of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville was the Klan’s featured speaker.

— The next day, on February 22, Hagan’s deputy Israel Fennell declared that he was challenging Sheriff Peter Hagan in the upcoming Democratic primary election. Fennell’s brother Lewis (former Gainesville police chief) is thought to have taken part in the Conoley attack and mutilation.

— Not long after Fennell announced his candidacy, Hagan declared in an incredibly brave and direct public statement that he did not and would not belong to the Klan. It’s important to remember that the Klan in 1924 was at the peak of its governing power in Florida. It was popular and drew membership from the mainstream civic and religious institutions of the day. I sometimes call it a combination of Hezbollah and Kiwanis. Here’s Hagan’s statement:

“I have recently been asked repeatedly if I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan. To this question I answer, no. I believe I know many members of the Putnam County Klan, and I know them to be good men individually. I do not believe any of them would stoop to organized crime or mob tactics. I am not, and would not be a member, however, of any organization which appears to differ in policies from those who do not belong to its ranks, for the reason that as Sheriff I believe it to be my duty to be perfectly free to serve all the of the people and not an organized part of them; I wish to feel perfectly free to perform my duties without obligations to any order, however high the ideals of such order may be. I have no personal quarrel with the Klan; many of its members are my friends whom I respect and honor, but as Sheriff, I am free, and will remain free to administer the law impartially to all.

In addition, I feel that no that no public servant has the right to ride into office by the hidden help of any secret organization. In my first campaign [in 1916] for Sheriff, I was confronted with the organized opposition of the so-called “Guardians of Liberty,” [an anti-Catholic precursor of the post World War I “revival” Klan] many of its members I knew, almost all of whom now greatly regret their error in becoming members of an organization that proved so injurious to Florida as that one did. Opposed as I was to that order, and knowing its members as I did, yet there is no man who can truthfully say such members did not receive the same treatment from my office as did all others. I cannot control secret organizations and I neither assist or interfere with them so long as their works do not violate the law.”

Incidentally, this vicious anti-Catholicism is the reason why you’ll never hear me argue against vouchers on Blaine amendment grounds.

— On April 4, 1924, a man named R.J. Hancock entered the race for sheriff, apparently smelling Hagan’s vulnerability.

— In June of 1924, the good people of Putnam County threw Sheriff Peter Hagan out of office and replaced him with Hancock.

— Over the next four years, the Sheriff’s Office in Putnam County became a thoroughly criminal enterprise. It openly tolerated and often assisted as drunken vigilante mobs in Putnam County imposed a reign of terror. They attacked and whipped drinkers (yes, drunk mobs punished drinkers); women who were thought promiscuous; black citizens who were considered too defiant; and even a “Greek” man thought to be interested in white women. As many as 80 of these non-fatal lynchings occurred. Hancock’s chief deputy, Walter Ivan Minton, who was also a Kludd (chaplain) in the Klan, oversaw many of the attacks. He was referred to as the “whipping boss.” At least four people were murdered in connection with these “morality” attacks — two white, two black.

— With Hagan sidelined, a multi-racial coalition fought a desperate and dangerous resistance. Women were particular heroes. A white woman named Pearle Casad, who was whipped by a mob on very thin suspicion of promiscuity, was the first person to testify in a doomed state’s attorney investigation that hauled in the entirety of Putnam County’s law enforcement apparatus. A black woman named Mary Jane Lawson — and close friend of Mary McLeod Bethune — treated victims in her hospital and got information out to the Chicago Defender about the chaos.

— The multiracial, anti-woman aspects of these attacks slowly turned part of the Putnam population against Hancock. And in 1926, Gov. John Martin of Florida briefly intervened to threaten martial law in Putnam. But it wasn’t until former Sheriff Hagan returned to challenge Hancock and narrowly defeated him in the election of 1928 that the Putnam and Florida Klan was largely defeated. It took popular politics, backed by force, to barely reject the Klan and mob rule as a mainstream political governing force. They forced it to become a potent secretive terrorism force.

— In that 1928 campaign, Hagan did not back up an inch from his record of protecting everyone in his county. He did not apologize for repulsing a mob or repudiating the Klan. He did not “run as a moderate,” whatever the hell that means. This incredible newspaper ad sums up his campaign. It is my all-time favorite piece of electioneering.

Under the “Read these cold facts” portion, Hagan highlighted every victim of the mobs — black or white, and or woman. And then he created this tagline:

Do I approve of white women being stripped and whipped in my county without an arrest?

Am I red-blooded American?

And do I love my mother?

— In 1930, Hagan dropped dead of what was most likely a brain aneurysm. He died broke, buried beneath a tiny, nearly anonymous gravesite. The much larger stones of his wife and daughter tower over the flat marker.

And that, dear reader, was just the cliff notes story of Peter Hagan’s life and consequences as an elected sheriff.

If you’re an elected official, a “public servant,” or just a person, how do you stack up? What have you done with your life and whatever power is available to you.

How does Civics reckon with pogroms and official sanction of lawlessness?

The crucial context for Hagan’s 1920s career is World War I; the massive patriotic response to it from black Americans; the beginning of the Great Migration of black Americans out of the South; the demands of full citizenship for black Americans in the aftermath of World War I; the rise of the “Revival” Ku Klux Klan as an American governing force, similar to a political party; and the success of constitutional amendments creating both Women’s Suffrage and the disastrous federal Alcohol Prohibition.

All of these forces related to and fed each other. Each exploded in America and Florida between 1914 and 1921. They drove extraordinary violence and conflict for years that began to create modern America, much more than the World War II era did. The national murder rate surged and did not begin dropping until the repeal of prohibition in 1933. But Florida was America’s most violent state. Jacksonville and Tampa both had murder rates over 70 per 100,000 residents in 1926. Go compare that to today’s rates.

In Florida, each of those massive social forces contributed to the extraordinary civil rights voter registration movement of the 1920 presidential campaign. It was led by black women; and it was viciously, violently, successfully crushed by the white power structures of the day, particularly the Klan and its fellow travelers, who were closely  allied with government and civil society.

It all came to a head on Election Day 1920, when violence erupted all over the place in Florida. The most famous violence occurred in Ocoee, where the town’s black population was erased by explicitly political violence and destruction. See Wikipedia for a quick rundown.

In the smoldering aftermath of Ocoee, the United Confederate Veterans changed the timing of their Orlando convention so they could visit Ocoee’s aftermath and bask in the success of the Election Day pogrom.

James Weldon Johnson and the NAACP were able to get a hearing in the U.S. Congress about the Florida election violence. Here’s how I wrote about it in Age of Barbarity:

Nonetheless, the NAACP managed to force a late December 1920 hearing before the Census Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, challenging the disenfranchisement of blacks throughout the South, but especially in Florida. The NAACP’s presentation, led by James Weldon Johnson and Walter White, brought almost naively meticulous documentation of what happened in Florida. White, who could pass as white, had personally traveled to Ocoee, as he had during the Red Summer riots, to investigate.

Johnson told the committee:

“This is not merely a question of the Negro, by any means. It is a question of Republican Government and of the fundamentals of American democracy…

“We put the matter before you. Some of the Members have thought it was an irrelevant matter, but I say it is fundamental; it is the very root of Republican government, and it is a question which is either going to come to this Congress or to some other Congress in the future, and with increasing force every time it comes up, and it seems to me it is better to pass on the question fairly and squarely and justly to-day and not wait until some unknown tomorrow.”

But Johnson and company communicated these details to a five-man committee consisting of members from Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Missouri. According to the Congressional record, the Missouri congressman, Jacob Milligan, repeatedly used the word “nigger” during the hearings, which, of course went nowhere.

As a bizarre and decadent footnote to the hearing, James Weldon Johnson later accused the congressman of inserting “nigger” into the Congressional record as a way of appearing more racially forceful to their constituents back home. It never happened, he claimed in an official NAACP statement.

“These southern congressmen on the census committee write the word ‘nigger’ in the Congressional Record, although they did not dare use that term when speaking face to face with officers of this association.

“They permit their proof sheets to go back to the printer, using the word ‘nigger,’ thus pretending to their folks at home that they dared use this insulting word to the Colored witnesses. The Southerner pretends to be unable to pronounce the word Negro, and what he says is this: ‘Niggrah,’ which, of course, disarms any objection, inasmuch as it becomes a mere matter of pronunciation. Presumably, he is trying to say ‘Negro’.

“Thus Larsen of Georgia and Milligan of Missouri continually use the words “nigger women” in the printed report of the hearing, when they did not dare use it in the speech. If they had used these insulting terms to the Colored men who faced them there would have been something else in the Record.”

If you think Facebook and Twitter invented American racist trolling, spend a little time with newspapers from the teens and 20s. You will recognize quite a bit.  Teaching some anodyne, dishonest notion of “Civics” has never been a cure for it.

The great University of Florida historian Paul Ortiz wrote a book called Emancipation Betrayed that tells the full story of the 1920 campaign. It should be mandatory reading in Florida standards. When I encountered it in 2008, it changed just about everything I understand about my country and state and hometown of Palatka, which has a history much more significant, shameful, and heroic than I could have ever imagined growing up there. It is Selma-level important to the American story; but nobody really wants to know it.

Even the drama and horror of the 1920 Florida presidential campaign is hardly known outside historian circles, largely because it’s extraordinarily ugly and contrary to everything we’re taught in Civics class. After all, the 1920 campaign was one extended pogrom against vulnerable people, mostly black women, seeking to assert citizenship. It culminated in a particularly horrible and successful pogrom against Ocoee, a specific vulnerable community. By and large, official, democratically-sanctioned state power did absolutely nothing to stop it — and generally cheered it on. But I will say this: there is no evidence of 1920 election-related violence in Putnam County, where Peter Hagan was sheriff.

To the extent we Floridians think about our state’s Civics and History at all, we don’t like to think of them as ugly. We don’t like to imagine them as partially defined by very successful, state-sponsored pogroms against vulnerable populations and communities. Coming to grips with that some time ago, I think, helped prepare me emotionally and professionally and politically for this era a little better than folks who don’t know about the post World War I era. Nothing has shocked me; and I’ve become pretty comfortable looking directly into ugly truths.

It’s always an age of barbarity. What will you — or I – do about it?

One of those ugly truths has actually become quite comforting to me: there has never been a time that Americans, as human beings, did not tend toward repudiation in deed of what we’ve written down in our founding aspirational documents. And power has very, very, very rarely done much to restrain itself. Our time is not unique.

This is an editorial from the Gainesville Sun, written just a few weeks after Hagan’s stand at the Putnam jail in 1923.

“We do not hesitate to say that we are living in an age of barbarity. We boast of our great civilization. We pride ourselves on our achievements in science and literature. We speak in condemnation of the cruelties of ancient Greece and Rome and hug to our hearts the fond delusion that we have reached a stage of civilized and Christian perfection. Yet the world today is more interested in deeds of barbarity than it is in deeds of mercy.

“We hold our constitution and our laws in contempt. Yet we love to contemplate punishment. Sweet mercy is at a discount. The murder of fifteen or twenty millions of human beings in the world’s war creates no great impression on us. Rivers, “running red with blood,” sounds as poetic to us as in the days of [German Kaiser] Hohenlinden. We have no galley slaves now—but we have “convict” slaves just the same. We love and encourage tough sport. The tougher then better. We love the brutal prize ring and make heroes of our Sullivans and Williards and Jefferies. We are passing laws all the time to curb our own brutality and yet we defy and despise our own laws. If the old Roman Coliseum could be duplicated, as it was in the days of its so-called glory, by a building in Jacksonville or Tampa or Miami or Pensacola or even here in this moral vineyard of Gainesville, and a fight to the death could be advertised between two gladiators, it would be filled to the doors at fifty dollars a seat. If, in addition to the gladiatorial stunt, it could be advertised that the performance would close by allowing a lion to chew up a “convict” it would be necessary for the railroads to run special trains.”

The same editor who wrote that, a Confederate veteran named Robert Wyche Davis, had helped incite the destruction of Rosewood a few months earlier by making a false claim that two police officers had been killed trying to find a man accused of rape. The two men killed were actually vigilantes who stormed a house owned by the Carrier family. Fake news that kills has always been a thing.

That same editor also wrote this, justifying the destruction of Rosewood after the fact:

“Preach and admonish and warn as you may, however, the crime of rape will never be tolerated for one single moment. Congressmen may rave and froth and pass laws as they please but the time will never come when a southern white man will not avenge a crime against innocent womanhood. Nor will the men of the north tolerate it any more than the men of the south…Let it be understood now and forever—that he, whether white or black, who brutally assaults an innocent and helpless woman—shall die the death of a dog.”

A few months later, Davis lamented the “age of barbarity,” as if he had nothing to do with the barbarism. As if he had nothing to do with razing Rosewood or sending the mob to meet Sheriff Hagan. As if he was powerless before the forces he helped unleash.

Compare the useless whinging of Davis to what a different newspaper said about Hagan after his stand at the jail — and before he lost his job for it.

“No sheriff can do more than his duty. He accepts an office that calls for perfect fearlessness when fearlessness is needed. It is a dangerous position, and no man but the bravest should fill it. Sheriff Hagan did not count the cost, but he saved his prisoner if the prisoner was in his charge. If not, he showed to all evil doers that a prisoner in his charge was safe as long as he was alive. He did not temporize with the mob. When it showed fight he fought, and the men who were seeking to overthrow the law, fled…

“The mob goes after only the man who is defenseless. It does not go after fighters who are prepared and ready to fight to the death.”

Because whoever is writing this national script struggles with subtlety, we are coming up on the centennials of prohibition, women’s suffrage, and the murderous Florida Election of 1920. To say that again: the election of 2020, in which Florida will be crucial, will mark the 100th anniversary of the pogrom election of 1920. You’ll have to decide for yourself how uneasy those anniversaries make you in the context of this era.

Not one of us knows what’s going to happen in 2020. It’s highly unlikely that any of us will need to single-handedly fight off a lynch mob at a jail like Hagan. But I certainly don’t rule out the possibility of violence in various forms. And I think brutality and cruelty — mental and perhaps otherwise — is inevitable, based on my observation. I’m happy to be proven wrong.

None of us really know what we’ll be called on to do or say or endorse or reject. Or the consequences that will come with it. I do know that I get to run for re-election in 2020.

And I hope that keeping the enormity of Peter Hagan’s bravery and sacrifice as a standard backs me into a moral corner that it’s hard to get out of. I hope, if I ever catch myself whining about futility or why I haven’t gotten credit for something or worrying about the consequences of doing something I know is right, that I’m able to imagine myself moldering in his forgotten grave, unknown and unregarded.

Peter Hagan risked everything to unify American ideals with action. American Florida did not thank him for it. Rather, American Florida punished him for it in almost every way possible — with his family, his blood, his job, even the record of his very existence. In absorbing that punishment, and coming back for more, he taught us that the size of greatness can sometimes be measured by the size of the consequences that swallow you and the void they leave behind.


The perils of thanking power, pt 2: it’s not savvy; it’s complicity and surrender to menace

The perils of thanking power, pt 1: In fairness to Kelli Stargel, how would she have known?