May 8, 1923 - Dark stories come to light about peonage, forced labor, whippings and death abetted by the state's justice system
Some of the darkest elements of Florida's modern history were laid bare in testimony before a joint legislative committee in 1923, and their reports were telegraphed to the world, staining sunny images of booming tourism and real estate markets. The investigations involved a widespread practice of forced labor by poor people -- usually African American men -- arrested on petty, often trumped-up charges such as vagrancy or riding a freight train without paying a fare. The local sheriff would be in league with owners of his county's largest lumber or turpentine companies who would pay the defendants' court fines, get them released from jail, and force them to pay off the fines by working in squalid, barbarous conditions in rural, isolated camps. The system was known as penal servitude and peonage, and reports gradually filtering out of the Florida camps to a New York World newspaper reporter of prisoners dying after repeated and daily whippings at the camps forced the legislature to investigate. That wasn't easy because owners of the companies were usually politically connected, and none more so than State Sen. Thomas Jefferson Knabb, who with his brother owned several penal camps and the Knabb Turpentine Company in Baker County.
The legislative committee's investigation began with the case of Martin Talbert of Munich, N.D., who was convicted in Leon County in December 1921 for "stealing a ride" on a freight train and sent to work for the Putnam Lumber Company in Dixie County after the fine wired by his family failed to reach the sheriff's office within the required 48 hours of his conviction. Talbert died of fever at the camp the following January, two days after being punished with at least 50 blows of a leather strap. Fourteen months later, the North Dakota legislature passed a resolution demanding investigation by Florida's legislature into the death, along with allegations the Leon County sheriff and lumber camp operators were involved in a conspiracy to convict men for minor offenses.
Testimony on May 8 was particularly startling to the committee because it came from a brave white woman -- Thelma Franklin, wife of the postmaster in Baker County's Glen St. Mary, near one of the Knabb penal farms. With Sen. Knabb sitting directly in front of her, Mrs. Franklin described what she had learned or witnessed about mistreatment at Knabb's camps. "What I have to testify is for the sake of humanity and to allow the people of the country to know the real truth," she said.
Mrs. Franklin revealed that nine prisoners had died in the camp over the previous year, with all determined "of natural causes" by the local coroner. The most recent killings occurred the previous week, when an African American woman who was planning to testify about the brutality at the camp was shot to death along with her 20-year-old daughter by the camp's warden, Mrs. Franklin said.
Mrs. Franklin first learned about conditions at the camp when she met a former prisoner, Paul Revere White, a youth from Washington D.C. who had been been convicted for vagrancy and sent to the camp following his arrest while walking along a highway. After White was rescued from the camp, he looked "like a corpse," Mrs. Franklin said. He told her about enduring near-daily whippings for not working hard enough and being fed nothing but grits and greens scooped out of a pot onto plates by another prisoner's filthy hands. He also described digging a grave for a prisoner who died at the camp.
After the legislative hearings, Alachua County canceled its contract with the Knabbs' companies and demanded the return of all of its inmates. The camp's captain was indicted in Baker County for cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Deaths at the camps were investigated by the state prison inspector, and Sen. T.J. Knabb was allowed to continue leasing convicts on the promise that conditions would be improved. More than a decade later, Knabb's camp came under a federal investigation and he was eventually forced to sell it, according to a book, Reading Southern Poverty Between the Wars, 1918-1939, by Vivien M.L. Miller.
• The Miami News: Convict Camp Killing Startles Committee
• St. Petersburg Times: Witness Asserts Knabb Camp Was Death Snare
• Excerpt from book: Reading Southern Poverty Between the Wars, 1918-1939