100 years ago: After a pandemic, Jacksonville and America went on a wild ride – The Florida Times-Union

Posted By on March 27, 2020

For the city of Jacksonville, the 1920s were a monumental and memorable decade, one with echoes as we begin the 2020s dealing with a pandemic, fighting amongst ourselves, and craving a bit of normalcy.


Its not a word you typically see a presidential campaign built around.

But when 1920 arrived in America, it was not a normal time. The country was emerging from the gloom of war and, even deadlier than any global battle, a pandemic that killed tens of millions of people worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States.

As the war ended in 1918 and the troops came home, the Spanish flu that began in 1917 spread rapidly in its second deadly wave. In late September, the Times-Union noted that 1,000 cases of mild influenza had been found at a naval station in Michigan but that only 13 cases had been reported at Jacksonvilles Camp Johnston.

Influenza is under perfect control here, one story said. There is no cause for alarm as to the spreading of the disease.

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In the next month alone, nearly 200,000 died in America including more than 400 in Jacksonville.

While that was the peak, the effects of the pandemic physical, psychological, economical lingered in 1920.

So when Warren Harding ran for president that year, he pledged a return to normalcy.

He was mocked for picking this word, rarely used beyond mathematics, instead of the more conventional normality. But normalcy stuck. The word, not the condition of anything normal.

To a degree, the Roaring 20s were a reaction to the Dire Teens.

America began one of its wildest rides, a decade with the highest of highs and lowest of lows, of parties and prayer, of equality and inequality, of boom and bust.

And perhaps nowhere was this ride wilder than in Florida a place with Jacksonville, its largest city, as its gateway.

When local historians look at Jacksonvilles past the city will celebrate its bicentennial in 2022 they point to 1920s as a monumental and memorable decade, one with echoes as we begin the 2020s dealing with a pandemic, fighting amongst ourselves, and desperately craving a bit of normalcy.


Another word that emerged from the Roaring 20s: partied.

In 1922, E.E. Cummings first turned the noun party into a verb.

Mention the Roaring 20s today and thats what we picture. Jay Gatsby partying in fictional West Egg and East Egg, people doing the Charleston from coast to coast, mobsters and flappers, a decade of decadence.

Thats the trope of the Roaring 20s said Alan Bliss, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society. I think its true to a point. But I think its a little overstated. It certainly is not faithful to most Americans experience in the 1920s.

Bliss taught courses about the Roaring 20s at the University of North Florida, partly because its a period that fascinates him. But part of what interests him about the decade is how it isnt necessarily what people picture. Its a complex decade, one with echoes as we begin another 20s.

It was a time when the national politics trended toward conservatism and another big word of the decade Americanism.

In the first week of the decade, a headline stripped across the top of the Times-Union said: GREATEST ROUNDUP OF RADICALS EVER KNOWN.

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The story detailed Department of Justice agents doing raids in cities from coast to coast, including Jacksonville, in a carefully planned movement against communists.

Another story from the first week of the new decade told of the Educational and Temperance Campaign that would open that Sunday at the Morocco Temple. Col. Dan Morgan Smith was scheduled to speak, it said, about pure-blooded Americanism.

This is the greatest need of America today, Smith said, and America must be made to realize it.

Later in 1920, the city built an 8,000-seat wooden tabernacle on Market Street for Billy Sunday a former baseball player who became one of the most famous evangelists of his time. For six weeks, Sunday preached every day, delivering 72 sermons to packed houses.

This is how the 1920s began in Jacksonville.

Evangelism was very much on the rise and current in the 1920s, Bliss said. Religiosity was stimulated by growing tensions over science and traditional values. These tensions gave fuel to evangelicals who said, Our life, our cultural heritage, our neighborhoods, our world, are all under threat.

Something else was happening. In 1920, for the first time in the countrys history, the census showed that more Americans lived in cities than elsewhere.

Jacksonvilles population had surged during World War I, partly because of a migration of workers for shipyards. And during the 1920s, Jacksonville became the first Florida city to top 100,000 in population.

People were living increasingly close to people who were not like them immigrants, other races and ethnicities and religions, Bliss said. You name it. There were all kinds of increasing layers of complexity.

Amidst the rapidly changing America, there was backlash, with powerful anti-immigration sentiment and action. In 1923, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, aimed primarily at reducing Jewish immigration. A year later, its revision effectively banned all immigration from Asia. When President Coolidge signed the legislation, he said: America must remain American.


Before the whole nation went dry, Florida already was there.

Florida voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Florida Constitution in 1918, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, barter or exchange of alcohol. The governor at the time was Sidney Catts, a preacher and Prohibition Party candidate who was elected after a campaign that was full of anti-German, anti-Catholic and anti-black rhetoric.

At his inauguration, Catts said: The everyday cracker people have triumphed.

In January 1919, with Catts as governor, the state of Florida began Prohibition. One year later, on Jan. 16, 2020, people packed taverns in other parts of America to take one last drink.

Wink, wink.

The reality was that banning alcohol in America meant that more people drank, and people often drank more. It also meant that Florida, with its coastline and swamps, became a paradise for smugglers. Speakeasies flourished. And when readers opened up the Times-Union in 1920, they saw ads for a new elixir called Aspironal.

Better Than Whiskey for Colds and Flu, the ad said.

(Fun side note: This medicine was 10 percent alcohol.)

Jacksonville, referred to as the Gateway to Florida by some northern press, not only became a hotbed for bootleggers. It became one of the bloodiest cities in America.

In 1926, a year of legendary violence in America, 12 cars of gangsters opened fire in Chicago at the headquarters of Al Capone. But that same year Jacksonville had a murder rate five times that of Chicago and eight times higher than New York.

A story in the Times-Union said Jacksonvilles murder rate 107 in a city with a population barely more than one-tenth of what it is today was the highest of any city in the civilized world.

That was the year a woman, Lyndall McMurray, made headlines after shooting a mail carrier in the streets of Springfield.

In a courtroom packed with women, a jury deliberated only 40 minutes before finding McMurray not guilty. The Associated Press, noting that she was the first white woman tried for murder in court here in a number of years, said McMurray testified she shot Adolphus Ward to protect her 14-year-old son and herself.

The story behind the story was that McMurray had a tent on Main Street. She sold soda in the front and booze in the back and Ward supposedly stole 10 cases of whiskey from her.

Sometimes local law enforcement cracked down on bootlegging. Other times it was involved in it. The Jacksonville sheriff for much of the 1920s, Ham Dowling, would later be arrested for having two stills, 14,000 gallons of beer, 79 bottles of home brew and 250 gallons of whiskey.

And then theres the tale behind the phrase the real McCoy.

When Bliss shares this story, he prefaces it by saying the sourcing isnt real reliable. And the internet is full of other possible explanations for the phrase. But there was a boat captain named William McCoy who settled in Northeast Florida.

In the early 1900s, he and his brother Ben lived north of Daytona Beach, spent time in Jacksonville, and earned a reputation as skilled boat makers. Customers included the Carnegies and Vanderbilts. But when they hit hard times, Bill McCoy turned to smuggling whiskey and other liquor through the Bahamas.

He began anchoring a boat off the coast, in international waters, and sold liquor to smaller ships that took it to shore.

The lore is that, unlike other rum runners, he didnt dilute his products.

So if you bought smuggled spirits from Capt. Bill McCoy, you supposedly were getting the real McCoy, Bliss said.

McCoy pleaded guilty to smuggling and spent nine months in a New Jersey jail. When he got out of jail, he returned to Florida, invested in real estate and wrote an autobiography (The Real McCoy).

An interesting detail in it: Capt. McCoy never drank a drop of the Real McCoy.

I went for the cash, he wrote, and I stayed in it for the fun it gave me.


Its often referred to as the Jazz Age. And while that brings to mind places like New York and New Orleans, the Cotton Club and the Harlem Renaissance, many of the biggest musicians of the era came to Jacksonville.

In the 1920s, LaVilla was part of a thriving African-American neighborhood. Black churches, hospitals and schools originated in LaVilla. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, founder of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, lived there. And in the area near the intersection of Ashley and Jefferson Streets, some of Americas jazz greats and swing bands played there. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington.

In 1929, the Ritz Theatre opened on the site of a former movie house.

At the same time, movies with all African-American casts were being produced in Arlington.

In the early 1900s, Jacksonville had earned a reputation as the Winter Film Capital of the World. It was home to more than 30 studios. But in 1917, John W. Martin ran for mayor, pledging to rid the city of two evils: brothels and film studios.

Martin won, and by 1920, all the studios but one had relocated to a new home, Hollywood.

Richard Norman bought Eagle Studios. And a century before Marvel Studios produced Black Panther, Norman Studios made race films starring African-American actors in aspirational roles.

In some ways, it was a progressive time. In other ways, it was regressive.


In 1920, after a half-century battle, women got the right to vote.

One of the leaders of the effort, Grace Trout, moved from Illinois to Jacksonville in 1921. She and her husband lived in Marabanong, the colorful Victorian mansion in Empire Point. She continued her activism, becoming the president of the Jacksonville Planning and Advisory Board and the Jacksonville Garden Club.

Yet throughout the 1920s, progress often was greeted by pushback.

This is where Tim Gilmore begins when asked about what happened in the Roaring 20s. Gilmore teaches at Florida State College at Jacksonville and has extensively researched and written about local history and people including a book titled, In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People.

Eartha Mary Magdalene White, born in Jacksonville in 1876, became one of the citys most notable citizens. She founded a nursing home, a tuberculosis hospital, an orphanage and a home for unwed mothers. She worked on anti-lynching campaigns and voter registration drives.

Gilmore describes how in 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment, she went door to door, registering black women to vote, hoping this would lead more black men to vote.

While she had success, her efforts produced an example of a common thread of the 1920s. Progressive ideals warred with reactionary re-entrenchment, said a recent New York Times story about the decade.

This was a decade that saw the Ku Klux Klan grow, claiming to include 15 percent of the countrys white men. The Klan marched in cities across the country, and targeted those it identified as enemies of 100 percent Americanism Catholics, foreigners and African-Americans.

In Jacksonville, that was on display on Election Day 1920. The black voters whom Eartha White registered and brought to the polls faced a KKK parade.

The intent was to suppress the black vote, Gilmore said. When that didnt work, the county failed to count scores of black votes.

Elsewhere in Florida, he says, it was even worse. There were racial massacres in Ocoee in 1920, Perry in 1922 and Rosewood in 1923.


As the decade began, the way people lived their lives was changing. More homes were using electricity instead of gas. And in 1922, the city started a Cook With Electricity campaign.

A story that was reprinted in the 1923 Duval High School yearbook (and recently sent to the Times-Union during the modern-day JEA saga) describes the city purchasing several hundred Electric Ranges at a price less than wholesale and offering to sell and install the ranges for that cost.

The main focus of the story, though, was on how it had been a decade since the opening of a new electric plant -- which it said saved taxpayers money and helped make Jacksonville prosperous.

The headline: The Largest and Finest Equipped Municipal Electric Plant in the United States is Located in Jacksonville, Fla.


Martin, the young mayor who sent the movie industry to Hollywood, decided not to seek a fourth term in 1923. He instead ran for and became governor, serving from 1925 to 1929.

In 1923, he was succeeded as mayor by John T. Alsop who ended up serving 18 years, the longest stint in the citys history.

That was weirdly typical for American cities in the inter-war years, Bliss said.

As Jacksonvilles mayor for the Roaring 20s and beyond, Alsop did things that Bliss describes as remarkably progressive. To start with, he created the citys planning advisory board.

That tells you something about Jacksonvilles growth, he said. Alsop looked around and said, Weve got to impose some rational order to this place.

To a large degree, this was like trying to stop a runaway train. But a few years later, several of the citys most influential women including Alsops wife, Ella pushed for city planning and beautification. The city hired George Simons to craft a municipal plan, which became the first to be adopted in Florida.

Many of the 1920s plans remain topical today: roads, mass transportation, the port and an emerald necklace of parks.


In 1920, a headline in the Times-Union said: Autoists Must Signal Traffic Officers at Street Corners.

The story said new policemen would be wearing white gloves and working at intersections. And the police chief had a mandate: Drivers must indicate which direction they intend to turn.

One hundred years later, as anyone who drives Jacksonvilles roadways will attest, the turn-signal issue remains. But the white-gloved policemen are long gone, they ushered in a decade of dramatic changes in transportation.

This was the decade that Charles Lindberg flew across the Atlantic and came to Jacksonville as part of his celebration tour in 1927.

The new Union Station, completed in 1919, was the busiest train station in the South. And, as noted in a 1920 advertisement in the Times-Union, some of those trains were carrying new cars.

In one of many newspaper ads touting the latest automobiles, the Cole Motor Company told potential customers a trainload shipment of 30 Columbia Six Roadsters was on the way.

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