by Tim Gilmore, 3/9/2023
Everybody feared Barefoot Bill. His real name, nobody knew. Nor where he hid out, nor where he might strike next. Instead of a home address, he seemed to call the whole city home, whichever corner, whenever he liked.
“During the summer of 1910, burglary upon burglary was reported from every section of the city, principally from the residential districts,” wrote Jacksonville’s most prominent early historian, T. Frederick Davis, in 1925.
Repeatedly, newspapers across the state reported, as did The Ocala Evening Star on November 3, 1910, “another burglary, which the police credit to ‘Barefoot Bill,’ the negro who operates in Jacksonville, robbing houses almost nightly.” How the police knew the entire crime wave the work of one man, nobody explained and no one asked. Where the name “Barefoot Bill” originated, no explanation, no inquiry. How the police had identified Barefoot Bill as black, when no one had ever caught him in the act, no one knew and nobody questioned.
Cities, thundered the preachers, were inherently wicked places, automatically generating their Spring-Heeled Jacks and Barefoot Bills. Birthed and bred in lawlessness, armed to the teeth, structured in manly honor codes, this former pioneer town would always be deadly.
Newspapers around the state agreed. “We believe there are a half dozen murderers in Jacksonville to every [one murderer] in Tampa,” said The Wauchula Advocate on August 4, 1912, “and still further, that not one murderer in 10 in Jacksonville is ever brought to justice.”
Jacksonville, the editorial continued, “a town steeped in iniquity and rum,” would make a fitting triumvirate with Sodom and Gomorrah. Its politicians were grifters; surely half the million dollars its citizens had approved for roads would go to graft. Its liquor merchants supplied unlicensed taverns across Florida – “those fellows who advertise 100 pints or half pints for the convenience of the ‘blind tigers’ throughout the state.”
While cigar businesses operated in both Tampa and Jacksonville, the Advocate advocated for Tampa clearing it out, since, the op-ed opined, “It is a well known fact that the Latin and the American ideas of morals are radically different.” Meanwhile, the editorial continued, “If Jacksonville has any excuse for tolerating its horde of murderers, thugs and cutthroats, we never heard of it.”
In the days before newspapers subscribed to codes of ethics, including transparency in evidence and sources, Ocala’s evening paper continued its rumormongering of just how bad (and black) things were in that larger city to its north, reporting, on the third of August, “Jacksonville people are greatly aroused over the robberies committed by a darkey known as ‘Barefoot Bill,’ for shoeless, he enters the homes and commits his depredations.”
Authorities made numerous identifications in Jacksonville and around the South, each one apparently wrong. One story said Barefoot Bill was probably Will Anderson, a homeless “negro” who died in a Tampa jail in November 1907, shot by a suspicious white man named Kirkland. Two weeks earlier, a Tampa headline declared, “Goldsmith the Real Thing; Surely Is ‘Barefoot Bill’,” referring to a mysterious figure who may or may not have stolen shoes from a “Mrs. McMillan of Ybor City.” South Carolina newspapers said Barefoot Bill was really Joe Davis, who stole a watch and pistol in July, 1910. Yet another Barefoot Bill stole a pair of pants with a hook on a stick in Columbia, South Carolina on the last day of July.
The next day, The Columbia Record reported, “Summer is a favorite time of the year for the ‘Barefoot Bills’ to ply their trade in the easiest manner. Many residents sleep with their window blinds ajar and it is an easy matter for a marauder to reach into a sleeping room and help himself.”
The only thing worse in Jacksonville than the crime was the city’s fear of crime. Everybody already owned at least one gun, but gun sales escalated dramatically. “People got out their old shotguns, polished up rifles, put their pistols in shape,” wrote Davis, and “nearly every dwelling was a modified arsenal.”
One such well-armed Jaxson, as The Tampa Tribune reported on August 25, 1910, “considerably excited by the frequent exploits of ‘Barefoot Bill,’ a negro burglar who was been active in that city, shot and killed a harmless goat a few nights ago, mistaking the animal for the notorious midnight marauder.”
The Florida Times-Union told of “one of the most daring burglaries committed in Jacksonville in recent years.” In early January 1910, Bill broke into John N.C. Stockton’s house at Riverside Avenue and Stockton Street, quietly ransacked the whole second floor, and stole several hundred dollars’ worth of jewelry, all “while the family was downstairs at dinner.” When Bill stole more than $1,000 worth of jewelry from Judge W.H. Baker’s house on Lomax Street near the river, newspapers called him, with figurative doubling, “a burglar of burglars.”
In his History of Jacksonville, Florida, Davis was at least perspicacious enough to nail “Barefoot Bill” as a paranoid fiction, an urban legend. “The police,” Davis wrote, “made many such captures, but the burglaries continued, all chargeable to the work of a fictitious character named ‘Barefoot Bill.’” Though Davis says the “burglaries ceased in August,” newspapers kept reporting Barefoot Bill burglaries until Christmas.
Meanwhile, not only was Bill everywhere in Jacksonville at once, outsmarting the police and hoodwinking all decent white folks, but at the very same time, he committed the same crimes elsewhere.On November 22, 1907, The Tampa Tribune reported on numerous guns stolen in Jacksonville and pawned in Tampa by “thieves, whether of the ‘Barefoot Bill’ or some less distinguished variety.” In fact, Tampa had had its own “Barefoot Bill” who made headlines that year. When Tampa newspapers reported the earlier mentioned Goldsmith, no first name given, chased from a wealthy white residence to his “little hut,” he “ridiculed the idea that he should be taken for ‘Barefoot Bill.’”
The same Tampa newspaper, on August 1, 1910, said in a news brief that “Jacksonville has a ‘Barefoot Bill.’ Wonder if he is the same fellow who disturbed Tampans several years ago?”
Just as Barefoot Bill’s most active Jacksonville summer was about to wind down, however, he was burglarizing homes across South Carolina. A headline from The [Columbia] State announced, “Barefoot Bill Reincarnate,” and an August 2nd Columbia Record headline said, “Bill Didn’t Like ’Em,” followed by the subheader, “Didn’t Carry Off the Trousers But Chicken Was Favorably Received.”Several of Barefoot Bill’s primary characteristics, even down to his lack of shoes, fit the racist stereotypes of the rustic black rube featured in minstrel shows and Vaudeville, stock characters in blackface stealing chickens and watermelon. When former slaves flocked to cities, dense segregated black communities developed the ultimate urbanite, escalating white fears further. Even more complicated, as vagrancy laws and Jim Crow codes made it illegal to be black in the wrong space, the most badass outlaws became worthy of emulation.
Larger-than-life black figures of folklore moved back and forth across the racial divide. Occasionally those figures punctuated the national consciousness where they remain today. Probably thousands more of them can be found only in old slave narratives recorded by folklorists like Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston, employed by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Program in the 1930s, or in tales distorted across the years through oral tradition.
Such stories tell of John Henry, the steel driver, hammering drills into rock for explosives to blast through mountains to build railroads, who won a contest against a steam-powered drill; of Central Florida’s Daddy Mention, who could outrun a blast from “the longest shotgun” and who could take down a tree with his bare hands and carry it off; of Stagga Lee, Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stack-O-Lee, the baddest, meanest, most infamous outlaw. If you were an outlaw by birth, the legend of Stagga Lee said, “Own it. Make the most of it. Turn what they made of you against ’em.”
Barefoot Bill would never gain the prestige of a Stagga Lee. Stagga Lee was Barefoot Bill’s smooth urbanite cousin. Bill was one of countless Southern avatars of blackness. Unconsciously perhaps, white fear of black lawlessness always lay in anxieties of black retribution for the creation of that lawless status in the first place. So white Southerners told themselves that slavery wasn’t so bad, that masters had loved their slaves, that slavery sequestered primitive urges inherent in black bodies.
As late as 1933, Miami newspapers reported on “Barefoot Bill, the negro burglar who has been making monkeys out of the police force of the Gateway City for weeks,” elsewhere acknowledging the folkloric nature of “Barefoot Bill, Jacksonville’s burglar bugaboo.”
That same year, the national magazine Literary Digest theorized in “The High Murder Rate in the South” as to why Jacksonville’s homicide rates were so astronomically high, considering “the vestigial remains of an old chivalry which demands blood for violation of […] honor” and “leniency toward pistol toters.”
“In one of his later calls on a Jacksonville home,” The Miami News reported on May 14, 1933, Barefoot Bill “took several bottles of soft drinks from a refrigerator and scorned an equal amount of beer.” Just months before the end of Prohibition, the Times proposed, “Perhaps the ‘drys’ will now catch Bill for the police so they can get his testimonial.” On August 19th, the Times said Barefoot Bill “or some of his understudies were credited with three robberies the other night.”
Two years later, Florida’s political leadership made Stephen Foster’s 1851 minstrel song “Old Folks at Home” the official state song of Florida. Better known by its most famous line, “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” the song tells of “darkies” still “longin’ for de ole plantation.” In 1935, the State of Florida sanctioned the derisive delusion of a black man nostalgic for slavery just as it most feared Stagga Lee and Barefoot Bill. Who knows? – maybe Bill is out there still, scaling the rooftops, mordantly mumbling the lyrics of the state song.