by Tim Gilmore, 10/25/2013
“I know I am about to die and that I am in a dying condition. It was Eddie Pitzer who shot me. I looked right at him and saw his face and know that it was he. I saw him shoot me. He shot me five or six times. He shot me this evening as I was coming in, and without provocation.”
Marie Louise Gato was dying from the gunshots she received outside her Springfield home at Laura and West 11th Streets in late April 1897. Yet despite her statement, the melodramatic and sensational trial of Edward Pitzer resulted in his going free.
The evidence against Pitzer included several eyewitnesses who saw him at or near the scene of the crime. Some said they even saw the flash of his pistol. Others said they recognized his shadow or his way of moving in the dark.
The deathbed accusation turned out differently than it had first seemed. A family friend, Judge A. O. Wright had constructed Gato’s statement. He asked her a series of questions about the shooting, which she answered, framed her statement from her answers, read it back to her, and had her confirm its accuracy.
The defense also questioned Marie Louise Gato’s state of mind since she had not only been shot five times, but was being medicated with opium.
Newspapers wrote the trial up big. Women swooned and fainted. The papers repeatedly called it a “battle royal.” Georgia Gato, Marie Louise’s sister, fainted in the witness stand and Pitzer’s mother got up from the defendant’s table and fainted. The whole town followed the newspaper’s summaries and every day more spectators showed up at the trial.
The newspapers said Pitzer “displayed the utmost coolness” in the courtroom. When he was delivered by buggy from the jail in the mornings, he came in whistling a jaunty tune. During jury selection, Pitzer loudly told his mother, seated next to him, that he would beat one juror as soon as he got out of this whole thing, and demanded a deputy take him to dinner at a nearby restaurant. The request was denied.
The majority of new spectators throughout the trial were women. At one point, the courtroom was full, and a couple dozen women stood watching. When Pitzer noticed them standing, he stood and gallantly offered a young woman his own chair. When she took the chair, the bailiff offered him another, and Pitzer offered that chair as well to another young woman. She took that chair and Pitzer sat down on the platform before the judge’s desk. Soon women began to flood Pitzer’s jail cell with flowers.
When Pitzer finally took the stand several days into the trial, the plot thickened considerably. Pitzer had been engaged to Gato, he testified, and they had gone steady for three years.
Love letters between Gato and Pitzer, read aloud in court, revealed that Pitzer fought a duel with a man named Domingo Herrera over Marie Louise. Two hours after Pitzer had pocketed a letter from Herrera to Gato, a man Pitzer did not know handed him a note that said, “Please give me satisfaction by meeting me at a certain place on Bridge [now Broad] Street” late in the night. Pitzer couldn’t refuse acceptance of Herrera’s call upon his honor. When he went later that night to the designated place, a hackney cab picked him up and escorted him to a place he didn’t know in the black neighborhood of LaVilla.
Pitzer was taken into a back room. Several mean-looking strangers were waiting for him there with their faces covered with burnt cork. Domingo Herrera was not with them. One stranger told him that Herrera could not come, had paid him to come in his place, and that the two of them would have to fight the duel.
Herrera’s surrogate shot first and hit Pitzer in the arm. Pitzer said he wasn’t sure if his own bullet hit the stranger in the shoulder or the breast, but he thought it was the breast and that the stranger fell “quick as a flash.”
The trial didn’t wane toward its conclusion. In fact, defense attorney Alexander St. Clair-Abrams managed to ratchet himself up into a closing statement that hurled him toward a nervous breakdown.
He felt it incumbent upon himself to convince the jury that, though he defended a man accused of murder, he despised murder itself. That fact should further prove Pitzer’s innocence. “He that did that deed,” he cried, “may he never enjoy a woman’s love!”
As for Pitzer himself, St. Clair-Abrams demanded incredulously, “Do you mean to tell me that the hand of love fired that weapon?”
His speech went on for six hours.
As he finally reached his crescendo, he cried to the jury that he prayed for Pitzer’s mother as they reached their verdict.
And with that, the defense attorney plunged blindly toward the judge’s bench and collapsed unconscious into the arms of a sheriff’s deputy. He was immediately taken back to the judge’s chambers. When he awoke, he began raving in “delirium” and “still imagined himself before the jury and delivering his argument.”
When he finally came to his senses, he cried out, “Where is that boy? They can’t hang him! They haven’t hung that boy, have they? Did I finish my speech?”
After nine days of trial, the jury deliberated for 22 hours. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, the place was packed with spectators, “among whom,” the newspapers reported, “were the usual number of ladies.”
Though the judge warned the audience to make no sound when the jury announced its decision, cheering soon met the verdict of not guilty. One young woman who showed her approval of the verdict by clapping her hands was brought before the judge, where she became the last of at least four people at the trial of Edward Pitzer to collapse in a dead faint.
Though the 1897 Marie Louise Gato murder trial was the most sensational the city had seen, Jacksonville owed a big part of its reputation throughout the next century to murder. It became shamefully common in the first decades of the 21st century to read newspaper accounts that called Jacksonville “Florida’s murder capitol.”
But even in the 1920s, Jacksonville stood out nationally for its murder rates. A 1927 Literary Digest article had Jacksonville leading the nation in murders with a “staggering killing record” of 75.9 per 100,000. A 1933 Literary Digest article titled “The High Murder Rate in the South” again pointed to Jacksonville at the top, and included among “contributing factors” “leniency toward pistol toters,” “the vestigial remains of an old chivalry which demands blood for violation of […] honor” and the “primitive passions” of the “Negro population.”
In the 1990s, sociologists returned to the effects of honor codes and the quid pro quo of blood-for-blood in the South. A rigid code of honor demands that when someone insults you, your own respect and identity is predicated on responding at least in kind, if not with greater violence.
Jacksonville’s murder rates have always correlated to its high rates of poverty, racial tension, and educational deficits. Even as late as the 1990s, the last time such numbers were made public, Duval County had an almost 50 percent “functional illiteracy” rate.
Jacksonville’s murders have always grabbed attention from afar. The killing spree in Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood began in the woods at the edge of town.
July 4th, 1930 was a different kind of Independence Day for J.J. Mendenhall.
Mendenhall received conditional pardon for good behavior 15 years after being convicted of murdering Sue Elliott and her mother Bessie on a highway outside Tampa in 1915. Four years after his release, his earlier conviction would echo strangely in Jacksonville.
It’s hard to imagine anyone believing Mendenhall’s story about what happened on that Central Florida highway. Several months previously, Sue had “forced her attentions” on him, to the extent that she had “accompanied him to Chicago against his will.”
When mother and daughter united forces against him, Mendenhall apologized but said he could not divorce his wife to marry Sue and promised the two of them money instead.
On the night of the women’s deaths, Mendenhall had his chauffer drive the three of them out from town into the hot, humid night. The purpose of the ride was to discuss his promised payment to the women, but everything went wrong.
Sue grew hysterical, pulled a pistol from Mendenhall’s pocket, and aimed it at him. He swore he tried to take the gun back, but in the typical passive-voice construction that refuses to name who-did-what, he said, “The pistol was discharged.” He might as well have said, “Mistakes were made.”
J.J. Mendenhall was a citrus magnate. He owned perhaps more land than anyone else in Pinellas County. In fact, people there called him the Citrus King.
While in prison, Mendenhall curried favor with his superiors, who said he saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars by lending his expertise, through prison labor, as chief of construction for Florida’s prisons. He even oversaw installment of the first electric chair in Florida in 1924 and was credited with nicknaming it “Old Sparky,” a moniker that’s lasted almost a century.
Four years after his release from state prison, J.J. Mendenhall was arrested in Jacksonville and tried for another double murder of mother and daughter, but this time a jury found him not guilty.
In early February, 1934, Mendenhall told police he’d had dinner with the 60 year old Mary Rae Anderson and her mother, 84 year-old Laura Mae Green, in their “quaint little cottage” on Liberty Street the same night someone stabbed the mother to death and placed an apron beneath the daughter’s head before repeatedly crushing her skull with a hammer. Mendenhall said he and Mary Rae had planned to get married.
He claimed that Green, the mother, had murdered her daughter and then committed suicide, though a county medical examiner pointed out the 84 year-old woman could hardly have stabbed herself in the heart and then removed and set aside the knife, as detectives found it.
Just before the murder, Mendenhall had written several letters to Mary Rae, borrowed $1,000 from her mother and pawned one of her rings, convinced them to deed their house to him, which he then sold for a profit, and took out a “fire insurance” policy on the house, from which he received disbursals without Laura Mae and Mary Rae’s knowledge.
He said he only kept the profits of the sale of the house Mary Rae and her mother deeded to him because Mary Rae had insisted he do so against his own inclinations.
It seems Mendenhall always fell prey to women’s manipulations that ended up benefiting him financially.
On the night of their deaths, Mendenhall said, Laura Mae had threatened to kill her daughter and then herself, that he “had to use force,” a vague phrase that opens further questions, to keep the mother from “going to the river.”
And that night, Mary told him, “I wish you would stay tonight. I am terribly uneasy. I’m afraid Mother will go to pieces.”
Mendenhall said that he should go home, but if she needed him, she should telephone him. In court he testified, “She promised she would. I never heard from them again.”
When he assumed the elderly woman’s financial affairs and engaged himself to her daughter, he said “Mrs. Green was delighted,” and that she told him that now “I can have you with me all the time.” He said he thought of his fiancee’s mother as his own mother.
All the evidence seemed to point against Mendenhall. His fingerprints were found on the knife that killed the mother and the hammer that killed the daughter. Prosecuting attorneys insisted on the similarity between this double-murder and the one that had sent him to jail years ago, while the defense argued that the similarity was the reason the murder had been pegged on Mendenhall in the first place.
The jury deliberated for about an hour before they inexplicably found J.J. Mendenhall not guilty. The ruined Citrus King was a pitiful wreck of a man. He was destitute and sad and dying of cancer. Maybe the jury figured he didn’t have the strength left to murder another mother and daughter.
The April 9, 1964 issue of Jet magazine featured a story called, “What’s Behind Jacksonville’s Race Violence?”
The Jet story begins with Jacksonville police breaking down the office doors of the local NAACP, saying, “The Southern city reacted violently to the Negro community’s refusal to bow to demands that peaceful demonstrations to desegregate downtown restaurants and hotels be halted immediately by command of Mayor Haydon Burns.”
In fact, Burns had immediately deputized 500 firefighters to help break up protests.
A 1964 Jet subhead said, “Ambitious Mayor’s Menacing Threats Triggered Riots.” The article said, “A race riot brought the city, hailed as the gateway to Florida, to its knees for the second time in four years.”
Forty years later Oprah Winfrey and the Southern Poverty Law Center refocused attention on one black woman shot on the sidewalk in the midst of Jacksonville’s 1964 race riots, a mother of 10, who had nothing more to do with the city’s race hatreds than being murdered for being black and walking down the sidewalk. Her youngest child, Shelton, only four months old at the time his mother was murdered, was asking for some answers.
Johnnie Mae Chappell was 35 years old. She worked as a maid for a wealthy white family. She went to the grocery to get ingredients for homemade strawberry ice cream.
When she got home, she noticed she’d dropped her purse behind and went back to look for it along New Kings Road and Moncrief.
Just as she walked in the dimming light along that intersection, four young white men, drunk and angry about black responses to segregationist law and order, decided to drive through black Jacksonville with guns and beer, where they saw Johhnie Mae Chappell on the sidewalk.
Jet published a photograph of Willie Chappell, looking down at his murdered wife, “killed during white mob’s bloody rampage.”
Police interrogations buried for decades said one of the white men in the car, which one differing according to who told the story, said, “Let’s go kill a nigger.”
In the years following the murder, the photograph of Willie looking at the murdered body of Johnnie Mae was the only image he had of his wife.
Jacksonville police detectives Lee Cody and Donald Coleman believed they were witnessing blatant obstruction of justice. In fact, it wasn’t until they had inquired about the case that the police department even began an investigation.
The four boys in the car that night were indicted, but J.W. Rich was identified as the shooter. He said it was an accident.
The detectives were called to bring the gun into court, but couldn’t find it in the property room where it had been stored. In fact, nobody ever found the murder weapon or admitted to where it went.
The defense claimed the killing was an innocent mistake. The boys were just out having some fun. They didn’t intend to kill anybody. Surely the all white male jury could understand young men getting a thrill from driving fast cars and shooting guns. The bullet had bounced off the ground and struck Johnnie Mae by accident.
The jury was convinced. A juror named Bill Loos said he’d examined the bullet in court, though the gun had gone missing, and from his knowledge of killing hogs, judged it a ricochet. One juror believed Rich should receive a sentence for murder, but the rest of the jury agreed the shooting was an accident.
Just like that Waylon Jennings theme for The Dukes of Hazzard said:
Just the good ol’ boys,
Never meanin’ no harm,
Beats all you ever saw,
Been in trouble with the law
Since the day they was born.
And “Makin’ their way, the only way they know how, / That’s just a little bit more than the law will allow.”
In fact, it was just a little bit more. The one holdout for a murder charge changed his mind within the hour.
Rich was given 10 years for manslaughter, but paroled four years later. The other three men went free.
Before Willie Chappell died in 1995, never remarrying after the death of his wife, people sometimes asked him why he didn’t pursue justice after Wayne Chessman, Elmer Kato, James Davis, and J.W. Rich got off so easily.
He said, “Listen. You ain’t never seen a man hung by his neck in your lifetime. But I have.”
When he was a little boy, he said, his daddy sometimes had to drive his sons near where Edgewood Avenue crosses New Kings Road. His daddy always told his children to put their heads down when they drove through that wooded area.
But Willie Jr. couldn’t help but look. He remembered seeing burnt Ku Klux Klan crosses in the woods. He remembered when he was a little boy, crouched amongst his siblings in his daddy’s old ramshackle truck, peeking over his hand and seeing a black body hanging from a tree.
In the early 1970s, South Florida defense attorney Sheldon Yavitz bailed out Paul John Knowles, whom a newspaper article described as a tall, “rawboned” Jacksonville redneck. A few months later, Knowles called him from Coral Gables and said, “I have something to tell you. Brace yourself. I’m a mass murderer.”
Though Yavitz himself described Knowles as a Jacksonville redneck, early ’70s photographs of the killer show a man who sometimes wore glasses, with thick longish red hair, looking debonairly down over an aquiline nose, a cigarette dangling haphazardly, and a chin that cornered a prominent jaw. He looks like he might be a rock star or a radical journalist.
It’s not clear who started calling him the Casanova Killer, much less when or where. Why, on the other hand, is more obvious. Knowles frequently picked up women at bars from Jacksonville to San Francisco, and sometimes he killed them.
In the fall of 1974, a hard-drinking British reporter named Sandy Fawkes met Knowles in a bar in Atlanta, and thought he was a “dreamboat.” He told her his name was Daryl Golden, that he was afraid he would die young, and that he identified passionately and existentially with Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Knowles may have been a redneck, but he was also a Romantic.
When Fawkes met Knowles, he was in the midst of a killing spree that ended the lives of between 18 and 35 people from Jacksonville to Connecticut.
Knowles didn’t live much longer, and he died with an impression Yavitz had given him that he would write the book to make him “as famous as Bonnie and Clyde.”
In 1974, five little girls between the ages of six and 12 disappeared in Jacksonville. While one girl’s body was found in the woods off Beach Boulevard and another’s off Heckscher Drive, the other girls’ bodies were never found.
Paul John Knowles claimed to have murdered Mylette and Lillian Annette Anderson, two of those missing little girls, sisters aged six and 11, near their rural Northside home from which they’d been kidnapped.
Just before encountering the sisters, he had murdered a 65 year old woman in Jacksonville’s Atlantic Beach after gagging and robbing her.
The Anderson girls’ mother left them alone for less than an hour, expecting her husband home soon from work. Elizabeth Anderson called home about seven o’clock, and though their father had to stay a little later at work, the girls were well. When both Elizabeth and Jack returned home later that night, Mylette and Lillian were gone. No one would ever see them again.
Knowles’s confessions on audio tapes he sent to Yavitz included his story of killing two little girls who saw him ditch a car in the wooded neighborhood of Pumpkin Hill where Mylette and Lillian lived. A massive community dragnet search through the swamps off Commonwealth failed to find the girls’ bodies.
The girls’ mother said, decades later, that she’d consistently seen a psychiatrist, that “I’ve had spells in which I go inside myself and don’t come out.”
Elizabeth said her husband Jack, who later suffered heart attacks and strokes following years of depression, insisted the family never move or change their phone number, because, in her words, “Daddy thought the babies were coming home.”
In the back seat of a police car, Knowles escaped his handcuffs on the way to a wooded site where he claimed to have left the gun of a Florida state trooper he had murdered. He pulled the gun from the officer driving, and while struggling with him between the front and back seats as the car lurched down the wooded road, homicide investigator Ronnie Angel fired three bullets into Knowles’s chest.
Since December 18, 1974, Angel has refused to talk publicly about Knowles’s death. A lot of people believe the South Georgia cops planned Knowles’s death and followed through.
Knowles was a Romantic. Or he was a Duke of Hazzard. In any case, he believed that soon after his death, someone would write a great work about him. Someone would be his Truman Capote.
Yavitz told newspaper reporters that rednecks were his best clients, because they had a code, like the Mafia. The code was the Honor Code. It looked tough. If someone insulted you, you took them out.
Sandy Fawkes, the British journalist who met Knowles in Atlanta, but thought his name was Daryl Golden, wrote a book about their affair in 1974 and called it Killing Time. She writes about herself in third person, and explains Knowles’s appeal by saying he embodied “an America that had been missing from her journey, the real America with all its strength, vigor, ignorance, greed and hope.”
Fawkes had been a fashion critic and a war correspondent. Knowles drove Fawkes to Florida in a car that belonged to a man he’d murdered the week before. The day before they met, he’d killed a mother and teenage daughter.
She often wondered why Knowles hadn’t murdered her. Just as he trusted that Yavitz would write the book about him that would make him significant, perhaps he spared Fawkes because she was a writer. After all, Yavitz never wrote the book Knowles expected. Fawkes did.
Meanwhile, Jack Anderson, the father of Mylette and Lillian Annete, waited for his daughters’ phone call every night for 20 years.
Perhaps nowhere else can the strange celebrity cult of the serial killer be most clearly seen as in Ottis Toole. There are about as many versions of Ottis Toole as there were times he opened his mouth to speak. Every Ottis was a new variation on a theme.
What seems undeniably true about Ottis Toole is that he was a mentally handicapped boy, “borderline retarded” in the parlance of his time, who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in Jacksonville’s Springfield neighborhood. As a young child, Toole was repeatedly sexually abused. He had epileptic seizures, he never learned to read, he dressed up as a girl, and he liked setting things on fire. Everyone saw him as strange.
Beyond that, most versions of Ottis Toole seem to be based on what kind of attention he could get. He confessed to every murder case police brought before him. In a new age of sensational stories of serial killers, Ottis found a role that he could play well that garnered him endless attention. It made him significant for the first time in his life. Several people promised to write books about him, though none of them panned out.
After he was arrested for setting fire to a Springfield boarding house on East 2nd Street, in which 64 year old George Sonnenberg died and 15 year old Regina Hersey broke her back jumping from a second-floor window, Ottis’s stories took on lives of their own. He began telling stories, but after a while, the stories themselves took over.
When the stories took over, suddenly, his grandmother had been a Devil Worshiper and had taught him to rob graves when he was a little boy. She called him “Devil’s Child.” Ottis Toole and his lover and partner-in-murder Henry Lee Lucas were part of an international Satanist organization. Their rituals required having sex with the dead. Ottis was a cannibal who’d developed his own special barbecue sauce. Ottis had killed 100, maybe 150 people, 300 people. At one point, he and Lucas said that together they had killed almost 700 people.
But of all those hundreds of people, the one person whose name ends up inextricably yolked to that of Ottis Toole is six year-old Adam Walsh, kidnapped and decapitated in South Florida in 1981. Adam’s father, John Walsh, has long said he believes Ottis Toole killed his son and that he hopes Toole rots in Hell. John Walsh is most famous for hosting America’s Most Wanted and for his advocacy for missing children.
Ottis Toole did confess to murdering Adam Walsh, but he also recanted. In fact, he did both repeatedly. In his first confessions, he was unable to identify Adam from photographs. He didn’t know the boy’s name or age or description, or where he was kidnapped. At first, Toole had said that Henry Lee Lucas had been with him, but when he found out Lucas was in jail in another state at that time, he said he did it by himself.
Transcripts of police interrogations contain shocking instances of Hollywood and Jacksonville police feeding Ottis Toole information. When he didn’t answer their questions correctly, they came down on him hard. He had failed yet another test. Sometimes it took him several tries to pick up on their clues, but when he eventually got the right answers, they showed him they were satisfied.
“He did say,” Ottis said, “his momma and daddy was in the store and—”
Detective Hoffman interrupted him. Only Adam’s mother had been in the store. So Hoffman admonished him, “Both his mother and his dad? Think about that now.”
Ottis had apparently given the wrong answer, so he moved away from it. “Well, maybe I didn’t even ask him was his parents in the store, you know.”
And later, “Okay. So the first thing you did was get a ticket to get onto the turnpike. Which way did you go on the turnpike, north or south? Did you go back towards Jacksonville or did you go south of Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood?”
But Ottis said he didn’t really know the difference between north and south or east or west.
“Did you go back from where you came?”
“Comin’ back home?”
“Or did you go the other way?”
Now Ottis wasn’t really sure what he was supposed to answer. “I ain’t really sure.”
“Look at me,” Jacksonville Detective Buddy Terry said. It annoyed him how Ottis was always looking at the ceiling and wagging his head around slowly.
“My mind is gettin’ stuck,” Ottis said.
“Look at me. When you left, where did you plan on going? Did you plan on going back home?”
“All right. Did you go in the direction to go back to Jacksonville, or did you go the other way?”
Ottis had forgotten what he was supposed to answer, so he said, “I could’ve went back the other way.”
“Ottis, look at me. What did you do when you left the shopping center? Which way did you tell me you went? Just think. Which way, where did you tell me you were going?”
But Ottis couldn’t remember what he had told Hoffman before, or if what he had told him was wrong or right.
Terry said, “Come on now. Now you know which way you were going. ’Cause you told me and you told Detective Ruiz where you were going. Which way did you tell us you were going? Where did you tell us you were going? Were you going home, or were you going to Miami?”
“I was going back, going back to Jacksonville.”
And when Terry asked if there was an overpass nearby, Ottis said, “I can’t remember. I really can’t.”
Terry, increasingly irritated with Ottis’s failure, demanded, “Look at me! Look at me! No more looking at the ceiling!”
Then Ottis said, “I know what you’re tryin’ to do.”
“I’m not tryin’ to do nothin’,” Terry said.
And Ottis repeated himself. He knew what Terry was trying to do.
Later, when Hoffman showed Ottis the picture of Adam’s decapitated head, he asked him if this was the child he had abducted.
But Ottis didn’t say anything.
“Don’t tell me what you think. I want to hear you tell me what you know to be the truth.”
Detective Terry moved in on him more. “You’re digging yourself a hole, Ottis, and you’re not gonna get out of it. You know that. You know what you’re doing. You want me to tell you what you’re doing?”
So Terry knew what Ottis was doing, but Ottis wondered what it was. What did Terry know Ottis was doing that Ottis didn’t know? But Terry had offered to tell him what it was, and Ottis said, “What?”
“You’re trying to go to a mental hospital.”
And Ottis panicked. And again Ottis was weeping, rubbing his nose, rubbing snot across mouth, saying, “I don’t believe that shit.”
“You don’t believe me?” Terry said. “Huh?”
And Ottis sobbed hysterically and said, “My fucking life! I…I…I can’t stand it!”
And after that, after a full day of questioning, Ottis Toole said he was ready to confess. “I really know myself that I really did kill Adam Walsh,” he said.
Then even later he said he wasn’t really sure that he did do it. He didn’t think he did. In fact, he didn’t really, uh, didn’t really kill Adam Walsh.
But his name stuck to Adam’s, and John Walsh vehemently declared that nobody else but this Jacksonville scumbag two-bit arsonist could have killed his son. Who would take that assurance away from Adam’s father?
And in the years to come, Ottis Toole would claim he murdered hundreds of people and ate their genitals and their ribs. Then he would claim he’d never killed anyone. Then he’d say his Devil Worship cult sacrificed virgins, ate parts of dead bodies, and had sex with goats. Then he’d say all his murder charges were results of the police playing mind games. And then he’d say he had played all these mind games with the police, to show the smart people they weren’t so smart at all, that the retarded boy could fool all of them.
In my nonfiction novel, Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, I try to bounce all the different Ottis Tooles off each other, but I also indicate that, whoever Ottis Toole really was, he didn’t have to end up that way. Though people are responsible for their actions, people are also products of their place. And Ottis Toole was a sad and pathetic festering of what the city of Jacksonville had done to Victorian Springfield, at one time its most beautiful neighborhood.
For though Springfield has made miraculous comebacks in recent years, its decline was long and started earlier than most people realize. Springfield’s downturn didn’t begin with stereotypical post-World War Two “white flight.” It began with class confusions and boarding houses in the 1920s. But the larger point is that once its decline set in, its own city wrote it off entirely and couldn’t care less what happened to little boys growing up in its once-grand old houses.
I suspect most current middle-class Springfield residents could hardly imagine what the neighborhood was in the 1980s, and most 1980s Springfielders could barely imagine the Springfield of the 1970s and 1960s. Ottis Toole was a despicable person, whether you believe he was one of the worst serial killers in history or a dim-witted arsonist who never meant to kill anyone, but I feel sad that his life was his one chance at life. Ottis Toole was the life of the man called Ottis Toole, but he was also a symptom of the Springfield he grew up in. Ottis Toole is responsible for whatever crimes he committed, and so is the city of Jacksonville.
Ottis told an interviewer, “Sometimes my grandmother tried to get us a fresh body, and she would cut off the head. She would hold the head in her hands and wait for the skin to dry. Or else she would remove the skin from the head and stretch it over her body. She said it made her skin stay young.”
In Ottis’s May 1984 arson murder trial, psychiatrist Eduardo Sanchez said Ottis “functions on a very primitive level, almost like a child. He’s very impulsive. He’s at the mercy of his own impulses most of the time.” Nevertheless, Ottis was “capable of loving,” and “He loved his mother quite dearly and he loved Mrs. Betty Goodyear [a Springfield boarding house owner whom Ottis called “Mom”] and he loved Henry Lucas.” Still, due to his childish impulsiveness, Sanchez said, “he is quite capable of killing someone.”
A woman who lived in Springfield’s boarding houses in the late 1970s and early 1980s said, Ottis “was very good to me. I’m an invalid, you know. If I fell, Ottis would pick me up. He was kind that way. Ottis was a good, kind man.”