Long Branch (Voodoo at East 27th and the Railroad Tracks)

by Tim Gilmore, 8/8/2015

When Caddus saw John Barksdale meet up with Doc Rufus, the village voodoo doctor, he became suspicious and followed them. When they parted, as Caddus told Stetson Kennedy 60 years later and 80 years ago, he followed John and “around midnight […] saw a figure creeping into the haunted house of the Adkinses.”

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So Caddus crept into the old Adkins house, a pistol in his hand. “I considered it best to crawl along on my knees until I came to the door of the death room.”

He heard strange sounds, things he couldn’t discern, “and whistling through the cracks in the walls. A slight rain beamed on the window panes with a steady beat. My hair seemed like it was standing on my head, sweat drops began to pop out of my forehead, and in a second I heard John calling in a low voice, ‘Julia, Julia, my sweetheart, come back to me.’”

When the sheriff investigated the next day, he found “John Barksdale’s lifeless carcass […] lying in the same spot where Julia had been found dead.”

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Wandering East 27th Street toward the St. Johns River, 141 years later, the impossibility of deciphering exactly where the ex-slave “village,” if it was even that big, stood just after the Civil War, doesn’t dissuade me from wondering what history, what passion, what love and desperation lies beneath these palms and oaks and palmettos, these warehouses, this cluster of 1940 not-quite-shotgun-houses, one painted pink, one turquoise, one beige with red trim.

History falls in layers like the leaves from trees across the seasons, year after year. If you lay out a Murder or a Falling-in-Love in the Leaf-fall of the Magnolias, and if you keep visiting the scene, you’ll find the Ground Level rising with the Leafstorms of the years and decades, and you’ll find the Murder or the Loving working its way downward, hiding itself but making itself a firm foundation down below the Continuing Layers.

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So I wander across one railroad track, then another, then another before the river, and wonder which of these rail lines existed as far back as the 1870s.

I vividly see it, the springtime of 1874, the lush verdure aburst in ragweed, dog fennel, hogweed, and black-eyed Susans, and draped all over with the soft purple blossoms of morning glory, when John Barksdale “fell desperately in love” with Julia Adkins.

It was just a decade after slavery was abolished, and when John finished with his work every evening, he’d run down the railroad track to meet Julia at the corner of East 27th and the railroad.

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Following East 27th toward the river, it’s obvious where houses once stood. The tight cluster of three houses behind me wasn’t built huddled up all alone in the woods. They’re what’s left of an urban density decades disappeared. So many of the historically predominantly black neighborhoods in Jacksonville consist mostly of houses long gone.

Sometimes you can make out the brick remains of foundations, the stoops of a porch, even the shapes of former houses left in the vegetation, like body outlines chalked across the asphalt at the scene of a crime. Since Florida’s vegetation, if unchecked, so rapidly overwhelms every human structure, the outlines of absence in older vegetation seem particularly ghostly.

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The district now known as Long Branch spans southeast of Evergreen Cemetery and Long Branch Creek, from Evergreen Avenue past Talleyrand Avenue east to polluted industrial shores of the St. Johns River, and from the rail line south of East 18th to the rail line just north of East 32nd.

But prior to the Civil War, the wooded area around Long Branch Creek toward the river and several miles north of what then constituted town consisted of the estates of two of Jacksonville’s wealthiest families, the Daniels and L’Engles, the Daniels’ lumber mill in the distance north at Sandfly Point, and the shantytowns of a dozen or so shacks where lived the Daniels’ and L’Engles’ servants.

Sometime around 1850, the L’Engles had built a large house just north of Long Branch Creek and called it Palermo, and in 1854, the Daniels built their own mansion just south of Long Branch Creek, calling it Millwood, after the source of their recently increased wealth north at Trout River.

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When the L’Engles’ daughter Emmie was 14, just before the Daniels’ son Jaquelin was admitted to the Florida Bar, James Daniel connected the two shores of Long Branch Creek with a wooden footbridge and reduced the distance between Palermo and Millwood to less than two miles. That autumn of 1857, Emmie wrote that Jaquelin “passed his time between Millwood and Palermo,” roaming constantly back and forth, “most of the time on the road—I mean in the woods.”

The L’Engles and Daniels passed the flu back and forth, but their distance of four or five miles north from Jacksonville kept them from the Yellow Fever epidemics down in the city. And in that time of epidemics, Emmie and Jaquelin became engaged.

More than a decade after they were married at Palermo, a Dr. G.R. Hall bought the estate and built a new “14-room house with broad verandahs, wide halls, high ceilings, large French windows, and open fireplaces.” The estate included “several outbuildings including servants quarters and stables for half a dozen horses,” according to Richard Martin’s wonderful 1972 book The City Makers.

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Hall lived at Palermo from 1869 to 1883, when he sold it to Emmie and Jaquelin Daniel, who moved into the estate with their eight children.

Though the Daniels seemed progressive in their racial views this soon after the Civil War and supported black educational and entrepreneurial efforts, they kept a large staff of servants, most of whom were black.

While many black servants lived on the large estates, their families and communities necessarily bled westward from the river into small enclaves of shacks in the woods.

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Meanwhile, the Daniels had supported the construction of the first railroads in Florida, as far back as the first horse-drawn rail carts in the late 1850s. Small stretches of early rural rail lines were consolidated into larger networks like the Atlantic Coast Line toward the end of the 1800s. But such seemingly random and anomalous lines began to shape rural communities north of Jacksonville, in what’s now the Northside, shortly after the Civil War.

At the same time, Pine Street, renamed Main Street in 1888, connected Jacksonville (today’s downtown) north to Panama Park at the Trout River, and circuited over to East Shell Road, which later became Talleyrand Avenue, in an eastern Northside loop people called “Ten-Mile Drive.”

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And in the freedman / ex-slave unnamed and unincorporated communities of a dozen houses here and there in the woods, where the servants of the wealthy came home, where front porches faced each other either side of sandy streets, John Barksdale fell in love with Julia Adkins in 1874.

After he came running down the railroad line each evening after work, Julia met him at a tree stump where the railroad intersected East 27th. They met “night after night,” according to Stetson Kennedy’s record of Peter Morse Caddus’s recollection.

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Kennedy’s most famous for writing about his infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan and reporting on their activities to the FBI in the 1954 book I Rode with the Ku Klux Klan, published by French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, later retitled The Klan Unmasked.

In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Writers’ Project employed Kennedy and his friend and fellow folklorist, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, to record the narratives of former slaves in Florida. They worked with folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax through the Clara White Mission on West Ashley Street in Jacksonville’s LaVilla district.

Caddus told Kennedy that when Julia’s father caught John and his daughter “fondly embracing […] Old man Allen was so hot and mad that fire burned all his hair off.”

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Allen Adkins descended brutally on his daughter, beating her with his walking cane, and John Barksdale took off running. It was weeks before Julia Adkins recovered, but when she did, her father gave her an ultimatum.

“Julia, you are all that I have to remind me of your mother. I killed her because she was unfaithful to me. If I should ever catch you out with that no-good nigger again, I’ll kill you too.”

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I wend my way eastward on East 27th. I pass concrete-block fence posts where the fences are gone and where houses no longer stand and houses layered and layered over the decades, so that windows are turned into walls, and doors open onto ground-floor roofs.

A skinny dog springs westward along sand and broken concrete choked with wild grasses, his tail spry, wiry and young and determined in this ancient layered world. I love him for it.

I pass houses with municipal notices of condemnation affixed to front walls, with doors open and music thumping into the trees from within.

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Railroad tracks and wooded fields sever East 27th for a block between Evergreen and Phoenix Avenues, then the street continues toward the river past Long Branch Elementary School at Franklin Street past condemned clapboard houses and 1960s ranch-style houses and pecan trees and housecats in tiny square garden plots crowded with petunias.

The night of her father’s ultimatum, Julia crept into his bedroom as he slept, a kitchen knife clasped in her hands. She woke him with her declaration, “You killed my mama, but you’ll never kill me!” and she sunk the big knife into his heart.

The next day, an old man named Tom Williams, who’d been a slave so many decades, came to see his old friend Allen Adkins. He called and called and crept about the house. When the old man found Julia lying dead beside her father’s bed, having plunged the knife with which she’d murdered him into her own heart, his own heart skipped and stuck and lunged and staggered.

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The old man Abe Hendricks, who lived next door, had seen Tom enter the Adkins house, but never saw him come out. When Abe knocked and heard no response, night having fallen, he pushed open the door and struck a match.

Caddus told Stetson Kennedy, “I was the first to hold him,” since Abe had run “hollering out of the house into the sandy streets,” and “a crowd hastily formed around” him. Since no one volunteered to enter the house, they all agreed to enter the Adkins house together.

But when someone spied a white man named Davis, they convinced him to come down East 27th and look inside. They quickly removed the body of Tom Williams, and as they entered the house behind Davis, they saw “Old Man Adkins, lying in a pool of blood” upon his bed, “with his daughter on the floor covered by a bloody nightgown. The weapon of death was near her outstretched hands.”

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The murder-suicide devastated John Barksdale, and he besought all the old former slaves who lived along East 27th and Long Branch Creek, asking them desperately “what he should do now that his love was dead.”

Caddus advised him to “get a hard job and work your head off.” John disappeared for several days, and then Caddus saw him in the freedman’s graveyard that’s now encompassed by Evergreen Cemetery. John knelt and wept before Julia’s unmarked grave.

The next day, Caddus saw John talking to Doc Rufus, “the voodoo doctor of the village.” After following John into the old Adkins house with his pistol, Caddus heard his friend begging Julia to come back to him.

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When the sheriff smirked at his story the next day and entered the abandoned house, he found John Barksdale dead just where Julia’s body had been found. No autopsy was warranted for the deaths of superstitious former slaves.

Peter Morse Caddus told Stetson Kennedy that some villagers claimed John died of heart failure, that some people thought “Old Man Adkins’ ghost killed him,” and “still others believed that he followed the spirit of Julia to the promised land and failed to return.”

Wherever the settlement of wooden shacks in the sand contained its haunted house in the 1870s, Caddus suggested to Stetson Kennedy sometime in the early 1930s that the house still stood, out there on East 27th.

“If you don’t believe there’s a spirit in there,” he challenged Kennedy, “then go on in that house around midnight, and I’ll bet my last chew of tobacco they’ll find you running like the Devil down them railroad tracks.”