by Tim Gilmore, 10/13/2017
The three-story “stone masonry house” had stood empty for years. The Drew Mansion seemed to brood over the neighborhood from deep in its interior of gloom.
Wire services reported that locals called it “the haunted house.” United Press International referred to it as “the Haunted House of Jacksonville” and quoted an unnamed police officer as saying, “Every town has its haunted house. I guess that one is ours.” The house didn’t care what you called it.
When physician Horace Drew built it in 1909, the fanciful house instantly became one of the city’s most iconic and noted homes. It appeared on postcards. The Drews lived here through the 1930s, and the Mears family in the 1950s and early ’60s. In early 2015, local builder Michael Bourre bought the house to restore it, no small task since it’s tilting and sinking in the unstable wet earth. Instead he abandoned it once again.
One summer Saturday, July 1970, two little black boys crept around the back of the old house, scaring each other silly, imagining they saw movement in an attic dormer window. One of the boys slipped at the side of a muddy hole the previous night’s rains had exposed.
Something was down there. They knelt in the muck and bramble, peered closer, and finally one boy fished his fingers around in the hole and fell back in fear. The something was enclosed in a plastic bag. It felt heavy and meaty and wrong.
When they poked at the hole with sticks, raking away mud, the something they’d imagined watching them from the tall empty house looked up from underground.
In hysterics, the boys brought two 14 year old white boys to see their gruesome find and the teenagers called the police.
The Tampa Tribune headlined the story, “Human Head Found at ‘Haunted House.’”
Police excavated the decapitated head from a hole 18 inches deep. The head had belonged to a white man, about 50 years old. Because it was packed in a germicidal bag, said the Associated Press, the head “had decomposed little.”
At first, the police refused to release the orderly’s name. An unidentified informant told Homicide Detective Paul Short, Sr. how an orderly had shown him the head in the back yard of the “haunted house,” that the informant sometimes went by himself to see it.
Duval Medical Center on West Eighth Street, five blocks north, had reported a head missing from its “amputation unit.” The headline in The Orlando Sentinel said, “Medical Center Claims ‘Haunted House Head.’” The Florida Times-Union and Journal reported the head “had belonged to a cadaver used in medical education.”
Sunday night, July 12th, 18 year old Michael Tiliakos was arrested just before clocking in for his hospital shift at 10:30. He was charged with “Dealing in Parts of Dead Bodies.”
Detective Short told the UPI, “This fellow in one way is a genius and in another way is a nut.” He didn’t explain the genius side of the equation.
The police would not say to whom the head had once belonged. Tiliakos had stolen it eight months before, a damp November night, just after Halloween, 1969. Hidden by the prickly thistles and the tall and softly swaying goldenrod behind the Drew Mansion, Tiliakos liked to show the decapitated head to his friends.
Anne Brown remembers when her father, Detective Short, told his children about the head. Tiliakos had known the man who’d given his body to become a teaching cadaver and wanted to keep something of his friend after the cadaver was cremated.
Anne says, “My father told us the orderly slept with the head in his bed the first night, then disposed of it behind the Drew Mansion because he was afraid of getting caught.”
Paul Short, Sr. retired a year or two after the head case and died of heart disease in 1988.
“He was an amazing father and husband,” Anne says, “and his family adored him.”
Detective Short understood Tiliakos to have kept his friend’s head for sentimental reasons, “similar to how someone else would save a loved one’s ashes.”