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.
Astonishingly, between the hiding of the head and Tiliakos’s arrest, another Drew Mansion tragedy made national headlines.
It was Friday the 13th. March. The conjunction of that day and date had long been considered unlucky. “Friday the 13th” anxieties existed at least a century before the 1980 slasher film of the same name.
“A venture to a ‘haunted house,’” the UPI reported, “turned into a night of terror for a group of high school students.” Just as kids have wandered into the Annie Lytle School, Public School No. 4, scaring themselves and each other silly for decades, kids broke into the “haunted mansion” on West Third for the same thrill in 1967 and 1973. Sociologists call these visitations “legend tripping,” and these stories “urban legends.”
Whatever the 11 Ribault High School students had told themselves about the haunted house, that night exceeded their worst fears. The eight teenage girls and three boys made their way into the decrepit leaning house about 11 that Friday night. However they flirted and unnerved each other in those first minutes, they later never remembered.
In 1970, racial fear and hatred boiled toward its apex in Jacksonville. Ribault was still a whites-only school, though in a now predominantly black neighborhood. Racial violence had bloodied the full span of the 1960s. KKK membership included judges, sheriff’s office administrators, and political party bosses. Two years prior, Eldridge Cleaver, the early Black Panther Party leader, had written in Soul on Ice, how he’d raped white women as an “insurrectionary act.” Terror wore the skin colored the opposite of yours.
Having perhaps spied previous legend trippers breaking into the Drew Mansion, “two young Negroes,” as the UPI called them, “barged in, one armed with a sawed-off shotgun and the other with a knife.”
After demanding “reefers” from the terrified students, then insisting the kids put their money into a hat they passed around, “they herded the others into a bathroom, took the keys to a car from one of the boys, and drove off” with two of the girls.
The kidnappers pulled the girls’ “sweaters and blouses over their heads,” so they couldn’t see where they were going, and drove them to another abandoned Springfield house, “where the two Negroes were joined by three others.” After raping the girls repeatedly, the young men drove them “a short distance,” pushed them out onto the street, drove the car back to the “haunted house,” discarded it there, and walked away.
Anne Brown remembers when her father, Detective Short, who also, with apparent futility, investigated what became known as “the Drew House rapes,” though the actual assaults occurred elsewhere in the neighborhood, told his children about the buried 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.”
Tiliakos was sad and pitiful and lost. Nothing so willfully vile as the Drew Mansion rapists. 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.”