by Tim Gilmore, 3/25/2016
You can order Gilmore’s book, Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic at https://jaxpsychogeo.com/tim-gilmore/books-by-tim-gilmore/.
Just because phony serial killer Ottis Toole once lived here, just because Toole set the house on fire and masturbated while watching the blaze, just because George Sonnenberg died in the fire and Regina Hersey broke her back jumping from a second-story window…
These facts don’t make it fair to call this 1880s’ Gothic Victorian house at 117 E. 2nd Street the Ottis Toole House. For one thing, Springfield’s a different neighborhood than it was in Toole’s day. In 2010, Southern Living Magazine called Springfield “the #1 comeback neighborhood in the South.”
Long before this three-story nearly 5,000 square foot house became a boarding house sometime in the middle of the 20th century, it had been a family home. In 1887, a lumber inspector named John Conniff lived here. But as the Victorian / Edwardian neighborhood of Springfield spiraled into decline in the 1940s and 1950s, the mansions and Queen Anne-style houses city leaders had built for their families increasingly became rooming houses.
117 East 2nd was no exception. The more rooms could be cut into the house, the more cheap weekly rent could be collected as the district declined.
By the time Ottis Toole grew up in Springfield, sexually abused by his father and neighbors, his brothers Vernon and Howell beating him, his sisters Drusilla and Arzetta dressing him in little girl’s clothes, dozens of Springfield’s loveliest old structures had become dosshouses.
By the time Toole began dressing as a woman and prostituting himself on Main Street, 1970s, by the time Toole met Henry Lee Lucas at a downtown homeless shelter—Henry who would murder Toole’s young niece Becky—and took him home to sleep with him, Springfield had become a prototypically Southern Gothic Hieronymus Bosch circle of Hell.
* * *
Certainly the house is Gothic: the large woodwork in the gable, a triangle of trefoils, the steep roofline.
Vernacular carpentry patterns decorate the front porch and second-story balcony as well, and when the sun stands just right in the sky, its light cuts across a strong old oak and drops trefoiled shadows on scalloped wooden tiles. Dormers shoot from the third story at right angles from the face of the house.
Inside the house, fireplaces frequently occupy corners. It’s too easy to imagine Ottis Toole, tall and ungainly, gap-toothed, sad-dead-eyed, shuffling down the stairs.
Rooming-house tenants played target practice in the kitchen and bullets remain lodged in the wall. The great stamped-copper ceiling shines. The stair rails bear the scars of long termite damage. You have to walk through certain bedrooms to get to other bedrooms. Dormer windows cut into small rooms on the third floor. Ottis Toole stayed here.
But he stayed at rooming houses on several other streets east of Main, sometimes changing rooms each night. He did janitorial work for Betty Goodyear, who owned rooming houses all over Springfield, and she let him stay where he wanted.
“Mom. That’s what he called me,” Goodyear told a Miami Herald reporter in 1983. She described him as “lost,” and said she’d known him since he was seven or eight.
“He could say things like, if he didn’t like someone, ‘I’ll just kill him and throw him in an old house and set it on fire.’ But I didn’t pay it any mind.”
Toole bragged that he’d burned a couple dozen Springfield houses, at least. He often couldn’t remember the word “pyromaniac,” and he’d smile, simple-eyed, and call himself a “powerful maniac.”
* * *
But Toole was a fake. At one point, he claimed that in partnership with serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, he’d killed about 600 people. Florida police were as happy to clear cold cases as cops in states as far away as Colorado.
Nor did Toole, in the summer of 1981, murder and decapitate Adam Walsh, the six year old son of John Walsh, the future host of the true-crime TV series America’s Most Wanted. John Walsh made up his mind that Toole murdered his son after receiving a despicable letter from Toole in prison.
But Toole was illiterate, had an IQ of 75, and he’d just met Gerard Schaefer, another prisoner charged with multiple murders, who happened to write fiction about committing murder. Schaefer insisted on collecting outlying rewards for turning Toole in.
Jacksonville Detective Buddy Terry was removed from investigating Toole in Adam Walsh’s death after he fed Toole information to confess, promising him proceeds from a book they’d write together.
* * *
“Ottis, were you lying today?” Terry demanded. “Are you sure you didn’t kill Adam Walsh? Now come on now, let’s don’t do this way. Look at me! Look at me, Ottis!”
But Toole kept staring at the ceiling and slowly wagging his head around. Then Toole started to cry, started to sob loudly, and he said, “My mind ain’t gonna take much more of this shit.”
Terry saying, “Ottis, look at me! We’ve been pretty truthful with each other, ain’t we?”
Terry challenged him. “Have you ever lied to me?”
“I don’t really know if I have at all, now,” Toole said.
And 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?”
“You’re trying to go to a mental hospital.”
And Toole panicked. And again Toole was weeping, rubbing his nose, rubbing snot across mouth, saying, “I don’t believe that shit.”
“You don’t believe me?” Terry said. “Huh?”
Toole sobbed hysterically and said, “My fucking life! I…I…I can’t stand it!”
* * *
None of Ottis Toole’s lies kept Regina Hersey from breaking her back when he set the East 2nd Street house on fire in early 1982.
His stories about the arson were all over the place, as were all his confessions that followed. He claimed the old man was his lover, but Regina’s sense of George Sonnenberg was of an old man who’d fallen down on his luck time and time again. That was the case of so many Springfield rooming-house residents.
Sonnenberg’s death by arson sent Toole to jail and then prison, after which he found the only power he’d ever known in confessing to murder after murder.
He claimed to be a high-ranking member of a Satanic cult called the Hand of Death. He claimed his grandmother brought home the heads of fresh kills, removed the skin, and stretched it over her body to keep her young. He said he’d lie on his mother’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery and hear her speaking into his body. He claimed hundreds of victims, including Adam Walsh, whom he failed to describe correctly and whose clothing he failed to detail until Buddy Terry fed him line after line. Even then, it took him a long time to get the facts he’d been fed right.
But Regina Hersey’s facts are air-tight. She was 15 years old. Her husband was 19. She’d grown up in the conservative affluent enclave of Amelia Island. When she and David eloped, they decided the best place to hide was the seedy inner-urban warren of Springfield.
They’d taken a room on the second floor, the second pair of windows from the street. Today that room’s a bathroom. The smoke filed up from under the door. They smelled fire and when they opened that door, they saw a wall of flames raging up from the center of the house.
He opened the windows and told her exactly how to bend her knees.
“This house is going to burn down, and no one’s going to get here in time. I’m going to jump. Then I want you to jump. And I’m going to do the best I can to catch you.”
The first floor stands several feet above ground and its ceilings are 12 feet tall. Regina and David panicked in their second-story room. He jumped. He made it. He called up to her.
Regina watched the flames approach, but screamed down in terror that she couldn’t do it.
“You have to jump!” he said. “This house is burning down and no one is coming!”
The flames reached the window where Regina stood perched. She couldn’t breathe. She flung herself desperately at the night. “And it didn’t work out. I landed on my lower back.”
She remembers lying there in pain, the house burning, and someone running burning from the house. Astonishingly, the house survived. Unlike George Sonnenberg. Unlike Regina’s spine.
Officials from the Fire Marshal’s office had walked door-to-door in Springfield, just the previous week, warning of a serial arsonist.
From what Regina later heard, she says, “Ottis Toole set a great deal of Jacksonville on fire that week!”