by Tim Gilmore, 1/11/2019
Seven bearded men sit with Sunday afternoon beers on the sidewalk outside Bay Street Bar & Grill and Bold City Brewery Downtown. 2019. Across the street, the poet laureate of Florida wraps himself in his bedsheets and dies. 1899. He leaves a note, saying, “The voices are calling me, and I can hold back no longer.”
“Kindly,” he’d written Leake and McNeil, druggists, “send me two ounces of cyanide of potassium, and charge to my account. I am gaining strength rapidly, and will soon be on the warpath again.”
Monday morning, newspapers reported “Florida’s poet laureate and veteran editor” Hamilton Jay found dead at Bettelini’s Hotel and Saloon at 128 East Bay Street.
His note said, “Death is preferable to insanity, and I choose it as the lesser of two evils.”
When he became city editor of The Florida Times-Union in 1888, newspapers and magazines around the country were publishing his poetry and essays. But on the eve of the 20th century, the T-U’s headlines shouted, “Suicide by Poison,” “Fear of Insanity the Cause,” and “Had Been Dead Several Hours.—It Is Believed His Mind Was Affected. A Brilliant Man.”
His obit reported, “When the discovery was made the body was lying in the bed closely wrapped in the bed clothing. The dead man had evidently bathed and donned clean clothing before taking the poison, as his clothing was not even rumpled.”
He’d faced death before. He’d commanded a Union cavalry in the Civil War, then moved to Jacksonville from Trenton, New Jersey, filled with courage and hope for the South. He named one of his popular Florida columns “Carpet-Bagging Days,” “carpetbagger” being slang for a Northerner who’d moved south supposedly to profit from Reconstruction. On April 26, 1871, about three months after moving to Florida, Jay’s strongly worded letter in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which outlawed the Ku Klux Klan, was published nationally. The Klan had murdered his friend, Florida legislator John P. Mahoney, in Lake City, “the fifth murder” by the Klan, Jay wrote, “since I came here.”
He wrote about all kinds of people, and treated the homeless, the down-and-out, the former slaves, with respect. He wrote of hermits and alligators (including the folk tale of Jonah and the Gator, about a man who, swallowed whole, hung onto his bottle of whiskey, which caused the beast to vomit him back ashore), of moonshiners and regulators, of “Florida crackers” and “honest black workmen,” of Harrison Reed, the Massachusetts-born first Republican governor of Florida (when Republican meant abolitionist Unionist), from 1868 to ’73, of a judge, an innkeeper and a bartender who, as the Chinese kept crickets in cages, had made pets of the Florida cockroach.
Jay wrote columns called “Plantation Sketches” and “Florida Tall Tales,” for which he collected folklore. His transcriptions of black vernacular (“De chittlins crackle in de pan”—“Pile on de fat pine knots!”—“Don’ let dem pig’s feet up an’ run away”—“Dere’s lots of fun on a hog-killin’ day.”) sound now like blackface minstrelsy, though Richard Wright, before he wrote Native Son, said the same of Zora Neale Hurston’s dialogue.
In pieces like “The Negro as Citizen,” Jay extols the freedman “the war made a man and Philanthropic Congress made a citizen,” but refers to other “grades” of “negro” as “Sambo,” and, lower yet, “an idle, thieving, shiftless army” of thugs who “for a drink of whiskey” will “carry a bucket of water half a mile.” This “grade” he calls “a curse to its race.” Though Jay makes fun of whiskey-sodden Florida crackers, he doesn’t judge them so heavily as he does the darker drinker, and it was hardly philanthropic for Congress to grant slaves the status as human beings and citizens they should have had all along.
Elsewhere, though he calls himself a carpetbagger and sides with Reconstruction, the movement to bring the South back into the Union and correct, via military strength, its violations of human rights, he refers to the “Southern loyalist,” the Southern supporter of the American Union, as wanting, at first, “the North burned to the ground and the knife applied to all who wore the blue; but when they saw which side was going to win, they changed uniforms, and with equal facility, cursed the South, and their old homes.”
In a nationally syndicated story in July 1886, Jay wrote of “Aunt Polly, the voodoo woman.” To find her, he walked “a mile to the left of the plantation [where] a little stream runs lazily through the woods.” Which plantation, he didn’t say, and nothing in his story identifies “Aunt Polly” more specifically.
“The water is black and uninviting, the whole place noisome and damp. On the brink of this branch, a little hut is perched, a dilapidated log structure, with a mud and brick chimney broken off two feet below the level of the roof.”
Aunt Polly was a little more or less than 100 years old, having been born a few years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a document that hadn’t applied to her. She was seated at the hearth, while “in a pan by her side [were] herbs and roots, part of a snake and a rabbit’s head.”
When she gives “a young negro from the plantation” a love potion and hands him, to bury, a bottle of some unsavory concoction to break the spell, she says, of “de nigger what [conjure] you,” she tells him, “Aunt Polly, she kin kill and she kin save! Dey all come to Aunt Polly!”
An outsider insider, Hamilton Jay wrote the South from the middle of the city, collected the city in stories, what Guy de Maupassant was to Paris, what O. Henry was becoming to New York, though his writing created also, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Walt Whitman’s poetry, some mixture of The Bhagavad Gita and The New York Herald, some American chimera, part journalism, part lyricism, Chimer-ica.
Throughout the years, a darkness visited him from time to time, leaving just as suddenly and inexplicably as it had come. The older he got, the longer the darkness decided to stay, the more seemingly randomly it appeared, and more frequently.
His 1895 poem, “The Clock,” spoke of waking, frightened, “in the silence of the night,” then calming himself with the trusted, regulated ticking. The clock stays by him, unwavering in its rhythm, even as the poet thrashes about his bed in lonely terror.
The clock tells him that “With a steady ‘tick, tick, tick,’ / I am never tired or sick, / And I count the minutes over as they fly. / I’m the truest friend you’ve got, / And share your evr’y lot, / And I’m ready to stand by you till you die.”
For years, Hamilton Jay never seemed to tire. He could hide the darkness when it came. His regular Sunday “Old Tramp’s Sermon” was the Times-Union’s most popular column. The sermons were collected in book form in 1896.
That year, he wrote, “I have this day seen the gun that fired the last shot fired, and killed the last Indian killed, in the savage war, that ended in 1842, with the Seminole Indians.” In Live Oak, Florida, he interviewed the lifelong owner of that gun, William Hankins, who recalled a young Seminole named Telaunee, “who was shot and had both arms broken.” The men raised the young boy up in “a tall pine tree and left [him] hanging. The tree is still standing, and even at this late day, the bones of the Indian have not yet entirely crumbled into nothingness.”
In June 1954, in shockingly genocidal terms, The Tampa Bay Times headlined a Hankins memorial, “Buckshot from 26 Shotguns Swept Band of Ferocious, Marauding Seminoles off Face of the Earth.”
In March, 1894, the Times-Union’s evening edition, of which Hamilton Jay was editor, became the Evening Times-Union, which became, in September 1897, the Evening Times-Union and Citizen, which was discontinued the following January. So was its editor.
By then his work had wavered. At some point, he’d taken up a morphine habit to keep the darkness at bay. His wife left him. He’d become good friends with Frederick Bettelini, whom he visited at the hotel bar for brandy and cigars.
Bettelini had grown up in Havana, the son of Swiss parents, learned to speak English in New York, moved to Jacksonville in 1858, and operated a pool hall just after the Civil War. In 1882, he ran Bettelini’s Hotel at 16 East Bay Street, between Newnan and Ocean Streets—“Rooms 50 cents per day and upward,” “First class restaurant, regular meals, 25 cents.” By the time of Hamilton Jay’s decline, Bettelini’s stood at 128 East Bay, the same block as the post office, just down from Osky’s Alligator Store on the other side of Pine (Main) Street.
When Jay started to disappear at random intervals, Bettelini wondered at his friend’s absences. Yet when Bettelini thought him gone, Jay was in his room, feverishly writing and writing. He left his room less and less. He had meals brought to his door and shushed the servants. He wrote all night and shut the shudders by day. His clock assured him “That full soon must pass the night / And the sweet and precious light / Be unfolded with the coming of the morn.”
For some time, Jay had heard voices. For years, after hours of writing, he would speak in strange voices and words of gibberish in his sleep. Were the voices he now heard meant for his pen, but misdirected? Perhaps what the poet should have put to page instead leaked into the air and spoke to him in the darkness.
His friends later said they heard he’d taken enough cyanide to kill 500 people. Some of them had searched for him. They’d knocked on doors, questioned concierges and hustlers.
Then the chambermaid, Mary Thomas, found him, and The T-U reported, “A large number of friends of the deceased gathered at the hotel as soon as the report of the suicide spread,” pouring out “expressions of regret and sorrow.”
In his note, he said, “It is a horrible state of affairs, but the voices are calling me, and I can hold back no longer.”
In 1903, more than four years after his death, newspapers around the country published “His Last Poem,” with the brief explanation, “The following tender poem was the last written by the late Hamilton Jay, whose tragic death in Florida closed a brilliant career.”
In this sentimental poem, he is “a little child again,” weary, “with folded hands and drowsy brain.”
“But now, faint shadows come to me, / Half wonder if some harm may fall, / When safe in slumber’s mystery / The birds of dreaming to me call.”
The poem ends with the speaker hearing, as though again a child, the voice of his mother, looking “into her loving eyes,” then knowing he’d return to her, “should the light cords of living break.”
After the Great Fire of 1901, Bay Street came bustling back. Signage overcrowded street corners. Overhead streetcar cables crisscrossed in knots and intricate plots. Surely this city was not new. Sailors disembarked here in densest Rome, where all roads led, in thickest wickedness, in thrumming thrombosis-exploding hearts of hearts, crossroads of the world, omphalos, wicked thicket of urban implosion.
Poets came down, found streetcorner Gypsies, former-slave prophet-poet-preachers, city moonshine concoctions never cooked before and never repeated, opium dens, and every phylum, class and order of bawd, trollop, poof and doxy.
Scalawags and seekers held court up on the roof garden of the Crystal Saloon at 135 West Bay. A 1904 souvenir booklet said, “You will not be seeing Jacksonville unless you make a visit to this celebrated Roof Garden.”
Then Sam Russ, “one of the best newspapermen in the state,” and “one of the most pleasing writers in the South,” was “found dead in his bed in a West Bay Street lodging house” in January 1909. Forgotten in his room in the rundown Melrose, one block west of the magnificent Everett, his body remained unrecognized until a former fellow reporter identified him at the “undertaking establishment.”
In September, eight months after Russ’s death, an editorial in The Ocala Banner would connect “the deaths of Hamilton Jay and Sam B. Russ, both of whom died in obscure boarding houses in Jacksonville in squalor and want.” Both men “were poets as well as prose writers.” They “both held positions on the Times-Union and were perhaps two of the most brilliant men in the newspaper business in Florida.”
Either side of the Great Fire of 1901, the poetry had continued, like the tower on the old Everett Hotel at Bay Street West and Julia. In the 1890s, the clock rose eight stories over Bay Street, commanding four floors of rooms a block wide, a widow’s walk atop the clock. In 1910, horses pulled coaches next to streetcars before the Everett, untouched by the conflagration, rising into its clock untroubled.
Sam Russ had grown up in Boston and come south to Florida with his brother in the late 1870s, planting an orange grove in Alachua County. When the “Big Freeze” of 1895 destroyed groves across Central and North Florida, Russ became a theater critic for the Jacksonville paper. Like Jay, Russ published poems and stories nationally.
A 1906 story, “Roundabout the Gay Rialto,” begins:
“It was after the storm, and they—well, they were after a drink—the three of them, the Drummer, the Rounder, and the Poet. The drink was on the table in a quiet room in a certain—or uncertain hotel—and the Drummer had the floor—and the bottle.”
“Uncertain Hotel” might be another name for Bettelini’s or the Melrose.
The Miami News-Record lamented, “Sam Russ had but one fault—drink,” perhaps himself a “rounder”—a drunk, a pimp, a vagabond, a wastrel—and hoped his “troubled spirit” would find “usefulness” and “repose” in “that mysterious bourne from which no traveler returns.”
The Ocala Banner said, “Few writers were as largely quoted, on account of the accuracy with which he always handled state political history.”
The Live Oak Democrat called Russ “a true citizen of Bohemia, one of that thriftless but generous class which hoards neither its genius nor its coin.” Sam Russ died at Bohemia’s headquarters, the Melrose Hotel, at the corner of Cedar (now Pearl) and Bay Streets.
The Chipley Verdict lamented that “Poor Sam Russ, one of the best, most brilliant and widely known newspapermen in Florida died in a cheap lodging house in Jacksonville last Sunday morning. Sam, not unlike Edgar Allen Poe, had his faults; but he was a most brilliant fellow and we all knew and liked him. Peace to his ashes.”
The Pensacola News-Journal said Russ “could make the most trivial things fascinating, and no subject was so complicated that he could not illumine.” Still, “he was his only enemy. Dying alone, unwept and unsung, [he] reminds us also of the death of Hamilton Jay, who, like Sam Russ, occupied a position on the Times-Union, was a brilliant writer of prose and poetry, and died in the same way.”
Bettelini’s soon moved to LaVilla, 1229 West Bay Street, beside the Jacksonville Terminal, where 142 trains rolled in and 20,000 passengers alighted every day. There, Bettelini’s became the Terminal Hotel. What poetry Hamilton Jay could’ve worked with so loaded a metaphor!
Here, now, this Sunday afternoon belies all Sunday afternoons before it. Have you seen Jacksonville? Have you been to the roof garden of the Crystal Saloon? How many multiples of the present city is this city in all its versions lost? Jacksonville’s not one Jacksonville, but uncountable stories seeded through its landscape. Hamilton Jay’s obituary said “long years will pass” before the writer’s work “will have been forgot,” and they have. They have.
Jay’s obituary included a quatrain in couplets: “I breathed a song into the air. / It fell to earth, I know not where. / Long years afterwards, in the heart of a friend, / I found the song from beginning to end.”
Long years later, I’m here with the heart of a friend and a leather key fob for Room 29 in hand. I’m standing in a vacant lot across from Bay Street Bar & Grill, from Cowford Chophouse to the left, from, to the right, The Financial News & Daily Record offices, the Florida Theatre behind and overhead, and Justice Pub further down.
When from final recollections we disappear, is it not as though we’d never been? How can the most true moment thus be nulled? Has this whole city, when enough time lapses, never existed?
Either there’s no such place as Jacksonville, Florida, or the art and experience of Hamilton Jay and Sam B. Russ yet subsist and signify, because what mattered must, in its own absoluteness, matter still. (So we might all hope!)
I watch one lonely streetcar cross the crucifix of a telephone pole. I hear the billiard balls click from the Bay Street Bar & Grill. Recaps from previous football games, glorious in a dying season, echo across the street. Though the buildings have been gone long years, the Uncertain Hotel and the Terminal Hotel will always make room. The voices are still calling.
cont’d LaVilla: Terminal Hotel