El Modelo Building, Part 1: A Murder, A Revolution

by Tim Gilmore, 1/25/2020

1. “May He Never Enjoy a Woman’s Love!”

“I know I am about to die and that I am in a dying condition. It was Eddie Pitzer who shot me. I looked right at him and saw his face and know that it was he. I saw him shoot me. He shot me five or six times. He shot me this evening as I was coming in, and without provocation.”

Marie Louise Gato, daughter of the wealthy Jacksonville cigar merchant Gabriel Hidalgo Gato, was dying from the gunshots she received outside her Springfield home at Laura and West 11th Streets in late April 1897. Yet despite her statement, the melodramatic and sensational trial of Edward Pitzer resulted in his going free.

Newspapers wrote the trial up big. Women swooned and fainted. The papers repeatedly called it a “battle royal.” Georgia Gato, Marie’s sister, fainted in the witness stand. Pitzer’s mother stood up from the defendant’s table and fainted. The whole town followed the story in the papers and every day more spectators showed up at the trial.

mural at Lake County Courthouse, courtesy Orlando Sentinel

The trial built and built toward its explosive conclusion. Defense attorney Alexander St. Clair-Abrams ratcheted himself into a closing statement that hurled him toward a nervous breakdown. He felt it incumbent upon himself to convince the jury that, though he defended a man accused of murder, he despised murder itself. That fact should further prove Pitzer’s innocence. “He that did that deed,” he cried, “may he never enjoy a woman’s love!”

As for Pitzer himself, St. Clair-Abrams demanded incredulously, “Do you mean to tell me that the hand of love fired that weapon?” His speech went on for six hours. As he finally reached his crescendo, he cried to the jury that he prayed for Pitzer’s mother as they reached their verdict.

St. Clair-Abrams, courtesy Ryley Felton

And with that, the defense attorney plunged blindly toward the judge’s bench and collapsed unconscious into the arms of a sheriff’s deputy. He was immediately taken back to the judge’s chambers. When he woke, he raved in “delirium,” newspapers said, and “still imagined himself before the jury and delivering his argument.”

When finally he came to his senses, he cried out, “Where is that boy? They can’t hang him! They haven’t hung that boy, have they? Did I finish my speech?”

2. Specters and Steel

Swallowed up in his gray-green suit coat, Jim Moseley, Sr. sits behind his desk on the second floor of the El Modelo Building, his red, gray and blue bowtie perfectly knotted above his wine-red sweater vest, and speaks fondly of men who’ve been dead half a century.

Next year, he’ll have been with the transportation and maritime law firm Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones for 60 years. The firm began with Colonel William Kay, Tom Adams and Reuben Ragland in 1906. Things change very slowly in maritime law, Moseley says. The firm’s admiralty division’s clients are mostly in London and Oslo, just as they were a century ago. In fact, they’re mostly the same loyal clients.

In 1979, however, the firm started restoration of the building at 501 West Bay Street, which they called the 1887 Building, for the year of its construction. By May of 1983, they were ready to move from the old Barnett Bank Building. They gutted the inside and reinforced El Modelo with enough steel, Moseley says, “to build a battleship.” They hoped to use the original flooring, but when engineers saw the size of their law library, they said the original floors would have to be replaced with concrete.

In 500 years, the firm’s clients may be the same—Moseley says he’s spent three or four years, cumulatively, working in England—and if so, this reinforced building will hardly have budged an inch. Still, maritime lawyer Rod Sullivan claims to have seen the specter of a young woman amidst the turns of light and lines of shadow across El Modelo’s new interior walls. Moseley laughs and assumes the ghost would be “the girl that was murdered,” Marie Louise Gato.

I ask him about José Martí and he nods, but he feels historically more connected to his alma mater The Citadel and to Winston Churchill. On a nearby bookshelf, he keeps a small collection of Churchill photos and figurines to remind him of his time in England.

Walking through the second and third floor offices, I spy model ships and historical paintings, night scenes of lights that shine from brick offices for steamship lines and wharves and docks along a longlost Jacksonville skyline. Here are Clyde and Mallory steamships, boats like the Cuban Revolutionary gunrunner Three Friends, and the banana boat docks that once stood just across Bay Street where a multi-story parking garage now stands on dredge fill. Water Street, the other side of Bay, stands where the water once lapped at the shoreline.

Across from where those banana docks stood, on the opposite wall of a second floor conference room, a floral illustration by the enigmatic Jacksonville artist Lee Adams depicts a banana blossom. Adams, son of firm founding partner Tom Adams, died in a car accident in 1971, 49 years old.

Moseley cranes his neck across the purple subtropical protuberance, sweet and gracious and patient and wise, and recalls, “When Lee died, his brother Hamilton called me. He said, ‘I’ve found Lee’s last painting. It’s in his attic in Riverside.’ I said, regardless of what price, ‘I’ll take it.’” So here it is.

3. Revolutionary Readers

Because there was wealth, there was will, and because there was poverty, the revolutionary imagination fermented in the Cuban community these 500 miles north of Havana.

As in Key West, as in Tampa, the Jacksonville cigar factories packed workers like sardines, their nimble and cramped brown fingers, stained browner, rolling the tobacco all day long, longer than other Floridian days.

In his 1933 autobiography Along this Way, the black poet, novelist and diplomat James Weldon Johnson called his hometown, Jacksonville, in those years just after the Civil War, “a cigar manufacturing center,” which housed “a Cuban population of several thousand.” Thus came Ricardo Ponce from Havana, a young boy sponsored by El Modelo Cigar Factory, to stay with the Johnson family two blocks north of the factory and learn English. Johnson learned Spanish much quicker. The boys became lifelong friends.

anonymous drawing of James Weldon Johnson, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

In Johnson’s 1912 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, the narrator stays in a “respectable boarding house for colored people” in LaVilla, the dense black city connected at the hip to Jacksonville, an inn run by a “brown-skin woman” married to a “light-colored Cuban.” When the narrator starts work in a Cuban cigar factory likely modeled on El Modelo, he learns that in making cigars, “the color line is not drawn,” comes to speak Spanish like a native Cuban, and rises from tobacco leaf stripper to el lector.

In cigar factories throughout Cuba and Florida, workers listened, in the late 1800s, not to the radio, not to television, but to el lector, “the reader,” a powerful man with the magical ability to decipher words from a page before the oft-illiterate rollers, to disseminate information and to foster revolution. Lectores read novels and newspapers and scriptures and speeches of freethinkers and political radicals.

scene from a postcard of lector reading in Havana factory

El Lector was the professor and the preacher, magicman and fomenter, a soother and a stirrer, a soothsayer and speaker of the truth of the worker. He had to balance his agitations with long lulling narrative and sometimes song, lest management suspect his radicalism.

For as The Tampa Morning Tribune reported as late as November 27, 1931, “Heretofore the manufacturers have, through agreement with the workers, permitted the reading of matters of general news value, educational or instructive, but the abuse of this privilege through the reading of anarchistic propaganda has caused the manufacturers to immediately withdraw the privilege of reading any matter whatsoever.”

a remarque of El Modelo on John Stobart’s The City of Jacksonville Returning Home to Astor’s Wharf, 1895

Readers have always crashed complacencies, imagined forth worlds that might dismantle this one, so petty dictators hate the press, refuse to read and, as a last resort, burn books.

And so had, four decades before that 1931 Tampa story, lectores read the poems and speeches of the Cuban revolutionary, stirred the rollers of cigars to zeal, even brought the radical José Martí himself to stand before them and pour forth through his voice his blood.

4. “I’m Shot, Papa, and I’m Dying!”

Gabriel Hidalgo Gato left El Modelo Cigar Factory, down on Bay Street at the eastern edge of LaVilla, at 6:30 the evening of the attack on his daughter, April 20, 1897, and headed home.

1878 ad, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Having first run G.H. Gato and Co. with his brother-in-law José Alejandro Huau at the first block of West Bay, Gato had managed and then purchased El Modelo, the largest of 15 Jacksonville cigar factories that together produced six million cigars a year. Gato’s 225 workers hand rolled several brands of cigar including a namesake Modelo, a “Hamlet,” La Tropia and one called “Florida Alligator.” Under the readership and the leadership of el lectores, the city’s cigar factories also bred and raised a revolutionary consciousness ardent to overthrow Spanish rule of Cuba just across the loveliest blue twilight from Florida over Key West.

Having reached Laura Street in his carriage, Gato heard a commotion coming from the direction of his house near the corner of Hogan Street and the Old Panama Road. Though historians would date the house at 2112 Silver Street in the Springfield neighborhood just north of downtown to circa 1906, by that time, the Gato family would be shattered and bloodstains from the city’s then-most infamous murder would remain on the floors of the porch and kitchen and parlor.

Gato House, later Senator Austin Mann House, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Gato drove to the back gate, alighted from his buggy, ran into the tall house. Finding Marie collapsed on the floor, he dropped down beside her, wrapped his arms around his child and cried, “Marie Louise, my darling! What has happened?”

According to The Florida Times-Union, she replied, “I’m shot, Papa, and I’m dying. Eddie Pitzer done it from behind a bush!”

Gabriel Hidalgo Gato would soon tell the coroner’s jury that Eddie Pitzer had often brought his daughter candy, which she usually refused to accept, whereupon Pitzer would glower and stamp and rage and rant. Gato saw him once throw candy into the trees outside the yard and another time into the fountain before the front porch. The last time Pitzer had met his daughter, Gato said, he’d brandished both a knife and a pistol. Gato found the knife the next morning in the front yard, but Pitzer had retrieved the pistol the night prior.

cont’d as El Modelo Building, Part 2: A Dying Declaration, a War Cry, a Peace Treaty