by Tim Gilmore, 1/25/2020
1. Jacksonville Junta
Gabriel Hidalgo Gato’s brother-in-law José Alejandro Huau had come to Jacksonville in the early 1870s. Huau soon started a tobacco factory with another brother-in-law, Henry Fritot, then bought Fritot out and named his business C.M. de Huau, after his wife, Catalina Miralles, opening his flagship cigar store at Bay and Pine (later Main) Streets. Cards and cigar labels show Gato also operated G.H. Gato and Co.—“Full Havana and Fine Seed Havana Cigars”—from the same location by 1878.
Nor did Huau stake his status but in business. As Gustavo Godoy writes in his October 1975 Florida Historical Quarterly article, “José Alejandro Huau: A Cuban Patriot in Jacksonville Politics,” Huau won election to Jacksonville City Council four times—in 1881, ’83, ’85 and ’93.
Huau brought José Martí to Jacksonville eight times, beginning in 1891, to enlist Jacksonville’s Cubans in the cause for independence against Spain. The following year, Martí formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party and Huau served as party leader in Jacksonville. Martí met community leaders at the Huau home at Main Street near Union and spoke, during his fourth Jacksonville visit, at El Modelo, on December 23, 1893.
Martí wrote about his El Modelo visit in Patria, the newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, saying, “The Club could not assemble on that busy Saturday, but the Cubans from El Modelo, Gato’s cigar factory, rewarded with applauses of unaccustomed warmth the Delegate [meaning himself] who spoke to them about those things that irritate selfish men but please generous souls.”
In 1894, Cubans met regularly and secretly at the back of Huau’s Bay Street store, five blocks east of El Modelo, raising money and planning expeditions southward. Sympathetic white Jacksonville civic and business leaders joined those secret meetings, men like William Adolphus Bisbee, former city treasurer, real estate baron and owner of the steamship Dauntless, men like Montcalm and Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the latter brother a future governor of Florida and owner of the steamer Three Friends. Bisbee, Broward and other Jacksonville leaders filibustered boats downcoast, smuggling arms and ammunition to Cuba.
James Weldon Johnson’s novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man tells of political agitations in Cuban Jacksonville, as Cubans in Florida manifestly decided they did not belong to Spain. Florida once had decided the same. Johnson wrote of the “Jacksonville Junta,” as leaf strippers and cigar packers and rollers raised money, even depriving their families, to ship weapons of war to Cuba, Cuba Libre!, in bloody declaration of independence from Spain.
2. Dying Declaration and Rival Suitors
Shortly before Marie Louise Gato took her last breath, she dictated to Judge A.O. Wright her “Dying Statement.” It read, “I know I am about to die and that I am in a dying condition. It was Eddie Pitzer who shot me.” Et cetera. Her “Dying Declaration,” protected by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as admissible as if she’d died declaring it before judge and jury, would make the case airtight.
Newspapers described the funeral at St. Johns Episcopal Church and decried “the murder of the young girl just budding forth into the full bloom of womanhood.” While Gabriel Gato followed his daughter’s white casket up the aisle, Marie’s mother Henrietta stayed at home, “prostrated by the horrible death.” From his jail cell, Eddie Pitzer could hear the bell of St. Johns tolling.
Tucked deeper into the newspapers appeared a small addendum headed “Engaged to Herrera.” It contained the first allusion to something larger than the foiled desire of an entitled young boor and the death of a young girl at the hands of her stalker.
Enter now a young Cuban revolutionary named only (thus far) Herrera, who, at some point, had shot Edward Pitzer, “the two being rivals for the heart and hand of Miss Gato.” The T-U called that shooting “a serious difficulty.”
The news described Herrera as “a young Cuban patriot” and said he was “now on the staff of General Calixto Garcia.” Herrera left Jacksonville, “engaged to Miss Gato when he left for Cuba.” The T-U laconically connected his name with those two most famous filibuster boats, smuggling guns and fighters from Jacksonville to Cuba, saying, “He started on the Three Friends expedition last February, from Fernandina, and was one of the party taken off No Name Key by the Dauntless.”
Later still, The Detroit Free Press referred to “private advices” that Lieutenant-Colonel José Carbonne had taken leave of absence from the Cuban army in the midst of the Revolution to visit an ill family member, when in fact Carbonne’s “mission” related to “the recent death of Miss Marie Louise Gato, at Jacksonville, Florida.”
In Jacksonville, Carbonne had fallen in love with Marie before “his patriotism” returned him to his island home. Before leaving on the steamship Three Friends, he’d asked her to marry him. Believing himself engaged to Marie, he threw himself into the revolution, fighting valiantly in the Battle of the San Juan River, east of Cienfuegos. When he landed in Cuba on the filibuster boat called Dauntless, Major General Máximo Gómez y Báez awarded him his present promotion. Carbonne was famous for his genius for manufacturing explosives; he’d become known as “chief chemist” of the uprising.
The Free Press reported that Pitzer “denied all connection [with Marie’s murder], although he is said to have acknowledged that Miss Gato had refused to marry him.” Carbonne now planned “to go direct to Jacksonville and search out the murderer of his sweetheart.”
Meanwhile, a United States armored-deck cruiser named Marblehead had captured the Dauntless. Newspapers reported, “The Cubans of Jacksonville were very much put out at the manner in which their plans had fallen through.” Both of Marie Louise’s alleged fiancés, Domingo Herrera and José Carbonne, had traveled aboard the Dauntless in the previous year.
Other accounts in the papers told readers of the arrival in Cuba of the filibuster boat Three Friends, built by future Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, his brother Montcalm and a friend, landing 70 fighters and an arsenal of rifles near the city of Santiago.
Meanwhile, jurors concluded their verdict in the Pitzer trial. Newspapers reported the courtroom filled with “the usual number of ladies,” many of whom had waited under guard since before dawn for the day’s spectacle. The jury announced its verdict of “not guilty” and more women fainted. Pitzer shook the hands of jurors, waved to his fans, and exited the back of the courthouse, where, as the T-U reported, he entered “a carriage with his father and uncle [and] drove home to his mother, who has spent many weary nights in earnest prayer for her boy.” Crowds of friends, admiring young women, and well-wishers then “besieged the Pitzer home all the morning after the verdict was rendered and showered congratulations on the fortunate boy and his happy parents.”
On Sunday morning, the fifth of June, Pitzer left town for Pittsburgh with an “uncle and aunt of that city.” Scuttlebutt was, he needed a “change of air.” Chief Keefe sent “three of his finest” policemen to escort Young Pitzer to the train station as protection against “threats and rumors of threats.”
Gabriel Hidalgo Gato died on August 7, 1898. He was 51 years old. Vincente Guerra of El Esmera Cigar Company bought El Modelo. On December 10th, the Treaty of Paris formally recognized Cuba as a sovereign and independent nation free of Spain.