by Tim Gilmore, 12/31/2021
The William T. McNelty House at 35 East Duval Street wasn’t built for Jordan Jaudon who filled his rented room in 1965 with knives and claimed to be scion of the Jaudon family who’d run Magnolia Plantation, which eventually become that grand old part of town called Riverside.
The William T. McNelty House wasn’t built for the 18 year old who died in early February 1890, who outlived his brothers Samuel Buffington McNelty, 1873 to 1873, and Henry, 1875 to ’75, and said sometimes it was his father who’d died when his brothers died and that Sam, then Henry, lived on as William T. McNelty.
“The ranks are fast being decimated,” said The Jacksonville Metropolis in early July 1903. “The last rollcall is being answered rapidly by Confederate veterans of this city, as no less than four have recently ‘crossed the river to rest beneath the shade tree.’”
The two-story house stood whitewashed, cornices dentil’d, rickety balcony in front of the central door to the outside on the second floor, scalloped shingles on the pediment, octagonal cupola rising from the middle of the roof.
Octagons suited the mind. They enclosed 20 percent more space than a square with the same perimeter. The shape of a house had deep and measurable effects on the human psyche. Just as the shape and contours and protuberances and personal geometry of the individual’s skull determined one’s personality, behavior and deep-mind philosophy, so the curves and corners, corners softened to curves, of particular room shapes influenced the behavior and psychology of the individual who inhabited those structures.
The William T. McNelty House at 35 East Duval Street was not built for the young man who called himself William T. McNelty in 1969 and softened his own corners with the nightwear of hardened women he brought to his attic room. They’d hardened their curves against life and he’d softened his edges with what they wore beneath them.
The William T. McNelty House was not built for Captain William T. McNelty, who died when his steamboat exploded like it was torpedoed and flamed across the waters.
In the spring of 1905, F.P. Fleming of The Ocala Banner recalled McNelty among other steamboat captains in a column called “Some Florida Incidents: Steamboating on the St. Johns River in the Early Days.” The first steamboat, “so far as I am informed, which stirred the waters of the St. Johns, was the Esseon, a small craft used for carrying government supplies and troops during the great Seminole War, about 1836.”
Fleming recalled that “two new steamers, the Magnolia and Welaka, were placed on the Savannah and Florida line about 1851.” The Magnolia, “a very fast boat,” ran “but a short time” before her boiler exploded in South Georgia and killed her captain, William T. McNelty. The Welaka soon wrecked on a sand bar in the St. Johns River and the boats that replaced these two, the Seminole and St. Johns, both burnt on the docks in the center of the city.
On June 16, 1898, during the annual reunion of United Confederate Veterans, a 62 foot tall memorial, column topped with a tin soldier, donated by Jacksonville-born Confederate veteran Charles Hemming, was planted at the very central point of the city. The following year, Jacksonville’s central park would be renamed from St. James, the patron saint of travelers, to Hemming.
Newspapers and social registers noted “Mrs. McNelty on Duval Street” hosting “visiting Daughters of the Confederacy,” including a “Mrs. Blake, Miss Pasteur and Miss Bertie C. Badger” to witness the monument’s unveiling.
Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Buffington McNelty was the daughter of Samuel Buffington, “imprisoned several times for loyalty” to the Confederate States of America “although he was too old for active service,” a fact for which she sought to compensate, even doubly, when her husband, Captain McNelty, who fought the United States in Charleston Harbor, died in 1903. Lizzie, her line extinguished, died lifting her soul in her hands to the Confederate cause at 35 East Duval Street in 1914.
I call the number posted on the fluted two-story front columns topped with Ionic capitals, 388-5772, and ask for Lizzie. I’m transferred to a William T. McNelty. When I ask him with which Bill-T I’ve the pleasure of speaking, he says the longtime rooming house was demolished in 1970. He’s had the strangest dreams of late, but the hardest time remembering dates. He’s sure he was here in 1843, then again in 1940, but can’t speak for the strange little intense woman named Virginia King who wrote an 8,000 page book and photographed the McNelty House just prior to its demolition.