by Tim Gilmore, 4/29/2022
Lillian, Evelyn and Mayselle sit in the tiny living room in the neighborhood of Mixon Town, Lillian “cataloguing” the crowded space, the green mohair upholstery, the expensive drapes and rugs.
“Mayselle,” as she likes to be called, “Jewel Blanche” on official records, 21 years old, has just begun her third marriage of six. Her ex-husband, the police officer, to whom she’s been married twice, is already in prison, but the syphilis hasn’t yet scrambled his brain. It’s early in her father’s long tenure on Jacksonville City Council. The baby she bought is ready for his bath. She’s tired of her front teeth breaking off.
Lillian Stedman and Evelyn Werner are collecting stories for the Federal Writers’ Project. It’s February 20, 1939. Lillian spies the handworked linens in the bedroom and the “imitation Duncan Phyfe set” in the otherwise “modern” kitchen. Mayselle and Paul are renting the 800 square foot house near the dead end of this narrow block. They hope to buy it soon. Just after the wedding.
Mayselle admits to forgetting about Paul the first time she was supposed to marry him. Jack had finally landed his job with the police after her first divorce from him went through. Getting the job shouldn’t have taken so long, since Jack’s uncle and his father, Captain Jack Cone Brown, Sr., had been on the force for 20 years. She’d gone back to work at the cigar factory to save money for the divorce, but even after she could afford it, it took another six months. Lillian doesn’t ask what Mayselle means that Jack had enough “pull” on “the police force” to “hold up” the divorce.
“I guess I really did love him,” Mayselle says about Jack, for she’d planned on marrying Paul as soon as Swisher and Son Cigars paid her $15 a week, but when the divorce went through and Jack proposed once more, she says, “I forgot all about Paul and married Jack again.” Paul, however, makes for a good third marriage. “Paul is very sweet to me. He likes to go to church on Sundays and we take the baby with us.”
By the end of the year, she’ll be married to Manuel Sanchez, but she doesn’t know that yet. Nor that she’ll divorce Manuel after less than two years. Manuel, born in Argentina, has a fifth grade education and works as a “cook’s helper” in a cafeteria. Mayselle and Manuel will spend their short marriage elsewhere in Mixon Town, in a bigger house nearby at 325 Stockton Street.
On this early 1939 afternoon, the future holds promise. Mayselle’s come so far. Her parents were “mad as hell” when she quit school, 15 years old, and started working at Russell McPhail’s Candy Factory. Now she’s an independent woman, with Jack Cone Brown, Jr. and his whoring and stealing behind her. She’s bought herself a fine baby she calls Buddy for $75 and she and Paul hope to buy a car. “We’ve got our heart set on a Plymouth,” she says.
Even her daddy plans “to buy a place.” Marvin Sweat “is a-goin’ to run for re-election,” Mayselle says, and he’s waiting to purchase a house “’til after the election to see how that comes out.” It will come out fine. He’ll hold a seat on City Council for 24 years, all told, from 1935 to 1951 and from 1955 to 1963. From most perspectives, the Sweats will be successful. Mayselle, born in 1917 in Waycross, Georgia, will only ever remember Jacksonville, her family a part of that great migration of rural Georgians that made Jacksonville what Southern Gothic writer Harry Crews called a “city of broken farmers.”
A strange balance Jewel Blanche “Mayselle” Sweat Brown Green strikes. She’s fierce. She’s proud of her independence, but she keeps marrying men. And divorcing them. Leaves them just like she left her Daddy.
She was 16 when she married Jack the first time. Her daddy said he wanted the marriage annulled but “thought it would cost a lot and he didn’t have the money.” It didn’t help that Jack had also dropped out of school in ninth grade, didn’t have a job, “and just wouldn’t do anything to learn how to make a livin’.” He’d lied about that. When Mayselle married him, she’d thought he was employed. Instead, he moved in with Mayselle and her parents and she went to work at the cigar factory.
“My daddy didn’t like it,” Mayselle tells Lillian and Evelyn, “but I knew that other girls worked there and made good money, so I wanted to try it.” She worked nights, midnight to eight a.m. She rolled 300 cigars each shift and Swisher paid her 80 cents per thousand. She made two dollars her first week.
At first she felt ashamed to say she worked at the cigar factory, “but after you make honest money by working hard for it, you get so you don’t mind.” She says “many of the poorer and illiterate class” work there, “but some mighty good folks” do too. If you’d never smoked before, after working in the factories, you would, and “if you never heard no cussin’ before, there’s your chance to hear some that is very special.”
In fact, Mayselle hates not working. When she married Paul, he thought she should quit her job. “Now I am learning to stay home and keep house and be satisfied,” she tells Lillian and Evelyn. Her very next sentence, however, belies that satisfaction. “It seems if a girl ever works and makes her own money though, she is never satisfied to stay home. It seems like she is just lazy when she could be making some money.”
There’s more dust in the cigar factory than any other place in the world. “I’ve worn a dress with a belt” to work, she says, “and when I’ve taken the belt off, the dust would fall out from under it.” It’s tobacco dust, of course, and it clings to your lungs, “and that’s much worse than smoking, even excessively.” As an A-1 perk, Swisher sells its workers the “Employee Special,” a pack of 20 for a penny each. Despite what you might think, however, Mayselle still doesn’t smoke. “I just didn’t ever think it looked feminine,” she says.
But back to Jack who waxed jealous. He flew into rages if she hung out with a friend. Once her daddy gave her husband two black eyes and threw him out of the house. “I was scared to death he wouldn’t come back,” Mayselle says, though “he was stepping out on me too.” Then Jack got a job, but broke his ribs, and though her daddy brought her husband milk and cigarettes, “it ruins a man” to “be down and out.” It “seems like all that’s good in him just dies out.”
So she divorced Jack and then remarried him and he “was good to me and everything that I said I wanted I got, just by going to the store and asking for it. He had good credit, you see, being on the police force and his daddy so well known and all.” Then four months into their second marriage, just before Christmas, Mayselle found herself in a conversation with a girl outside the Kress Five and Dime, at Main Street and Adams, who said, “You mean you’re married to that policeman on that beat over there? Well! For God’s sake, I been goin’ with him for ages and didn’t even know he was married.”
And all those times Jack drove his patrol car home drunk, Mayselle would clean it out. She found girls’ handkerchiefs and hairpins, cake, a bottle of pickled peaches, “and all kinds of whiskey and wines.”
She tried to ignore it, blamed herself for not having “gone about breaking Jack from it with love instead of crying and nagging.” Then he gave her syphilis. Besides it’s “hard to forgive when a girl is the only daughter and the family keep on telling her that she shouldn’t put up with things like that.” If only she “had been away from [her] people,” she says, “maybe I would have been more tolerant with Jack and could have forgiven him his fickleness where other girls were concerned.”
Then her daddy, the councilman, saw Jack’s bottle of medicine and asked what his trouble was. Mayselle didn’t know. Her mama took her to the doctor. The doctor took a specimen and the report came back on Mayselle’s birthday. She was 18 years old. She didn’t think she could bear it. She’d tested positive for syphilis.
Still, Mayselle was cured. Jack, however, “had to have an operation for his trouble.” If only, she says, she hadn’t nagged him about his unfaithfulness, maybe the disease wouldn’t have “ruined him for his whole life. For they say he will never be well again.”
Even now, married to Paul, Mayselle often spends the day with Jack’s mother. Sometimes, care of his mother, Jack writes Mayselle. Together Mayselle and her ex-mother-in-law read all the letters Jack writes his parents and his ex-wife. Most of his letters to Captain Brown concern using his father’s influence to help him “stay off the road work that he has to do while he’s in prison.” He’s not yet desperate enough to disable himself permanently to escape convict labor.
Mayselle still fights for him. She started a petition drive. She’s collected 500 signatures “to keep him from having to do the road work in the hot sun.” She’s trying to have his case “reopened.” She’s sure he shouldn’t be in prison, but in the state hospital. She’s not vengeful, despite how he embarrassed her, publicly humiliated her. Her new husband is jealous of everybody but Jack, she says; Jack’s no threat because Jack can’t get out of jail.
She worries about Jack, day and night, even beside Paul beneath the covers, for she knows it’s only a matter of time before her first love loses his mind. “They made some examinations,” she explains, “by taking some fluid from his spinal column and testing it. They found that the disease has gone to his brain and he cannot possibly be cured. They say it is only a question of time until he becomes insane.”
At least she has Buddy. She’d always wanted a baby. Should have made haste and had one with Jack before he got sick. The guilt doubles. She blames herself for Jack’s syphilis; she blames herself for not having had Jack’s baby before he contracted his disease. Better adopt one, her doctor said, if she still wanted one. Though Jack thought she should wait, her disappointment in him made her want a baby even more. He’d made her lonesome. She had no man. Not her daddy. Not her husband. Perhaps a little boy would do.
So one morning she dropped Jack off for work at the police station and headed out to a clinic where unmarried mothers left their babies for adoption. She went, she tells Lillian and Evelyn, to “look for me a baby. They didn’t have any that I wanted but they told me about another place that an old doctor had where I might get one.” Other services may have been rendered there, rarely spoken of, women’s deaths even more rarely mentioned. Still, the United States government prosecuted physicians who sent information on contraception through the mail.
The little boy was two weeks old and Mayselle “fell in love.” She says, “I knew he was mine the minute I saw him.” She promised the doctor $75, but didn’t have to pay a dime on the spot. She left with no clothes, no diapers, nothing to feed the baby.
She drove downtown and found Jack on his beat and showed him the infant. Standing at the corner of Main and Adams Streets in his uniform and cap, billy club at his side, he guarded her parents’ car while she darted inside the Kress store and bought diapers. She stopped at a drug store on the way home to buy milk and baby “formula.” She knew her mama would be mad.
Next morning, Mayselle called her mother and told her to stop by the house where she was living with Jack, just as soon as she’d deposited Mayselle’s little brothers, Joe Lee and Bobby, at school. “I got something to show you,” Mayselle said. “I know it’s not furniture,” her mother replied, “because you ain’t got no place to pay any more.”
Her mother preached Mayselle’s funeral when she saw the new baby. That’s how Jewel Blanche put it to Lillian and Evelyn. “Where in the world did you get that skinny old thing?” she said. The baby was delicate, might not live two months. The councilman, however, “was crazy about him from the first,” says Mayselle, “and pretty soon they both loved him as much as they did their own. After I married Paul and was still working” at the cigar factory, “they kept him while I slept during the day and brought him home to be with Paul while I worked at night.”
Yet just before Mayselle bought the baby, Jack decided he’d ruin everything. He came home with an assortment of handsome coats and hats and other items of men’s clothing and Mayselle wanted to know why he hadn’t bought her some fine clothes too. So he swore her to secrecy, said he’d left his beat to break into a haberdashery downtown. “The whole world fell in on me again,” Mayselle says, five weeks later when his crime spread itself across the fronts of the newspapers.
The trial started and Mayselle took the stand and lied for Jack again and again. She sold their furniture and sent “back to the company” what they “hadn’t finished paying for.” Jack’s uncle and his father, coppers both, would’ve defended him if it hadn’t meant their jobs on the force. She stood by Jack, she says, until he “tried to involve my daddy, who had political aspirations and was councilman for our ward.” He couldn’t hide behind her daddy, she says, any more than he could hide behind his. She’s still worried Jack’s crimes will get the baby she bought taken away. Jack came from good family and had good training, she says, “but I guess he was proud and wanted to dress well.” Sometimes the clothes unmake the man.
Now Mayselle’s moved on from Jack, but not really. She visits his mother and eagerly absorbs his letters. She’s married Paul but admits she “forgot all about Paul” to marry Jack the second time. Her daddy, J. Marvin Sweat, is running for reelection and she’s “almost sure he’ll make it all right because Mama and Daddy have been livin’ out here since before I was born. They moved out here while Daddy was a baggage clerk for the Terminal Company.” Marvin worked for Union Terminal for 15 years before becoming “a night man out at the Standard Oil Company now.”
Jack’s yet to shame her all over again by “crippling himself for life,” as the newspapers will put it, to get out of work. At least by then, she’ll not only not be married to Jack, but will have divorced Paul and Manuel too. She’ll be on her fifth marriage, to William Jackson Mooneyham, whom she’ll also divorce and remarry.
The Tampa Tribune will report the shocking story of the convict protest on the Fourth of July, 1942. The lede will point out the 12 convicts are white and mistakenly name the “main hamstring tendon” instead of the Achilles tendon each convict slashed “to escape the fierce, driving hand of a convict boss.”
The State will try to suppress the news, but journalists will do what they do and unearth the truth. The Associated Press will call it a “wholesale mutilation.” The men will cut their Achilles tendons, the largest tendon in the human body, in three batches – on May 11th, June 29th and July 1st – after field investigators ignore their verbal complaints about J.E. Robbs, “roadwork foreman in charge of the camp, no. 33, between Lakeland and Dade City.”
Camp guards will find the men bleeding in their bunks. Newspapers will say each man “whacked another man’s tendon with a heavy knife until all had been put beyond hearing a command to get out in the swamp and get along with highway grading.” The 13th Amendment had outlawed slavery at the end of the Civil War, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Many a reader will feel the felons deserve their suffering.
William Jackson Mooneyham, Jewel Blanche “Mayselle” Sweat’s husband nos. five and six, will adopt the son she has with Manuel as his own. That son, James “Fred” Mooneyham, born on October 1, 1940, will grow up to be an engineer with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. That full dark hair, those eyebrows, those rich dark eyes will have come from his father. Freddie’s birth will come a year and seven months after Lillian Stedman and Evelyn Werner collect his mother’s story in that little house at 2552 Lewis Street.
Stedman ends her account, writing of Mayselle Green and her mother, the unfortunately named Fannie Sweat, rushing to the bathroom where two year old Buddy, for whom Mayselle paid $75, “has turned the water on for his bath, taken all the clean clothes from his drawer, and thrown them into the tub.” Mayselle refers to the time of Jack’s arrest on February 8, 1937 as “before I got the baby,” two weeks old when she purchased him, and says she worried about “the baby being taken from me” “all during the trials,” which began in March.
Buddy, then, is close to four years old when Manuel and Mayselle have Freddie. By the time Mayselle marries Mooneyham on March 7, 1941, all records of Buddy have disappeared.
She divorces Mooneyham in 1949, but in 1950s city directories, she’s the wife, once again, of William J. Mooneyham, a “mtcemn” – maintenance man – for the city police. Four of her six marriages have been to two men, both Jacksonville police officers. She divorces Mooneyham again in 1962. When she dies, 33 years later, her headstone in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park identifies Jewel Blanche “Mayselle” Sweat Brown Green as “Blanche S. Mooneyham, Beloved Wife, Mother and Grandma.”
On that February day in 1939, after Lillian and Evelyn left, Mayselle’s mother took her to the dentist to have her front teeth pulled. “They’re just breakin’ off all the time and then they’re crooked too,” she’d told her visitors. “I think it’ll help my looks a lot. Mama’s goin’ with me. She just got her some new teeth last week and she looks a lot younger. She is young to have been married so long and have grown children. But she and Daddy got married young. That’s why they couldn’t say any more than they did when I did the same thing.”