Chronicling Florida’s “Murder Capital”
“For at least the last century, Jacksonville has stood out nationally for its murder rates,” writes Tim Gilmore in the the introduction to his new book, Murder Capital. While the city’s notorious murder problem has in recent decades led to the undesirable nickname that gives the book its title, Gilmore notes that this is no new development. In 2019, Jacksonville’s murder rate was about 13 per 100,000 people, the highest in 20 years, but it’s nothing compared to 1927, when the city faced down press scrutiny for “a staggering killing record” of 75.9 per 100,000 people.
So many killings over so many years would be impossible to capture in a single book, so Murder Capital focuses on eight of them, ranging from the 1890s to the 1980s. Like most murders, each of these crimes has roots that go far deeper than the specific circumstances that led to them, and Gilmore uses his accounts to explore the time, place, and milieu in which they occurred.
Several of the chapters deal strongly with misogyny and gender roles, such as the account of the 1897 murder of Marie Louise Gato, an heiress to a prominent local Cuban American family that was heavily involved in local politics, the cigar industry, and the Cuban independence movement. Her story involves a rejected suitor, a deathbed identification, and a sensationalistic trial that came to a frustrating conclusion. Several other chapters deal with race and the as yet unexorcised specter of Jim Crow. “The Lynching of Johnnie Mae Chappell” is an account of the murder of a black mother of ten by a white stranger during the 1964 race riots, and the stymied investigation that deprived her family of justice.
Writing “hometown murder stories”
Author Tim Gilmore
Murder Capital is the 20th book from Gilmore, an English professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville and a heavyweight in the First Coast literary scene. He is a founder of the JaxbyJax literary festival and chronicles Jacksonville’s underknown history at his website, Jax Psycho Geo. His work has appeared in a variety of local and nationwide publications, including numerous stories in The Jaxson.
The book is the product of many years of research on the city’s darker past. “It’s odd how this book came about,” said Gilmore. “When I wrote Stalking Ottis Toole in 2013, Emily Lisska, then head of the Jax Historical Society, proposed I do a talk on the history of murder in Jacksonville. So I did. Several of the stories I found stuck with me and I’ve been wanting to add to them ever since. Other stories just kind of glommed on through the years.”
Gilmore sees the book as an attempt to penetrate the origins of the deep forces that continue to spawn the city’s worst problems. “I think that to understand Jacksonville, we have to interrogate these kinds of long cultural trends,” he said. “And if we ever want to change, we have to be honest with ourselves on a scale so large it’s hard for me to imagine, like a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process.”
Murder Capital will be released Thursday, August 20, 2020 with a socially distanced reading at the Southlight Gallery. Click here for tickets, or visit jaxpsychogeo.com after Thursday to order a copy.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com.