Old acquaintance: Postal scare, economic woes
By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
ST. PETERSBURG -- On New Year's Day 1908, reports of toxic postcards unnerved residents.
"Local post office authorities, overworked and with their patience tried to the last degree, have had yet another evil with which to contend this week," the Evening Independent wrote. "The gold dust used (in the cards) has been known to cause blood poison."
This story, at nearly a century old, is reminiscent of recent anthrax scares. Economic panic also spread that holiday, one account said. Another featured a local official hoping to get away with murder. And much was said of more than 600 educators who met here hoping to improve the state's schools.
Sometimes the present mirrors the past while only the date changes. "What is the present after all but a growth out of the past," poet Walt Whitman once pondered.
On Dec. 31, 1907, horns and shrill whistles closed out the year locally. Silence prevailed briefly about 11:50 p.m., and then residents continued celebrating in homes, churches and at a military ball.
In the morning, locals were greeted by "an ideal day," the Independent wrote. "Holiday spirit was everywhere. Only the banks, post office and city offices were closed."
In the press, the U.S. currency comptroller tried to calm economic fears. The worst is over, and the great resources of the land will revive business, he said in a United Press release.
The comptroller faulted the economic disarray on overtrading, and then he waffled: "A long period of readjustment and recuperation is before us. Values of all kinds have to be arranged."
Another New Year's Day account highlighted the shooting of Chas Strong. Several witnesses testified during the inquest that Deputy Sheriff W.C. Deas shot and killed the man, who was African-American. The foreman of the jury, Donald S. McKay, cut the testimony short, feeling it unnecessary to hear anymore.
Deas was indicted on New Year's Eve at 11 a.m., after 16 of 18 jurors agreed to charge the deputy. The sheriff arrested Deas; no bail was allowed. "(Deas) will now be a prisoner instead of assistant jailer at the county jail," the Independent noted.
The big story that New Year's Day highlighted education, as hundreds of teachers filled the Fair Auditorium to discuss educational reform. "Never a brighter or more intelligent audience assembled in St. Petersburg than that of the initial session of the Teachers State Association last night," the press wrote.
Topics included corporal punishment, inspections of state-aided schools and public library assistance to education. In an early speech, principal J.B. Lockey of Pensacola advocated an appointed state superintendent -- not an elected one.
"Something is wrong with our system of school control," he said. "The state superintendent should be an educational expert. He should be to Florida what Horace Mann was to Massachusetts, and Wm. T. Harris was to the whole United States."
Educators traveled to Fort Dade for recreation during the convention. The St. Petersburg School Orchestra and the nationally known Brockway Ladies Concert Co. also provided entertainment in between sessions.
Professor Andrew Sledd gave a major address in which he insisted that teachers possess high ideals. The state university president said teachers must impress upon every student the importance of thorough studies. He decried the entrance of politics into education.
Sledd also vilified the decreasing numbers of male students enrolled in high schools and colleges, a problem still plaguing education today. Round tables and business sessions carried into the evening of Jan. 2. Before the members adjourned that night, more than 600 teachers had attended.
Another New Year's Day article told of a young St. Petersburg woman who received a piece of bride's cake in the mail. She put the gift from her friend under her pillow to encourage pleasant dreams. When the woman's brother heard of the hidden treat, he stole it, ate it and replaced it with Limburger cheese. "That night (the young lady) dreamt she was buried alive," the press noted.
As she dreamed, postal workers were enveloped by a serious concern. Unwitting people were sending postcards laced with a sparkling gold dust that could cause blood poison. After a postal employee developed the malady's symptoms, the press attempted to calm the public.
"It may not come amiss to mention that no card of this particular variety ever reached its destination if submitted to the United States mails this year," the Independent wrote.
Postal officials also bemoaned the rough surface of the cards, which made the stamping and canceling process difficult. It was the toxicity of each card, however, that unearthed a stern federal response.
"Many people have persisted in sending various souvenir cards through the mails. According to the prevailing postal laws, (the cards) are illegal to handle. The sending of such cards, in fact, has been strictly prohibited by the government."
-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at email@example.com.
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