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Quirks dot the past of 'sleepy' St. Petersburg

Snippets include a prosperous transient who traveled here in 1916 to meet William Jennings Bryan.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- Deep within city annals lie tales of forced labor, a fishy newspaper strike, piracy, a handshaking hobo, a disabled cyclist and missing handcuffs.

As historian Walter Fuller once noted, "St. Petersburg is distinctly different."

In 1892, the city legalized forced labor in order to improve its nearly $124,000 worth of property. The handwritten ordinance read: "All able bodied males over the age of 21 and under the age of 45 and residents of the town for 20 days shall be subject to work on the public streets."

Men convinced others to take their places. The rich paid the city $1 daily to escape service, while the less fortunate toiled or were jailed. Of course, town officials were exempt.

At 1 p.m. on April 1, 1912, St. Petersburg Times workers grabbed their fishing poles and walked out. "Everything was at a standstill during the entire afternoon," the Times said.

A Capt. Bird aided the strikers by providing his boat, Glee, for an outing. Workers landed a shark, a stingray and a huge crab that Monday. Not until the bait was gone, the Times reported, were the strikers "induced to again don their overalls and return."

That same year, thieves sailed away with Capt. Arthur Eastman's 37-foot yacht. "No similar theft has been recorded where would-be thieves have made a getaway," the press wrote on Dec. 10. "The offense of piracy is a severe one."

Experienced boaters said the Michigan was just taken for a joyride, because no one could hope to sell or keep the well-known craft. Six days later, the abandoned yacht was found beached in Sarasota.

In 1913, V.A. Cook was arrested here for peddling Bibles without a license. Cook, a homeless man from New York, said permits weren't needed to market God's word. A bad throat kept him from preaching, Cook added, and promoting Bibles helped him save souls.

That'll be $10 or 20 days in jail, the judge responded. From behind bars, Cook bemoaned: "It does seem strange that in the (country's) most religious city, I should be locked up for trying to do good."

Jeff Davis traveled here in 1916 to meet William Jennings Bryan. Davis had received a handout from the politician's wife years before, which he invested in the stock market. After prospering, Davis began helping his friends and became the world's hobo king.

The transient ate soup with royalty and held the hands of queens, sultans and presidents. He came to the Sunshine City on Feb. 16 simply to shake Bryan's hand.

Eight months later, Foster Hand arrived here after walking from Pittsburgh. He began with only 75 cents and traveled wagon roads, sometimes walking nearly 40 miles a day.

Jobs -- including work at a farm, a fish house and a cotton mill -- enabled him to survive the 10-month journey. Hand, 24, smiled when he arrived with just two pennies in his pocket and said, "St. Petersburg is my home now."

On Dec. 16, 1920, the city's only mounted police officer pursued cows suspected of "playing havoc with the lawn" on 13th Avenue. During the chase, "Cowboy" Moody's horse tripped on a tree root. The animal flew into Booker Creek, and Moody sailed nearly 10 feet into the opposite embankment.

Two years later, Henry Ribolini wagered $200 that he could bicycle from Rutland, Vt., to St. Petersburg. When his club members developed "cold feet" and withdrew their bet, the cook and tailor attempted the 1,900-mile trip anyway. Ribolini, 24, had a crippled right leg.

He toted a knapsack filled with personals and slept under the stars in a tent. On Feb. 27, he completed the nine-week journey and arrived in St. Petersburg. The trip cost the Italian cyclist about $145.

And those missing handcuffs?

Police Chief A.J. Easters was a fat man with a jolly manner, Fuller once noted. On March 24, 1912, however, Easters wasn't laughing after having to place this classified ad in the Evening Independent: "Lost one pair of handcuffs. Finder please return to chief of police and receive reward."

It's unknown whether Easters' property was ever returned.

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at

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