“In Okahumpka, he was known as the boy on the bike.” – Beneath a Ruthless Sun, by Gilbert King

July 1, 2018 at 9:40 pm (Book review, books, True crime)

This is the story of Lake County, Florida, in the mid twentieth century. It is a powder keg of a place where the corrupt law enforcement apparatus was controlled by a ruthless, pitiless sheriff named Willis McCall.

Sheriff Willis McCall, center, with two of his deputies

McCall presides over a process whereby Jesse Daniels, a slow and unworldly nineteen-year-old who spends most of his time bicycling around the tiny town of Okahumpka, is made to take  the blame for the rape of Blanche Knowles, a wife and mother from a socially prominent family. From this basic cast, King’s narrative expands outward to encompass numerous individuals hapless enough to catch the eye of the sheriff, as well as those who fought him any way they could (and there were not many safe ways in which to do this).

Location of Lake County, Florida, in red.

Oh and by the way, I say of Jesse Daniels that he was “made to take the blame’ rather than being convicted because initially, he was never tried. Instead, he was declared insane and sent to the Florida Asylum for the Indigent Insane, now know simply as the Florida State Hospital,  in Chattahoochee. If you’re imagining a place of sheer awfulness right out of a film shocker, you’d  be about right.

As this saga commences, Jesse Daniels was a gentle, loving soul, an only child with devoted parents. He was not insane but rather developmentally disabled. He had committed no criminal act. Yet he spent fourteen years in Chattahoochee.

(Another famous inmate of this notorious institution, also in the 1950s, was Ruby McCollum, whose case was written about so memorably by Zora Neale Hurston.)

Both Blanche Knowles and Jesse Daniels were white. The Knowles family had money and status; the Daniels family had neither. Pearl Daniels had suffered repeated miscarriages before having Jesse. Pearl’s husband Charles, Jesse’s father, a veteran of the First World War, was functionally illiterate and beset with arthritis and other adverse health conditions. He was unable to work.

As I was reading this book, I was experiencing many emotions: astonishment, dismay, and anger were just a few of  them. But reading about Pearl Daniels evoked feelings of almost unbearable sadness. Here was a woman for whom almost nothing in life had gone smoothly, who possessed so  little of material value. But the one thing she did prize above all else was her son Jesse.

Pearl Daniels and her son Jesse

Pearl never stopped fighting for Jesse. And in this fight she was aided and supported by a most extraordinary woman. At the time she enters this story, Mabel Norris Reese, later Chesley, was the editor of a small weekly newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic. (Her husband Paul Reese had bought the paper in 1947.) From the start, Reese was relentless in her effort to free Jesse Daniels. By means of her fiery editorials, she went after Sheriff McCall and the corrupt minions who carried out his orders. (A historian of the paper refers to one of them as “McCall’s right-hand thug.”) She was treading in dangerous territory. Her dog was poisoned. She received death threats. Her house was firebombed. Nothing stopped her.

Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday — city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.

From A History of Mount Dora’s News (2), by David Cohea

Eventually, because of financial strain and the danger of their position in the town, it became impossible for Mabel and Paul Reese to continue to put out the Mount Dora Topic. The marriage cracked under the strain. Mabel remarried, moved to Daytona Beach, and joined the staff of the Daytona Beach News. Her efforts to seek justice continued. She died in 1995, at the age of 80.

Mabel Norris Reese

Woven around the story of Jesse Daniels are numerous other crime narratives, most involving African Americans. They are painful to read. The depth of the racist sentiment is simply appalling. It was exacerbated by the changes being wrought by the Civil Rights Movement. The subtitle of  this book is ‘A True Story of  Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found.’ Found, that is, if you believe that justice delayed – in Jesse Daniels’s case long delayed – is still justice.

My heart ached as I read this book. At the same time I was mesmerized by it. I had to keep reminding myself of the quotation from Martin Luther King:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(For an interesting backgrounder on this quote, click here.)

Beneath a Ruthless Sun was preceded by Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Published in 2012, this book tells the story of four young black men accused of raping a white woman in Lake County Florida, in 1949. Thurgood Marshall was their defending attorney. Beneath a Ruthless Sun is in a sense a follow-up to that first narrative. Gilbert King refers to the events told therein several times. While it’s not necessary to have read Devil in the Grove first, I rather wish that I had.

Devil in the Grove won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2013. I’d love to see Beneath a Ruthless Son receive a similar accolade.

[My family lived in Miami Beach, Florida, from 1953 to 1962, when I went north to college. Miami Beach was an oddly insular community, largely composed of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and Russia, their children – such as my parents – and their grandchildren – such as my brothers and myself. If there was any awareness of what was going on in Lake County, it was not, to the best of my recollection, communicated to us children.]

In 2007, Willis McCall’s son Douglas said of his father: “He was a son of the old South,” adding that “He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination and they never found anything.” Oh, but there was plenty to find, if one only knew where to look (and then how to impanel an impartial jury to hear the  evidence and judge accordingly).

 

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