History of American Crime: Gangsters on the Gold Coast, Part I

                           Gangsters on the Gold Coast: Setting the Stage

seminole indiansVisitors to Florida’s southern Atlantic coast understand why it is also known as the Gold Coast. Some of the nation’s most exclusive real estate lies on a narrow strip of land roughly between Hobe Sound and the US 1 bridge connecting the mainland to Key Largo. For well over a century the Gold Coast has been the playground of the rich, famous, and infamous. Early November marks the annual migration of the snowbirds, the seasonal residents and visitors escaping colder climes. This influx, simply known as The Season, lasts until April when the snowbirds return north.  The Miami area is arguably the beating heart of the Gold Coast, but its glitz and glamor are relatively recent developments.

Florida has always been different from the other Atlantic Seaboard states. Spanish rather than English was its first European language. Its swamps and forests offered refuge to native peoples hiding from said Europeans. When Anglo settlers started moving into Spanish northern La Florida during the 18th century, they were not the cultured sons of the wealthy. Those folks were as fiercely independent and stubborn as their Celtic ancestors.  After control of the territory bounced back and forth between Spain and Britain, Spain finally gave up and sold Florida to the United States by the 1821 Adams-Onis Treaty.

seminole postcardPrior to the purchase, General Andrew Jackson had already tangled with the Seminoles because they harbored runaway slaves and crossed the international boundary to raid south Georgia’s farms and settlements. Once president, he began the removal of the southeast’s native peoples in earnest, but he found the Seminoles more difficult to subdue and dispossess than their indigenous neighbors in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Perhaps it was because the Seminole tribe was actually made up of a smattering of Florida’s original inhabitants accustomed to the harsh climate, outcasts from other tribes needing refuge, and slaves seeking freedom.


A Cracker from the Glades

Statehood in 1845 brought an even greater influx of Anglo settlers, giving rise to Florida’s Cracker Culture. Florida Crackers lived hard, often isolated lives. They grew their own food and fiber, wove fabric and sewed their own clothes, and made their own liquor all without interference from governments. Survival in Florida took independence, grit, determination, and a strong constitution regardless of one’s origins. The inhospitable environs at the tip of the peninsula might have remained the province of Native Americans and Cracker settlers but for a visionary woman, Julia Tuttle, who first saw southern Florida in 1875 when she visited her father’s homestead.

Flagler trainAfter being widowed, she purchased 640 acres on the north bank of the Miami River in 1886 and her promotion of the area began. It was she who dreamed of a great city on the banks of the Miami River and she who convinced industrialist Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad to the Miami area. It was she who realized Miami’s potential as a commercial hub for trade with Central and South America. Her focus was on a bright and prosperous future, but one that did not include the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. She and Flagler were both strong temperance-minded folks. From the very first, they worked to keep Miami free of alcohol and vice.


View of the north bank of the Miami River where Julia Tuttle once owned 640 acres

What they did not envision was that rapid growth, the injustices of segregation and bigotry, economic boom and bust, and base human nature would play so big a roll in Miami’s development. Lawlessness, including gambling, prostitution, drugs, and murder were all part of life in south Florida. Oddly, Tuttle and Flagler had no objection to gambling. Though gambling was outlawed by the state, casinos flourished in Flagler owned hotels and games of chance were played in Tuttle’s home. Perhaps their own flaunting of the law established a pattern, for despite attempts at keeping her dry and free from vice, Miami was a wide open city from the very start. Not all of her citizens were happy with that state of affairs, however. Temperance sentiment grew until in 1913, desires for an alcohol free environment were realized in a local option election. Miami and Dade County were now dry, but the simple act of passing a law in no way guaranteed compliance. The effect of outlawing alcohol was simply to increase business for already established illegal operations, turning moonshining and bootlegging into growth industries.

Smith's cascino Miami beach

Smith’s Casino, Miami beach, 1920’s

By the time the 1920 Volstead Act dried up all legal sources of alcohol in the nation, certain segments of Miami’s population were long accustomed to ignoring the law and the rest of the populous seemed disinclined to bring them to heel. Of course, a corrupt constabulary did nothing to promote adherence. Layer upon these circumstances and attitudes the birth of the tourist industry and the first Florida land boom, and Miami was now ripe for a more coordinated effort at quenching the public’s thirst and satisfying its basest desires.

Historical Fiction Set in South Florida


                             Nonfiction of Interest


Additional Reading

Beardsley, Ruth Robbins. Pioneering in the Everglades. Clewiston: Clewiston Museum, 1973.

Chepesiuk, Ron. Gangsters of Miami. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2010.

Denham, James M. and Brown, Canter, Jr. Cracker Times and Pioneer Lives: the Florida Reminiscences of George Keen and Sarah Pamela Williams. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Gaines, Steven. Fool’s Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009.

Ste. Claire, Dana. Cracker: the Cracker Culture in Florida History. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998.

Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

Click here to connect with Linda and find out more about her writing.