Key West Ghosts


Today was 91° in Key West, one of the hottest days of summer so far (that’s ambient air temperature; the heat index was way higher). So, of course, today is the day I rent a bicycle for the week and decide to pedal over three miles across 90% of the island’s length.

I decided to make today a military day since tomorrow I’m taking the ferry about 67 miles west to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. Key West had a three-part fort system built in the early 19th century. The anchor was Fort Zachary Taylor, but two smaller “Martello” towers were build along the island’s southern edge. A Martello Tower is a redoubt that is, in effect, a small, self-sufficient fort.

The West Martello Tower was largely blown up testing 20th century artillery. What’s left houses a botanical garden and sits next to the simple, but moving, African Cemetery. This is a monument marking the grave site of more than 200 Africans who died of disease on Key West following their rescue by the U.S. Navy from the illegal Florida-Cuba slave trade. The survivors were sent to Liberia; those who died were buried originally in marked graves (a rare oddity given that they had no relatives or community on the island).

The 1846 hurricane that whacked the original island cemetery also started the process of erasing the African Cemetery, and it was lost until 2002. Slavery is a crime the entire human race is guilty of. It is worth the time to stop and pay your respects here before continuing to the East Martello Tower, today home of the Martello Gallery-Key West Art and Historical Museum.

The museum provides a very concise display of Key West history, giving the story of the lost Calusa Indians, the Civil War’s impact, the advent of air travel, funerary history, etc. It is also extraordinarily NOT air conditioned (except for one gallery). For a man who suffered heat stroke on Guam in 2003 this discovery after my over-heating on the bike ride out was not welcome.

However, one gallery is air conditioned (which allowed me to cool down to safe levels)—the gallery housing the amazingly wacky junkyard art of Key Largo’s Stanley Papio. Papio waged a long war against developers and neighbors who saw his art yard and nothing but a junk yard during the post-World War II period. After Papio’s death, Key Largo wanted none of his art, but Key West did. I grant his style of art is not my cup of joe at all, but I can only respect a talent that did not see a pile of metal junk, but the body of a pink bird, or stylized burlesque woman, or man driving a crazy submarine. Papio may not have been on the same level of surreal as Salvador Dali, but he had a vision all his own!

The museum is also home to Robert the Doll, a haunted doll belonging to the late artist Robert Eugene Otto. Robert was given to Otto when Otto was a child in 1906, and Otto bestowed his own first name on the doll. It is said the Bahamian servant who gave him the doll cursed it (not sure why), and the doll has a very long history of…well, mischief. I saw Robert 15 years ago for the first time. I saw him again my second night on the island when I took that tour with Ghosts and Graveyards. Saw him for the third time today. I was cooled down to a healthy level by this point, but this part of the museum is not air conditioned, so I was quite drenched with sweat.

However, when I walked into Robert’s area I quite literally felt a very deep chill settle over me. Yes, I am a believer in spiritual things, and the spirit whose manifestation centers in that doll is quite powerful, but not evil. The spirit is mischievous—a trickster, if you will. Even if you aren’t a believer, I strongly recommend you show a bit of respect. There is a very long history of those who scoffed at Robert finding (at best) their photos erased and (at worst) bad fortune following them until they write and formally apologize.

Robert is part of the island’s crazy and rich supernatural history. Key West is as much a collision of cultures as any part of the Caribbean, and most of those cultures were deeply spiritual. Perhaps this was a result of the various and extreme hardships faced by people in this region—piracy, disease, lack of water, slavery, conquest, reconquest, shipwreck, civil war. Faced with such a constant threat to life and liberty, it seems only natural a deep interest in spiritual solace would develop…and bring with it the attendant reality of ghosts, hauntings, curses, and legends.

My last stop of the day was Fort Zachary Taylor. The fire-pit heat of the sun had not abated and I was still fighting off heat exhaustion by a combination of cycling fast without my shirt on(to keep a breeze up) , drinking enough water to supply the island for a year, and stopping for lunch…a very long lunch in historic Duffy’s that allowed me to cool back down to safe levels.

Fort Zachary Taylor never fired a shot in anger, not from its inception in 1845 to its decommissioning in 1947. But it saw plenty of death from disease in the tropical heat. It’s also the reason the city of Key West was the only Southern city held by the Union for the entire Civil War. Following its decommissioning in 1947, it was left to fall apart until Howard England led a private effort to find Civil War artifacts…and boy did he find some!

During a reconfiguration in the late 19th century, Army engineers buttressed the walls of new batteries by using the Civil War artillery as fill. This resulted, nearly 80 years later, in Fort Zachary Taylor turning out to have the single largest collection of authentic, in-its-original-place Civil War cannon ever found. One of the most priceless pieces is a 300 lbs. Parrott Rifle—a super cannon that could lob a 300 lbs. shell at the enemy. For the Civil War, that was a freaking humongous weapon! The fort is an interesting time capsule that, because of its long history and reconfigurations, provides a window into Army from the Civil War to World War II.

Fort Zachary Taylor might have ended up with a few more ghosts today…but a number of people were blazingly lucky. Right after I arrived a massive thunderstorm rolled over the eastern half of Key West, but lightning was shooting over head here on the western side of the island like a death beam straight from the Death Star. Look, I’m from Florida; I grew up in the northwestern part of the state. Florida is, effectively, the lightning capital of the United States. I don’t take lightning lightly. I hung out inside the older casemates of the fort until the storm passed (and, wonderfully, cooled the afternoon down by nearly six degrees!).

But I was looking for a possible body count as other visitors continued to hang out on top of the battlements and—just as bafflingly—out in the parade field under the giant metal flagpole. Hello! When a bolt of electricity that’s literally hotter than the surface of the sun is blasting overhead so close the entire scene whites out in the flash and you can feel the thunder knock you off balance, get inside for crying out loud!!!

Well, it’s nearly 9:30 and I again have the resort’s pool area to myself. Everyone else is out to dinner or partying it up at a local bar. I’m enjoying the night air, the quiet, and the anticipation of tomorrow finally going to visit yet another place I’ve dreamed of seeing since I was a child—the Dry Tortugas!

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