Gary Krist’s new book is “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles.”
On a dark December night in 1957, when Blanche Knowles — a married white woman from a prominent citrus-growing family in Okahumpka, Fla. — reported that she had been “raped by a Negro . . . with bushy hair,” the response from local authorities was depressingly predictable. Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, a swaggering, old-boy lawman whose blatant racism and utter unscrupulousness were legendary in the area, sent out a radio call to his deputies. He ordered them to round up every one of the town’s black males (not the term he used) and haul them off to jail. The code of justice in rural, Jim Crow Florida, after all, demanded that somebody in the African American community pay for the crime, whether or not that somebody was guilty.
But strangely, in this one case, things didn’t turn out that way. A few days before Christmas, two sheriff’s deputies appeared on the doorstep of the poor, white Daniels family, whose rundown home stood not far from the Knowles estate. The deputies wanted to take 19-year-old Jesse Daniels down to the jail to ask him a few questions about the rape. A sweet-natured, intellectually disabled “man-child” with an IQ well below average, Jesse was more than willing to help. “Sure, I’ll go,” he told the deputies. “I’m not afraid. I want you to get the right man. After all, my mother’s a woman.”
Jesse’s trust proved to be misplaced. McCall didn’t allow him to come home from jail that night or for many nights to come. Over the next week, as all but one of the black suspects were released, Jesse was held in isolation, without access to a lawyer or even his parents. Finally, the last African American detainee, Sam Wiley Odom, was cleared. At a news conference on Dec. 28, McCall and State Attorney Gordon Oldham made an announcement: Knowles had been mistaken about the race of her attacker. The real perpetrator was Daniels. And the young man, they claimed, had confessed — to a crime that anyone familiar with Jesse (who slept with a teddy bear every night) knew he never could have committed.
In “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,” journalist Gilbert King recounts this perplexing story with compassion and a vibrant sense of time and place. Florida’s Lake County is familiar territory for King, whose last book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Devil in the Grove,” was also set there. The Daniels case played out a few years later, but while the Space Age was already well underway in 1957 at nearby Cape Canaveral, Lake County seemed to linger in an earlier era of watermelon festivals, swimming holes and gossiping regulars at the local dry-goods store. And although the citrus industry had brought some economic advancement to the area, “social progress,” as King writes with consummate understatement, “came more slowly.”
Lake County had in fact been the site of some of the ugliest and most high-profile racial episodes in civil rights history, including one — the 1949 Groveland case (subject of “Devil in the Grove”) — that inspired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to declare the conditions there “one of the best examples of one of the worst menaces to American justice.”
At the center of almost all of these incidents was McCall, who ruled the county like some kind of provincial despot and seemed to think (correctly) that he could get away with just about any miscarriage of justice imaginable. The Knowles rape case was no exception. For reasons that may seem counterintuitive at first (but that turn out to be just as depraved and bigoted as any that motivated him in other cases), McCall was determined to pin the offense on Daniels — despite overwhelming evidence that Odom was guilty — and there was no act of subterfuge or evidence-tampering he considered too low to get the results he wanted.
What followed was a truly outrageous example of small-town Southern prejudice and malfeasance. Eager to avoid a criminal trial that might have made the absurdity of the charge against Daniels obvious, McCall and prosecutor Oldham — with the judge and Jesse’s court-appointed lawyer firmly in their pocket — had little trouble getting the young man committed to the State Hospital for the Insane at Chattahoochee. And there, despite the heroic efforts of his mother and a pioneering newspaper journalist named Mabel Norris Reese, Jesse was to remain for well over a decade, a gentle and harmless innocent among the criminally insane.
Ultimately it took a number of factors — including the election of a progressive governor and the creation of county-based free legal aid organizations — to get anything resembling justice in the Daniels case. But after almost 14 nightmarish years at Chattahoochee, Jesse was released in December 1971, having been declared both sane and innocent of the rape. And while an initial award of $200,000 in damages was eventually reduced to just $75,000, this deeply compromised outcome was still far more retribution than most black victims of McCall’s wrongdoing ever received.
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of this sobering but expertly told saga is that McCall and Oldham continued to get away with this kind of blatant high-handedness for years, without punishment. McCall was finally voted out of office in 1980, but although he was implicated in numerous offenses over the years (“He was investigated more times than the Kennedy assassination,” his son once said), he died in 1994 without being convicted of anything. Meanwhile, Oldham — whom many believe to be the bigger villain, at least in the Daniels case — retired with honor in 1984. Two years after his death in 1998, the Lake County Bar put up a granite monument near the courthouse in his honor.
By Gilbert King
Riverhead. 417 pp. $28