On July 15, 2014, hundreds of people watched as the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, its two keepers’ quarters and the oil house made their journey from the shores of Cape San Blas into Port St. Joe
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in our sister paper, The Destin Log.
On July 15, 2014, hundreds of people watched as the Cape San Blas Lighthouse, its two keepers’ quarters and the oil house made their journey from the shores of Cape San Blas into Port St. Joe. The convoy, which was over 900 feet long and two lanes wide, as it moved from the Gulf shores of Cape San Blas to its new location at George Core Park, in the downtown Bayfront area of Port St. Joe, where they are on display today.
But, did you know that a murder occurred in the assistant light keeper’s workshop at the rear of his home in March of 1938 that has gone unsolved for nearly 70 years? A History Mystery that appeared in the Destin Log newspaper a couple of months ago happened right here in Gulf County.
A fisherman from Destin, Florida, William T. Marler was the keeper of the Choctawhatchee East Pass Range Lights at Destin, Florida, from 1902 to 1910. His oldest son, Ernest W. Marler, also went into the service of the United States Lighthouse Board.
Ernest W. Marler was the assistant lighthouse keeper at the Cape San Blas lighthouse from 1926 until his death on March 16, 1938. At the age of twenty-seven, Ernest gave up fishing at Destin, Florida, and moved his family to Cape San Blas, in Gulf County, to help man the lighthouse there at a salary of $440 per year plus room and board.
Ernest had married Suzie E. Stephens in 1924. According to the 1935 Florida Census, they had four children: their 10-year old daughter Ernestine, 8-year old son James, 4-year old daughter Mamie Sue, and 2-year old son Raymond. The Lighthouse Board furnished two, three-bedroom, two story homes, one for the keeper and one for the assistant keeper and their families.
On Wednesday, March 16, 1938 Ernest, after caring for the light in the morning, went to a small workshop near the rear of his home at about 10 a.m. When he failed to come to dinner at 12 noon, his wife sent Ernestine, their 13-year old daughter, to check on her father. Ernestine returned shortly to tell her mother that her father was hurt bad.
Ernest’s wife Suzie went to the workshop and found her husband lying in a pool of blood at the end of his work bench. He had been stabbed fourteen times in the chest, neck and arm. Nearby were a bloody knife and hatchet. The head keeper, Sullivan R. White, had gone to Port Saint Joe with his wife at 9 a.m. and did not return until 11:30 a.m. that day. He was summoned and determined that Ernest was dead. Sheriff E. W. Parker was called and he and Judge Alton Dendy arrived from Wewahitchka about 4:30 p.m.
As reported in the Port St. Joe STAR newspaper on Friday, March 26, 1938, at the coroner’s inquest, head keeper White was asked whether or not he was afraid to continue living at the lighthouse. Mr. White stated, “Yes, I’m afraid, because I believe someone is trying to get our jobs. Several threats have been made to previous keepers by persons wanting the job at the lighthouse. I am afraid to stay there – afraid that some desperado with get me. If Marler was murdered, they might get me too.”
That statement shows just how coveted the job of a light keeper was in those days.
Later that year head keeper Sullivan R. White left the Cape San Blas lighthouse and was replaced by Frank Spongia who served until his retirement in 1942. He speculated that Marler was murdered by keeper Johnny Jones, who was the man who took Marler’s place as assistant keeper. However, investigators at the time felt that Spongia’s claims were unjustified and they believed that, more than anything else, Spongia was just paranoid.
The death of Ernest W. Marler was never solved. Some believed he was killed by local moonshiners, while others believed it was a revenge killing for his testimony a few days earlier in a trial against some thieves.
In 2012, a mystery novel was written by Charles Farley titled “Secrets of San Blas.” In Farley’s book he took the real events involved in the 1930s surrounding Port Saint Joe, the new Paper Mill, Cape San Blas, the lighthouse, and the unsolved murder. He made a fictional novel with an interesting ending, which isn’t true, but is still interesting.
The Cape San Blas Lighthouse and the two keeper’s homes are a nice addition to the City of Port St. Joe’s George Core Park. Not many locals remember the life that was taken at lonely Cape San Blas in March of 1838. Ernest W. Marler was a cousin to the author’s (H. C. “Hank” Klein) father-in-law, Clarence Lee Marler a lifelong fisherman from Destin, Florida.
H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian who visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published a historic book about Destin's pioneer settlers. “Destin Pioneer Settlers … A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940.” It can be obtained from Amazon.com, Tony Mennillo of Arturo Studios at 850/585-2909, Dewey Destin's Restaurants, in Destin, the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach, or Bayou Books in Niceville. Klein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.