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FLORIDA TIME: Revisiting tall tales and fake news from the past

Eliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post
J. Russell Reaver's 'Florida Folktales'

Readers: Happy New Year! Today, we present some fake news. But we’re identifying it as such. Here's more from a feature by yours truly, all the way back in May 1988. And that's no lie!

Lake Mystic, near Tallahassee, has no bottom. A headless horseman rides the trail near Canoe Creek. A non-aggression pact struck between Seminoles and snakes protects both to this day.

These tall tales, superstitions, and folklore all stem from a state that was largely unsettled just a few generations ago, but whose roots and lore go back more than 400 years.

They were gathered by J. Russell Reaver, professor emeritus of 19th- and 20th-century American literature and folklore at Florida State University, in a celebration of Florida's colorful past titled "Florida Folktales." (Reaver died at age 86 in 2002.)

Read more Florida history: Here are Florida’s top 25 stories of all time

For more than 40 years, Reaver gathered stories from people in big cities and backwater towns. Some go back to British, German, Spanish and other European roots. Many told by slaves or their descendants come from Africa. Some come from old-timers who now are long gone, their voices stilled forever, but preserved by Reaver.

"Florida has had marvelous storytellers, and they have helped keep alive this tremendously  rich heritage in this state, which is one of the most fascinating places for a person to live in," Reaver told me in 1988 from his Tallahassee home. Other stories, Reaver said, are as fresh as last week's arrival from Ohio or Haiti,

The result was this, believed to be the first scientific gathering of statewide Florida folklore. An appendix gave the background or origin of each tale, along with variations, as well as the storyteller. Stories were categorized by type and motif.

Examples:

Poor blacks in the 19th century envisioned a magical land of "Diddy-Wah-Diddy," where they could sit on curbstones and eat all they wanted of baked chicken and sweet potato pie. Carpetbaggers were said to have convinced residents of shanty towns to trade all their worldly belongings for a ticket to heaven; they were directed to a nearby train station where St. Peter would lead them through golden gates.

Legends surround natural features. The Milky Way is said to show the way to a city out west where Big Cypress Seminoles go when they die. Spanish moss is said to be the still-growing beard of a Spanish sailor who became trapped in a tree and died.

Then there are the ghost stories. A young girl buried alive. A Tallahassee witch whose ghost still hovers over her grave. A man hanged in Marianna despite swearing his innocence, who cursed the town clock, which never runs right, even to today.

Florida had its own versions of the various "urban myths." A Tallahassee woman placed her wet cat in a microwave oven, where it exploded. A Tampa resident came home to find her Doberman choking, and took it to a veterinarian, who removed from the dog's throat a burglar's fingers. A St. Petersburg woman who had accidentally killed a cat placed it in a shopping bag to dispose of it with dignity, but another woman stole the bag.

And, of course, the tall tales. A man ran so fast that, after he shot a deer, he chased down and held the animal until the bullet could get there. A dog split in half in order to catch a buck and doe simultaneously. And the often-tardy train from Tallahassee to Jacksonville came in one day right on time, amazing the regulars, until the engineer sadly informed them this was yesterday's train.

READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at 850-270-8418.

Next Week: The magician

Last week: A fond farewell from our favorite Florida history buff

From a reader: Stephanie B., who shared that our little newsletter is, "A beam of light during our dark times. Truly a delight to read." She thanked us for our efforts and let us know that we have brightened many people’s days. Thank you, Stephanie B. Subscribe here. 

Eliot Kleinberg was a staff writer for three decades for the Palm Beach Post and is the author of 10 books about Florida (ekfla.com). Submit your questions by email to eliot@eliotkleinberg.com Sorry; no personal replies.