A Healthful Haunting

Ghosts stories are often spooky by design, but are all ghosts really that scary? Is it possible that some ghosts–if you believe in such things–might prefer to be helpful rather than harrowing? This seems to be the case with Maria Valdez de Gutsens, who is believed to haunt the former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West.

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

Mercedes Hospital, also known as the Casa del Pobre (Home of the Poor), was established in 1911 in the former home of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, a prominent Cuban-born cigar maker who first established his factory in Key West in 1874. Although Gato was the leading cigar manufacturer in town, he decided in the early years of the 20th century to move back to Cuba and leave the management of the business to his four sons, who were all officers of the company. That left the spacious Gato home open for other uses.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office - January 9, 1906.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office – January 9, 1906.

Meanwhile, a group of philanthropic Key West citizens of Cuban descent called the Beneficencia Cubana  hatched an idea to establish a hospital for residents who could not afford treatment at the city’s other medical facilities. The committee prevailed upon Eduardo Gato to lease his former home to the new institution for free. To honor the Gato family for their generosity, the new hospital was named for Mr. Gato’s wife, Mercedes.

Dr. Joseph N. Fogarty, mayor of Key West and a prominent local physician, donated money, instruments and equipment to the new hospital, but it was Maria Valdez de Gutsens who really ran the show. “Mother” Gutsens, as she was called, administered the hospital for 30 years from its opening until nearly the time of her death in 1941. She dedicated her life to nursing patients in the 30-bed facility, as well as finding money to keep the doors open. According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Gutsens would go around daily to the business houses of Key West and collect dimes and quarters to supplement the meager donations Mercedes Hospital received from the city and Monroe County. In 1934, Cuban president Carlos Mendieta awarded her the medal of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuba’s highest honor at the time.

Mother Gutsens’ own health began to fail in 1941, forcing her to retire from her nursing and administrative duties at Mercedes Hospital. She was able, however, to participate in ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the facility’s establishment. “It was been much trouble,” she admitted, “and many, many tears.” Later that same year, Maria Valdez de Gutsens died at her Catherine Street home and was interred in the Key West Cemetery. The hospital, now without the greatest source of its former vitality, was soon closed, and the Gato house was converted into residential apartments.

Mercedes Hospital might be no more, but some residents say its former matron, Mother Gutsens, still occasionally attempts to apply her healing and caring touch to those who need it. Even before the hospital was closed after her death, there were signs to suggest that she was still at work in the building. A couple of months after Gutsens’ death, for example, a man checked into Mercedes Hospital with a serious case of pneumonia. Convinced he was about to die, he asked the nurse who came to check on him in the middle of the night to help him write a letter to his family expressing his love. According to the man’s testimony, the nurse stayed for about an hour as he dictated the letter, which she wrote down, placed in an envelope and placed on the window sill. She then stayed with the ailing man as he gradually fell asleep. The next day, the man asked to see the night nurse so he could thank her for her help. The nurse on duty that morning replied with confusion that she had been the only staff member in the hospital the night before. When the man described the person who had written his letter, the nurse noted that it sounded a lot like the Mother Gutsens who had worked at the hospital for years, but that she had passed away. Her confusion turned to shock, however, when the man pointed out the letter the night nurse had written the might before… and the handwriting was clearly that of Maria Valdez de Gutsens!

More recently, residents of the old Gato house have seen someone fitting Maria’s description visiting their rooms, especially when they were feeling unwell. In most of these cases, the apparition would either appear to be feeling the person’s forehead for a temperature or checking their wrist for a pulse. A few folks claim to have spoken to the ghost–one woman says she told Maria that although she appreciated what she was doing, it still frightened her. The dutiful nurse responded by stepping away from the woman’s bed, smiling and fading away from view.

The Gato House still stands in Key West and is a favorite stopping place for ghost tours. And what does Mother Maria Valdez de Gutsens think of her fame? The only way to know for sure would be to visit and see if she’ll appear and tell you herself.

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Dying to read more ghost stories from the Key West area? We recommend David L. Sloan’s Ghosts of Key West, published by Phantom Press.

 

 

A State Park Under the Sea

One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys. Read more »

The Dreaded Yellow Jack

Yellow fever, also known as the “yellow plague” or the “yellow jack,” was one of the most dangerous and dreaded diseases prevalent in Florida during the 1800s. The disease is viral, spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but this knowledge was not widely known until the 20th century. In the meantime, epidemics often broke out in Florida during the summer months, especially in cities. Read more »

In Plain Sight: Secrets Beneath the Sands of Higgs Beach

Even in its most picture-perfect settings, the Florida coastline harbors many secrets about the past. At Higgs Beach in Key West, for example, visitors enjoy the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico only yards away from one of the most unique cemeteries in the United States.

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

The cemetery, which only recently received proper investigation and recognition, originally contained the remains of nearly 300 Africans brought to Key West after they were confiscated by the U.S. Navy from ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery was still legal in much of the United States in 1860, the international slave trade was not. Consequently, when the American-owned vessels Wildfire, William, and Bogota sailed into the Caribbean attempting to deliver their human cargo to Cuba, they were seized, along with more than a thousand African men, women, and children.

The slave deck of the bark

The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, one of three brought to Key West after being seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (Harper’s Weekly, 1860).

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship Williams, one of three vessels captured by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (drawing 1860).

The African refugees arrived malnourished and weak from their long trans-Atlantic voyage, and hundreds died while awaiting their fate in Key West. As many as 14 died in a single day – many were children. Scrambling to accommodate these unexpected arrivals, the U.S. marshal at Key West, Fernando Moreno, erected housing and a hospital for the Africans. Officials called the structure a “barracoon,” borrowing terminology used by slave traders operating on the African coast. The building was divided into nine large rooms so the sexes and children of different ages could be separated.

A print from Harper's Weekly depicting the

A print from Harper’s Weekly depicting the “barracoon” in which the African refugees were housed while awaiting their fate (1860).

While the Africans were at Key West, Moreno and other federal personnel guarded them vigilantly. Even with the illegality of the slave trade, these individuals were considered highly valuable in a region where slavery was still legal. Officials were concerned that someone might attempt to kidnap some of the Africans, or that they might attempt to escape. The guards mounted artillery pieces to defend against potential attacks, and deployed a police force consisting of Marines and local citizens.

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of “princess” by whites who visited the Africans, on account of her “fine personal appearance and the deference that seemed to be paid to her by some of her companions” (1860).

As Moreno and the federal agents at Key West grappled with the difficulties of maintaining such a large group of guests, the United States government investigated ways of getting the refugees back to Africa. Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated a contract with the American Colonization Society to take the Africans to Liberia, a country on the west African coast founded with support from the U.S. as a resettlement location. The first group left Key West for Africa on July 3, 1860, with another group following about two weeks later.

According to a report published in the New York Times, many of the Africans asked not to be returned to Africa, but this may have been a mistaken interpretation. It was more likely the trans-Atlantic journey itself they most feared, and with good reason. Many had died on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, and hundreds more would perish en route to Liberia.

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

Not long after the last African refugee left Key West, the Civil War broke out, deflecting attention to other matters. The scores of graves at Higgs Beach were mostly forgotten, save for a few references in histories of the island. Over time, the construction of new military installations and roads in the area greatly disturbed the burials, further obscuring their story. Local researchers began a movement to properly identify and recognize the cemetery around 2000. The Florida Department of State erected a historical marker for the site in 2001, and archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to locate at least nine distinct graves the following year. In 2012, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery is particularly unique because its inhabitants were African, yet they never served as slaves, nor were they free. As researchers have explained during the course of the investigation, there are few if any sites of this kind in the Americas.

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!