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.

 

 

How’s Your Head, Governor Drew?

Can you guess which Florida governor weighed 185 pounds, had a brain 23¼ inches in diameter and was reportedly an uncommonly good judge of character? Stumped? To be fair, we wouldn’t have known either, had he not taken the time to consult a phrenologist while visiting New York in 1867. We recently came across the phrenologist’s report in this governor’s family papers and made it available on Florida Memory.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City. Click the image to view the entire report.

Phrenology was a pseudo-science popular mainly in the early 19th century. Its founders, German physicians Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, claimed it was possible to determine the size and mental capacity of a person’s brain based on the bumps and indentations on the outside of the head. Phrenologists, who soon popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, would take measurements of a person’s head, note the places where it seemed to either be bulging or denting, and then write a report explaining the person’s character. The assumption was that every area of the brain covered a different aspect of personality and behavior. The more brain matter you had in a particular region, the more pronounced the corresponding trait would be.

Diagram illustrating the various

Diagram illustrating the various “faculties” of the brain, according to phrenologists.

Now a bit about Governor Drew. George Franklin Drew was born August 6, 1827, in New Hampshire, and got his start as a machinist’s apprentice in Massachusetts. At the age of 20, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, and started up his own machine shop before turning to the lumber industry. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Drew opposed secession, which didn’t sit well with some of his neighbors, and he spent most of the war confined in Savannah.

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida's 12th state governor (1877-1881).

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida’s 12th state governor (1877-1881).

After the war, Drew originally intended to move with his family to Brazil, but he only made it as far south as Suwannee County, Florida, where he invested his remaining fortune in timber land and a sawmill. He later moved his operation to Ellaville in Madison County, and built what was then believed to be the largest sawmill in the South.

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

It was during this era of his life that Drew visited New York City, probably on business, and happened to stop by the Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet, a museum with plaster casts of heads and skulls and all kinds of memorabilia associated with the phrenology movement. While there, he received a full phrenological workup from Nelson Sizer, professor of “mental science” in the American Phrenological Institute and associate editor of the American Phrenological Journal. Sizer’s report on Drew was lengthy, but here are a few of the characteristics he “discovered” in the future governor while examining his head:

  • He was a good judge of character.
  • He appreciated people of principle and expected others to practice what they preached.
  • He liked to eat. Sizer wrote, “You have a strong appetite, which should be regulated.”
  • He was eager to be respected.

Sizer also offered Drew some advice, mainly regarding his diet:

  • Avoid pork and pastry and “highly seasoned things.”
  • Don’t use tobacco.
  • Eat lean beef and tart fruits and cut down on butter and sugar.

Sizer’s report was vague, but his overall positive view of Drew’s talent for business and management seemed to ring true. Drew’s lumber operations continued to grow, and he expanded into railroads and the mercantile trade as well. In 1870, he became chairman of the Madison County Commission, and in 1876 Florida’s Democratic Party nominated him for governor. The election results were close in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections that year. The initial returns gave the governorship of Florida to the incumbent, Marcellus Stearns, but a Supreme Court-mandated recount revealed George Franklin Drew as the winner. Drew served one term as governor, the first Democrat to hold that office since Florida had been readmitted to the Union after the Civil War. His administration effectively ended Reconstruction in Florida, and no Republican would again occupy the governor’s mansion until Claude Kirk took office in 1967.

Governor Drew's signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Governor Drew’s signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Shortly after returning to private life, Drew sold off his lumbering interests and moved to Jacksonville, where he spent the remainder of his days. On September 24, 1900, Drew’s wife Amelia experienced a stroke, which the former governor described in a letter to their daughter Vannie. “We have lived together so many years,” he wrote, “that I don’t care to live after she is taken away.” Drew meant what he said. Two hours after Amelia died on September 26th, Governor Drew himself collapsed and died. The local newspaper diagnosed the cause as simply a broken heart.

Governor George Franklin Drew's final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900. Drew Family Papers (M82-8), State Archives of Florida.

Governor George Franklin Drew’s final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900.

Looking for more information about Florida’s governors? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection or Selected Documents!

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano

Floridians know their state isn’t made up just of sandy beaches. There are swamps, sandhills, prairies, and in some places rolling hills that seem more appropriate in a state farther north. It’s nice to have a little variety, of course, but what would you say if we told you Florida once had its very own volcano?

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

No, not that volcano. A real one, a natural volcano like Mount St. Helens. For generations, people swore they could occasionally see a dark column of smoke rising up out of the forests southeast of Tallahassee. It was too much smoke to come from a single campfire or some industrial process. The smoke was thicker, blacker, more ominous. Folks nicknamed the phenomenon the “Wakulla Volcano,” even though some bearings indicated it was located in extreme southern Jefferson County in Township 4 South, Range 3 East, somewhere near what’s now known as the “Gum Swamp” section of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

Local wisdom has it that stories of the volcano were around even when Native Americans occupied the area. The legend became particularly popular in the late 19th century, when a variety of newspapers and magazines carried stories about the mysterious Wakulla Volcano and its possible explanations. Some said it was some sort of beacon established by pirates. During the Civil War, some believed it might be a signal used by deserters hiding out in the swamps to communicate with the ships of the Union blockade. Moonshiners, hermits, giant pine trees struck by lightning, and Native Americans were all suggested at one time or another as the source of the thick black smoke.

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano seemed to close up shop after the 1886 Charleston Earthquake, which was felt across Middle Florida. Some folks assumed whatever geological formation had opened up to produce the smoke had been closed by the shaking of the ground. Others continued looking for answers, even into the 20th century. As scientific knowledge about the geological formation of Florida became more advanced, notions of an actual volcano became less popular. The best explanation State Librarian W.T. Cash could provide when asked about the volcano in the 1930s was that a mass of peat or vegetation must have caught fire and smoldered, creating the smoke. Marshes and peat bogs do occasionally experience this sort of slow, smoldering fire, although for it to continue burning for so long would be unusual.

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

We may never know what was causing that enigmatic black column of smoke rising above the trees. We can be thankful, however, that whatever it was didn’t destroy the forest in that area, because St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a stunning piece of natural Florida territory. We at Florida Memory recommend you visit sometime!