Readers: Every now and then this column takes some personal privilege and focuses on our very own Palm Beach Post.
It’s hard to top the spat that erupted in 1920 between our publisher, Joe L. “Big Joe” Earman, and the man who might have been Florida’s most eccentric governor ever, “Cracker Messiah” Sidney J. Catts.
In the 1916 election, the Rev. Catts — Baptist preacher, insurance salesman and political unknown — had called for abolishing Catholicism and alcohol. He defeated the father of longtime Palm Beach County judge James Robert Knott in a bitter race.
In December 1920, the Post attacked Catts in connection with the reinstatement of Edgar Thompson as state attorney.
Thompson had convinced an Okeechobee justice of the peace to let him take the evidence against a bootlegger — 10 cases of Scotch whiskey — back to West Palm Beach for safekeeping. On the long, dusty ride back to the city, Thompson and a sheriff’s deputy decided they should be sure the bottles actually contained contraband. After an investigation, Catts removed Thompson from office.
Thompson blamed Earman, who was the son of West Palm Beach’s first mayor and who also happened to be president of the state Board of Health. Catts was unhappy as well.
Describing the article as a “page and a half of vituperations and bitterness against me,” the governor ranted, “I am not going to let you rule and boss me at your whim and pleasure.” “
Catts warned Big Joe: “If you publish one more page in your paper like this last one or bother me or my business or my children any more I will go to West Palm Beach, Fla., with my double-barrel shotgun loaded with buckshot and have a final settlement with you. You say your printer’s ink is worth 10 cents a drop, but I say 14 buckshots in each gun barrel with a man who will pull the trigger weighs one thousand pounds each.”
Catts signed his “last warning” with “yours very truly.”
Earman didn’t blink an eye. “When is he coming?” the publisher asked. Earman said he had no plans to hide or flee but would remain to “welcome” the governor.
Undeterred by his scandal, Thompson ran for reelection in 1920 and won. Catts was out of office by 1921. Eight years later, Thompson was arrested for improper handling of a client’s account. He died in 1953 in a Palm Beach County nursing home. Big Joe died in 1935 and Catts in 1936.
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