- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Leonard Russell Hone has seen the letter. Written with pen and inkwell by Hone’s ancestor, it stops at mid-sentence, the writer’s hand making a harsh slash of black ink that soaked the paper.
“The nib dug into the paper and there was a big ‘spludge,’” Hone said in early August from his home in France. “This was actually the moment he was shot.”
Richard Hone and his wife were at their West Palm Beach dining table more than a century ago, each penning a letter to Hone’s sister back in England. Outside, a fierce early-fall storm raged.
A crack. Hone clapped his hand to his head.
“My god. I am shot!”
Richard Hone was dead, three weeks past his 43rd birthday.
The former home of the British-born pineapple farmer, who was one of West Palm Beach’s early pioneers, is believed to be the oldest in the city still in its original form. And he’s buried in a bizarre place. Hint: It’s not in a cemetery.
Those two facts have generated more than a few news features over the past few decades. Those articles, at least those in Palm Beach Post archives, now will have to be accompanied by what likely will be the most belated correction in the newspaper’s history: 116 years.
Writers had repeated the story that Hone’s dramatic Oct. 20, 1902, assassination was unsolved. That when a mystery gunman melted into the dark, on horseback, he got away with murder.
Except that one of Hone’s employees was caught within days, confessed, and eventually swung from a scaffold on the side of a Miami courthouse. And, by the way, there was no horse.
Reporters had relied on second-hand information. They couldn’t look in their own archives for the original 1902 coverage because Hone was dead for 14 years before The Post opened for business in 1916. And the two local newspapers that did cover the murder were long gone: the Weekly Lake Worth News by 1908 and the Tropical Sun by the end of World War II.
But their editions reside on microfilm roll and digital archives. And those century-old pages tell what really happened.
‘They have killed my boy!’
For both West Palm Beach-based newspapers, the murder of such a prominent citizen, in such a shocking manner, in what then was a provincial hamlet of about 600, was nothing short of electric.
Richard Hone’s life, one story said, was “marked by industry and thrift.”
He was born Sept. 29, 1859, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, about 100 miles west of London. He was an Episcopalian and a member of the Church of England. His brother died when he was 13 and his father, a farmer, died five years later. Sometime after 1881, while in his 20s, he struck out for California.
He moved to the West Palm Beach area in 1894, the same year the city was incorporated. In August 1895, back in England, Hone, then 35, married Mary Jones, 31, also from Cheltenham. The two came to Florida the following month.
Mary would have three children. All would die in infancy. The first child, an unnamed daughter, and then sons Edmond, 2, and Robert, 1, who both died in 1900.
Richard and Mary became naturalized U.S. citizens in West Palm Beach in December 1897. Richard Hone’s mother would die at 86 in May 1901. Sixteen months later, he would be dead as well.
On the day Richard Hone died, he worked all day on his 20-acre pineapple and citrus estate in the Belair neighborhood, near what’s now Dixie Highway and Forest Hill Boulevard.
The couple dined at 5 p.m., as usual. Weather records show official sundown that day was about 5:45 p.m.
Mary — newspapers at the time didn’t believe married women merited first names and never referred to her as anything but “Mrs. Hone” — would tell investigators that, even as the storm raged outside, she heard only the scratching of pens on paper.
Then she heard a sound like a rock striking the outside of the house. Her husband grabbed his head and announced he’d been shot. He stood. And fell. And dragged himself into a hallway.
Mary grabbed a handgun from the mantel and faced the window.
“I’ve got a pistol, you scoundrel,” she shouted.
When she got no response, she ran to the hall to tend to her husband. Seeing he was gravely wounded, she pushed a pillow under his head and asked what she could do. She was answered only by “his last gasp and the sound of the death rattle in his throat.”
Mary ran outside in the driving rain and to the home of neighbor J.W. Comstock, who also grew pinapples and who later would become treasurer of a real estate title firm.
“Oh, Mr. Comstock,” she shouted. “They have killed my boy.”
Back at the Hone house, the two found the stricken Richard, blood pooling beneath his head. Deciding nothing more could be done — and with no practical way to notify authorities until the morning — they decided Mary would stay the night with a neighbor a half-mile south. On the way, they walked past Comstock’s home. He said he would get his hat and coat and a blanket for Mary.
When he got to his front screen door, he found it propped open by shoes. A rifle leaned in the jamb.
Someone was inside.
Comstock grabbed the rifle and told Mary to back off. As he put his foot on the first step, a figure “with a footfall as light and with the agility of a panther” exploded out of the house and leaped on Comstock’s back. The lantern flew from Comstock’s hand and all went dark.
The mysterious attacker wrestled with Comstock for the rifle. Mary tried to help but the assailant shoved her away. All the while, lightning flashes split the darkness. In one snatch of light, Comstock was able to see the mystery man’s face. He was black and of medium build.
Comstock let go of the rifle and reached for his own revolver. In a moment, the murderer twisted away one gun and kicked away the other.
Comstock waited to die.
Instead, the assailant turned and vanished into nearby woods. Comstock groped in the dark and retrieved his handgun. Drenched, he and Mary walked to the neighbor.
At dawn, Comstock made his way to town to “give the alarm” about Hone’s death. Judge H.B. Saunders assembled a coroner’s jury. As the men viewed Hone’s body, still in the hallway, his face “bore a peaceful and natural expression.”
Dr. H.C. Hood determined a bullet had gone through Hone’s upper arm and down through his lungs and heart before lodging just below the skin near his ribs. Hood cut out the .32 caliber rifle ball. The jury determined the gunman had poked the rifle barrel through a window screen and fired the lone fatal shot.
One by one, the men brought in and questioned “the colored men” who worked for Hone. Outside, they found in sand the imprints of a barefoot man. And a cap that the killer apparently had dropped.
At 5:30 p.m. that day, some 24 hours after Richard Hone’s death, friends gathered around sunset at Lakeview Cemetery. A choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee” as the dirt was cast over Hone. He was interred next to infant sons Edward and Robert.
Mary would file probate on Oct. 23, saying Hone’s fortune included his property, a balance of $144.55 in the Dade County State Bank, and an interest in his father’s estate back in England, “the value of which is to your petitioner unknown.”
News of the horrific murder made its way across the nation, and even to Hone’s native Britain.
“The affair has created intense excitement, owing to the prominence and popularity of the victim,” one story said.
“Robbery is supposed to have been the motive of the murderer, who has so far not been found,” the Associated Press reported the day after the slaying. Reports said telegrams had been sent requesting bloodhounds to search for the gunman, adding, “a posse is on his trail and if caught he may be lynched.”
Soon a reward fund set up by area businessmen was up to $1,225 — nearly $35,000 in 2018 dollars. Gov. William Sherman Jennings even threw in $100 of state money.
The Tropical Sun had published a one-page “extra” edition on the morning after the murder; its story led with, “West Palm Beach rests under a shadow that is truly appalling.”
And the Weekly Lake Worth News of Thursday, Oct. 23, was headlined, “A Dastardly Deed.” An editorial from the paper — which itself had dropped a whopping $50 into the reward fund — said that “every effort should be made to discover the guilty culprit. No stone should be left unturned.”
It didn’t take long to make an arrest. It occurred later that day, just three days after the murder. And it was close to home.
Suspicion quickly fell on a worker at Hone’s farm. His name: William Kelly.
Police said they searched Kelly’s home in “the colored settlement” west of downtown West Palm Beach. There they reported finding table linens, silverware and other items they said came from Palm Beach hotels and from families in what’s now Boynton Beach. All were locales where Kelly and his wife had worked over the summer. Mrs. Kelly also was arrested. William Kelly — early stories spelled it Kelley — had no alibi for his whereabouts the night his employer was murdered.
Sometime before Hone’s murder, a gun, a bicycle and other items had been stolen from a nearby home. When Kelly was arrested, police found the bike. They figured the gun couldn’t be far.
But it would be Nov. 19 before a boy found a single-shot 1894 .32-40 rifle in woods about a half-mile from Hone’s house. Police confirmed it was the one stolen with the bike. J.W. Comstock said its barrel matched the dent in his door. And the manager of Hatchett’s Hardware said it was the same gun for which a black man had come in the morning before the murder for cartridges that would fit it.
On Oct. 23, Kelly was arrested. The creation of Palm Beach County still was seven years away, and West Palm Beach still was part of Dade. So Kelly was taken to Miami, the county seat, to stand trial.
“Kelly had worked for Mr. Hone on Friday before the murder and never showed up again until the morning after,” The Miami Metropolis reported on Oct. 24, “and there are many other circumstances indicating that he is the guilty man.”
Kelly later confessed. An article said he told Dade Sheriff John Frohock his goal was to get money “he foolishly believed to be concealed in Mr. Hone’s house, not knowing that a man of intelligence keeps his money in the bank.”
Kelly reportedly said he went down to Hone’s home the night before the murder but didn’t get a good opportunity. He said he returned Monday night, tore aside the screen, and “shot down his defenseless victim.”
He said he then hid behind an oleander bush while Mrs. Hone ran to Comstock’s house. He said he mulled killing Mary as she passed but that ”his nerve failed” and that “his only thought was to get his booty and escape.”
Kelly said he then ran back into Hone’s home, looked at the dead man, and then quickly searched the house for money. As he sat on the edge of the porch, considering his next move, he saw Mary and Comstock return. He again hid by the bush, then ran to Comstock’s house and broke the front door with his rifle.
After the scuffle with Comstock, Kelly said, he returned to his home and tossed his empty shells into a narrow passage between two buildings.
Kelly’s confession had come after the jury had reached a guilty verdict on the evening of Feb. 16, 1903. Six days after that, Kelly was sentenced to hang. Kelly’s lawyers said they’d appeal.
People now sit on death row for years and even decades. But within two months, William Kelly was dead.
‘Rode to death in an automobile.’
On the morning of April 10, 1903, a minister came to the cell at the new Miami jail. Also there: John Bright, convicted of killing Lottie Hardeman, “a respectable colored woman.”
The condemned man “expressed sorrow for the terrible crime he had committed.” Bright stuck with his insistence that he was innocent.
At 10 a.m., the two men climbed into a newfangled car and headed to the courtyard. A headline said they “rode to death in an automobile.”
In 1923, Florida would start conducting all executions by electric chair, and centralized them at the state prison in Raiford. Before that, counties carried out the penalties themselves.
In the courtyard, workers had constructed a scaffold with two trap doors. As Kelly and Bright stood on the gallows, Dade Sheriff Frohock pronounced the sentence. Among the 30 or so people who witnessed the hanging was a contingent of eight men who had come down from West Palm Beach.
The minister prayed. The two condemned men were asked if they had anything to say. Kelly, cool and resigned, said he’d been “prompted to the deed by the devil” and soon would meet his god. Bright again protested his innocence but said he was ready to die.
Black caps were fitted over the men’s heads. At a signal, the trap doors fell away. Both appeared to die instantly. When neither had moved for 20 minutes, the two were cut down.
“Thus,” The Tropical Sun wrote, “were avenged by process of law, two terrible crimes.”
In the crawl space
In April 1919, 16½ years after her husband’s death. Mary Hone applied for a passport to visit her 90-year-old mother, whom she feared “may die before she can see her.” Her application said she’d visited every summer in the past but had been unable to go the previous four years because of World War I.
A February 1922 column by famed attorney, poet and philanthropist George Graham Currie, for whom the West Palm Beach waterfront park is named, said Mary had resettled in England for good. An April 1925 column said he visited her in Cheltenham during a tour of Europe and found her “comfortably ensconced” in the “quaint city” and that she “was glad to hear of news from Florida.”
Mary Hone died Oct. 25, 1946, in Cheltenham. She was 85. She had lived as a widow for 44 years and five days; more than half her life.
The body of her husband had stayed in West Palm Beach at Lakeview Cemetery, which was founded in 1893.
Woodlawn Cemetery opened across the street from Lakeview in March 1905.
In 1921, when Lakeview no longer could compete with Woodlawn, the Lakeside Cemetery Association donated the land to the city, with the provision that it be used as a public park and that, with the exception of a pavilion, no construction be allowed. And that the graves of some 200 pioneers be exhumed and moved to Woodlawn.
Magnate Ralph Norton leased the land from the city in 1940 to build the Norton Museum of Art. Eleven graves are believed to still be marked. Three of them were in a crawl space near the stage in the Norton’s auditorium. They are Richard Hone and his sons, Edmond 2, and Robert 1.
The auditorium was demolished to make way for Norton’s new wing, now under construction, but graves “have been overseen with utmost TLC during construction,” Norton’s spokesman Scott Benarde said.
Hone’s murder had fallen from the pages of The Palm Beach Post’s predecessor soon after the 1903 execution of his confessed killer. By the time The Palm Beach Post opened for business in 1916, the slaying was old news. And mostly forgotten.
Jump ahead three-fourths of a century. In 1994, in a feature on West Palm Beach’s oldest homes written in advance of West Palm Beach’s centennial, someone told a Post reporter two things: the killer had been on horseback and the murder was unsolved.
Since The Post never had written about the case which predated it, the misinformation was unchallenged at the time, and because it now was enshrined in ink, it was unchallenged in every story that’s run after that.
The Hone house is at 211 Plymouth Road, off South Flagler Drive, in the historic Belair neighborhood. In 1993, the neighborhood was designated a historic district.
The 1902 stories said Hone’s estate was 3 miles “below town.” The Hones had had a two-story house built in May 1895, perhaps with Mary’s dowry. That would make it younger than the Gale house, at 401 29th St., built in late 1884 in Northwood’s “Mangonia” neighborhood, amid a plantation that produced the nation’s first fruit-bearing, grafted West Indian mango tree.
But the Hone house, except for a wing that was added decades later, is essentially the same structure. The Gale house has undergone extensive renovations, and around 1900 or 1910, the current structure was built around the original cabin, which is believed to still be part of the house.
Sometime in the two decades following her husband’s death, Mary Hone sold off her plantation to Currie. He later sold it to William Ohlhaber, a Chicago architect who raised coconut palms and ferns, then platted the subdivision in the 1920s and sold off lots to create the Belair neighborhood.
The Hone home was sold in 1947 to Max Brombacher, who’d been Henry Flagler’s chief engineer, and it’s in the Brombacher family to this day.
Dolores Brombacher, Max Brombacher’s daughter-in-law, said she believes it was Ohlhaber’s son who passed on the story of the horseman and the mystery being unsolved.
“I don’t know how he got it convoluted,” she said in late July.
“That’s all stuff I heard when I was a kid and I didn’t pay any attention to it,” Jack Ohlhaber, William’s grandson, now 78, said in late July from St. Pete Beach.
“You hear a lot of these things,” he said. “That was early Florida.”
The “mystery horseman” story appears to be just a local legend. Leonard Russell Hone, whose grandfather was Richard’s cousin, said the story handed down by his family was the correct one, about an employee being charged with killing Richard Hone.
He said someone in Florida did eventually mail the letter to England; it represented the last thing Richard Hone ever did. He said he doesn’t know what happened to it.
For decades, Leonard Hone and his wife, renowned wine aficionado Becky Wasserman Hone, have operated a large wine exporter in France’s Burgundy region. But he said the family always wondered about how Mary, so many decades ago, sold off 20 acres of what’s now prime property at the south end of West Palm Beach’s Dixie Highway corridor.
“The story my father used to say was, ‘What a pity,’” Hone said from Beaune, France. “We might be millionaires.”
Palm Beach Post staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.
Archives of the Palm Beach Post, Tropical Sun, Weekly Lake Worth News and Miami Metropolis/Miami Daily News
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County; Giselle Alonso, Florida and Genealogy Librarian, Miami-Dade Public Library System, University of Florida Digital Collections; the Cheltenham Local History Society in England
Newspapers.com and Ancestry.com
The Hone, Brombacher and Ohlhaber families
Genealogical researcher Simon Brookman, of Malta; West Palm Beach city historic preservation planner Friederike Mittner; Northwood Shores Neighborhood Association President Carl Flick; Harvey Oyer III; Ginger Pedersen.