- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Readers: Sunday marks the 90th anniversary of what arguably is the most profound single event in the history of Palm Beach County. It killed as many as 3,000 people. It rebutted the myth that a storm’s wind is its biggest killer. And it’s the reason a giant dike surrounds Lake Okeechobee. It is, of course, the great hurricane of Sept. 16, 1928.
You’ll see other coverage this week of the storm’s anniversary. Regular readers know well it is of special interest to this writer — it spawned a book — and it has been mentioned many times in the two decades of Post Time. Especially at anniversaries. Here’s one you might not have heard.
Coot Simpson is believed to have been born in Alabama and grown up in a small town about 70 miles west of Savannah, Georgia. When the turpentine business dried up, Coot— like so many before him—took his wife, Juanita, and moved to booming West Palm Beach, where he got work draining
On Sept. 23, 1928, a week after the storm struck, Simpson, 35, was on his way to work when National Guardsmen reportedly ordered him on to a truck. He was one of several blacks who were rounded up to help clean up the town and bury the dead. After a few days, Coot said, “Now, I’m going to go home,” and started to find the foreman to let him know. A guardsman said, “You can’t leave.”
There’s no dispute about what happened next. Knolton Theodore Crosby, 19, lifted his rifle and fired. Coot was killed instantly.
“The other family is right in feeling they were wronged,” Cassie Mae Brooks, whose mother was Knolton Crosby’s sister, told me in 2002. “My mother did tell us one time that her brothers were, back then, they were kind of uneducated and real old Florida Crackers and the guy didn’t do what he told him to do and it wound up him being shot.”
Coot’s relatives said years later they believe the guard just panicked.
A brief inquest ended with a ruling that Knolton Crosby killed Coot Simpson “while in the lawful discharge of his duty.”
The Florida East Coast railway had a standing offer to ship bodies, but in this case said the National Guard should pay. The Guard had no money in its budget for that, but the commanding brigadier general said he’d cover the cost. On Sept. 26, Juanita Simpson and two children, ages 9 and 10, boarded a train for southern Georgia. They rode for free, along with the body of Coot Simpson. The shipping charge: $15.81.
Crosby served in World War II. On Jan. 20, 1947, he was found dead at 39. Cause of death was listed as congestive heart failure due to alcoholism. Crosby was buried two days later at West Palm’s Woodlawn Cemetery.