Tampa is well-known for it’s sordid past of gangsters and (apparently nonexistent*) pirates. But it’s the lesser known rebels and misfits that comprise Tampa’s most colorful history.
USF Special Collections Librarian Andy Huse recently shared his expertise on these characters in a funny, sometimes sad, and always fascinating talk entitled, ”Tampa’s Rebels and Revolutionaries: Looking Beyond the Gangsters and Pirates.” The USF Tampa Library’s Special Collections department holds these Florida Studies collections that form the basis for these stories.
“A lot of revolutionaries tended to coalesce around Tampa, for whatever reason.” -Andy Huse, USF Special Collections Librarian
José Ramón Sanfeliz arrived in Ybor City from Cuba and began a career as a cigar worker — but was a revolutionary firebrand in his desire to take down management and to organize labor. Later, during the cigar workers’ Weight Strike of 1899, he returned to Cuba only to find it was far too difficult a life compared to the relatively middle-class comforts of his life in Tampa. He returned to Tampa and the once-leftist activist became ever more part of the establishment, even giving his incredible collection of hobby photographs to reactionary three-term Tampa mayor, violent strike-breaker, and local businessman D.B. McKay. His photographs of striking cigar workers’ soup kitchens remain the most vibrant images of that period of Tampa’s history.
Dr. Marcelino Arguelles was a Tampa physician who broke with his contemporaries in endorsing a medicine-free approach to health. His large clinic included a hydrotherapy bathhouse, offered massage, and housed a vegetarian restaurant, which was unheard-of at the time. Some might even say Arguelles was ahead of his time in decrying the ill effects of processed foods. His list of no-nos sounds like a contemporary nutrition article, advising patients to avoid refined sugar, flours, and the like. By all evidence, he had enough adherents to be successful, with over 25 years in practice in an office occupying a three-story building in Ybor City.
José Luis Avellanal y Jimenez was the son of Concepción Jimenez and Dr. José Ramon Avellanal, a prominent Ybor City physician, co-founder of La Gaceta, and director of the Centro Español mutual aid society. Avellanal the younger began a lifetime of dangerous scientific and mystical-occult experimentation by shooting one childhood friend in the eye and testing out a homemade electric chair on another. From there, his antics only escalated, and he was eventually sent to military school in Georgia. Once he returned to Ybor City, he began a diploma mill, operated as a gynecologist with absolutely no medical training, continued as an incorrigible ladies’ man who even pioneered consent forms for his romantic relations, and eventually had the title ‘General’ added to his name while he was in Mexico.
Jim Fair was born into a wealthy Tampa family but gave up a life of luxury for one of outspoken political scrutiny and informal philanthropy through his non-discriminatory Salvation Navy for the needy, his truly open-door policy when he was somehow elected Supervisor of Elections, and his penchant for making powerful enemies as a semi-famous local gadfly. Eventually a judge sent to Fair away to the Florida State Hospital mental institution in Chattahoochee in a judgment that has, several times, been characterized as indefensible.
Frederick Weightnovel told people he met that he came from Russia, escaping a tsarist gulag by swimming across an icy river… before coming to Tampa. He also told everyone that he was a doctor, yet had no degrees to show for it. He went before the Florida medical board and they saw no reason to give him a license, however he harangued them until they eventually did so. His medical practice’s records and ledger would surely have held secrets capable of destroying Tampa society. In addition to treating rheumatism and female complaints of well-to-do Tampa residents (sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, and the like), Weightnovel sold hair tonic on the side, his thick, curly locks and a full beard acting as a walking billboard for ample hair growth. Huse recounts:
”He would lay on his back in the surf and float like an otter. He would have a cigarette and a newspaper and a plate of oysters perched on his chest. He would float and read the paper and slurp his oysters. When he got out of the water, he would shake out his ample locks and make a spectacle that way. But that was just the beginning…”
Frederick Weightnovel ended up squatting in old Fort Brooke after it was decommissioned and the Seminoles were no longer a threat. The City tried but was not able to evict him and his associates. Ultimately, in a defiant gesture, the squatters elected Weightnovel mayor of Ft Brooke, which he renamed ‘Moscow’ and attempted to operate as a secessionist state.
Weightnovel ended up orchestrating several other controversies, to which the aforementioned pale in comparison. Hear these scandalous tales in the encore presentation of the talk, which is available for viewing on YouTube.
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* There is no evidence that Jose Gaspar existed, and in fact his story appears to be a legend created specifically to spur tourism and support the Gasparilla parade and event. Sorry.