Dakota Datebook

Gudmundur Grimson, Part 2

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Yesterday, we began a 3-part story on Gudmundur Grimson, the attorney for a farm family whose son turned up dead in a forced-labor camp in Florida.

In 1921, young Martin Tabert of Munich, North Dakota, had been sentenced to three months in a Florida jail for vagrancy unless he paid a fine of $25. His father immediately sent Martin money, but the letter was waylaid and sent back with a notation: “party gone.” In reality, Sheriff J. R. Jones, of Leon County Florida, had “leased” Martin to the Putman Lumber Company; the sheriff was paid $20, and Martin was forced to cut trees and construct a railroad bed in the swamps.

The practice of leasing Florida convicts to private businesses began in 1877 when the state was still dealing with financial hardships from the Civil War, and there was no money for more jails or prisons. Businesses paid for the right to use convicts for laborers in exchange for a fee, and the state was released from the burden of clothing, feeding and housing its inmates.

“Captain” Walter Higginbotham was Martin Taber’s camp supervisor; his favorite motivational tool was a 7-pound, 5 foot-long whip called “Black Aunty,” which got regular use.

Martin soon became ill from working in waist-deep swamp water, especially after he developed open sores from Black Aunty. Meals consisted only of field peas, corn bread and side pork; the camp’s sanitary conditions were abominable, and the sleeping quarters were infested with vermin.

Martin’s feet swelled with boils, and the lacerations from his whippings became infected. When his fever made him too sick to work, Higginbotham punished him with more floggings. Martin became steadily weaker, but the “Captain” called it loafing on the job. Florida law limited flogging of penal prisoners to ten lashes, but Black Aunty landed at least forty times in front of 85 witnesses. Martin was so traumatized that Higginbotham had to step on the boy’s neck to hold him still.

Martin’s friends helped him back to his bunk. That was Friday night. The next morning, he was flogged again and forced onto the flat car that delivered the convicts to their workplace. By

Sunday morning, Martin’s fever was so high he was delirious. By Monday, he was nearly unconsciousness. Putman Lumber brought in their physician, who gave Martin’s bunkmate some quinine to administer to the boy, but by Wednesday night, Martin Tabert was dead.

Langdon attorney Gudmundur Grimson had eyewitness accounts regarding these events, but he wanted a closer look, so in January 1923, he headed for the Florida swamps where the Munich boy was killed. He found the eyewitnesses, obtained sworn statements and confronted Sheriff Jones in his office. Jones responded by closing his roll-top desk and walking out.

Gudmundur next went to Florida Governor Hardee. Grimson had little trouble in getting the chief executive’s promise of Grand Jury action, and he went back to North Dakota confident that he had the ball rolling. But, the Florida Grand Jury took no action.

The prosecution’s next move was unprecedented… they took the case to the North Dakota legislature. The legislators were outraged and quickly passed a resolution calling on the State of Florida to conduct an investigation into Taber’s death. It was the first time in this Nation’s history that one State made such a request of another State. Tune in tomorrow to learn what happened.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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