- HISTORY OF THE UPPER KEYS -
Post 1935 Hurricane Sworn Statements
- By Jerry Wilkinson -
Compilation date = June 12, 2010
The below is a transcription of a sworn statement made by Capt. Ed Butters of Islamorada to the Veteran's Administration investigator H.W. Farmer after the 1935 Hurricane. I have added a stamped page number of each page I typed from. I am not certain if the National Archive added them orif these were original page numbers. Abbreviations are Q = Question and A = Answer, I italized the answers for easier reading.. My inserted comments are in [ ]'s.
"Jackson Memorial Hospital
September 15, 1935"CAPTAIN ED BUTTERS made the following responses under oath to questions propounded by H. W. Farmer, Investigator, in the investigation entitled ”Re Hurricane, Florida.”
1. Q. State your name, age and address?
A. Capt. Ed. Butters, 41 years, my present address in 750 N.E. 70th St. Miami, Florida.
2. Q. Are you a veteran?
A. I am a veteran, I don’t belong but I am discharged soldier from World War.
3. Q. Have you a claim in, Officers Retirement or claim of any kind?
A. None whatever.
4. Q. What is your employment?
A. Owner and operator of the Matecumbe Hotel, Upper Matecumbe Island, before used as Veterans’ Administration Headquarters at the time of the hurricane on September 2, 1935.
5. Q. I understand you wish to make a statement regarding this matter.
A. Yes, I built Key Inn at Key Largo in 1928 and in 1933 I traded off my property for an equity in the Matecumbe Hotel, which I was paying for. When the veterans came to the keys I rented the rooms and lobby as headquarters for the administration force, retaining my dining room and kitchen to feed the same. On the right of Sept. 2nd when the hotel started to cave in, we got in my Plymouth car and backed up against a bus which set on a lot owned by me east of the hotel. When the water got too high in the car we got in the bus and saved our lives. We stayed on the Keys till Wednesday afternoon when I brought my family to Miami, leaving my property in charge of Jim and Hettie Burnett, two trusted employees, going back for them Thursday, the 5th. When I arrived there Thursday, the officers of the National Guard, came to the hotel and asked who was there and he said the place belonged to Capt. Butters who had taken his family to Miami and was returning next day for them. They asked him whose car
461[Answer cont’d] that was and he said the car and he said the car belonged to me. Now this car was in perfect shape not a glass broken except the left front headlight glass. The car was all right in every way except for water in the crankcase and gas tank. They asked Jim for the key and he told them he did not have the key, that Capt. Butters did not want the car stated. They said they didn’t need Capt. Butter’s permission or anyone else’s, that the island was under martial rule and if they could get the car started they were going to use it. One of the officers got in the car and stepped on the starter, throwing salt water up around the pistons. The other officer called to him and said for him to get out of the car, leaving with the officers and as he left warned Jim that they were staying there that night and not leave the property or go on anyone else’s property and if they needed the car they would be back later. We had examined this car before leaving the island and to our surprise found everything in it all right except as to the headlight and salt water. Now we put some clothes in a suit case in the back of the car, shut the windows and locked the door and I brought my family to Miami. Returning Thursday, the 12th by boat, with oil, to salvage the car and what few clothes we could find, I found they had broken the right frond door glass, tried to pry the door open, which they spring. They had run the battery down with the started, tore one lock off completely on my truck on the rear of the car to get tools and had evidently used the hand crank further to try to start it and the clothes that were in the car had been scattered on the ground and trampled in the mud. One suit case was torn open and lay on the ground and the other one was gone.
I tried to start this car and the salt water had been in the crank case and had been thrown up around the pistons, thereby ruining the motor. I went into the pump house and found an outboard motor was stolens; two fishing rods were taken from the lobby of the hotel, and my boy’s bicycle had been ruined from being rode by men used in messenger service. I have turned a record of this into the FERA, with sworn affidavits, and in all justice feel that I am entitled to reimbursement in full for these things which were unnecessarily and wantonly reuined, having lost all my other property and things by the force of the storm.
6. Q. Did the man whom you left in charge or anyone else tell you that such things as fishing rods and clothing were taken by any particular persons?
A. You see after the storm we got all the people out we could and relieved the suffering and then began to find out what stuff we could save. First I went to see if the Light Plant
462(cont’d) had been flooded but it had not because it is set up on a high foundation. My batteries in the plant were in high—I have two fourteen dollar starting batteries. The outboard motor was handing up on the wall, too high to be damaged, and was O.K. in everyway. They took these two batteries evidently to be used in some car they were trying to start or some boat they were using to rescue work. The outboard motor was gone. I had four fishing rods in the lobby. They took two and left two. We knew that stuff was in there. The Plymouth Sedan was brand new, only 5 months old.
7. Q Have you any comment to offer of the rescue work that was done there in connection with the evacuating of the veterans?
A. I am going to be utterly frank. I knew when the train was ordered, and I know that that man (Sheldon) sat at the desk from Sunday afternoon straight through, in constant touch with radio and telephone and did not until 1:45 receive any report of an alarm and then not an alarming report. The report Sheldon received at 1:45 was this ” There will be a storm pass south of Key Largo sometime during the night or morning of gale force, center of force of probable hurricane force. Passing over the Florida Straits; vessels in vicinity of center of this storm to take precaution.”
8. Q. Do you know from whom Mr. Sheldon got his weather report?
A. I don’t know, but he got this weather report regular. Immediately- I am in Miami all this time trying to get my wife on the telephone and can’t because Sheldon has this radio I find out later when my wife finally came to the telephone. I tried to get her for an hour and Sheldon was talking to Hollywood and calling a man there to make arrangements for taking care of his men. I asked her if they thought it was dangerous and she said they were alarmed and going to move the men. That was five to two and fifteen after two is when I called and I got my wife immediately after that call went through. She gave them dinner at four and they expected a train at five. Immediately after dinner they got in trucks and went to Islamorada to be on the train and help load these men. Mrs. Fritchman who is at the Manhattan Hotel now, was working for FERA and still is but she has a couple of days off and is resting up now. She can give you all that dope because she is the one who took the message as it came over the telephone. There are 224 men, women and children from Snake Creek south. Just completely the census. That is civilians living and owning property on the Keys. Out of 224, exactly 113 or 50% were killed in 463(cont’d) the storm on upper Matecumbe. In that one mile from the edge of Whale Harbor to the end of the island where John Russell lived there were 32 killed. I was not worried about the storm till 5 o’clock. The barometer began to get bad.
9. Q. Is that census record still in existence?
A. Yes, Every man, woman, infant and child. I gave Mr. Van Hyning an original and copy.
10. Q. Were you acquainted with any of the veterans in the camps?
A. Yes I was in this way. I knew practically every man down there in these three camps. I used to go down with the minister at times when he held prayer service and I used to go to their ball games and holler hello as they went by and they always hollered “hello, captain” and pass the time of day but as to knowing the boys personally, I could not say.
11. Q. Do you recall any of them that you saw dead?
A. Yes, I saw Dr. Main, the only one I recognized. All swollen and out of shape, but I recognized him. They were beat to death and drowned.
12. Q. Do you know when Sheldon first made an effort to get a train to the island?
A. Well, Sunday he talked to Ghent in Jacksonville and gave him the barometer reading there so they could check with readings at Key West and Miami, and said he was waiting and the moment it looked dangerous he was ready to evacuate and they had promised a train on the Keys three hours from the time he called and he said he checked three times and they promised faithfully to get it there in three hours and they would be in readiness.
13. Q. Did that indicate to you he could have called the train without having to ask permission from anyone higher up in his own organizations?
A. Yes, he called straight through himself. I don’t think he had to call anybody.
46114. Q. Were you in communication with him Sunday evening and Monday morning?
A. Sunday evening, yes. He asked what I thought about it and I asked what the barometer readings were and I told him “ It don’t look dangerous yet and Monday morning at 6:30 the sky was fair, with a few clouds. No rain. Very light breeze. I got to Miami at 8:30 and the sky was overcast and very gusty and raining like the devil all day. Bad here but not bad on the Keys. I came up to paint a boat and could not because it was too wet. Little boy and I went to a show and I called my wife. The reason I called I was not alarmed about the weather but the wholesalers—I buy my groceries wholesale—were closed on account of Labor Day. I called to see if my wife was nervous about the wind. If she was, I was going back and come up next morning; if she was’nt I would stay over in Miami and go back Tuesday morning, and take a load of groceries with me.
15 Q. How many officials of the FERA lived in your hotel?
A. We had about 25 at the time of the storm. That included stores men, clerical department in general, all the office force; they all slept there.
16. Q. Were you fairly familiar with conditions in camp through them or observation?
A. More or less familiar with the camps there through the men sitting around talking, poker games, things like that.
17. Q. How was discipline in the camp as far as you know at the time or prior to the hurricane?
A. As far as I know, camp #1 was very peaceable; camp No. 3 after Davis was put in charge was very peaceable. The men got along fine with him and liked him. No. 5 except for a few men that didn’t get along with Robertson- he was killed during the storm—a few began to kick. He was strict on liquor and things like that; they didn’t like that.
18 Q. Was much liquor used there?
A. You mean in the camps? Well, a lot of beer and ale sold. You know a soldier as well as I do.
19. Q. Any drunkenness noticeable to outsiders?
A. You take that bunch living in camp and put them in homes, in society, in the middle walks of life and you would not notice it. You know what I mean. You put them down there
465(cont’d) as veterans, four or five hundred together and you see maybe 15 to 20 drunk during the day, why the whole camp is drunk. Lot of smoke and very little flame. More or less drinking like any bunch of red blooded men in an organization, no place to go, nothing to do buy play craps, poker and play cards.
20. Q. Did you observe the construction of the camps on the Keys?
A. I will tell you the only camp that I observed real well was camp No. 1. After the storm, is that what you mean?
21 Q. The construction of them at any time; were they built to withstand storms as well as the native’s buildings and the hotel and other buildings down there?
A. They were not. They were never intended for that and that is the reason that months before the hurricane season they had arranged to have the train in case of hurricane to get the men off the Keys. The houses were built with the idea that if there was a hurricane they would roll without breaking, so they could be re-salvaged and set up on their foundations again. They were braced so they would roll but not break-up. That is an idea a lot of people use in construction; in other words, the walls would not cave in and things like that. But they never intended in case of storm to leave the men there.
22 Q. But they did cave in in this storm?
A. Yes, the idea did not work evidently.
23. Q. All the office force except the ones who were directly responsible for the men as to loading them and caring for them, were ordered out of the storm area by the officers, that were in charge of the men?
A. Yes. They stayed to help load the men and take them out. None of them were ordered out till Mr. Sheldon had ordered the train and cared for the veterans: then he ordered them out. The train was not for them: they naturally took what transportation they could get out themselves.
24. Q. Knowing conditions down there as you undoubtedly do from the length of time you have lived there, would you have kept those veterans in there during the so-called hurricane period of the year?
A. That is a hard question. We have not had a hurricane
466(cont’d) since 1929, at Key Largo the year before, we didn’t have any blow or warning that year before that; we had seven heading right at us and Brownsville, Texas, got hit with three of them. I would have left them until--- before this year we would get a report of a hurricane and we could guage when to expect the storm and generally when we were expecting it we would not get it, for ten to twelve hours after. Always waiting on it, for the simple reason they travel 8-9 – a fast hurricane ten, miles an hour. First reports Sunday 260 miles east of Havana and traveling west---it would take four or five days at that rate to get to us, instead of which it hit us Monday. If that storm was 260 miles east of Havana on Sunday, when it got ready it must have jumped right smake in the air and sat down and hit the Keys; if it was really where they said it was. The whole thing is, I think, some ship in the vicinity of that storm gave them that position and they never got nearer that that—it was guess work. They have no way of picking that storm up except from vessels and things like that in the vicinity.
25. Q. Have you an opinion as to whether reports of the weather were as accurate as they should be?
A. Not as accurate as we had up to this year. At no time up to that last report at 1:45 Monday had we received any warning to board up or anything: the only warning issued was to ships in the vicinity of this storm; the first time in the history of a hurricane around this part of the country that we did not get a warning to board up. The only precautions were in the vicinity of the storm.
I will tell you about Ghent. I know Ghent was criticized several times for too much interest in the veterans. I knew his policy. I was on the Grievance Committee for Camp No. 3 when Ghent first came down there and I heard him sit down and lay down the policy for that organization as President Roosevelt and Hopkins wanted it. That these men were there to be helped; to keep the veterans in mine all the time, to efface self at all times. The veterans were to
467(cont’d) be rehabilitated and his problems were to be talked over with him friendly, studied and try to help him in every way possible. If he got drunk, forget it. Help him not to get that way again. Give him every chance in the world. Not a man was to think his job better that anyone else’s. To remember if it were not for the veterans not a dollar of their salary would they be drawing. The veterans must be first all the time. As a man, he laid it down to them cold turkey. Nobody to be a big shot in that organization. They were there to help the veterans. He said he expected them to make mistakes and he expected them to come to him with their mistakes and problems, and to build this organization up so it could be asset in helping these veterans. If they made a mistake they would iron it out. He wanted this organization built up as the President wanted it to aid the veterans. He did not want a man to leave that camp without seeking him and coming to his office and sitting down to talk to him like one of the other veterans and talk over what he intended doing when he got out and see if he was really ready to go out. I heard Ghent do that not once but a dozen times. I never heard Sheldon say that but Sheldon could never work for Ghent unless he was in that spirit, he would not have a man in the organization that did not have that idea in his mind.
26. Q. Did the veterans accomplish a reasonable amount of work there?
A. Sure they did. There was no drinking among the officers, not allowed on the Keys. If any done it was when they were on leave, away from there. I know because I lived right among them.
27. Q. Knowing what you do about weather conditions on the island, would it have been the part of a prudent man in charge of the camps to have called a train before 1:59P.M. Monday afternoon to move those veterans out of there?
A. Not according to those weather reports. Not by local barometer reading or the weather conditions at 6:30 Monday morning when I left. I have a father of 67, a wife and two kiddies and a grandson, all were there in my hotel during the storm. If the weather reports or barometer readings up to that time had been dangerous, I certainly would have taken them off the Keys. I never was so surprised in my life. I had boarded up because that is a big hotel and so many openings. Monday was Labor Day and the men not working and I said here is a fine chance to board up. I had it all boarded except just a few openings.
468(cont’d) for air so if the storm was reported we could do it in a hurry, but I fully intended Tuesday to take off the boards from the office windows so they could see to work again.
28. Q. Do you have any regular method of getting weather reports on that island except as you would call the Weather Bureau?
A. No, we got our weather report every noon at 12 o’clock by radio, also weather report came in on the mail train every morning. When storms were in the vicinity we would get weather reports at different times during the day. We left the radio on and caught the reports; some one was near the radio and we had barometers to watch too but we paid little attention except when a storm was in that vicinity.
29. Q. Any further statement that you care to make that has a bearing on the hurricane?
A. No, I knew the vets. They did everything they could till rescue parties came. Seemed to be very orderly in every way that I know of.
30. Q. Where are you located at the present time?
A. 750 NW 70th St. Miami. After it is all over of course we can see where we made mistakes and where life could have been saved but as to warnings and conditions, we played it the way we saw it and we lost. I had my family and I surely would have gotten them out if I thought there was danger.
I, CAPTAIN ED BUTTERS, DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR that the statement herein in response to questions propounded by H. W. Farmer, Investigator, have been read by me and they are true and correct to the best of my knowledge, and belief, so help me GOD.
SUBSCRIBED AND SWORN TO before me, H.W. Farmer, an investigator, for the Veterans’ Administration this ________ day of September 1935."
- End of Capt. Ed Butter's statement -