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Why I Wrote Walker's Key

The postcard above, from about 1900, shows the Atlantic Coast Lines pier at St. Petersburg.  


Walker's Key is a fictional account of the lives of a family from Harwich Port that relocates to Tampa Bay in the 1890s.  It is based upon actual events which I uncovered while researching my family history.  It is about love, sibling rivalry, murder, and forgiveness.  The setting and the time period are also central elements of the story.


My maternal grandfather died two years before I was born, so I knew nothing about his family’s Tampa Bay story from him. My maternal grandmother told me very little about the experiences of her husband’s family at Tampa Bay. She told me that my grandfather had spent several years of his childhood in Florida, and she told me that my grandfather’s grandfather was one of the first ship captains to navigate Tampa Bay. I also remember my grandmother telling me that my grandfather was on the verge of receiving a small fortune for a sale of Florida land which he had inherited from his grandfather, but that the deal fell through as the Florida real estate boom of the 1920s crashed. 


Along with many other genealogical treasures, my grandmother gave me three photographs taken at Tampa Bay in 1900, a handful of photos she took during her own Florida trip in 1926, and a letter she had written to her mother-in-law while on that trip. This letter evidently came back to her after her mother-in-law’s death. 


Regrettably, I didn’t ask my grandmother many questions about this period of time in our family’s history. I was only 19 when my grandmother died, and my curiosity had not fully matured by then. However, I’m not sure how much she would have revealed if I had asked.


Even I, being the odd member of my family who is obsessed with family history, would probably never have taken the time to put any of the pieces of this story together were it not for one very strange fact: in all of the information reported anywhere about my great-grandfather, including his gravestone, no date is provided for his death. The month is indicated. The place is indicated. But the day of the month is not indicated. 


It also seemed unusual that my great-grandfather died within just a few months of his father’s death.  In addition, my great-grandfather’s brother, who was three years younger than him, seemed to have fallen off the planet. For a long time I could find no information about how he died either, but I did finally figure that out, learning in the process that his exact date of death, like his brother's, can never be known.


My great-grandfather died in 1900 at the age of 37 at a place called Indian Hill, Florida. Certainly this was during a period when accurate records of births, marriages, and deaths in this country were almost universally created and maintained, at least in the absence of highly unusual circumstances. He died at his home, right here in the United States. He did not die in a war. He was not lost at sea or killed during some expedition over land. He did not die during some epidemic when there might have been too many deaths to keep track of properly. To a person like me, the absence of a date of death, at least for those who lived in recent times, cannot be accepted without a really good reason, and I knew of none. It was not strange, really, that nobody in the family knew how my great-grandfather died, but how on earth could it be that nobody knew what day he died?

 

The story of what happened to my great-grandfather and to his father is, in fact, a story which was not told to my mother, nor to her siblings, nor to her cousins. Some branches of the family were told that my great-great-grandfather was lost at sea, but that wasn’t at all true. The true story may not even have been told to my mother’s father or uncles (my great-grandfather's children) who were very young, and back at Cape Cod, when the two deaths occurred, although my guess is that they probably learned of it at some point, and then promptly agreed not to share it with anyone else. This is one of those more unusual stories that were deliberately covered up, as opposed to forgotten. If there were good reasons to cover this story up at the time --and I suppose that for that time there were good reasons -- those reasons have been erased by the passage of time.


I did discover why it is that we will never know what day my great-grandfather died. Several years ago at the public library in Tampa I searched the microfiche images of Tampa’s premier newspaper in 1900. I was genuinely shocked to find an unusually graphic front page article about the death of my great-great grandfather at Egmont Key, and then a short time later another unusually graphic front page article about the death of his son, this latter article explaining why my great-grandfather’s date of death cannot be known. 


What I found out that day at the library was not something I had even considered as a possibility. And though I learned why we can never know what day my great-grandfather died, and I also learned how, in gruesome detail, his death occurred, I still don’t know why his death occurred. Nor do I really know why the death of his father occurred. 


In the process of researching this story, I learned that life on Cape Cod in the nineteenth century, and particularly the life of a mariner, was even more difficult and perilous than I had ever imagined. Without looking very far at all I came across what seemed to me an unbelievable number of lost sailors.

 

I also discovered a powerful incentive for a nineteenth century writer to make up stories. I had realized that historical reports are sometimes fabricated, but the incentive which I discovered here was an incentive that would never have occurred to me. 


After several years of research, including visits to the Florida homes of my great-grandfather and my great-great-grandfather, I had finally pieced together all of the discoverable facts. I had a pretty good idea of what happened to everyone, but there were still many holes in the story, the biggest hole being the question of motivation. Why did these people do what they did? Why did their lives come to early and tragic ends?


I desperately wanted to fill in these holes and end up with a complete story. That’s why I wrote Walker’s Key. Walker’s Key is based upon everything I discovered about my ancestors and their time in Tampa Bay. Many of the events described in Walker’s Key actually happened. All of the events described in Walker’s Key could have happened.