By YVETTE C. HAMMETT
Genealogy can be a fascinating hobby, especially when it unearths family secrets buried for nearly a century — secrets that are both eye-popping and mysterious.
Frank Haddleton, of Burlington, Vermont, had just such an experience when he began unearthing the fascinating history of his Florida family — his great-great-grandfather, Henry Walker, a ship pilot on Egmont Key, and his great-grandfather, Fred Walker, keeper of the Indian Hill light on what is now called Big Cockroach Mound, or Cockroach Key off Sun City.
“By training and profession, I am a lawyer, but genealogy family history has always been my interest,” Haddleton said. “I’ve always spent time researching my family history, but I never thought much about my great-great-grandfather, Henry Walker. He, like the rest of his family, was from Cape Cod. He died on Egmont Key at 57 in 1900. Then, I looked at his son, my great-grandfather. There was no date of death for him. Eventually, I had to figure out why that was. Indian Hill, or Cockroach Key, was where he died. I decided I was going to find out what happened.”
What he learned were family secrets that had been buried for nearly a century. Both men, as reported in the Tampa Morning Tribune, had committed suicide. Or had they?
His findings are now part of a murder mystery Haddleton named Walker’s Key, a novel for which he is seeking a publisher.
“Sometimes, genealogy has its ‘OMG’ moments,” Haddleton said. “Eight or 10 years ago in the public library in Tampa, I came across an article in the Tampa Morning Tribune. My great-great-grandfather, Henry Walker, was a ship pilot at Egmont Key and according to the article, he slew himself.
“I was stunned because nobody in my family had said a word about it — ever. Not my mother or siblings or cousins. The story was totally buried.”
He looked further, only to find an article about his great-grandfather, Henry’s son, the light keeper, saying he had also killed himself at age 35.
“I was blown away,” Haddleton said, “So I figured there was a bigger story here. I had to know more. I spent three years of my spare time researching everything I could about these people, why they were in Florida and the whole story. It’s just fascinating. The things I discovered are just unbelievable.
“When I got done, I realized I knew an awful lot, more than anyone. But there were a lot of holes in the story. The only way to deal with this is write a novel and fill in the blanks to answer all the questions.”
What Haddleton believes now, as Henry Walker’s friends had surmised in 1900, is that his great-great-grandfather did not off himself, but was murdered, a slaying made to look like a suicide.
“Even in reality there is some basis for thinking that might have been the case. Another article in the Tribune told that all associates and friends didn’t believe he had committed suicide. He was the star pilot of Tampa Bay. They thought foul play was involved.
“Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but that is the premise for the novel, that my great-great-grandfather was, in fact, murdered. The story flowed from there.”
It is more likely that Henry’s son, Fred, the light keeper, did commit suicide on the island now held by Hillsborough County as part of its Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, or ELAPP.
What the book says…. well…. Haddleton is waiting to get it published to reveal that.
“All kinds of things happen. It’s basically a murder mystery. Something happens with the second death. I don’t know what other writers think, but having read it, my friends think it’s great. But they’re my friends.”
On July 7, 1900, The Morning Tribune reported Captain H.M. Walker’s apparent suicide.
Well-endowed with this world’s goods, popular with all who knew him, with a loving wife and bright 12-year-old (grandson) to make a life worth the living, Captain H.M. Walker, one of the best-known pilots on the Gulf Coast, shot himself through the head at Egmont Key Thursday afternoon, the story went. There was no known motive, and friends later said they doubted it was suicide, but more likely murder.
“His friends believe foul play has been practiced,” the paper reported three days later.
Then, on Oct. 26, the same year, the paper reported the death of Fred Walker, the captain’s son, “keeper of the light,” as having shot himself while alone in his little cabin at Indian Hill, near the mouth of the Little Manatee River.
Fred Walker, about 35 years old, had been the keeper of what was called the Indian Hill light.
The apparent suicides were never shared with the family, Haddleton said. Instead, they were kept secret for nearly 100 years.
In 33 chapters, with 88,000 words, Haddleton penned his version of the story, with nearly every page containing some facts from his family history.
The novel is a murder mystery set in 1900 on Cape Cod and in Florida at Egmont Key, Cockroach Key (aka Indian Hill or Walker’s Key), and St. Petersburg, Haddleton posts on his website at www.frankhaddleton.com. There, interested readers can see the first chapter of the book.
“Walker’s Key is about love, murder, sibling rivalry and forgiveness. It’s also about solving a murder mystery or two,” he writes on his page. “Though the story is fiction, most of what happens in it really did happen, in some form, and it happened to my Walker ancestors. What didn’t happen as I’ve described it probably could have happened.”
“My great-great-grandfather was a ship captain and he was very much involved in coastal trade up and down the East Coast,” Haddleton explained. “With the advent of the railroad, that business dropped off substantially in the late 1800s. I think he felt there were greater opportunities in Florida. He came down in winters and fished off of Tampa for red snapper in the 1880s and then worked for a steamship line in Tampa.
“He sort of fell in love with Florida, is my best guess. Then, in 1898 he got a job living on Egmont Key.”
Captain Walker came to Tampa Bay the first time in 1878 when he worked for Miller & Henderson, a Tampa steamship company, Haddleton said. “He and Miller & Henderson co-owned a steamship called Valley City. Miller & Henderson also owned several other vessels, of course. Captain Walker and other captains, including James McKay and William Parker Jackson, both very noteworthy in Tampa history, commanded the Valley City, transporting cattle, citrus, mail, and passengers on the gulf, stopping at Havana, Key West, Tampa, Cedar Key, Pensacola and New Orleans. Sadly, the Valley City foundered off Cape San Blas during a gale in 1882.”
Walker, while a ship captain at Egmont, also occasionally worked for Henry B. Plant’s company, guiding fishing excursions out to the snapper banks off Tampa.
“Captain Walker invested in land around Tampa Bay during his time there. One of the parcels he owned was held in the family until 1965 when it was sold to the City of St. Petersburg. It is now Lake Vista Park,” Haddleton said.
His great-grandfather got a position as a light keeper with help from his father.
“My great-great-grandfather had two sons. The younger son he named after himself, Henry Walker Jr. I didn’t find out what happened to him until recently. He was lost at sea in the 1890s and that had a big impact on the family,” before they permanently located to Florida. “It may have been part of the reason Henry decided to move the family,” Haddleton speculates.
“The bottom line is this has been just a lot of fun,” writing the novel. “It’s been a big adventure, and I’d love for it to turn into a published novel, but I’m trying to be realistic.”
Haddleton hired a professional book reviewer and got a lot of what he considers good input, which led to a major revision. “Now I’m trying to get a literary agent interested. Doing it from realistic background, I’m hoping my novel will get published,” he said.