TAMPA — It was the dawn of a new era, 75 years ago this month, one free of the gangsters who plagued Tampa.
Or so new Gov. Doyle Carlton promised as he announced that ending illegal rackets would be a top priority, echoing a proclamation by Hillsborough County Sheriff Luther Hatton.
Both men were beginning their terms in January 1929.
Carlton worked to live up to his promise. Hatton did not.
Just nine months after Hatton was sworn in, the governor suspended him for aiding the criminals he was elected to arrest. He was stripped of authority for taking a bribe from an underworld figure, a first even for those times. He was never reinstated.
Hatton’s story serves as a reminder of Tampa’s lawless past. Historians have often described Hillsborough County in the early to mid-1900s as a Southern version of the Wild West, a place where gambling, prostitutes and moonshine were peddled in the open and gun fights broke out in the streets.
“Rumor has always been that no one could end the corruption at that time in this county because too many corrupt people were part of law enforcement,” said Lisa Figueredo, who runs Ybor City Mafia Tour. “The inmates were running the asylum.”
Hatton might have been the first lawman caught, but no one believed he was the first to cross the line.
“It was a common, accepted occurrence,” said Ferdie Pacheco, an Ybor City historian. “Tampa sheriffs were used to being on a payroll from outlaws since the beginning of organized crime in Tampa.”
The nationwide ban on alcohol known as Prohibition was the law of the land from 1920 to 1933 but it was completely ignored here, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center.
“I have heard stories of local police helping bootleggers bring liquor into bars,” Kite-Powell said.
Newspaper accounts from 1927 documented 300 local illegal gambling parlors earning an estimated $20 million that year.
Hope for change arose when Hatton entered the race for sheriff in summer of 1928.
A Tampa native and Army veteran, he had no past political or law enforcement experience. That was considered a credential. The more experience an elected official had, the more opportunities for his corruption. Typically, in return for delivering the vote to a particular candidate, a crime syndicate enjoyed impunity from the law if he won.
The communities with the largest contingency of illegal establishments were Ybor City and West Tampa, also the scenes of the most election tampering.
“Ballot boxes were stuffed with fake votes or the real voting totals were ignored and completely fabricated totals were used to favor the candidate who could offer the gangsters the most protection,” said Figueredo, with Mafia tours. “I’d guess that whoever won Ybor and West Tampa was not usually the person who honest law enforcement wanted in office.”
Hatton received just a handful of votes total in those Latin districts during the November 1928 election. In the precinct where it was known he would receive the greatest support, Hyde Park, two masked gunmen stormed a storefront doubling as the election station and stole the ballot box. Two people were wounded.
The box was recovered during a chase, but the suspects were never identified.
Hatton got enough votes from Hyde Park to win the race.
Honest citizens were delighted, all through December.
But just weeks into his term as sheriff, Hatton was the subject of whispers.
Word leaked to the governor Hatton had after all made the syndicates the same old promises.
People wrote the governor describing the sheriff stumbling into speakeasies known for their women and booze.
Honest deputies complained to the state that he forbade them from charging anyone with gambling or moonshining without his permission no matter how strong the evidence. He would let the suspects go otherwise.
And when a request was filed, the deputies said, Hatton refused to make an arrest.
“Prohibition was a federal crime not a local one,” said Kite-Powell. “So it was up to federal agents to bring an end to it.”
Letters were indeed sent to President Herbert Hoover from Hillsborough County.
In June and September 1929, Carlton sent undercover private investigators here.
According to affidavits the investigators filed, the accusations against the sheriff were true. They described Hatton entering notorious establishments such as Ybor City’s El Dorado, the Yellow Shack and Pote’s Cafe. A list of gangsters on his “pay off list” included the Ralph Reina and Joe Italiano, both of whom had well-documented ties to the underworld.
According to the state report, Hatton charged gambling houses, speakeasies and brothels $50 a week. If they paid, he left them alone. If they refused, he shut them down.
On Oct. 4, 1929, the governor announced he had suspended Hatton as sheriff and named Robert Joughin his replacement. Joughin was a close friend of the governor’s and a member of his military staff.
Hatton fought the suspension.
He denied charging protection money, claimed his deputies held back on raiding illegal establishments because he was understaffed, and argued that because the affidavits accusing him of corruption were anonymous, it was difficult to defend himself.
He twice took his case for reinstatement to the Florida Senate in 1931 but was denied both times.
The book, “A History of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office,” says Hatton was vindicated in 1931 by a Senate committee. No records validating that claim can be found.
Little is known about what happened to Hatton from that point on.
Carlton’s crusade brought him many enemies. In 1930, an assassination attempt was snuffed out before it could be acted upon. The Tampa Tribune wrote that Carlton completed his term with a reputation for integrity.
Joughin served as sheriff through 1933. His daughter, Lula Dovi, has been quoted as saying her father’s life was under constant threat by the gangsters.
He slept with a machine gun in the corner of his bedroom and two pistols under his pillow. His brother lived across the street and when Joughin would arrive home, the brother and a neighbor would arm themselves against possible ambush.
According to Pacheco, despite the work of Carlton and Joughin, Hillsborough County would remain one of the most corrupt communities in the country for years to come.
“The Tampa underworld was the last vestige of the Wild West lawlessness,” Pacheco said, “and the Wild West found its last gasp in Florida.”