110 W. New York Ave.
DeLand, FL 32720
Volusia: Florida's most corrupt county in 1920s and 1930s?
Joe Scarlett III tells tales of The Ring and The Anti-Ring
By Pat Hatfield
posted May 26, 2008 - 2:48:41pm
The building on West Indiana Avenue where Joseph Scarlett II practiced law is gone. It fell victim to the demolition claw, to make way for Chess Park to snuggle up to the east side of Volusia County's Historic Courthouse.
Joe Scarlett III remembers when his father practiced law there. He remembers his father's stories of Volusia County in the 1920s and 1930s. The law-office building is part of the story.
Political factions called The Ring and Anti-Ring still struggled for control of West Volusia in Scarlett's youth, in the 1930s.
The groups were rival factions of the Democratic Party; in those days, few Floridians were registered as Republicans.
Volusia County was considered second in corruption only to Cook County, Ill., where mobster Al Capone reigned. Volusia's political fights were often dirty and dangerous.
"They say there are two terrible counties in the country: Volusia County and Cook County," Scarlett said.
Joe Scarlett learned most of what he knows about these years of homegrown mobsterism and the war for political control from his father, who died in 1952.
Bert Fish, known as "the Red Fox," a founding member of the Landis, Graham and French law firm, led The Ring. Joe Scarlett II was a member of The Anti-Ring.
The two men had a lifelong grudge match, Scarlett said.
Fish helped push the Criminal Court of Records in Volusia County through the Legislature, and became its judge in the early 1930s. It was a power base for controlling Volusia County. An Anti-Ring judge later succeeded in abolishing it.
Scarlett remembers his father driving his sister to and from school, to ensure she wasn't kidnapped.
Fish pulled strings to make sure what is now the Historic Courthouse was built right on top of Joe Scarlett II's building, robbing it of windows, Scarlett said.
Fish went as far as purchasing property on the other side of the courthouse, to ensure the building could not be moved a bit farther west. That's why there were just a few feet between the east wall of the courthouse and the west wall of Scarlett's building.
"The Ring was so politically powerful, it ruled Daytona Beach, the largest city in the area," Scarlett said.
Francis Whitehair was Fish's protégé, and became a powerful member of The Ring.
While Daytona Beach was mostly white, DeLand had a large African-American population. Some white residents were members of the Ku Klux Klan, a political power group itself.
"The KKK forged ties with The Anti-Ring, because of the power of The Ring," Joe Scarlett said.
According to historical accounts, the KKK teamed up with both groups at different times.
It was KKK members, allied with The Anti-Ring, who tried to castrate a member of The Ring, Scarlett said.
As the story goes, the KKK lured the man out into the countryside, where they practiced unholy surgery on him. KKK members managed to cut off one testicle, but the other drew up self-defensively, and the castration attempt failed, Scarlett said.
There were a few members of The Ring for whom Scarlett had a great deal of respect. One was Horace D. Riegle, who lived in Daytona Beach. He was a Circuit Court judge whom Scarlett described as "a very fair man."
Scarlett described Judge Robert Wingfield in the same terms.
Political power plays would put in first a Ring judge, then an Anti-Ring judge. Thomas N. Tappy "was a Ring man" who also impressed Scarlett.
Tappy served on the bench back in the 1930s, then was defeated by the Anti-Ring faction.
Joe Scarlett II told his son The Ring stole votes in the 1936 election from another lawyer, J.E. Peacock, to put Tappy on the bench.
According to a Law and Order in Volusia County — An Oral History Project segment on Joseph Scarlett III by Bill Schumann, produced by the Florida Humanities Council, Joe Scarlett II succeeded in bringing members of the Florida Supreme Court to Volusia County to count the ballots for this judicial election.
Ring Judge Herbert Frederick complained the five Supreme Court justices sat on the floor of the courtroom to count the votes, while "chewing tobacco and spitting on my courtroom floor."
Tappy was subsequently removed and replaced by Peacock.
Tappy sat as a judge later, in the 1950s, when Joe Scarlett III had begun his law practice.
The two became friends, but that didn't keep young Scarlett out of trouble with the judge. It was Tappy who charged the younger Scarlett with the only citation for contempt of court he has gotten, so far, over 56 years of practicing law.
"Tom Tappy held me in contempt because I had gotten drunk with John Godby," Scarlett told The Beacon.
This was in 1960. Scarlett had returned to DeLand from his law-clerking job in Tallahassee to resolve a pending legal case, and was staying at the Putnam Hotel. He and attorney Godby, who was staying in the next-door room, had a late night out.
Scarlett was late for court the next day, and Tappy fined him $15.
It worked out well. The jury was sympathetic to Scarlett and returned the "impossible verdict" of not guilty, according to Law and Order in Volusia County.
This infuriated Tappy, who not only chewed out the jurors, but struck their names from the roll so they could never serve on a jury again.
Then there was the famous moonshine case, in which the evidence was kept in the judge's cloakroom. A number of lawyers were spotted entering and leaving the cloakroom.
When the bottle of moonshine was produced as evidence in the trial, it was empty. The case, Scarlett said, was dismissed.
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