Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of the Barefoot Mailman

Palm Beach County History Museum
Barefoot Mailmen are remembered in an exhibit at the Palm Beach County History Museum.
Today in 1887 James E. Hamilton, one of the famous Barefoot Mailmen, died at Hillboro Inlet near Pompano Beach. He was one of a cadre of public servants who delivered the mail along the southeast coast of Florida from Palm Beach to south of Miami. They walked along the beach because there were no roads.

The route was established in 1885 to deliver mail between Palm Beach and Miami. Before that, a letter from Palm Beach took a circuitous route by steamboat and train to Jupiter, Titusville, New York and Havana, Cuba, before arriving in Miami at least six weeks later.

The route along the beach took about a week, and included rowing boats across various inlets along the way.

In her book, Magnificent Mile, A History of Hillsboro Beach, Carmen Racine McGarry details the circumstances surrounding Hamilton's death. Hamilton was last seen in Hypoluxo on Oct. 10, 1887, a Monday. He was expected back the following Saturday but never returned.

Two of his friends followed his route to find out what happened. They discovered his mail pouch, trousers and shirt hanging on a tree limb at Hillsboro Inlet. They found his underwear near the water's edge. They surmised that he had decided to swim across the inlet to get his boat.

His friends believed he was killed by alligators. Numerous gator tracks were found in the area. His body was never found.

The question arose why Hamilton's boat wasn't on the right side of the inlet as it was supposed to be. Locals became suspicious of a newcomer who had just arrived in the area. The man claimed that hunters had given him a ride across the inlet but he was suspected of having taken Hamilton's boat, an offense as severe as horse stealing in the old West.

The stranger was charged with tampering with government property but was acquitted in federal court in Jacksonville.

Theodore Pratt's 1943 book The Barefoot Mailman told Hamilton's story. A movie based on the book came out in 1951. It starred Robert Cummings and Terry Moore.

There is a plaque in memory of Hamilton at Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse.

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