Young boy sees the light

Family finds history in Florida Keys

As a flame, Which oft they say, some Spirit attends, Hovering and blazing with delusive light.

-- Paradise Lost, John Milton

Go back 156 years. It was a desperate plan, but the man saw no other alternative. Food was scarce, there was no milk for the baby and the quarters for his family were an exposed tent just off the beach at Egmont Key. Salted meat and dried bread made up most of their meals, but it was the unrelenting summer heat during the day that finally pushed John Whitehurst to action. A staunch Unionist, after Florida succeeded from the United States in 1861, he dutifully collected his family of seven from his farm (in present day St. Petersburg) and asked for asylum at the Federal outpost at Egmont Key (present day Anna Maria Island). There, the Navy kept a small base as part of its blockade of the west coast of Florida, where the Whitehurst family joined a small group of other refugees. The only problem was food, the Navy shared some of its rations with the families, but except for what could be caught from the ocean, families were mostly on their own.

John's plan was simple: Take a small fishing boat, and sail it that early dawn across the bay to the tip of the Pinellas peninsula and put in just off Frenchmen's creek at Maximo Point. There, in the lush oak forest was a fish rancho operated by a widow named Dominga Hernandez. There would be fruit trees, a truck farm and cattle, with just a poor illiterate widow standing in their way. They would scavenge vegetables, fruit and fresh meat and then return quickly. John's cousin Scott volunteered to go, as well as a man named Arnold. Kissing his wife Elizabeth goodbye, she watched as John and the two men pushed their small craft into the darkened morning surf. By noon of that day, two of those men would be dead; the third mortally wounded.

Unfortunately for them, the widow Dominga Hernandez was a friend with her neighbor, Abel Miranda, who just happened to oversee the local Confederate militia. Hernandez quickly sounded the alert. The young Arnold was shot dead inland, and the militia chased the Whitehurst cousins to the beach, where Miranda killed Scott with one blast from his shotgun. A second blast tore into John Whitehurst, who managed to crawl into his boat and push off before collapsing from his wound. Picked up by a Union boat after floating aimless for two days in Tampa Bay near John's Pass, Whitehurst was brought back to Egmont Key, where he died Sept. 2, 1862, in terrible pain.

Go back to my childhood. I am 11 years old and staying with my grandparents in St. Petersburg for the summer. One night, my older cousin Rog asks if I want to go see ghost lights. "Are you kidding?" I exclaim. We drive up to Madeira Beach and park near John's Pass. He explains two spirits come and go here, trying to find their home. Looking back, I don't exactly remember seeing shiny lights, but we saw what looked like a dim red glow moving about. I never thought of it again until last week.

Family research led me to find I am a direct descendant of one Simon Whitehurst. His oldest son was the John from Egmont Key; John's sister would be my grandmother's grandmother. I uncovered the facts of John's death, but then last week, I found an old history book. There, on page 26 of The Story of St. Petersburg by Karl Grismer, published in 1924, is a brief description of the killing of the Whitehursts and how "The ghost lights are reported to have been seen for nearly a half a century after the slaying" near a place called John's Pass. Suddenly echoes of my cousin's invitation to see ghost lights all those years ago came in my head. Had I literally encountered family that faraway night?

Called ignis fatuus by scientists, some attribute the ghostly lights to marsh gasses of phosphorus that ignite briefly with oxygen. With all the development, that area now stays ablaze with neon signs and hotel lights. And with it, maybe, the light to finally find home.

NAN Our Town on 03/15/2018

Upcoming Events