Historic City Memories: The Ordinance of Doom


This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.

Buddy Hough and the Ordinance of Doom
By Geoff Dobson

It was an emergency; an emergency which required St. Augustine’s City Commission to meet in an emergency session without notice in order to take immediate action on Ordinance 210-A.

Leon H. “Buddy” Hough was about to open his new museum on Williams Street. The ordinance was intended to doom Hough’s dream of a new tourist attraction, a dream he had been working on for a year and a half since President Kennedy’s death.

The dream took him to Dallas and made Hough a person of interest in the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy.

Hough at one time, according to Henry Twine, admitted that he had planned during the civil rights troubles in St. Augustine on shooting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but could not do it because Dr. King was a “man of God.”

What was it that caused the Criminal Intelligence Section of the Special Services Bureau of the Dallas Police Department to follow up on Hough’s movements in Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin? Why had Hough purchased the contents of Lee Harvey Oswald’s bedroom including two unmatched pillow slips, a ratty bedspread, and a comb? Why had Hough purchased the 1962 Ford Ambulance in which Oswald was transported to the Parkland Memorial Hospital? Why did Hough buy the black 1954 Chevrolet in which Oswald had ridden to the Texas Book Depository? What would these items have revealed about possible co-conspirators with Oswald? The results of that investigation now repose in the Dallas Police Department John F. Kennedy Archive, Box 18, Folders 3 and 4.

St. Augustine had always been fairly well laissez-faire attitude with regard to tasteless or historically inaccurate tourist attractions. Hucksterism was no stranger to the city. At the turn of the century there were four different structures operating at the same time claiming to be the “oldest house in the United States.”

Dentist Charles P. Carver operated an “Oldest House” on St. Francis Street. It was later operated by James W. Henderson and after 1911 by George Reddington who claimed that his house was constructed in 1565 by Franciscan monks. Later there would be displayed in the house a portrait of New York Senator and former President of the New York Central Railroad Chauncey Depew typed with the X’s on a typewriter.

Everett. C. Whitney had an “Oldest House” on Hospital Street (now Aviles Street). Whitney claimed that his house was built in 1516, scarcely three years after Ponce de Leon landed in Florida. Within his house, Whitney displayed, among other things, a stuffed alligator, a rattlesnake and a horseshoe crab. He claimed that the house was the oldest “bank” in the United States. (A coin had been found in a hole above a fireplace, i. e., it was a “bank.”). He also operated a “burning spring” in which he burned gasoline poured on top of sulfurous well water.

James Dodge ran the Old Curiosity Shop on St. George Street which he claimed to be the “Oldest House”.

Finally, Dr. John Vedder claimed that his museum on Bay Street was the true oldest house. Dr. Vedder, a dentist, featured in his attraction a sea cow skeleton, a monkey faced owl, a monster alligator and various other “monster” fish. The “Snake Room” received high marks in tourist guides. In the gift shop, one could buy live alligators or ones that had been stuffed and artistically mounted. The live alligators were already boxed for shipment back north. One short lived exhibit attracted large crowds. It was a live multi-colored bird, with canary colored tail feathers, Kelly green wings and a black breast, all nicely blended to form a spectacle. The St. Augustine News indicated that the bird had flown voluntarily into Dr. Vedder’s menagerie yard. The bird was in fact a white pigeon which had been dyed. In the Old Curiosity Shop one could purchase alligator jaws.

Each location was packed with items of dubious authenticity to enlighten and edify curious visitors to the city. What today would appear to be outrageous and unbelievable claims were made as to all.

None were the oldest house in the United States, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Ripley’s says the oldest house was one constructed from petrified dinosaur bones at Como Bluffs, Wyoming.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, Al Mosher operated the “Mystery House” on Anastasia Blvd., opposite a local alligator ranch. The Mystery House had a room in which it would appear that one grew smaller or larger depending upon where one stood. Another display made it appear that water could flow uphill.

Journalist Charles Bingham Reynolds repeatedly denounced the various attractions of St. Augustine and the enhanced history told by guides of the time. Reynolds denounced guides at Fort Marion (now Castillo de San Marcos National Monument) who recited “weird tales of torture crosses, racks with bodies stretched on them by weights, skeletons chained to the walls, quicksand wells to swallow down the bodies of victims tortured to death * * *.”

Reynolds repeatedly condemned the “farrago of audacious lies,” and the Ponce de Leon Spring fake. Ultimately, the exaggerated history and blatant lies became an embarrassment to the City.

Museums were a permitted use on Williams Street where Hough was constructing his new museum. In reliance upon the zoning, Hough expended over $30,000 in 1960’s dollars on improving the property and tracking down the exhibits.

In Texas, he acquired Oswald’s furniture and personal property to recreate Oswald’s bedroom. Hough wrote that he would “display these items always in good taste” to A. C. Johnson; the owner of the boarding house in which Oswald resided.

Hough tracked down the Chevrolet in which Oswald had gone to the Book Depository, and, through four different owners, the Ford ambulance. This, of course, attracted the attention of the Dallas Police.

Hough also purchased from a movie company the 1934 Ford used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde — replete with bullet holes. (The real Ford in which Bonnie and Clyde died is actually in Nevada.)

Hough purchased the wrecked Buick Electra in which Jane Mansfield died.

Hough acquired a Lincoln (without engine) which President Kennedy had at one time owned. (It was not the Dallas vehicle.)

Hough’s museum, to put it bluntly, was the epitome of bad taste. Plans for his museum were discussed on television for five months prior to the planned opening.

In April, 1965, preparatory to opening, Hough applied for his final licenses. There was outrage over Hough’s plans. Thus on May 28, 1965, the City Commission met and passed an emergency ordinance which it hoped would doom Hough’s “Tragedy in U. S. History Museum.”

Hough did what any red-blooded American would do. He sued. Four times the case went up and down the judicial ladder to the appellate courts. Hough won, the ordinance was invalid.

It simply was not proper for the City to stand idly by knowing full well of Hough’s plans while he spent the $30,000.

But, in a sense, the City won. Even though Hough could have his museum, the trailer trains refused to stop. He was denied membership in the Chamber of Commerce. The small museum withered on the vine. In one eight-month period, he averaged only one visitor a day.

Hough died in 1996. His widow maintained the museum for another two years, before closing down and auctioning off its contents. News of the closing went out over the Associated Press. It was national news.

On June 2, 1965, a letter from St. Augustine Police Chief, Virgil Stewart cleared Hough from complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy which led to a report dated 8 June 1965 from R. W. Westphal, Detective, Criminal Intelligence Section, to Captain K. P. Gannsay, Special Services Bureau, Dallas Police Department.

Next week: Dudley Garrett and the Case of the Bare Chested Stranger.

Photo credit: Contributed photo by Geoffrey B. Dobson

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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