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“Forgotten” Tragedy in New Museum Display

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Posted: Friday, April 27, 2018 11:07 am

National news of tragedy in deep South Dade is usually associated with devastating hurricanes. In 1938, however, the nation was gripped by an entirely human event, as fervent prayers were said for the life of a five-year-old boy.

The Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum was recently given the almost 80-year-old front page of a newspaper and other items surrounding the kidnapping of Skeegie Cash, the only son of James Bailey and Vera Cash. The new display synopsizes the terrible turmoil few, if anyone, in Homestead and the area recall. In a startling way, the intense personal dramas involved became entangled in the political fortunes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bailey and Vera Cash were hardworking people who owned a general store and gas station in Princeton. Their two-story house was next door and as was not uncommon, they rented the upper room. On the very ordinary night of Saturday, May 28, 1938, Mrs. Cash followed the usual routine of giving their son a bath, putting his pajamas on and reading to him until he fell asleep. She went to the store to help her husband with the day’s accounting as was also their routine. It was when she followed the last part of the routine to check and see that the child was sleeping peacefully, their world, in effect, began to unravel. The father, a stalwart man, tried to assure his wife the empty crib was not cause for alarm. The child had perhaps gotten up and wandered outside. Her fear would sadly prove to be accurate.

Luther Williams, the husband of the couple boarding, was awakened and although he had heard someone moving about the house as he was preparing for bed, the sounds had seemed ordinary. The open back door and cut screen were not.

Neighbors and nearby relatives were contacted and the crowd of people around the house grew as initial searches were futile. The discovery of a ransom note led to Dade County Sheriff D.C. Coleman being called. There would be no sleep that night as even more people gathered around, anxious to help. The $10,000 demanded in a specific mix of bills was clear about no police interference and Cash was certain it was better to follow instructions.

The Sheriff’s office had in fact alerted the Miami FBI office, and Special Agents Arthur Rutzen and Samuel McKee arrived on the scene. In a moment of historical context, the infamous 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping had ushered in a disheartening increase of children taken for ransom. Stories from around the country made headlines and all too many ended in death. At the time, parents had the right to choose to pay the ransom and not involve the authorities. Cash, believing no one would harm their child, agreed to allow the FBI to be in the background, but not begin an active investigation.

What Cash could not know was J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, faced a crisis of his own in recent severe budget cuts. In the gamesmanship of politics, solving the Skeegie Cash case could be instrumental in raising the public’s support of the FBI. Hoover himself came in as well as having sent multiple agents to be on the ground.

The rollercoaster effect of these events and the tense days that followed have been detailed in the book, “The Kidnapping and Murder of Little Skeekie Cash: J. Edgar Hoover and Florida’s Lindbergh Case”, by Robert A. Waters and Zack C. Waters. The true-crime author accessed 4,000 pages of FBI documents and thousands of Florida references. The sheer volume of research required more than a decade to write the book which is part of the display at the museum.

To return to the story, family, friends, and residents of the surrounding towns continued to converge in the area. Reporters and other strangers made their way to add to the tumult. Max Losner of First National Bank of Homestead, who knew the Cash family did not have as much as $10,000, helped make arrangements for the money and in yet another bizarre twist, a third ransom note changed instructions to Cash about the drop-off. During the still dark hours of early morning Tuesday, he tossed the filled shoebox, having faith they would soon be reunited with their son. Those hopes became an agreement to a search and full investigation instead.

Emotions, suspicions, and rumors escalated. Hundreds were interviewed, and puzzled individuals found themselves questioned as suspects for one reason or the other. Franklin Pierce McCall, a twenty-one-year old truck driver and laborer, had given a reasonable explanation to the FBI as to how he chanced upon the third note. Sheriff Coleman had second thoughts, maneuvered to spend time with McCall, and convinced the FBI to bring him in again. In a more pointed interrogation, McCall finally confessed in such detail there was no doubt left. He led them close enough for authorities to find the body only a short distance from the Cash home. Perhaps an even crueler blow was that McCall and his wife had been boarders in the Cash home for six months. He was quite familiar with their routines, but there was never an indication his wife knew anything of his plans.

In what today seems an extraordinarily compressed timeframe, the child was kidnapped, McCall was identified, confessed, and tried. His explanation the boy’s death was accidental apparently caused by the handkerchiefs McCall had placed over his nose and mouth did not deter the harshest judgment possible. Follow-on legal reviews and appeals moved quickly too, and McCall was electrocuted February 24, 1939.

Although McCall suddenly recanted his confession less than a month before his execution, the swiftness of solving the case and bringing the

murderer to justice did serve to strengthen the FBI’s reputation. Their budget was no longer an issue.

The heartbreaking loss changed the lives of the Cash couple forever, yet the communities were soon swept into the upheaval of World War II, and the plight of little Skeegie Cash faded from general memory.

The new display can be seen at the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum, 41 N. Krome Ave, across from Losner Park. http://townhallmuseum.org.

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