It seems like almost every day there's another impossibly bizarre news story set in a certain Gulf coast state. The man who claimed he was seduced by a dolphin? Florida. The guy who vaped his buddy's semen? Yep, Florida. The patriot who landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol Lawn to protest money in politics? A Floridian. Social media accounts like @_FloridaMan are so popular, you could argue that the Sunshine State is known for its oddball citizens as much as it is known for its beaches, theme parks, and orange juice.
But why is Florida America's class clown? I wanted to find out, so I asked Craig Pittman, a de facto expert on all things Florida weird. A native of the strange place he calls the Punchline State, Pittman's an award-winning Tampa Bay Times reporter who has a new book coming out on July 6, Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: OK, so why is Florida such a hotbed for weird news stories?
Craig Pittman: We're the third-most populous state, with 20 million people and nearly 100 million annual visitors all crammed into a narrow peninsula where we can ram our cars into each other and yell at each other in a dozen different languages. Also, we're a place with a long tradition of living for today, grabbing for the brass ring, and paying no attention to the possible consequences, which are usually pretty dire.
Do you have an all-time favorite?
There was the one about the guy in Gainesville who was fighting with his girlfriend and grabbed a three-foot alligator out of his bathtub to swing around as a weapon. Or the one about the wannabe mermaid who got in hot water with her Tampa-area homeowners' association for wearing her costume in the community pool (because it violated the "no fins" policy). Or the one about the lady who was driving to a date in the Keys and asked her ex-husband to reach over and take the wheel—yes, he was in the car, going along for the ride I guess—while she pulled out a razor and shaved what the newspapers later referred to delicately as her "bikini area." It didn't end well.
A lot of Florida stories go from silly or weird to straight-up criminal and even awful. What's the most absurd felony you can recall in the state?
Oh, we've got off-the-charts oddness going on all over. But I think most people would agree that the tale of Carl Tanzler tops a lot of them. Tanzler called himself "Count Carl von Cosel." But he was actually a Key West X-ray technician who in 1930 fell in love with a tuberculosis patient named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. His love transcended death, by which I mean that when she died, he dug up her body and slept with the corpse for nine years—until her sister found out. When he was put on trial for grave-robbing, he was exonerated—not because he was innocent, but because the statute of limitations had expired.
The state produces its share of colorful (criminal) characters, obviously. Who are the standouts?
At first, I was going to say "Richard Nixon," because the Watergate burglars were from Miami. But the better answer is Ted Bundy, the elusive serial killer. He was caught by a sharp-eyed Pensacola patrolman who noticed Bundy driving a stolen car, and then chased him down on foot and tackled him. Bundy later represented himself at trial, and actually proposed to a witness while she was on the stand—and she accepted. Second-most famous is probably Aileen Wuornos, dubbed "America's first known female serial killer," a prostitute who let lonely men pick her up, and then murdered at least seven of them. Her case inspired the movie Monster, which won star Charlize Theron an Oscar. She continues to attract visitors to the Last Resort, the Port Orange biker bar where Wuornos drank her last beer, and where you can buy T-shirts and bottles of hot sauce bearing her likeness.
I read a lot about drugs, and it almost seems like meth and Florida go hand in hand. Is that true? Do many great Florida stories begin and end with drugs?
Only in Florida would you have a crew dump a load of cocaine from their plane, only for one of the bales to land in the middle of a Homestead crime watch meeting, narrowly missing the local police chief's head. In the Cocaine Cowboy era of the 1980s, a gang of Miami drug dealers masquerading as cops were busted by a bunch of cops who were masquerading as drug dealers.
OK, let's talk politics. What's the most Florida thing a politician in the state has done?
Oh, that's a tough one. We've had so many oddballs in office here. In 1885, we had a US senator from Pensacola who left Washington to stalk a lady in Detroit and deliver speeches to his mirror. In 1890, the mayor of Cedar Key set himself up as an island dictator and had to be ousted by a one-ship invasion by the US Navy. In 1917, Governor Sidney Catts rode around the state with a pair of guns strapped to his hips, because he claimed the Catholic Church had sent hired killers after him.
Back when they were pals, Governor Jeb Bush made a big deal about presenting Marco Rubio with a sword he said had belonged to a warrior who never actually existed. But the winner is probably our current Libertarian Party nominee for US Senate—in the race to replace Rubio. He's a guy who admits he once sacrificed a goat and drank its blood.
I asked him what goat's blood tasted like and he said, "Fame."
Seems like it's not just funny stuff either, as our politicians are often reviled nationally, and we just had the worst mass shooting of all time here. Something in the air?
Well, our tropical weather has attracted everyone from ex-CIA spooks to retired circus freaks… And because we get virtually no snow, everyone can be out getting into machete fights over parking spaces all year long. We've also got more people carrying concealed weapons permits than any other state, and the gun laws that the NRA writes for our legislature tend to get copied by a lot of other states—"Stand Your Ground" being just one example.
Are there alligators in every damn lake in Florida? Seems like they keep showing up, on golf courses and at Disney World. What's the deal with that?
If you see a freshwater lake, assume there's at least one gator in it and that it is basically a prehistoric eating machine. Gators used to be an endangered species, and then they were put under the protection of the Endangered Species Act—which was co-written by a guy named Nat Reed who grew up in Florida—and they snapped right back and now they're all over. You see them a lot in the spring because that's their mating season and, like us humans, they go looking for love in all the wrong places. That's when you see all the stories about them crossing the road, biting a police car's bumper, gobbling up the burgers at somebody's picnic, using their tail to knock on some suburban retiree's door and so forth.
Don't put down gators, though. I know of three instances where alligators helped police capture escaping criminals by chomping on them or blocking their getaway.
To continue on the wildlife theme, what's going on with all the bear and python hunting?
In Florida, our solution to every problem is to shoot at it. People moved into a bear habitat and so now bears are showing up in the suburbs? OK, we should shoot them. Did a bunch of pythons take over the Everglades and eat up all the bunnies and raccoons and other little critters? Then we should shoot them. I'm a gun owner, and I grew up going hunting with my dad, but sometimes I think my fellow Floridians don't think of a gun as a weapon. They think of it as a magic wand you can wave around to make something go away. That's probably why we lead the nation in accidental shootings.
Speaking of shootings, are there lots of hunting-related crimes?
There are enough to form their own sub-category of Weird Florida Crime. Just last year, for instance, we had four poachers who killed some deer out of season, then loaded up the carcasses in their vehicle and tried to run down another buck. But the car they were driving was a bright yellow Mini Cooper, so the car got stuck on top of the buck and stalled. The hunters fell asleep in the car, and so in the morning that's where the authorities found them, sitting in their fogged-up little Mini with all the evidence of what they'd done. I think it was the deer's revenge.
If someone was visiting Florida for the first time, what would you tell them to expect?
The unexpected, of course! That's why we're the Most Interesting State in the Union. If you want to visit someplace boring, go to Wyoming or Idaho. If you want to see a woman with blonde dreadlocks climb a banyan tree and play the accordion while singing John Denver songs, just because she likes doing that—well then come on down to Florida!
But stay away from post offices. In 2012, so many Floridians crashed their cars into post offices that the US Postal Service ran ads asking people to please stop.
Learn more about Craig Pittman's new book here.
Follow Jon Silman on Twitter.