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Built on Sand: The Get-Rich-Quick Scams of 1920s Florida




His characters are a writer’s dream. There’s D. P. Davis, who in 1924 sold 300 building lots in Tampa Bay in three hours — while they were still underwater — and who remarried his first wife because, his brother said, he wanted to make his mistress jealous. There’s Barron Collier, who developed 1.2 million acres of southwest Florida that made him, if you could believe the price tags he put on them (and many thousands did), richer than John D. Rockefeller. The impresario who built Coral Gables, George E. Merrick, hired a publicist who would describe him as a brilliant artist who used “wood and steel and stone” to “paint his pictures upon a canvas of spacious fields, cool groves and smiling waterways.” The society architect Addison Mizner spun a fairyland of neo-Spanish castles in Palm Beach. His con man brother Wilson prophetically said, “Easy street is a blind alley,” and not much later the two of them found themselves stumbling along its darkened length.

To me, though, Carl Fisher (who put that sign in the sand) is the paradigmatic character in the Florida saga. Fisher came out of the fringes of the automobile business. He built the Indianapolis Speedway, initiated the idea of the first transnational highway and made his first fortune manufacturing headlights before seeking a second one on a dredged-out slice of Biscayne Bay. When Warren G. Harding came to play golf in Miami Beach, Fisher provided a small elephant to serve as the president’s caddy, an unbeatable photo op in a decade that wasn’t wanting for competition. His advertisements spread cheesecake photos (the term itself coined by Fisher’s publicist) of women in bathing suits across the country. One bore the caption, “Turalura Lipschits and Her Twin Sister Tondalaya Are in Miami Beach Enjoying Seventy-Eight-Degree Sunshine on December 21!” But even more enticing than the shapely Lipschitses and Miami’s balmy skies was the lure of quick riches, a lure Fisher set with his 1919 decision to raise prices on the land he was peddling by 10 percent — and his simultaneous assertion that he would raise those prices by the same amount annually. “In trying to stoke a small fire,” Knowlton writes, Fisher instead provided fuel for “a conflagration.”


Other metaphors are available: “The smell of money in Florida, which attracts men as the smell of blood attracts a wild animal, became ripe and strong last spring,” wrote Gertrude Matthews Shelby, sent south by Harper’s Monthly to chronicle the boom. Though “inclined to scoff” at the grand claims of instant riches, she soon put down her notebook and “succumbed to the boom bacillus.” Shelby pocketed the 2019 equivalent of $190,000 in one month of buying and selling undeveloped land — “not much,” she concluded, “but a lot to a little buyer on a little bet.” Today, what Shelby did would be called “flipping”; in 1920s Florida, where there was always a new victim wandering into a speculator’s cross hairs, it was called “reloading.”

Knowlton is not the most sure-footed of anecdotalists. Especially in his opening chapters, the reader is too often led to the edge of a telling revelation only to find nothing there: “In fact,” he writes of Fisher, “one of his two wives would recall that he was nearly as nimble with his feet as with his hands.” The next sentence only tells us he wore horn-rimmed glasses. But once Knowlton gets to the bubble’s inevitable puncture, the sheer gravitational pull that eventually grounds all speculative balloons exerts its irresistible power. Ambition morphs into mendacity, the profit motive becomes avarice.

At one point, as national magazines began to expose the worst of the fraudulent real estate rackets, the industry fought back with an event called “The Truth About Florida,” which was exactly the opposite. The luminaries who traveled to New York to make the case that Florida’s real estate market wasn’t speculative at all included its governor, its leading newspaper publishers and a phalanx of at-risk developers and overextended bankers — “the very men,” Knowlton writes, “who were most culpable in creating the speculative boom in the first place, a boom that they now insisted didn’t exist.” The truth squad, their faces straight, said the bad press the state was getting was nothing more than “Northern propaganda” (another, latter-day, sometime Floridian would have called it “fake news”). There was nothing to worry about.

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