Sidney Johnston Catts
|22nd Governor of Florida|
January 2, 1917 – January 4, 1921
|Preceded by||Park Trammell|
|Succeeded by||Cary A. Hardee|
|Born||July 31, 1863|
Pleasant Hill, Alabama, U.S.
|Died||March 9, 1936 (aged 72)|
DeFuniak Springs, Florida, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Alice May Campbell|
|Relatives||William D. Bloxham (first cousin)|
Sidney Johnston Catts (July 31, 1863 – March 9, 1936) was an American politician and anti-Catholic activist who served as the governor of Florida as a member of the Prohibition Party. After leaving office he became involved in criminal procedures due to his activities as governor and for business activities after leaving office. He was later acquitted, although he went bankrupt in the process.
Sidney Johnston Catts was born on his father's plantation in Pleasant Hill, Alabama on July 31, 1863, to Adeline Rebecca Smyly and Samuel W. Catts, a Confederate captain, and was named after Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston. In 1866, his nurse accidentally stabbed one of his eyes with a pair of scissors while cutting pictures causing him to lose sight in it.
He earned a law degree from Cumberland School of Law at Cumberland University in 1882. In 1885, he was ordained as a pastor and worked in Alabama until 1910, when he moved to Florida. He later became an insurance salesman and then a teacher. In November 1886, he married Alice May Campbell, a relative of Lord Colin Campbell.
In March 1904, Catts announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination against James Thomas Heflin to represent Alabama's 5th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. During the campaign Catts gave $250 to another politician to canvass a county, but that politician later placed a bet using the money that Heflin would win. Heflin defeated Catts in the primary and following his defeat Catts endorsed Heflin.
On April 7, 1930, he announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination in Florida's 3rd congressional district, but was defeated by incumbent Representative Tom Yon in the Democratic primary.
In 1914, Catts announced that he would run for the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida. Catts would be the first political candidate to campaign using an automobile in Florida (a Ford Model T). This would give him an advantage by visiting areas in the state that were isolated and did not receive of other candidates who wanted to visit towns that were close to or on railroads. For many in the state, it would be the first time they would ever see a car. He would compete against William V. Knott who called "economy in government" , equalizing tax laws, making pensions for Civil War veterans bigger and improving roads. Catts would also mount a loudspeaker to his car as well. He would once claim that a group of Catholics in Apalachicola were planning to assassinate him and he said that his would force him to bring revolvers with him.
Catts would win the Democratic Party's primary that was held on June 6, 1916. The Bryan Primary law would require that voting provide for a first and second choice ballot in the case of a runoff. Many voters didn't understand the procedure and ended up casting only first choice ballots. Some of the election officials would insist later on that voters were not aware the second choice votes were supposted to be counted as well. Both Catts and Knots would accuse each other of voter fraud. When all ballots were counted it was announced that Catts received 33,429 votes while Knott got 33,169. Knott would go to court demanding that a recount occur. Catts would say that he would run in the general election no matter what would legally happen. The Florida Supreme Court would rule on August 9 that Knott had won the primary by 21 votes. The Prohibition Party would hold a convention during late June where they nominated Catts for governor. On October 10, Catts would ask for the Prohibition Party to have him as a candidate in the main election.
After the primary, he would take 7 trips across the state between June and November. During this time most of his messaging from prior to the primaries would remain the same. However, he would attack the Catholic church saying that they had provided funds that were used for the recount.
Catts was inaugurated as governor on January 2, 1917. During the parade, cars would be used for the first time and replace buggies that were previously used with 50 cars participating in the parade. The Model T that Catts had used was adorned with a sign saying: "THIS IS THE CAR THAT GOT ME HERE" and his son Rozier would drive the car for him. Democratic justices of the Florida Supreme Court would refuse to take their places that were designated in the parade until Catts' attorney, W.W. Flournoy persuaded them to. The inauguration itself would be the first Florida inauguration to filmed. In his inauguration speech, Catts stated:
Your triumph is no less in this good hour in beautiful Florida, for you have withstood the onslaughts of the county and state political rings, the corporations, the railroads, the fierce opposition of the press and organization of the negro voters of this state against you and the power of the Roman Catholic hierarchy against you. Yet over all of these the common people of Florida, the everyday cracker people have triumphed.
Towards the end of the day, an inaugural ball and banquet would be held. He and his wife would refuse to participate in the inaugural ball. Catts would opt out of having the traditional punch that was served at the inaugural banquet.
During his first message to the state legislature Catts would call for: having a statewide prohibition, abolishing the convict lease system, an inheritance tax that would be graduated, giving more power to the state tax commission to investigate large corporations that were avoiding taxation, creating industrial schools for boys and girls, eliminating the Bryan primary law, taxing church property and adopting a guarantee law for banks. His address to the legislature was descried as being well received by the press in Florida. The 1917 session of the state legislature would accomplish close to nothing in the end.
At the onset of World War I as Florida teemed with a never-before-seen wave of Anti-German sentiment, Catts attempted to exploit this to further his own anti-Catholic and racist agendas. The governor publicly theorized that the monks of Saint Leo Abbey near Tampa were planning to arm Florida's black community for a popular revolt in favor of Kaiser Wilhelm II, after which Pope Benedict XV would take over Florida and move the Holy See to nearby San Antonio and close all of the Protestant churches. This speech caused a fair number of German settlers to move to friendlier parts of the country. The abbot of St. Leo, Right Rev. Charles Mohr, OSB, published several dignified responses to these conspiracy theories. In support of the St. Leo monks, many Pasco County Protestants made it a point to appear in public with local Catholics. Because of the backlash, Catts was forced to tone down his rhetoric when in the area.
In April 1917, he admitted that he sent an insulting letter to Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory asking for Black Campbell, his brother-in-law who was a federal prisoner due to stealing $1,000 while serving as a bookkeeper in an Alabama bank, to be given a pardon.
Catts publicly labeled black residents as part of "an inferior race," and refused to criticize two lynchings in 1919. He was quoted in the press as saying that "only the vagrant, vagabond, worthless negro is lynched". When the NAACP complained about these lynchings, Catts wrote denouncing the organization and blacks generally, declaring that "Your Race is always harping on the disgrace it brings to the state by a concourse of white people taking revenge for the dishonoring of a white woman, when if you would . . . [teach] your people not to kill our white officers and disgrace our white women, you would keep down a thousand times greater disgrace."
During April 1919, Catts would request the US Department of Labor abolish the Florida Division of Negro Economics. He would also say at the same time that he wanted the US Employment Service's head to replaced with a personal friend of his. He accused the black officers of the Division of inciting race riots and also said they encouraging miscegenation.
Mulberry in Polk County would witness strikes from phosphate miners starting in May 1919. 3,000 workers who were both black and white would end up participating. Catts along with Sheriff Logan would tour the strike zone. After doing the tour he would make an announcement saying he was in support of those who were striking. The mining companies would respond to strikes by importing black laborers as replacements for those who were on strike. Miners who were on strike would at one point ambush a car convoy carrying these workers in the outskirts of Bartow killing a strikebreaker and wounding a mine guard who was a deputy sheriff. Another significant event during the strikes was when a group of 4 white guards from Prairie Pebble Mine would fire on Mulberry and ended up killing 3 African Americans. Sheriff Logan would arrest and jailing the guards in Bartow. Catts would end up removing Logan from his office because he felt he did not do enough to prevent violence in the first place.
Catts was ineligible to run for reelection in 1920, and he ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, but lost by a large margin to incumbent Democratic Senator Duncan U. Fletcher.
On April 14, 1921, the Florida Senate voted to approve a resolution that would order a legislative investigation into Catts' pardons and appointments due to rumors about him accepting bribes in exchange for them and the state house voted to approve it four days later. On May 5 he was indicted by the Bradford county grand jury for accepting a $700 bribe to pardon J. J. Coleman, who was given life imprisonment in 1918 for the murder of a deputy sheriff, but resisted arrest for five days before surrendering. However, on May 19 a federal warrant against him was issued for the involuntary servitude of two black people forced to work on his plantation and was arrested two days later and stated that "my enemies won't let me alone" when arrested. While on bond awaiting trial Catts spoke at an Independence Day celebration in Macon, Georgia despite protests from members of the board of aldermen who stated that it was improper to have somebody that was indicted for criminal charges speak. On August 16, 1921 he stated that he was confident that he would be acquitted on all charges. In November his initial indictment was recharged and two other indictments were also issued. On May 16, 1922 his defense's motion to dismiss the indictments against Catts' bribery charges was accepted by the judge. On July 21 he filed a petition of voluntary bankruptcy as he had $44,000 in liabilities and less than $2,000 in assets. On November 20 he was acquitted by an all white jury for the involuntary servitude and bribery charges and the federal charges against him were later dropped.
Shortly after he left office he became involved in a company with F. L. Jester and in September 1921, he was called before a superior court for questioning for his involvement in a fraudulent business.
Catts ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1924 and 1928, but lost both times. During the 1928 presidential election he was one of the Democrats who supported Republican Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith, who was Catholic.
On April 9, 1929, Catts was indicted by a federal grand jury in Jacksonville for aiding and abetting in counterfeiting money with multiple other people in a plan to distribute $1,000,000 in counterfeited money. His first trial in October resulted in a mistrial and was acquitted at his second trial.
Catts would end up spending the final 8 years of his life in DeFuniak Springs where he would get involved with real estate and farming there.
On March 9, 1936, Catts died at his home, Sun Bright, in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. In 1979, the house he lived in from 1924 to 1936 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
His wife Alice gave birth to a son, Sidney J. Catts Jr. in July 22, 1894 in Fort Deposit, Alabama. Catts Jr. would become a lawyer and eventually go into politics just like his father did. One of his sons, Rozier would eventually marry a Catholic woman from Key West. Catts would accept her as part of the family and say that any father should welcome the wife of his son no matter what her religion is. When Catts moved back to DeFuniak Springs for the final 8 years of his life, he was known to distill and drink peach brandy.
Catts was involved with Freemasonry. He was also a Woodman of the World and a member of the Knights of Pythias.