This Town Is Murder

“Ottis Toole was a serial killer. He was a serial arsonist. He liked to set fire to old buildings deep in the night, and he liked to masturbate while he watched them burn. Ottis Toole was a cannibal and a necrophiliac. Sometimes, he killed people, then ate large portions of the corpses after having sex with them,” writes Tim Gilmore in “Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic.”

Toole is just one of a series of Jacksonville killers Gilmore will highlight in a Jacksonville Historical Society talk held the day before Halloween at Old St. Andrews Church.

Earlier this year, Gilmore published a 423-page book on Toole, who was born and raised in Jacksonville, and died of liver failure in prison at age 49, after claiming to have committed hundreds of murders from 1976 to 1983.

As he began looking into Toole’s horrific life, Gilmore found it hard to determine what parts of Toole’s story were true.

“I became obsessed with figuring out which Ottis was Ottis, with trying to cut through the lies and legends, the confusion and suffering,” Gilmore writes in the foreword of his book.

When he was first asked to speak before the history group, Gilmore, a professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville, was told by the group’s executive director, Emily Lisska, that Toole “was too creepy” to be the only topic.

“We try to explore all areas of North Florida history — the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Lisska, who added the group’s programs are designed “to explore the diverse history
of Jacksonville.”

His topic is now “Malice Aforethought: A Century of Murders in Jacksonville.” The stories range from a civil rights-era shooting to a citrus magnate’s second double murder to a serial killer gunned down by police while allegedly trying to escape from custody.

He notes in his book that in recent years, Jacksonville has been known as the murder capital of Florida.

For years, Gilmore, who was born and raised in Jacksonville, has written hundreds of stories about his native city, publishing many of them in his books and displaying them on his website, “Psychogeography is the tendency in certain art and literature to explore place as itself having a personality,” Gilmore explained.

Gilmore attended Nathan B. Forrest High School and said the name of the school, which brings to mind a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, should be changed. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Florida and later earned his doctorate from the University of Florida.

Now in his seventh year of teaching at FSCJ, Gilmore said the Toole book was a huge project. He is currently researching Jacksonville philanthropist and businesswoman Eartha White.

“Quite honestly, I tend to work obsessively,” Gilmore said in an email about the Toole book. “Altogether, research, writing and rereading it so many times it made me sick about a year.”

Gilmore’s book explores the myths and stories about Toole, who grew up in the city’s Springfield neighborhood and claimed to have killed several hundred people while working with his friend and lover Henry Lee Lucas.

Toole also confessed to kidnapping and killing 6-year-old Adam Walsh in 1981 in Hollywood, Fla., but he later recanted.

John Walsh, host of the television show, “America’s Most Wanted,” and his wife, Revé, released a statement on Dec. 17, 2008, saying they believed Toole was responsible.

“From all the evidence presented to us, we agree with the conclusion shared by the key investigators that it is clear and irrefutable that Ottis Toole was the abductor and killer of our son Adam.”

Arthur Jay Harris, writer of a number of South Florida crime novels, praised Gilmore’s book on Toole in a September review posted

“Gilmore previously has written a book about ghost stories from Jacksonville, and it’s hard not to think of Toole as another ghost story. Nobody in law enforcement really knew how to handle him, because Toole was just, well, not quite of this world. Gilmore, who researched Toole, writing the only biography about him — and not exactly the most conventional one, at that — gets him,” said Harris, author of “Jeffrey Dahmer’s Dirty Secret: The Unsolved Murder of Adam Walsh.”

In addition to Toole, Gilmore plans to talk about the 1964 slaying of Johnnie Mae Chappell, a 35-year-old black mother of 10 children. As she walked along a dark road, Chappell was shot and killed by a group of white men in a car. It occurred during a period of civil rights unrest in Jacksonville.

One of the men in the car, the shooter, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter, but served only four years, while the other three men went free. Chappell is recognized as a martyr at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

Gilmore also plans to cover the killing of Marie Louise Gato, who was shot several times outside her home in Jacksonville’s Springfield area in 1897. As she lay dying, she named her killer, Gilmore said.

“I know I am about to die and that I am in a dying condition. It was Eddie Pitzer who shot me,” she said, according to 1897 stories from The Florida Times-Union.

After a trial and a six-hour closing argument from his attorney, who collapsed in the courtroom, Pitzer was acquitted, Gilmore noted.

Another well-known murder occurred in 1934 when “Citrus King” J.J. Mendenhall, who had served time at Raiford for the slaying of a mother and daughter near Safety Harbor, was arrested and tried in Jacksonville for the grisly killing of Mary Rae Anderson, 60, and her 84-year-old mother, Laura Mae. The mother was stabbed to death, and the daughter’s skull was crushed with a hammer. Mendenhall was also acquitted, Gilmore said.

Gilmore also plans to discuss Jacksonville serial killer Paul John Knowles, known as the Casanova Killer, who frequently picked up women at bars and sometimes killed them.

Knowles claimed to have killed sisters Mylette and Lillian Anderson, aged 6 and 11, near their Northside Jacksonville home from where they were kidnapped. He also murdered a 65-year-old woman in Atlantic Beach. He is accused of slaying 18 to 35 people, Gilmore said.

While riding in a patrol car, Knowles escaped from his handcuffs and grabbed an officer’s gun. After a struggle, Knowles was fatally shot three times in the chest, Gilmore said.

At FSCJ, Gilmore teaches writing and literature, including ghost stories, and classes on urban legends and legend-tripping.

“I should say that I don’t use the word ‘ghost’ necessarily in a paranormal sense. I think historical forces ‘haunt’ us in all kinds of ways, some obvious and some incredibly subtle,” Gilmore said.

Legend-tripping is a sociological term, which means taking trips to sites around which legends are made, Gilmore said. He often sends his students to visit, research and write about sites around Jacksonville.

Gilmore’s other works include “Doors in the Light and the Water: The Life and Collected Works of Empty Boat,” “Ghost Compost: Strange Little Story,” “This Kind of City: Ghost Stories and Psychological Landscapes” and poetry collections.

Gilmore’s book on Toole is available at Chamblin’s Uptown, Chamblin Bookmine, San Marco Bookstore and the Jacksonville Historical Society, and can be ordered on or on his website,