Hidden City Crime File: Florida Keys

Filed Under: Key West, crime

Marcus kicks back in the Florida Keys while diving into the stories of pirate Black Caesar, thief and arsonist Dutchy Melville and drug dealer Bum Farto. Learn more about their tales.


Black Caesar
Who: Black Caesar was born in Africa. Legend identifies him as a tall tribal war chief with great strength and keen intelligence.

What: Black Caesar and some of his fellow tribe members were lured onto a slave ship. Caesar and his men tried to overtake the crew, but were subdued. Caesar refused to eat until he made friends with one of the crew members. He would only eat with that man. As the ship approached the US, it crashed on the reefs and Black Caesar and the crew member escaped. They went on to raid ships together until a dispute over a woman led Caesar to kill his friend. Caesar continued to raid ships and accumulated a number of ships and men. He eventually joined forces with Blackbeard. Black Caesar met his demise when he was about to blow up a ship he raided and was overpowered by some of the prisoners on board. He was arrested by Virginian colonial authorities and eventually hanged in Williamsburg, VA, for piracy. It was said he left treasure buried in the Florida Keys.

Where: Black Caesar was born in Africa and ended up on a slave boat that crashed on the reefs off the Florida coast.

When: Caesar raided ships in the 1700s.

In the Media: The descendants of Caesar and his crew are depicted in Albert Payson Terhune's 1922 novel Black Caesar's Clan, which describes people living near Caesar's Creek who chase off treasure hunters looking for Caesar's lost fortune.


Dutchy Melville
Who: Dutchy Melville (aka Dutchy Melbourn or Melvin) became the leader of a ruthless gang of thieves and arsonists.

What: Dutchy and his gang would rob cigar factories and then set fire to them to destroy the evidence. After calling in several favors with family members, Melville could no longer avoid prosecution and was found guilty of grand theft and arson of the Cortez Cigar factory. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison but quickly escaped and fled to the Everglades. Melville ended up going to work for Edgar Watson. What Melville didn’t know was that Watson was a serial killer and none of his help ever left the farm. Melville met the same fate and was killed by 2 of Watson’s groundskeepers.

Where: Melville’s crimes occurred in Key West, FL. After escaping prison, he headed to Monroe County in the Everglades area.

When: Melville and his gang went on their crime spree in the early 1900s. They were finally caught, found guilty and sentenced on May 14, 1908.


Bum Farto
Who: Joseph “Bum” Farto was born in Key West on July 3, 1919. He was the son of Juan Farto, a Spanish immigrant who owned and operated the Victoria Restaurant at the southeast corner of Greene and Duval streets. Joe Farto grew up in a wood-frame house across the street from Key West’s fire station. He idolized the firemen, who gave him the affectionate nickname "Bum." When he was 22 he was a nozzleman with the Key West Fire Department. In 1964, he was named chief.

What: The Navy had been a powerful force in the Key West economy. When they pulled out many of the forces, the island suffered. Times were hard and people turned to illegal ways to earn a living. Bum Farto was one of those people. He sold marijuana from Colombia and began peddling it while sitting on a bench outside the fire station. From marijuana he moved into cocaine. Eventually authorities ran Operation Conch to take down some of the drug dealers in Key West. Each of the alleged dealers was surprised including Bum Farto. Convicted of selling drugs, Farto was out on bail when he told his wife he had to take care of some things and was never heard from again. One report tied Farto's disappearance to the Mafia in Tampa, FL. Other sources believed he was a victim of Colombian drug lords.

Where: Farto was born and raised in Key West.

When: Farto was married in 1955. He started selling drugs in the 1970s and was arrested and sentenced in 1976.

The Latest: Farto's wife, Esther, filed papers in 2010 asking Monroe County's Probate Division to clear up the legal issue of Farto's fate. She wants them to declare him dead so she can settle his estate and collect any retirement and insurance benefits.

In the Media: Stuart B. McIver's book Touched by the Sun devotes an entire chapter ("Where’s Bum Farto?") to the case. In addition, T-shirts and songs have been written about his disappearance, including "Bum Farto" from Ben Harrison's album Air Sunshine.

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