Tablet of Contents on This Enchanted Page
430 Lifetime Visits for This Realm, 2 Wizards Have Been Here Today
If you have been in Tampa in mid-January, you most likely witnessed a huge party. In fact, it would have been difficult for you to avoid it. The Gasparilla Festival is like a Mardi Gras celebration but with boats and pirates. Is it a festive commemoration of Tampa’s pirate heritage? A remembrance of historical events? An excuse to gather beads and drink? Perhaps the truth is a little bit of all three. The word “Gasparilla” means “little Gaspar.” According to legend, Jose Gaspar was very short of stature. However, he was a gifted navigator, a fine swordsman and a man of intelligence and ambition. Born in Spain in 1766, he worked his way into high position in the court of King Charles III. But as often happens in political situations, other members of the court became jealous of his success and plotted against him. The plotters convinced the king that Jose was guilty of treason.
As a result, while Jose was out at sea, his mother, wife and infant son were murdered and his home burned to the ground. Orders were given for his immediate arrest upon his return to Spain. However, one of Jose’s friends got word to him, and he never returned to his homeland. Understandably embittered, he vowed to “henceforth be an enemy of Spain.” Notice that he did not say he would become a pirate, just an enemy of Spain. However, he soon found the fat merchant ships of Great Britain and the United States irresistible, and he began to prey on any ship he could find along the coastlines of Florida. Some even claim that Captiva Island, near Fort Meyers, is the place where Gaspar held female captives until they could be ransomed by their families. Of course, male captives were given only the choice of a life of piracy or death.
Today, Tampa’s Gasparilla Festival celebrates a battle between Gaspar and American forces that supposedly occurred in Tampa Bay in 1821. There is a huge “invasion” during which large numbers of boats enter the harbor and disgorge their pirate crews. These marauders then “kidnap” the mayor and hold him until he turns over the key to the city. What follows is two days of revelry, including parades where beads are thrown to excited—and often inebriated—onlookers. But according to the legend, Gaspar was not victorious in his last battle. An American pirate-hunting vessel, the USS Enterprise, disguised itself as a British merchant ship and took Gaspar by surprise. When it was clear that the American forces would win the battle, Gaspar vowed he would not be taken alive to face the hangman’s noose.
So he wound the anchor chain about himself and threw himself and the anchor into the sea, crying, “Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s!” And to this day, it is said that you should not stand alone on the deck of a ship in Tampa Bay. For if no one is with you and no one is watching, the ghost of Jose Gaspar will rise up from the depths, still wrapped in the anchor chain. His hair is filled with seaweed, his eyes are gone and his pale face drips with water—and he’ll grab you and drag you down! It’s a great story, but there’s not a word of truth in it. Shhh—don’t tell the Tampa Chamber of Commerce. No historical record of Jose Gaspar has ever been found. No one can find even a mention of his name until the twentieth century. But that does not stop people from believing the legend.
The disappearance of a ship’s captain from the deck of the Genevieve in 1925 is often attributed to the piratical ghost. So just where does this legend originate? It turns out that the infamous pirate was the invention of a man named Juan (or sometimes John) Gomez. We do know that Juan did spend some time in the brig at Fort Brooke. We do not know on what charge, although it is possible it may have been piracy. After his release, he went out the southern tip of the peninsula that forms Tampa Bay, the area we now call Pass-A-Grille. There, in the years before the Civil War, he became the first tour guide in Tampa Bay. He found an old Spanish well and cleaned it out to provide fresh water. He built a huge fire pit and crude wooden benches. Then, in his small boat, he would ferry passengers out to the barrier island for picnics.
His guests would watch the sunset, have their picnic suppers and listen to Juan tell tall tales around a roaring fire. Juan was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, and he found that the wilder his stories became, the more customers he had. And the more customers he had, the wilder his stories became. And thus, the legend of Jose Gaspar was invented. The Civil War put an end to Gomez’s tourism endeavors. Instead, he used his boat for the benefit of the Confederacy, running blockades and harassing Union ships. After the war, he moved out of the Tampa Bay area, farther south to an island called Panther Key, near modern-day Fort Meyers. There he married, although he never had children and continued to live a quite happy, if not very rustic, life.
The Fort Meyers Press published an article about Juan on June 14, 1894, at which time he claimed to be 113 years old. The Press described him as short and heavy, with a thick, curly beard, which may have once been black but had now gone gray. In the interview, Gomez claimed not only to have sailed with Jose Gaspar but also that he knew Napoleon personally and was with him at the Battle of Waterloo. He also said that he had been in the Battle of Lake Okeechobee during the second Seminole War, serving under General Zachary Taylor. Gomez was indeed a busy man. The Fort Meyers Press reported Juan’s death on July 19, 1900. According to the article, Juan had lived to be 122 (however, since the paper reported that he was 113 in 1894, someone’s math was obviously a little off). But here is where things get a little strange.
Apparently, on the day of his death, Juan had gone out fishing and, while casting for bait, had become entangled in his own nets. He fell overboard and drowned. His rapidly decomposing body was found days later, hanging from his boat by one of his feet, still entangled in his nets. So, Juan died very similarly to his fabricated pirate, Jose Gaspar. Both men drowned, Juan bound by his nets, just as Jose had been bound by the anchor chain. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.