Monday, March 2, 2015

William Lee Popham

Another of those sad cases of great men who achieved great things despite interference from sinister outside forces, and yet whose name is virtually unknown today: the saga of William Lee Popham.

Popham was born on a farm in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1885. A child prodigy, he began reading and writing at a precocious age and had a particular gift for poetry. In 1900, his parents Virgil and Clara moved the family to Louisville. As he grew up, he found great success with his writing (having authored his first novel in 1905 at the age of twenty) and audiences came out in droves to see him read his own works. This in turn to led to public readings and speaking engagements, and though he was studying at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he decided to set his quest for ordainment aside to go on tour speaking full-time.

Some of his most notable poetry and other assorted writings can be found online in the compilation Silver Gems in Seas of Gold. Among his novels, the most successful were the "Seven Wonders of the World" series, which had a peculiar gimmick: each of the novels told essentially the same story with the same plot, but in a different setting each time. His book Mammoth Cave Romance, typical of the series, is a very slight and thin story in which young Franklin Lenton meets the woman of his dreams, Violet Thurmon from Bowling Green, and successfully woos her over the objections of her overbearing and overprotective father, with much melodrama ensuing in between. The novel also foreshadows the author's interest in real estate.

Popham found the woman of his own dreams, Maude Miller Estes, and married her in 1912. And had his life story ended right there, he would already have achieved more than most men find the luck or determination to carry off. He could have settled down to domestic life in Louisville, raised his family, mowed the yard, looked forward to roast beef for dinner on Sundays, and still turned out the occasional romance novel in his spare time.

But then Florida entered the mix. And when Florida gets involved in a man's life, it's like Wednesdays on the Mickey Mouse Club - "Anything Can Happen Day". Some people end up anointed and skyrocketed into a new realm upon being touched by Florida's weird mojo, and some people end up ruined and destroyed. In Popham's case, it was both.

The couple looked for a suitable place for an enjoyable honeymoon, and as fate would have it, they chose Tampa. And while surveying this mysterious swampy land for the first time, gears began to turn in Popham's mind. The Florida Land Boom was in its infancy, and he was seized with a plan to use his considerable gift of gab to promote a real estate scheme. He beheld the completely wild and overgrown St. George Island and began to see dollar signs in its development.

He was able to use the great success of his novels as equity for a mortgage, and purchased St. George Island from a Tallahassee banker. He then organized the Saint George Island Company and began selling lots. It was off to a promising start, but then the United States entered World War I and the great land boom began to sputter out. Undaunted and thoroughly consumed by self-confidence in his abilities as an entrepreneur, he formed something called the Oyster Growers' Co-Operative Association in 1920, and with it managed to convince prospective oyster farmers to relocate to St. George Island. Two years later, Popham was worth $2 million dollars. For a short time, he was on top of the world - he was wealthy, beloved by all locals and seen as a benefactor who turned a bunch of nothing into a very special something. Not bad for a Kentucky farmboy with no formal business skills and a penchant for authoring hack love stories.

The party didn't last long. The Bureau of Internal Revenue caught up with Popham in 1922, filing a lien for back taxes and seizing his personal and business bank accounts. In 1923, a federal grand jury sought an indictment of Popham - wrongly - on charges of mail fraud. Because of this, the U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver mail to and from him, and the wheels of justice, turning as slowly in a bureaucratic mire then as now, saw to it that the trial didn't even start until 1925. Receiving some appallingly bad legal advice, he did not take the stand and testify in his own defense. He was found guilty, and served four years in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta.

As soon his shoes hit the ground out of prison, Popham was back in business and set about getting his oyster-farm real estate empire going again. But the world just wouldn't leave him alone. The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression demolished his attempts to get back on his feet again, and adding insult to injury, the federal government pursued him on bogus charges of mail fraud for a second time. This time Popham testified in the second trial and was acquitted. But sadly, by this time he was completely penniless, and was unable to pay his attorneys. He was forced to turn over his only remaining asset, St. George Island, to the lawyers.

Fed up with Florida, Popham and his wife moved to Los Angeles and he supported his family as a real estate agent. Though California was beautiful and the remainder of his life peaceful, he must have gazed towards the southeast every once in a while and grimaced at the inexplicable chaos of the Florida years. He died in 1953, still scheming to regain his former prominence he'd had as a young man in the wilderness of Kentucky and the swamps of Florida.

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