The Siesta Key Village Association embarked on a marketing campaign this summer to cope with losing a lane on the island’s north bridge in the evenings.
More than a century ago, developer Harry Lee Higel took on the daunting task of luring tourists to the barrier island, which originally called Sarasota Key during the onset of the Great Depression, without a bridge.
In 1907, Higel commissioned an advertisement that read, “The prettiest spot in the world. Good large streets and avenues have been laid out to the Gulf of Mexico, where surf-bathing and shell-gathering has no equal. There are clams, oysters and crabs in abundance.”
The Siesta Key Bridge was built in 1917, and hotels were erected, but Higel didn’t get a chance to see the island flourish. In 1921, weeks after turning 53, he was brutally murdered — his death shocking the region and birthing one of the puzzling and grisly mysteries of the newly minted Sarasota County.
“They used to call him the ‘indefatigable hustler,” said Jeff LaHurd, a local historian who oversees the Sarasota County History Center.
Higel, in the 1890s, bought a dock at the end of Main Street in Sarasota and used his boat, Nemo, for various sales endeavors before purchasing steamship, Vandalia. The ship made the trip between the Sarasota mainland to Sarasota Key more efficient. It was at this time he bought land for a development he called Siesta.
He was a fiery politician, according to Sarasota Times reports from the early 1900s, and a member of a group of progressives pushing for greater development of Sarasota. He served on the town council in 1902 and served as mayor of the city of Sarasota when it was incorporated in 1913. It was in the elections of 1916 and 1917 he had a bitter battle against well-known editor Rube Allyn, who published the Sarasota Sun, according to “The Story of Sarasota,” a 1946 book by Karl Grimser.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression slowing the new development, Higel built the first bathhouses on Siesta Key beaches in 1913. Before that, beachgoers would duck behind the tufts of Palmetto plants to change. Island activity began to pick up, and in 1915, Higel built Hotel Higelhurst, which overlooked Big Pass.
In the 1910s, Higel again quarreled with Allyn over an unpaid debt. Higel issued a loan to Allyn, who was known for erratic behavior and a short temper, for a house on Sarasota Key, near Hotel Higelhurst, LaHurd explained. Also, a donkey-drawn cart carrying Allyn’s disabled son would pass through Higel’s property on Higel Avenue and the gate to a chicken coop was often left open.
In a stroke of devastating bluck for Higel, Hotel Higelhurst burned down in 1917, only a month before the Siesta Key Bridge was finished. He suffered a $20,000 loss — roughly $3.3 million today — but immediately began construction on another hotel. His nickname was well deserved.
Sometime during the evening of Jan. 6, 1921, any further plans Higel had for developing what he now called Siesta Key were extinguished when he was severely bludgeoned, falling limp in the middle of Beach Road.
Bert Luzier and his son, Merle, found Higel’s unconscious body early the next day on their way to collect shells. The pair couldn’t make out the identity of the battered face, which had a two-inch gash above the right eye, according to a report from Dr. Joseph Haldon. The doctor ordered the body be taken to Bradenton, where a train would take it to Tampa. It was on a Bradenton road where one of the caretakers spotted a gold ring engraved with the initials “H.H.” Higel was identified shortly before dying on the journey.
Police reports from 1921 said an African-American laborer for Higel was suspected of the killing. The two allegedly fought while he shoveled shell for William Selby’s mansion, and wounds on the victim were consistent with blows from a shovel.
But, when the announcement of Higel’s murder was made, Allyn was the focal suspect.
“All the fingers were pointing at him,” LaHurd said.
According to Grismer’s book, an enraged mob captured Allyn and draped a noose around his neck before authorities interrupted and transported Allyn to Bradenton for the trial.
Sixty-one days later, a jury acquitted Allyn of the murder, because the evidence presented was circumstantial, including reported sightings of Allyn in palmetto plants near the scene. Allyn left Sarasota for Ruskin where he lived in isolation for the rest of his life.
Leads were scarce, and the case went cold, but the community did not relent. Higel was a pioneering developer and defined the local government’s role as a champion of social justice. In a 1912 memo as mayor of Sarasota, he encouraged more funding for Sarasota schools.
“We have a good school, but we can have a better one,” it read.
So, one of the first acts of the Sarasota County Commission, which was formed in June 1921, was a July 21, 1921, resolution offering a $1,000 reward for evidence leading to the capture of Higel’s murderer — more than $12,000 today. But since that day there have not been any new leads in the mystery.
Hotel Higelhurst’s proximity to Allyn’s property have led some to believe he was responsible for the devastating fire, as well as Higel’s murder, LaHurd said. But, the truth died with Allyn in 1947.
Current controversy about Siesta Key roads seems trivial after imagining Higel’s languid body sprawled upon Beach Road that morning, a gold ring serving as the only identifiable feature. His importance on the Siesta Key is certain, but his impact could have been far greater.
Editor’s note: Jeff LaHurd and the Sarasota County History Center assisted with the research in this story.
Dec. 31, 1867 — Harry L. Higel was born in Philadelphia.
1884 — At age 17, Higel moved to Horse and Chaise (Venice) with his parents.
1890 — Higel moved to Sarasota.
Jan. 18, 1896 — Higel married Gertrude Edmondson (granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. William Whitaker, credited as the first permanent settlers of the Sarasota region.)
1902 — Higel was elected to the first town council; he was re-elected four times.
1907 — Higel, Capt. Louis Roberts and E.M. Arbogast found the Siesta Land Company; Little Sarasota Key was renamed Siesta Key.
1911 to 1914 — Higel served as mayor of Sarasota.
1915 — Higelhurst Hotel was opened on Big Pass.
July 1915 — Higel persuaded the U.S. government that Siesta Key needed a post office. Mail was carried by boat to Higel’s building.
1916 to 1917 — Higel was re-elected mayor.
March 31, 1917 — Higelhurst Hotel was burned to the ground.
Jan. 6, 1921 —Higel was found unconscious near the Village in the early morning hours; he was pronounced dead on the way to the hospital.