The mystery of Miss Alice Broadbent

Second of two parts

In part 1 of “The mystery of Miss Alice Broadbent,” John Wood Broadbent’s wife’s first name was incorrect. His wife’s name was Sarah Henshaw Broadbent, and she may have remained in England after her husband moved to Florida in the late 1800s.

John Broadbent bought Crane Island, just west of Amelia Island, in 1886, and lived there with two daughters, Esther and Sarah Alice. Esther married and moved off the island, and after John Broadbent died, “Miss Alice” remained the sole resident.

People who knew Miss Alice regarded her as somewhat of a local celebrity. They noted her eccentric appearance (she never wore shoes during her travels), her fierce independence, and the legendary warning shots she fired to ward off anyone foolish enough to trespass on her beloved island home. So when Miss Alice disappeared one night in 1952, the rumors swirled.

 

The fire

On the evening of Nov. 7, 1952, as Nassau County Sheriff H.J. Youngblood was crossing Kingsley Creek on a temporary ferry set up after the road bridge was damaged, he noticed a glowing reflection in the sky above Crane Island.

Upon investigation the next day, Youngblood and other visitors found that the large, two-story home of Sarah Alice Broadbent had burned to the ground.

Miss Alice, as she was commonly known, had lived by herself on the large island lying just off Amelia since the death of her father in 1924. An eccentric legend around town, she was usually seen along the roadside as she made her way to and from Fernandina to visit friends, transact business and buy provisions.

“Fire totally destroyed one of Amelia Island’s greatest mystery houses Friday night sometime between 7 and 10 p.m. when the home of Miss Alice Broadbent went up in flames,” according to a report appearing in the News-Leader a week
later.

“(A rumor was) that soon after her father’s passing people began going on the island and taking away machinery and other equipment that had belonged to him (he was a blacksmith) and it seems that at one time she had been told that they were going to take the island away from her. So to prevent this, she went home, loaded her father’s old guns and defied anyone to set foot on her land and up until the time of the recent fire and her disappearance, few did.

“‘Miss Alice’ undoubtedly loved flowers, for in her small garden near where her house had stood, she had recently planted some late vegetables and also some fall flowers. Used in fertilizing this small patch of cultivated ground were animal bones. … Her well, still showing the superb work of a master craftsman in its masonry, had neither pulley nor rope with which to draw water. (A board) had crude steps nailed to it and she had used this to descend to the water level, dip a bucket of water and climb back to the surface.

“Amassed in her collection of odds and ends … 3 electric irons, 8 shotguns of various caliber and vintages, an air rifle, and a cap pistol, none of which in the opinion of those who have seen them could possibly have been shot, except maybe one of the shotguns.

“Up until late Wednesday afternoon there was no report from chemists on specimens of charred bone sent them by local officials as to whether they were human or animal. However, it is the consensus of opinion that ‘Miss Alice’ perished in the fire that also destroyed her home and one of Amelia Island’s fast disappearing houses of mystery.”

The story of the fire was also picked up by the Associated Press, which had previously distributed Miss Alice’s brushes with law enforcement. The AP report notes: “There were fresh footprints near the house, presumably made by the elderly recluse, who was never known to wear shoes.”

Miss Alice’s great-nephew, Albert Richards, who now lives in Folkston, Ga., said his mother, Josephine Silva, gave him the news.

“She told me there had been a fire, and since the house was ‘fat lighter wood,’ they couldn’t save anything,” Richards said recently.

 

The speculation

The topic of Miss Alice’s disappearance is still lively, almost 65 years later.

Some think the fire might have been started by an arsonist or arsonists — perhaps poachers who tired of Miss Alice’s warning shots. Others say money, or the valuable land itself, could have motivated someone to harm her. Still others theorize the fire started accidentally, but then, what happened to the body? Miss Alice’s sister, Esther Broadbent Silva, told authorities at the time that she believed her sister died in the fire, but her remains were never located.

“(Esther Broadbent Silva) hasn’t approached officers officially about the matter and seems intent on leaving it as it stands,” according to the News-Leader report.

“She was by herself,” Richards says about his great- aunt. “I think it started accidently. … She went to light the fire and stumbled. She burned up with the house, I’m pretty sure of that.”

Local real estate broker Nick Deonas recalls accompanying his family to visit the site of the burned home. He remembers boat builder Johnny Tiliakis and Dr. Bailey Dickens also going to the scene. Asked why a child would go with the adults, Deonas said his family knew Miss Alice and liked her. “She was a good person.”

Deonas feels strongly that Miss Alice’s demise was no accident.

“A couple of guys got drunk, thought she had money, and killed her,” Deonas theorized. “People thought she came from royalty and that she had money.”

Retired contractor Jim Thomas, 95, who knew Miss Alice, also heard rumors that she might have met her end at the hands of another.

“What I heard, back then, was that someone went over there and killed her and set the house on fire,” Thomas said. “That’s all I heard about it. I got nothing to back up what I am talking about.”

With Miss Alice missing or her body undiscovered, Judge G.C. Burgess determined the “seven-year” statute would be invoked, according to the News-Leader’s 1952 account. If no one heard from her in that time, she would be declared dead.

The heirs of Esther Broadbent Silva sold the island in 1973.

 

Miss Alice’s legacy

In 2017, undeveloped Crane Island remains wild and stunning. Her beauty and tranquility are the very definition of “Old Florida.” A visitor can easily imagine why fiercely independent Miss Alice did not leave it any longer than necessary and “screened” its visitors with her weapons. The Amelia River idles along its gently sloping banks. White egrets and blue herons wade in a shallow tidal creek wending its way through the short marsh dividing it from Amelia Island. The water flows under a new bridge connecting a smooth, newly paved entrance road to the edge of the forest.

The controversial development of the island took years to gain traction, with lawsuits, local government reviews and economic swings delaying the nightmare of some and the dreams of others. But now, here and there, neon pink flags mark where large lots have been surveyed. Soon, new homeowners will enjoy the magnificent river and marsh views and a quiet island life.

“We’re going to save as many trees as we can,” said Jack Healan, representing the developers. Healan is frustrated with county regulations that he says cause trees to be needlessly lost because of stormwater drainage requirements.

“This land is high and dry here because of the trees,” he said. “They soak up the excess water. Without the trees, this whole thing would be a swamp. … Trees are better for drainage than mosquito ponds.”

Healan recently took a visitor on a tour of the scant ruins of the Broadbent home. The household well, about 4-feet deep, is still present, but if it’s the same one in the News-Leader’s fire photos, a taller rim now appears to be missing. Healan says he plans to preserve the well. An old shovel blade rusts in dense vines. A few chipped and broken bricks lie scattered about. A shard from an old “slop pot” is found. A large piece of granite lies exposed, perhaps once a step. A melted bottle is examined.

Healan says he is working with the Amelia Island Museum of History to collect and preserve significant artifacts found during the development.

And he has another way he plans to note the island’s legacy.

“We’re naming the park at Crane Island ‘Alice Park,’” Healan announced.

“We’re trying to create a low-impact development. The houses will sort of surround a little village park, a core gathering area, where children can play games. We want it to be something to honor her memory and the history of Crane Island.”

 

A dead end or a ‘to be continued?’

A request by the News-Leader to Fernandina Beach Police Chief Jim Hurley, asking him to check with the state Medical Examiner’s Office on the disposition of the bones found after the fire and the test on them by the “chemists,” proved to be yet another mystery.

“After a search of our old log book for 1952, no matching records were found. I searched by the date, decedent’s name, and also searched for unknown decedents in November 1952. I did not find any information regarding this case,” wrote a state technician in an email Hurley forwarded to the News-Leader.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper said he has not yet found a case file on the possible arson of the Broadbent house and the disappearance of Miss Alice, but an NCSO detective, intrigued by the story, has indicated a willingness to continue the search for answers in the case.

Dene Stovall, an amateur genealogist from Fernandina Beach who now lives in Austin, Texas, theorizes that Miss Alice’s remains could still be on her beloved Crane Island.

“I am convinced when the island is developed they will find her remains in the well near her home. I have read the due diligence issued by the developer, and there is a freshwater source in the far south area of the island. This would be the area where her house/well were located. I believe Sarah Alice tried to extinguish the fire by retrieving water, but she may have been injured or fallen while doing so.”

Richards also believes it is possible the developers could find the remains of his great-aunt.

“When they start to develop there with all those dozers and cranes, they might dig her up,” Richards said, adding that if that happens, there is a place for Miss Alice on Amelia Island, in the family’s plot at Bosque Bello Cemetery.

Sam Boyd, as a museum docent, assumes the character of John Broadbent to tell the story of the golden age of Amelia Island.

News-Leader

Mailing Address:
PO Box 16766
Fernandina Beach, FL 32035

Physical Address:
511 Ash Street

Fernandina Beach, FL 32034

Phone: (904) 261-3696
Fax: (904) 261-3698