The mystery of Miss Alice Broadbent

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of John Wood Broadbent's wife.

First of two parts

Separated from Amelia Island by a small creek, 300-acre Crane Island is surrounded by marsh on three sides and the Intracoastal Waterway on the fourth. Century-old “heritage” oaks, pine trees, cedar trees, magnolias and magnificent views over the Amelia River make it a paradise for nature lovers. After years of legal wrangling over its fate, it sold for $9.9 million in 2014 and will soon host a luxury housing community. But for most of the island’s modern history, it belonged to just one family.

John Wood Broadbent moved to Fernandina from England in the late 1800s with two of his daughters, Esther Ann and her younger sister, Sarah Alice. It is not clear if John's wife, Sarah Henshaw Broadbent, ever came to the United States.

John Broadbent purchased Crane Island – also known as “Craney” Island – in 1886 for $1,000 and built his family home there.

There is very little about the Broadbents’ life on Crane Island in public records other than the federal Census, and even those official projects return mixed results when it comes to facts about them. From the census in 1900, it appears John's married happiness was short-lived: “George Braudbent” whose occupation is shown as “moulder” (an Old English term for a brick maker) is by then a widower, living with 16-year-old Sarah Alice. Older sister Esther Ann is by this time married to Joseph Silva. (Erroneously recorded as “Silvan” on that same census.)

The 1910 census leaves off the Broadbents altogether. The 1920 census record shows John, 65, working on his “own account” as a stockbreeder, but also shows Sarah Alice, still living with her father, as born in Florida, not England.

John passed away in January 1924, leaving Sarah Alice alone. His death certificate says he was to be buried in the Judd Cemetery at Amelia City, though no marker remains.

And with the death of her father, it’s fair to say that the enduring mystery of “Miss Alice” Broadbent began.

Though living alone on the island did not appear to bother her, Miss Alice waded across the shallow marsh on a regular basis to visit her sister, pick up her mail, buy supplies and see people in Fernandina, including childhood friend Rena Waas Sloan.

“She visited quite a few people, she knew just about everybody. Everyone was glad to see her,” lifelong Nassau County resident Jim Thomas, 95, recalled recently.

As there was no bridge from Amelia Island to Crane Island at the time, Miss Alice waded across in her bare feet, and was locally famous for never wearing shoes on her journeys.

“I would see her on the side of the highway, walking to Jacksonville or walking downtown,” Thomas said. “She would have a sack on her back and all.”

Thomas recalls one visit from Miss Alice when he was at his family’s home next to the railroad bridge, across the Amelia River from Crane Island. He remembers the cold day, her muddy feet and her flash of pride in reaction to a simple act of kindness.

“She come down there one time when we were out of school. … She was sitting there talking to my Momma, and it was cold weather, and Momma said, ‘Alice, don’t your feet get cold? And she said, ‘What do you care?’ She made a remark like that. But Momma went in and got a basin full of warm water and come out there with it so she could wash her feet.”

“I heard Darrell Peters tried to buy her a pair of shoes once,” Thomas added. “She threw them back at him.”

Former Nassau County tax collector Gwendolyn Miller remembers her coming in on the first of the month to the A&P grocery store Miller’s father, Dewey Mathews, managed at the corner of South Second and Centre streets.

Miss Alice did not have to buy much on her treks into Fernandina because she had a “truck patch” garden and plenty of fish and game to eat. The 1930 census notes the 52-year-old Alice Broadbent as a “farmer.” But Miller recalls her buying snuff, tea, rice and other staples, putting them all in the “gunny sack” over her shoulder.

Though Miss Alice refused to deal with anyone at the store except Miller’s father, Miller, who worked there as a 15-year-old clerk, recalls her British accent.

Local real estate broker Nick Deonas recalls a gentler side of Miss Alice.

“She would walk to town, down Clinch Drive, and she’d come down Fifth Street. We lived on Fifth Street. My mom knew her. She was different to say the least, but not a bad person,” Deonas recalls, though he was only a small child at the time. “I was always playing in the dirt in front of the house. She’d always give me a spoon or a fork or something to dig with, something from her sack.”

“Alice would come to town (in the 1940s) and my wife worked at the theater, and little kids would just follow her. She fascinated ’em,” Thomas said.

Deonas also remembers Miss Alice visiting the owner of a Gulf service station that was located at the corner of South Third and Centre streets in Fernandina.

“She’d give him an empty Mason jar, and he’d give her back a jar of burnt oil. My grandmother said she rubbed it all over herself,” Deonas said, adding it was done to ward off mosquitoes.

Some have described Miss Alice as an attractive woman with dark eyes, high cheekbones and a broad smile. Others remember her eccentric appearance. A flour sack dress as Thomas recalls, or men’s pants and jacket as Miller remembers. Long, dark hair hanging around her face, the oil-stained skin, as Deonas recollects. A “shaggy” look, according to Thomas, “She was an odd-dressed person.”

“We were scared of her,” Miller said bluntly, “She looked like an old hag.”

Whether she was aware or not, the eccentric Miss Alice would be used by some adults to keep children in line: If they did not behave, they were told, they would be given to Miss Alice to put in her sack and be taken back to Crane Island.

But those who might thoughtlessly refer to her as a “witch” in order to scare children into submission seem outnumbered by those who actually knew her, respected her for her independence, and came to her defense when she got into trouble with authorities.

 

The law and Miss Alice

It was well-known: Anyone who attempted to go onto Crane Island uninvited could expect a warning shot from a well-aimed shotgun or rifle, and Jim Thomas vividly recalls a story that illustrates Miss Alice’s accuracy.

“Back when we lived down there, in the wintertime, we had a rowboat, my brother and I, and we would row the boat to right down there, off the Amelia River, to the oyster beds called the Horse Heads. Mr. Gerbing leased them from the state of Florida, and we’d go down there, where he had a little mound where the tide goes down and leaves all the oysters. He had a little sign there with his name on it that said ‘Private.’ Well, my Daddy would say, ‘Don’t you stop at any of them that you see a little sign on, and above all, don’t you dare go over there on Craney Island and get any off of that shoreline,’” Thomas said. “We were told about somebody who had gone over there and was picking off oysters, had the bucket between their legs, and she shot the thing off, between their legs!”

A 2006 Florida Times-Union interview with David Markham, then 87, by Mark Woods, appears to confirm Thomas’ memory.

“Markham tells a story about the time that Alice found her sister’s husband taking some oysters. ‘She shot the box right out from between his legs,’” according to Woods’ report.

Hunters once told the sheriff that Miss Alice fired at them, so she was arrested and put in jail in Fernandina. At first she refused to accept food from the jailer, saying it was charity and a Broadbent would never accept charity. The jailer convinced her that it was his duty to see that she was fed, and she reluctantly accepted. The case never went to trial because the community came to her defense saying she would never fire a weapon directly at someone and she had every right to fire warning shots.

For several weeks after she was released, Miss Alice brought vegetables from her garden and dropped them off on the steps of the jail. She repaid the county many times over for the food she received.

Miss Alice made the national news several times; twice in one week in September 1943.

An Associated Press story from Sept. 29, 1943, says that Broadbent was sentenced Sept. 28 to serve a month and a half in jail in Duval County for violating a court order not to interfere with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ project to dredge the Amelia River for the Intracoastal Waterway. Engineers told the judge that Miss Broadbent “ran men working on the dredge off the island yesterday.”

Broadbent, “shoeless and wearing a dress made of sacks,” was released that Friday, according to an AP report, upon her promise to the judge not to interfere.

She then appears to have stayed out of trouble – or at least out of the national news – for almost another decade.

In part two, the disappearance of Miss Alice Broadbent.

 

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