Mystery surrounds the wrecker king’s final resting place

Photograph of unearthed skeleton on Indian Key taken by Rudy Atmus.
Photograph of unearthed skeleton on Indian Key taken by Rudy Atmus.

Captain John Jacob Housman manufactured a wrecker’s paradise on the 11-acre island, Indian Key. He then died a gruesome death. It was called accidental.

However, because Housman’s successful development of Indian Key had taken money directly out of Key West pockets, and considering the circumstances of the incident, it is not an unreasonable argument to suggest that Housman’s death might not have been all that accidental.

The animosity between Housman and Key West officials has been well documented. Captain Housman had been trying to undermine Key West authorities for years. His intent was to create a community that was independent of Key West authority and eventually he managed to accomplish the feat. The argument that finally cemented the division of the area’s judicial realm was Housman’s assertion that it was unfair and inconvenient for residents of northern Monroe County to travel all the way to Key West when called to jury duty.

Key West’s politicos were blindsided when Monroe County was divided into two separate counties. Monroe County suddenly ended at Bahia Honda. Indian Key became part of the newly formed Dade County. No sooner had the new county lines been drawn than did Housman commission the construction of a county seat and courthouse on his little island. Of course Housman’s political maneuvering ceased to matter in the early morning hours of Nov. 7, 1840.

Chief Chekika and over 100 warriors paddled up to Indian Key in war canoes. They attacked. Several residents were killed and nearly every structure on the island was burned to the ground. Mr. and Mrs. Housman lost just about everything, even their dogs, but they escaped with their lives.

In the days after the attack, Captain Housman signed all rights to Indian Key over to the military.

Disheartened and running low on funds, Captain Housman and Elizabeth went to Key West to auction off the few assets he had left, as well as his slaves. Housman then briefly returned to Indian Key, but having no wrecking license and few prospects, moved back to Key West where he ultimately found work as a mere crew member aboard the last wrecking vessel he would ever set foot upon.

Housman was killed while working a salvage claim during a rough sea. He was crushed to death between the converging hulls of two wooden ships. After his death, it is suggested that Mrs. Housman, Elizabeth, recovered her husband’s body and returned him to his beloved island of Indian Key. No one really knows where the infamous captain’s bones ended up and there is certainly no documentation to assert the claim his body was ever recovered, much less laid to rest on Indian Key.

After his death, Elizabeth attempted to claim rights to what was left of his property, but was denied because there was never proof the two were ever lawfully wed. She did commission the engraving of a headstone that was delivered to the island and placed above a grave on Indian Key. The tombstone read: “Here lieth the body of Capt. Jacob Housman, formerly of Staten Island, State of New York, Proprietor of this island, who died by accident May 1st, 1841, aged 41 years 11 months. This monument is erected by his most disconsolate though affectionate wife, Elizabeth Ann Housman. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.”

To this day, Captain Housman’s tombstone, or rather a replica of his tombstone marks an open grave on Indian Key. Skeletons, or at least one skeleton, have been unearthed on Indian Key. In the early 1960s, Rudy Atmus and his wife visited the island. They were strolling around the edge of the island when they noticed an unusual mound with an interesting bump. Digging at the site, they uncovered a gravesite and unearthed a complete skeleton. They took pictures, covered the skeleton back up, and left the island with the intent of revisiting the island shortly thereafter.

Upon their return to Indian Key a few weeks later, they discovered that someone else had found the gravesite and removed the skeleton. All that was left in the shallow grave were a few of the skeleton’s teeth that had fallen out of its skull. Mr. Atmus, Rudy, picked up some of the teeth and placed them in his pocket. Unfortunately, when they left the island, their boat was caught in a sudden gale and during the chaos, Rudy’s pocket ripped, the teeth spilled out and disappeared into the stormy Atlantic shallows.

Whether or not they were Housman’s bones is anybody’s guess. Ned Buntline, the writer responsible for making the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody so famous, might have summed up the life of one of the Florida Keys’ first-rate rapscallions best when he wrote that Housman managed to leave nothing behind, “nothing of value, not even a good name.”

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at