Bone Mizell’s bullwhip cracked sharply over the heads of the cattle he’d just rustled. He was in a hurry. He had worked up a powerful thirst just thinking of selling these critters in Arcadia. ‘Git along, you maverick devils!’ he shouted, again flicking his whip. They weren’t mavericks. They were branded cattle, and Bone knew it. Hell, he even knew the owner. He wasn’t about to quibble over such dubious distinctions, however–not when ‘the Thirst’ was upon him.
Flickering gas lamps were just beginning to illuminate Arcadia’s dusty main street when Bone drove his small herd into the holding pens. This rowdy, raucous old cow town was the county seat for DeSoto County, the hub of Florida’s booming 19th-century cattle industry. Bone knew a couple of shady buyers who’d pay him more than enough to quench even his famous thirst.
With spurs a-jinglin’, Bone headed straight for his favorite haunt, the Arcadia Bar and Grill Saloon. ‘Bone, you wrangling old whanker, where you been?’ one patron shouted, looking for a free drink. ‘How’s for settin’ up a round?’ ‘Sure,’ replied the ever obliging Bone. ‘Got me up a herd of strays over Kississimee way. Just peddled ’em down at the pens.’
Bone had barely bellied up to the bar, however, when two deputies pushed through the swinging doors and arrested him on the spot for rustling.
The buyers had turned him in, and it was not incidental that the judge had wasted no time in signing Bone’s arrest warrant. He owned the cattle Bone had stolen. Bone knew this when he’d rustled ’em. He’d recognized the brand from when he’d cowboyed for the judge.
Fact is, Bone was famed throughout the state for his remarkable memory for both cattle and brands. ‘Get Bone,’ was the cry all over Florida when roundup time came. ‘Ol’ Bone, he could tell with one look which calf came from which cow, which brand belonged to which ranch,’ an oldtimer recalled.
‘How you pleadin’ Bone?’ the disgruntled judge asked the sober old cow hunter the next day. Tugging at his wide-brimmed straw hat–which he refused to take off–Bone proceeded to blister the jurist. ‘Now you look-a here Judge, I’ve stole hundreds of cattle and put your mark on ’em. Jis ’cause I’ve stole a few from you, you go and have me indicted. You jist better get this whole deal nolly-prosseed [dismissed]–pronto.’ The chagrined and chastened judge did just that, and Bone went free. He immediately embarked on a bender with his ill-gotten gains from the judge’s cattle.
There’s no doubt that Bone Mizell was a man for his time. In fact, the entire Mizell family figured prominently in Florida’s early violent history. As soldiers, lawmen, judges, cowboys and rustlers, they survived the Seminole Indian wars, cattle wars, assassinations and deadly feuds. Of them all, Bone became the most famous.
Horse Creek, Fla., was a sparsely settled community when Bone was born there in 1863. He was the eighth of 12 children for Morgan Mizell and Mary Fletcher Tucker. Bone’s daddy much admired the diminutive French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, so he saddled his new son with the fancy name of Morgan Bonaparte Mizell. That’s where the comparison ended, however. Napoleon was just over 5 feet tall; Bone was nearly 6 feet 5.
As he grew, Bone took on the gawky appearance of an Ichabod Crane. Tall, lean and lanky in the saddle, he often let his long legs dangle below the stirrups. His awkwardness was deceptive because Bone could ride his small, Florida-bred horse–called a Marsh Tackie–with the easy grace of a circus rider.
He could just as gracefully flick a fly off a cow’s rump with his 18-foot bullwhip, never raising a hair on the poor dumb beast. Most Florida drovers had this same skill. They used their whips to herd cows on cattle drives. According to legend, it was the loud ‘craack’ of the whips that gave Florida’s drovers their nickname, ‘Cracker cowboys,’ but the term ‘Cracker’ was certainly used earlier.
If famed Western cowboy artist Frederic Remington didn’t actually coin the title, he certainly perpetuated it by conferring it on Bone Mizell in 1895. The urbane Remington traveled from New York City to Florida that year to paint the scruffy-looking Mizell astride his horse. Remington called the painting A Cracker Cowboy. Other paintings of Bone and his cowboy colleagues appeared in the August 1895 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The appellation stuck. Eventually it evolved into Florida Cracker, the title now reserved for the Sunshine State’s native-born sons and daughters.
It may seem uncharitable to describe Bone as unprepossessing in looks, but no one ever accused him of being handsome. He was rawboned with sharp features. Under wide-set eyes, the thin-lipped Bone had a hawklike nose that nearly matched his protruding chin in length. He was tanned to the color of saddle leather from endless years in the saddle. His lispy drawl was almost a speech impediment. In his youth, it invited ridicule from boyhood companions. Some say this is why he developed ‘a quick and cutting wit to overcome the barbs and mockery’ of others.
Bone never married, but was a sure-fire favorite in the bordellos of the Florida cow towns that flourished after the Civil War. Since he never owned a home, he rarely slept in a bed–unless it was in a bordello.
It was not by accident that Remington immortalized Bone. The artist recognized that cracker cowboys lacked the glamour associated with the Western variety he’d helped popularize. He also recognized that Bone had a charisma all his own, that Bone’s fame as a rangeland raconteur and prairie prankster was widespread and well deserved.
‘Ornery, tough and an incurable joker,’ wrote Jabbo Gordon, a noted Florida historian and newspaperman, in the 1970s. ‘Bone Mizell left his mark, however dubious, on the pages of Florida history. In time, he may prove to be Florida’s best known, if not most typical cowboy.’
That never happened because Bone just wasn’t your ‘typical cowboy.’ Florida’s typical cowboy was lean, mean and laconic. Bone was lean, mean and loquacious–faulted at times for being too funny, too frolicsome, too fractious.
This was particularly true when he was drinking, which was most of the time. Tales of his drinking were as legendary as those of his pranks. Jim Bob Tinsley noted in his excellent biography of Bone, Florida Cow Hunter: The Life and Times of Bone Mizell, that some facts have become obscured with time, but the legends left behind by Bone are ‘consistent with what is known of Bone’s life and character.’
So it’s not surprising there are a couple versions of the following episode, this one being the best:
One night after Bone had passed out, a group of cowboys carried his inert form to a graveyard in Arcadia. They placed him on top of a grave. When he awakened groggily, he looked around and was heard to say: ‘Well, by God! Here it is Judgment Day and I’m the first one up.’ Another version has it that when Bone awoke, he announced: ‘Dead and gone to hell. No more’n I expected.’
‘Bone well deserved his reputation as the cracker wag of the Florida cow country,’ Tinsley continued. ‘He [was] a man who used his sense of humor and a bottle of booze to survive in the Florida cowman’s world…a world of cattle wars, vigilante actions, hangings, lynchings, fence cuttings and cowtown duels.’
All his life Bone worked with cattle on Florida’s vast palmetto rangelands. The watery prairies and palmetto scrub became his natural kingdom. His skills as a topnotch cowboy were legendary. He was variously described as being ‘an expert horseman,’ ‘crack shot with rifle and six gun,’ ‘lighting fast with a bullwhip, rope and branding iron.’ Contemporaries bragged that Bone was ‘able to tackle and master [the] biggest, meanest four-legged brute in the herd.’
If there was a touch of hyperbole in these descriptions, it’s probably due to Bone’s encouragement. At one time or another, our peripatetic hero cowboyed for three of Florida’s top cattle barons. Judge Ziba King had the largest spread, running 50,000 head of beef worth $500,000. King thought so highly of Bone that he several times made him his top wrangler and foreman.
King recognized that even though Bone couldn’t read, write or do sums, he was far from being just a simple-minded cowboy. The wily old cattle baron counted on Bone’s fabulous memory to carry him through, while fully realizing Bone was also a drifter and a grifter.
Only once did Bone stray from his cowboy trade. He tried being a merchant, opening a grocery store in his old hometown. The venture was successful for a time, or for as long as customers paid cash. If the customer was broke, Bone extended them credit, making a long black mark on a wall. The mark indicated that some one owed Bone some amount for some item. But then came the day when even his famous memory left him totally bemused. He’d let so many black marks accumulate on the wall, he could no longer remember who owed him, for what they owed him, or for how much. He promptly gave away the rest of his stock, closed up shop and went back to cow hunting.
Logan King, grandson of Ziba King, recounted to Tinsley in 1979 another story about Bone’s lack of education. Bone and some other cowboys were driving a herd to Tampa one day when Bone’s horse gave out. Bone decided he would trade horses with an elderly black man plowing nearby, and the other cowboys told Bone he would have to give the farmer cash because the plow horse looked better than Bone’s mount, Marsh Tackie.
Bone, though, went right over to the farmer, scribbled something on a piece of paper and then exchanged horses. Bone rode back to the other cowboys on his new horse, and they asked him how he had made the deal without any money. ‘Well, I give him a promissory note,’ Bone explained. ‘Bone you know you can’t write,’ replied one of the cowboys. ‘Hell, boys, he couldn’t either.’
By all accounts, Bone was openly boastful about his talents with a branding iron and bottle of booze. He never hesitated to use the one ability to finance the other affliction. Court records of the era indicate that larceny was an innate part of Bone’s nature.
In addition to the cattle-stealing incident involving the judge, Bone was arrested many other times for rustling and brand altering–which makes it all the more remarkable that he was convicted only once. That happened in early 1895 when Bone decided it again was time to drive a rustled herd to Arcadia to cure his whammies.
Bone was arrested there for brand altering. It was a dirty, broke, hung-over wrangler who appeared before a judge on March 15, 1895. What’s more, Bone didn’t have any blackmail with which to threaten this judge. But down and out as he looked, he was still nonchalant in demeanor when he pleaded not guilty. Bone was convinced the good folks of Arcadia were not about to let him languish in some prison cell. After all, wasn’t he Arcadia’s favorite cowboy; wasn’t that artist feller Remington going to make him famous with a painting in a big time magazine up north?
Surely it was his prairie peccadilloes that had put Arcadia on the map in the first place–just as Billy the Kid’s exploits had made Lincoln, New Mexico, famous. Besides, DeSoto County officials always went out of their way to get Bone off. No, ol’ Bone wasn’t too worried.
In a way, he was right not to fret. It was three years before this case, and a couple of others, were finally settled. However, his situation did grow a bit more dicey a year later when he was arrested for rustling in neighboring Lee County. Now he did worry ’cause Lee County wasn’t his bailiwick.
During this trial in the Lee County Courthouse, several DeSoto County friends attempted to tamper with the jury’s deliberations. They threw a rock through an open window into the jury room with a rope attached. On the other end was a basket containing good food and good whiskey. It didn’t help a whit. The jury found Bone guilty of rustling on March 2, 1896, and he was sentenced to two years’ hard labor in the state pen.
But good news followed bad, as it usually did for Bone. When his friends in DeSoto County learned of this latest problem, they circulated a petition to get Bone pardoned on the Lee County conviction.
This is Jim Bob Tinsley’s account of what happened: ‘Before commitment papers had been completed, a petition for Bone’s pardon was circulated in Arcadia, but his many supporters were told the request could not be granted until Bone had actually served time. So, they outfitted him in new clothes, escorted him to the train station, and gave him a send-off worthy of a hero.’
The truth is, they sent Bone to the state pen in new duds and a haze of alcohol. When he arrived at the penitentiary in northern Florida, it was to a hero’s welcome. His celebrity had preceded him. After being wined, dined and taken on a grand tour of the prison, Bone was placed on the next train back to Arcadia–presumably in another welter of booze.
The hilarity of it all is that the state considered Bone’s visit to the prison as time served. A short time later he was pardoned on the Lee County conviction. Then DeSoto County officials found him not guilty on the long-standing brand-altering charge. Other rustling indictments he’d accumulated over the years were dropped. All this convinced Bone that nothing bad ever happened to those who led the good life.
Despite the violence that raged around Bone most of his life, there was no real violence in his cow hunter’s soul. He proved he was not a man for revenge or vendettas when his brother Jess was killed in a gunfight while serving as sheriff in nearby Manatee County. He never took part in the long, celebrated Barber-Mizell feud in the early 1870s, even though it was sparked by the assassination of his cousin, David Mizell. The truth is, Bone believed more in a bellyful of laughs than a belly full of buckshot.
Posterity should thank the Great Herder of Souls in the Sky that Bone’s numerous encounters with Florida’s judicial system usually left him laughing and the law intimidated. Today, the saying is ‘No guts, no glory.’ Bone’s glory came from his guts because he always faced up to his hijinks–and usually faced down his accusers.
When DeSoto County Sheriff Les Dishong found Bone and some very respectable citizens engaged in a poker game at the home of A.P. Hollingsworth, Bone never blinked an eye. ‘Boys,’ said the sheriff, ‘I’m gonna have to pull this game.’
‘Sheriff,’ said Bone, ‘we’re not a-playin’ for money, we’re a-playin’ for poker chips.’ ‘Same as money,’ the sheriff replied tersely.
Bone pocketed all the poker chips in the game when he left. Next day, in Arcadia, the players were fined $85 each. All the others paid off their fines in cash, but when Bone strolled up to Sheriff Dishong’s desk, he put down $85 in chips. ‘Hold on there, Bone,’ Sheriff Dishong said. ‘This ain’t money.’ ‘You said it was yesterday,’ replied Bone. He cooly sauntered away, leaving a flabbergasted sheriff in his wake.
Another time, Bone walked into a courtroom with his hat on. He was immediately fined $20 by an irate judge. Bone took two $20 bills out of his pocket, laid them in front of the judge and declared: ‘Ya better take forty, yer honor, ’cause I walked in here with my hat on, and I’m a-gonna walk out the same way.’ And he did.
Once when asked by an attorney how long ago some brand marks on some pigs had been changed, Bone answered, ‘About a momph ago.’ ‘What the hell’s a momph?’ asked the lawyer. ‘Why a momph is firty days,’ replied Bone. ‘I thought everybody knew what a momph was.’
Who’s to say how many of the hundreds of stories about Bone Mizell are apocryphal. Many skeptics have questioned them over the years. None have ever been able to disprove them.
He went to his grave in 1921 with his reputation intact as a genuine folk hero–a cowboy icon to Florida’s cattle industry. As such he was also its most graphic example of how the cowboy’s hard life could lead to hard drinking. It’s doubtful anyone could have stopped Bone’s drinking. He loved living on the edge too much. He knew full well the booze would eventually do him in, but that rarely gave him pause.
A last attempt was made to dry him out. Shortly before Bone’s death, the family of his old friend and employer, Ziba King, sent Bone to a sanitarium in Hot Springs, Ark. H. Logan King, Jr., Ziba’s grandson, recounted what happened when interviewed by Tinsley: ‘He stayed off liquor for a while: then some one slipped him a bottle just before he boarded a train for home. In a short time he finished off the bottle and began running naked up and down the aisles of the passenger cars. Officials were forced to stop the train at a small town and have him locked up.’
On July 14, 1921, Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, 58, died with his boots on. When death came, he was waiting for a telegraphic money order from Ziba King in the Fort Ogden, Fla., depot house. A fill-in agent in Fort Ogden for the Atlantic Coast Line said Bone looked like death warmed up when he saw him stretched out on a bench in the depot’s ticket office. The agent, Robert Morgan, asked Bone to sit up. ‘I thought it might make him feel better,’ recounted Morgan. ‘Yeah I’d better not lay down. I might die,’ replied Bone. Those prophetic words were the last the worn-out old wrangler ever spoke.
When the agent returned from lunch, he found Bone lying dead on the floor. The signature of L.L. Morgan, brother of the depot agent and the local undertaker, was the only one on Bone’s death certificate. Where it asked the ’cause of death,’ the certificate read: ‘Moonshine–went to sleep and did not wake up.’
The good life, the bad life, the hard life of a Cracker cowboy had finally caught up to Bone Mizell. It was only fitting that Bone’s funeral be held in Arcadia, the scene of so many of his antics. He was buried just a stone’s throw away in Joshua Creek Cemetery. Appropriately, perhaps, Bone’s legend seemed to grow larger than life after his death. When all the other tales of his wit and pranks are told, the consensus of his peers was that his greatest and most capricious caper was his ‘corpse swapping’ escapade.
Several versions surfaced during Bone’s lifetime of how one corpse went into a lonely prairie grave in central Florida, the other to a fancy New Orleans cemetery. Bone being Bone, he validated as many of them as he could.
All credible accounts, however, always begin with the death of John Underhill, another cow hunter. Underhill was one of Bone’s best friends. Together, they’d ridden a lot of trails, drunk a lot of whisky and drove a lot of cattle. When Underhill died in a Florida cow camp near what is now Kissimmee, Bone was with the herd. When he rode in, he found the other cowboys preparing to wash Underhill’s body before dressing him in some funeral finery.
‘Hellfire, no,’ Bone upbraided his cronies. ‘Y’all ain’t gonna wash ol’ John. He’d never allow it if he was livin’, and y’all ain’t gonna take advantage of him now he’s dead.’
So, unwashed and wearing his grimy old cowboy duds, John Underhill went to a desolate grave amid southwest Florida’s prickly palmettos.
That was that, or so every one thought until a short time later when a young man came to Florida’s cow country. He was described as being in ill health and world weary. For whatever reason, it was Bone who took a shine to the youth. Some cynics snickered he kept Bone supplied with whiskey. Others say Bone honestly tried to turn his young friend into a healthy cow hunter.
Before he could, however, this disillusioned dilettante up and died on Bone while they were in the bush. Intense heat prevented Bone from hauling the youth’s body back to town. Instead, Bone intoned a cowboy eulogy over the body and lowered it into a grave next to John Underhill’s remains.
That, too, should have been the end of it, but a few years later, the youth’s family learned of their son’s death in Florida. They wanted his body exhumed and returned to New Orleans for reinterment in the family plot–and sent money to an Arcadia undertaker for just that purpose.
Since it was Bone who’d buried the youth and knew the grave’s location, it seemed only logical the cunning old grifter be hired to retrieve the youth’s body. Bone confessed later he took the money and promptly went on a bender. After sobering up, he guiltily rode out to the grave sites with two helpers. He said his intention was to disinter the young feller’s body.
‘I was a’gonna bring him in,’ said Bone. ‘I really was.’
Along the way, however, Bone pondered long and hard on the situation. On the one hand, Bone claimed, his young friend had made it clear he was ‘tired of travelin’–never wanted to see another train.’ On the other hand, John Underhill had told Bone many times how he sure ‘hankered to take a train trip afore he died. He jist never had the money for it.’
‘Well, sir,’ said Bone later, ‘it jist didn’t seem right. After a few snorts to sorta fortify us for the diggin’ job, it seemed even less right. Here was a free train ride jist for the takin’–with a damn fine funeral at the end–probably with four white horses a-pullin’ the hearse.’ So it came to pass that the body of a tired young dilettante remained in a lonely Florida grave, while the body of an old cracker cowboy took a belated train ride to New Orleans–and a rich man’s burial under an ornate headstone.
There’s been a lot of retelling of this story over the years. None were ever more whimsical than an epic poem penned by a lovely, doe-eyed Florida lady named Ruby Leach Carson. The eight lachrymose stanzas of Ruby’s ‘Ballad of Bone Mizell’ were later set to music by Jim Bob Tinsley and his wife, Dottie. What Ruby didn’t know–couldn’t know–was that Bone’s personal ballad had one more strange stanza to go.
For over 30 years, Bone’s grave went unmarked. Then a few of his friends decided it was time to correct this horrendous oversight before they, too, went to their just rewards. They quietly went about having a small tombstone simply inscribed. But, as fate would have it–and probably with Bone’s spiritual connivance–the marker was placed on the wrong grave.
Not long after, on a quiet, moonlit night, with the wind whispering through the palmettos, two midnight marauders crept into the Joshua Creek Cemetery and moved the marker to the right grave. They were Bone’s kinsmen, Smoot and Mayo Johnson. Everyone agrees that had Bone been around, he’d gladly have stood his intrepid kin to several rounds of drinks at Arcadia’s old Bar and Grill Saloon.
Today, there are those who stand before Bone’s grave claiming to hear faint chuckles coming from below. Perhaps. But, Bone being Bone, more’n likely it’s a hearty guffaw they hear coming from the grave of Florida’s original Cracker cowboy.
This article was written by Jim Bennett and originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Wild West.
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