History Mystery - The mysterious murder of light keeper Ernest W. Marler

The Destin Log

Last month we mentioned that the old East Pass at one time had range lights to guide mariners to its entrance. William T. Marler (Uncle Billy) was one of the light keepers for those range lights. But did you know that his oldest son Ernest W. Marler was also a lightkeeper in the 1930s?  

Our History Mystery this month is about Ernest W. Marler and the mystery of his unsolved murder that occurred on March 16, 1938, while serving as the assistant light keeper at the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. 

Just like two of Leonard Destin’s sons and one of his grandsons, being a lightkeeper ran in the Marler family too. In addition to William T. Marler being the keeper of the Choctawhatchee East Pass Range Lights from 1902 to 1910, his oldest son Ernest W. Marler also went into the service of the United States Lighthouse Board. 

Ernest W. Marler was the assistant lighthouse keeper at the Cape San Blas lighthouse from 1926 until his death on March 16, 1938. At the age of 27, Ernest gave up fishing at Destin, and moved his family to Cape San Blas, in Gulf County, to help man the lighthouse there at a salary of $440 per year plus room and board. 

Ernest married Suzie E. Stephens in 1924. According to the 1935 Florida Census, they had four children: their 10-year-old daughter Ernestine, 8-year-old son James, 4-year-old daughter Mamie Sue, and 2-year-old son Raymond. The Lighthouse Board furnished two, three-bedroom, two-story homes, one for the keeper and one for the assistant keeper and their families. 

Cape San Blas with assistant keepers and keepers homes, lighthouse, and oil house.

On March 16, 1938, Ernest, after caring for the light in the morning, went to a small workshop near the rear of his home at about 10 a.m. When he failed to come to dinner at noon, his wife sent Ernestine, their 13-year-old daughter, to check on her father. Ernestine returned shortly to tell her mother that her father was hurt badly. 

Ernest’s wife Suzie went to the workshop and found her husband lying in a pool of blood at the end of his workbench. He had been stabbed 14 times in the chest, neck, and arm. Nearby were a bloody knife and hatchet. The head keeper, Sullivan R. White, had gone to Port Saint Joe with his wife at 9 a.m. and did not return until 11:30 a.m. He was summoned and determined that Ernest was dead. Sheriff E. W. Parker was called, and he and Judge Alton Dendy arrived from Wewahitchka at about 4:30 p.m. 

As reported in the Port St. Joe STAR newspaper on March 26, 1938, at the coroner’s inquest, head keeper White was asked whether he was afraid to continue living at the lighthouse. White stated, “Yes, I’m afraid because I believe someone is trying to get our jobs. Several threats have been made to previous keepers by persons wanting the job at the lighthouse. I am afraid to stay there – afraid that some desperado will get me. If Marler was murdered, they might get me too.” That statement shows just how coveted the job of a lightkeeper was in those days. 

Later that year head keeper Sullivan R. White left the Cape San Blas lighthouse and was replaced by Frank Spongia who served until his retirement in 1942. Johnny Jones took Marler’s place as assistant keeper. 

The death of Ernest W. Marler was never solved. Some believed he was killed by local moonshiners, while others believed it was a revenge killing for his testimony a few days earlier in a trial against some thieves. 

Keeper Frank Sponglia In uniform in 1939.

In 2012, a mystery novel was written by Charles Farley titled Secrets of San Blas. In Farley’s book, he took the real events involved in the 1930s surrounding Port Saint Joe, the new Paper Mill, Cape San Blas, the lighthouse, and the unsolved murder. He made a fictional novel with an interesting ending, which isn’t true but is still interesting. Locally, this fictional account can be checked out at the Destin Library. 

In recent years, storms, winds, and high surf have eroded the shoreline near the old lighthouse. The City of Port St. Joe successfully moved the lighthouse to protective shores on St. Joseph Bay to preserve and maintain the structure. On July 15, 2014, hundreds of people watched as the lighthouse, its two keepers’ quarters, and the oil house made their journey into Port St. Joe. The convoy, which was over 900 feet long and two lanes wide, was moved from the Gulf shores of Cape San Blas to its new location at George Core Park, in the downtown Bayfront area of Port St. Joe, Florida. 

Ernest W. Marler is laid to rest in the Marler Memorial Cemetery on Calhoun Street in Destin. As you enter the cemetery his grave is the first one on the right just past the gate where you entered. 

H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker on local history. He lives in Bob Hope Village in Shalimar with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940 and DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin. Both can be obtained from, The Destin History & Fishing Museum in Destin, Henderson Beach Resort in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly 

History Mystery by H. C. “Hank” Klein