Key West's Latest Addiction: The News From 1855

Dec 22, 2016

Key West residents are following William Hackley's every move - even though he has been dead for 150 years. 

Hackley lived on the island from the 1830s to the 1850s. And he kept a diary, which survived and provides an account of his activities and occasionally acerbic opinions. He was an attorney and one case involved prosecuting a man for keeping a "disorderly house." The man was acquitted — and Hackley blamed the jury:

"The greater part of the persons who call themselves householders being drunken and vagabond sailors, who have built themselves palmetto huts on the Keys, and who are usually drunk from the time of their arrival on the Key until their departure, or all their money is gone," he wrote.

William Hackley
Credit Monroe County Public Library

Hackley is not a major figure in Key West history. There's no street named for him, no legend told on the tours. But he's become locally famous in the last year, as his diary entries from 1855 have run in the "Today In Keys History" column in the Key West Citizen, the local newspaper.

"I look for it every morning," said Leonard Salazar, a Conch, or native to the island. Salazar is intrigued by the language in the diary, "a lot of the words he uses to describe medical conditions and locations and other things. Plus, I'm always looking to see what's going to happen next to him."

It was Tom Hambright's idea to run the Hackley diary in the Key West Citizen. He's the historian at the Monroe County Public Library. He realized pretty quickly after the diary started running that he had a hit on his hands.

"People started stopping me in the grocery store, asking me about him," Hambright said.

Fran Decker has been a Hackley fan from the start. She said she likes reading about his hemp-growing enterprise and his work in the courts. But it's entries about "the babe" that really get her.

"I think everybody's question is, what about the babe?" she said. "The poor, sick babe!

Hambright said he gets a lot of questions about the babe. But he has a firm "no spoilers" policy.

"I say, 'No. It's a serial. You've got to stay tuned,' " he said.

Hambright started running the diary entries as a way to change up the column, which he's been writing for almost 20 years.

"It was getting a little boring. Because history doesn't change," Hambright said. "The railroad's always going to be here on January 22nd, 1912. So I was getting bored doing it."

Hackley's diary offers detailed descriptions of life in Key West in the 1800s. He notes the daily temperature — which has led to local debates about whether the climate has changed since then.

The diary pages of author William R. Hackley from June 14, 1855.
Credit Goulding Family Collection, 1830-1967 / Special Collections & Archives, Florida State University Libraries

And the diary has reverberated through social media. Librarian Anne Layton Rice saw that after one of the entries had a typo. It read: "Took a shower bath, the well having dead mica in it and smells bad."

Rice wrote a Facebook post: "Typo. Not dead mica. Dead mice."

She didn't mention Hackley, the diary or the newspaper column.

"Universally, people understood what I meant," she said. "I got so many people that clicked 'Like' or commented, saying 'Oh yeah, now I now what that means. OK, thought so!' "

Decker said she starts every day reading William Hackley's diary.

"My only regret is I wish he'd write more," she said.

And for her, the daily entries don't just make her think about the past. It also makes her think about the future.

"I'm a lifelong journaler myself. I've been keeping diaries since I was 7," she said. "And it makes me think, what if somebody 150 years from now reads it? They don't care that I went to the gym. But they might want to know what I had for dinner."

Key West Citizen readers will get to follow William Hackley's life on the island for one more year. He continued the diary through 1856 before leaving the island for Joliet, Illinois.