A 19th-Century Story of Disloyalty, Gunplay, Lawsuits and a Mysterious Death

Scandal in Old Tallahassee



(page 1 of 3)

About this story
Charles Chaires, the son of Florida’s first millionaire, despite his vast inherited riches, proved unable to deter his wife Martha’s affections for his nephew, Ben. The illicit union produced a child and estrangement. It seems that things went awry as soon as Charles carried Martha away from the relative refinement of Duncanville, Georgia, to the isolation of Leon County.

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

 

Under a blanket of pine needles, a solitary grave marker rests in a lonely corner of a small rural churchyard. It bears this simple inscription: Martha Chaires Thomas/Feb. 18, 1842–Nov. 2, 1911.

The sparseness of the words belies the complexities of a life marked by scandal and disgrace. This is Martha’s story, and it begins long before her birth with the prominent Florida dynasty she was to join and disturb.

The story of the Chaires family and its intrigue was lost to history until it was recently uncovered by research into official documents, old news clippings and other historical records. This complex tale of human frailty, greed and jealousy reveals that scandals surrounding power, prestige and family are not restricted to modern society.

 

Son of Florida’s First Millionaire

Martha’s future husband, Charles Powell Chaires, was born in 1830 in Leon County, the youngest son of Benjamin and Sarah Chaires’ 10 children. Benjamin Chaires was Florida’s first millionaire and an influential territorial pioneer. When Charles was 8 years old, his famous father died at Verdura, the family’s ancestral plantation in southeastern Leon County on land now owned by the St. Joe Company near the SouthWood development. Charles was to become Verdura’s owner, and the property was to remain in his estate until it was declared insolvent — a decline in which Martha played a role.

As Charles grew up on the family farm, his siblings left to establish plantations and families of their own, finally leaving him and a brother as the last family members residing in the grand mansion. The two lived at Verdura until about 1851, the year of Charles’ first marriage to Sarah Ann Raines. By 1861, Charles had established his second plantation, Ever May, also in Leon County, located east of the present-day Capital Circle, roughly between Old St. Augustine Road and U.S. Highway 27. He had also purchased property and had business interests about 100 miles to the southeast in Cedar Key on the island of Atsena Otie.

Though Sarah is buried in the family graveyard at Verdura, the year of her death is unknown. What is known is that on July 23, 1867, Charles married Martha Mash at the “palatial” home of her planter father, Maj. Jackson J. Mash, in Duncanville, Georgia (near the present community of Beachton). With her marriage to Charles, Martha was transplanted from her father’s socially elite circle to the rough seacoast town that was Cedar Key and to the lonely life of a rural plantation mistress in Leon County. In a later letter to Charles’ brother, her depression is clear: “I never … have felt so desperately unloved, unappreciated and neglected for so long a time.”

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