When subscribers of the Miami Daily News opened up their evening edition on July 26, 1925, they were expecting the headline article to describe the opening of the newspaper’s great new building at 600 Biscayne Boulevard, named the Miami Daily News Tower, that was dedicated earlier that day. However, the byline on the front page of the paper provided the shocking news of the sudden passing of the mayor of the City of Miami, Parker Henderson Sr., who was found dead in his home that morning. Henderson was 52-years old when he passed away.
The reason that the story of the mayor’s death was not the headline on July 26th was that the top story was reserved to further shock the reader by announcing the sudden passing of one of Miami’s most popular winter residents, William Jennings Bryan, who was known nationally as the ‘Great Commoner.’ He got this nickname based on how he, and his policy ideas, related to the everyday man and woman. He was known as one of the great orators of his time, and because of his ability to speak and preach, he was relatable to the common man during his time, hence the nickname the ‘Great Commoner.’
Bryan was a three-time presidential candidate, and Secretary of State for the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913 – 1915), which brought the notoriety he enjoyed during his time in Miami. He was the youngest person to be nominated by either major party when he was nominated to represent the Democrat Party in 1896 at the age of thirty-six. Although he got his party’s nomination in 1896, 1900, and 1904, he lost all three elections to become president.
Although born and raised in Nebraska, Bryan became very fond of spending his winters in Miami beginning in 1910. During his first visit, he stayed at the Royal Palm Hotel, but rented a home on the southwest corner of Brickell Avenue and today’s SE Eight Street, where the 800 Brickell Avenue building stands today, during his next visit the following year. In 1912, he purchased land and constructed a residence at 3115 Brickell Avenue which he named Villa Serena. This home was located just north of James Deering’s Vizcaya estate. He moved into Villa Serena in 1913 and spent his winter months there until he purchased the Huntington estate in Coconut Grove in July of 1924. Bryan named his new Coconut Grove residence ‘Marymont’, and put Villa Serena up for sale.
William Jennings Bryan was more than just a seasonal visitor to the Magic City. He ingratiated himself into the local community through civic engagement. He volunteered to be a guest minister for the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Miami which created quite a stir. The attendance of service at the downtown church during one of Bryan’s sermons was so popular it had to be relocated to the nearby Royal Palm Park. His Sunday sermons attracted hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of attendees once they started being conducted from the bandshell in the park.
Bryan also used his celebrity to help pitch real estate during the great boom of the 1920s. He befriended George Merrick, and was hired as a pitchman for Coral Gables real estate. He would stand on any makeshift pulpit and preach the virtues of owning real estate in the Gables. Merrick, Bryan, and James Deering discussed creating a Pan-American College in Coral Gables during the early 1920s, however, the untimely passing of Bryan and Deering put that notion on hold. The idea of an institution of higher education in Coral Gables led to the founding of the University of Miami in 1926.
William Jennings Bryan passed away while taking a nap in Dayton, Tennessee. He was in the small town of Dayton to help prosecute a case against John Scopes, who violated a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. This trial pitted William Jennings Bryan against a well-known defense attorney by the name of Clarence Darrow. Given the high-profile nature of the two men arguing the case, it garnered a lot of publicity and was known nationally as the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial.’ The case attracted a lot of media coverage and was argued from July 10 – July 21 in 1925. On the trial’s seventh day, the judge ordered the proceedings to take place outdoors because the courtroom was so unbearably hot. In the end, John Scopes was found guilty and sentenced to pay a $100 fine.
The entire trial not only took a toll on Bryan mentally, but also physically given the hot conditions and long hours of the proceedings. William Jennings Bryan died from heart failure four days after the verdict was rendered.
Once the news of the Great Commoner’s passing was known, residents of the City of Miami were in mourning. Although he was a larger-than-life national figure, he was also one of their own. A few days after his passing, on July 31st, a memorial service was held in Royal Palm Park, the same place where Bryan conducted Sunday service and at the same time his funeral was being conducted in Washington D.C. Following the funeral proceedings, Bryan was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery.
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- Figure 1: Front page of the Miami Daily News on July 26, 1925. Courtesy of the Miami News.
- Figure 2: Villa Serena on February 24, 1921. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.
- Figure 3: William Jennings Bryan conducting Sunday Service in Royal Palm Park. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 4: William Jennings Bryan pitching Coral Gables real estate in 1925. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 5: William Jennings Bryan as part of the outdoor proceedings during the Scopes Trial on July 20, 1925. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
- Figure 6: Memorial in Royal Palm Park for William Jennings Bryan on July 31, 1925. Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Library, Romer Collection.
- Figure 7: William Jennings Bryan tribute in the Miami Daily News on July 27, 1925. Courtesy of the Miami News.