a newspaper article with a picture of a man and a woman
Miss Marie Knowles and James Lamorte, the two in the car with Mrs. Perky in the October 1929 Chicago Tribune. CONTRIBUTED

Helen Nellie Davis was no wallflower. She was born on Dec. 11, 1879, in Baltimore. Because her story is more interesting and complicated than can be told in 900 words or so, this story will concentrate on the time she spent with her last husband, Righter Clyde Perky, the “bat man” of Sugarloaf Key.

When Helen met Perky, she lived in New York but had spent several winters in Miami. Perky was a successful real estate investor who owned several companies in Florida and Texas. In 1926, he was the president of the Miami Motor Club and was living on Santa Maria Avenue in Coral Gables. They married on July 6, 1926. The intimate ceremony was performed at his home and attended by only one other couple. The newlyweds honeymooned in Cuba.

It would not be a particularly long or uneventful marriage. In October of 1929, the Perkys traveled to Chicago to enjoy the horse-racing season. On October 10, she visited the Hawthorne Race Track, where horses had been racing at the family-owned track since 1891. She attended the track with two people with whom she reportedly had become recently acquainted, James Lamorte and the “38-year-old divorcee Marie Knowles.”

While in the car and traveling home from the track, they passed through the Chicago suburb of Cicero when another vehicle pulled up and forced them to pull over to the curb and stop. Two men jumped out of the car. Lamorte was behind the wheel of the vehicle, and one of the men ran up and held a gun to his head. The other leaned through the passenger window and, holding a gun with his right hand, grabbed at Mrs. Perky’s purse with his left. The pistol was held under her chin. When she screamed, the gunman squeezed the trigger, and the bullet passed up through her chin and exited through her forehead above her left eye. Perky went limp, the bandit grabbed the purse, and the two men ran back to their car and sped away.

Helen Perky was rushed to the hospital, where doctors attended to her injury. While she was recuperating, a curious thing happened. Some anonymous person walked into the hospital and handed a nurse a “pasteboard box wrapped in white paper.” Inside the box was the $50,000 worth of jewelry Mrs. Perky had in her purse when it was stolen, including a pear-shaped 16.5-carat diamond ring.

Mrs. Perky’s companions at the time of the attack were taken into custody for questioning. According to chief investigator Patrick Roche of the state’s attorney’s office, a secret investigation of Marie Knowles had been underway, and he thought that when she discovered she was being investigated, she had the jewelry returned. 

Helen Perky recovered from the gunshot wound. However, her marriage proved more delicate. The Perky divorce was filed on Dec. 15, 1932, and made regular newspaper headlines in 1933. In March 1933, lawyers on behalf of Mrs. Perky filed a suit for separate maintenance, resulting in Mr. Perky being served with a series of injunctions. Those injunctions reveal that Righter Clyde Perky was more than just the guy who wanted to build a fishing camp and who built Sugarloaf Key’s famous bat tower.

Before moving any further ahead, one housekeeping matter needs to be addressed.

Since I began writing about Mr. Perky and his bat tower, I have called him Richter, Richter Clyde Perky, and did so, in fact, in last week’s column. I am one of many who have made this mistake, as many stories about him also refer to him as Richter. While digging into old newspaper accounts (and with help from David Sloan), it became clear that I had been calling him by the wrong name for over a decade. The man’s given name is Righter Clyde Perky. 

Righter or Richter, Perky had more interests than the bats and a tower that once stood on Sugarloaf Key at MM 17. Those interests were detailed in the injunctions from Mrs. Perky’s suit. In addition to having ownership in Perky Properties Inc., Perkall Properties Inc., Perky Mercantile Company, and the North End Development Company, there was the real estate company Island Holdings Company, where he had an alleged $500,000 in holdings.

Also listed as assets in the March 25, 1933 story in the Miami News were $150,000 in deposits at the First National Bank of Miami and $250,000 worth of stocks. The story also alleged that he owned the Perky Sponge Farm on Sugarloaf Key outright, all 5,000 acres of land and near-shore shallows and that it was valued at $500,000. He also had interests in the Commonwealth Royalty Corporation of Tyler, Texas, valued at between $250,000 and $1 million.

According to the newspaper story, “The injunctions are to prevent Perky from molesting his wife, obtaining a divorce from her without her knowledge, transferring his properties, cashing certificates of deposit in the First National Bank, or damaging property belonging to her. A $25,000 bond is to be required when he is taken into custody.”

The headline in the Miami News the following day read: “PERKY BEING HELD ON WRIT OF WIFE – Miami Real Estate Man Under Technical Arrest in Key West.” Nothing about the newspaper stories screams amicable separation, including the March 30, 1933 story in the paper. “Mrs. Perky claims her husband, through misrepresentation, obtained possession of $23,810 in jewelry he gave to her before their marriage, $20,000 in cash in the bank in her own name and $6,000 she made on real estate commissions.”

After the divorce, Helen D. Perky remained in Coral Gables. Her name frequently appeared on the local society pages. In 1938, she was again named in a legal notice posted in the paper regarding Mrs. Perky and the Key Largo North End Development Company. The property was being auctioned off to the highest cash bidder at the Monroe County Courthouse in Key West.

On Jan. 2, 1941, Helen Davis Perky died in her Coral Gables home after a brief illness. 

Brad Bertelli
Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.