A Spanish superstition warns that if a bird sings outside your window at night, a death will occur in your home the following day. I don’t know if a bird’s coo was heard from the bridge tender’s home on Pigeon Key the night of Oct. 29, 1921, but when the next day arrived, death came knocking. And, legend says, death left a handprint.
The legend of Pigeon Key tells the tragic tale of Leona Kyle, the wife of Seven-Mile Bridge tender, Robert Kyle, who lived on the small island off Moser Channel that once served as a work camp for Henry Flagler’s railroad. Legend claims Leona was having an affair. Some stories say it was with a cook, others say it was an assistant bridge tender. Though the affair was never discovered, Leona was overcome with guilt. Unable to live with her shame, she fashioned a noose, climbed the stairs and hanged herself from a rafter on the second floor of their home. To this day, students who stay overnight on the island awake to the sound of a dress brushing back and forth across the floor. Mysterious lights are spotted in the windows when no one is in the building, people feel cold chills or hear whispers, and a heavy thud awakens frightened campers — as if a rope was cut, dropping the dead weight of a body to the floor. I was told a mysterious handprint still appears some nights on the beam where Leona hanged herself. Employees try to wash it off or paint over it, but it always comes back. They say Leona changed her mind about ending things at the last minute. She tried to pull herself up, but just didn’t have the strength. The handprint is said to be her spirit still reaching out for help.
I took a trip to Pigeon Key to investigate the legend. I found plenty of stories, but no ghostly handprint. When I inspected the beams in the building where it is said Leona died, I couldn’t even find a beam suitable for hanging oneself. The legend didn’t make sense, so I returned home and spent a week in the archives getting to know Leona a little bit better. Her story brought a smile to my heart.
Born Leona Cavender on April 20, 1886, Leona grew up in Pompano, Florida, where her father Zollie was postmaster and ran a general store. Robert Kyle moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1900 as a young bachelor and, according to an article in the Fort Lauderdale News, hung a sign on his house as the first order of business that said: “Wife wanted. Must be from Fort Lauderdale and good-looking.” Leona never saw the sign, but they met at a party when she was 17. Robert “came to call” a few days later, but Leona and her sister Irene were not sure which one of them he was there to court, so they invited him into the dining room to play a game called Flinch. Fate stepped in, and after a brief courtship, Leona Cavender became Mrs. Leona Kyle. Robert scored a job with the railroad and became bridge tender of the Seven-Mile Bridge. The couple settled on Pigeon Key and had six children together. Pigeon Key had no schools, so when the children reached school age, the family bought a place in Naranja, Florida, near Homestead. Robert Kyle remained on Pigeon Key, and the family divided their time between the two places until Robert died on Oct. 19, 1927 from acute indigestion, making Leona a widow.
At this point in the campfire version of the story, Leona hanged herself. In real life, nothing of the sort happened.
Leona went on with her life, living in the same Naranja home where she had raised her children. She married a fruit grower named Arnold Tripp and was widowed a second time when he died in 1953. Leona lived for another two decades. It wasn’t until Dec. 9, 1974, that she passed on. She was 88 years old.
The legend was busted. Leona Kyle did not hang herself at Pigeon Key. But why are people encountering her ghost? The simple answer: They’re not.
It wasn’t Leona Kyle for whom the songbird was calling on the night of Oct. 29, 1921.
While scouring the archives for details of Leona’s death, I uncovered a Nov. 1, 1921, Miami Heraldarticle that revealed:
Mrs. Laura Woodward, 35, wife of G.M. Woodward, bridge tender for the Florida East Coast Railroad Company at Pigeon Key, committed suicide at her home Sunday afternoon by shooting herself in the right temple, using a heavy caliber revolver. Mr. Woodward found the body of his wife lying fully dressed across the bed in their home when he returned from work about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. A bullet hole was found in her right temple, the bullet going entirely through and lodging in the wall. A revolver with one empty chamber was found lying on the floor near the bed. Mr. Woodward stated that his wife had been in ill health for a number of years and asserted that he believed that despondency was the reason for her act. Mrs. Woodward left no letter or note explaining the reasons for killing herself.
Robert Kyle was living on Pigeon Key when Laura Woodward took her own life. He, along with several others, accompanied her body to Sebastian, Florida, for burial. A trip like that would give a lot of time for reflection, but I’m pretty sure Robert Kyle never imagined people would be saying the dead woman he traveled with was his wife when the story was recounted 100 years down the tracks.
Time has a way of changing things. Laura becomes Leona, despondency becomes infidelity, a gun becomes a noose and a bullet hole in the wall becomes a ghostly handprint.
I believe Laura Woodward is the real spirit haunting Pigeon Key. I’d like to believe her spirit remained because the story being told was not hers, and she can now move on and rest in peace. We may never know. Send her some love if you find yourself sleeping in one of the historic structures and feel as if you are not alone. But beware and listen for the coo of the birds when you close your eyes at night. The spirits are strong in the Keys, and 100 years from now, the legend of Pigeon Key may be you.
Learn more about Pigeon Key at pigeonkey.net