Why you should care
Because it’s a fascinating case study in rural desperation.
If there is such a thing as the middle of nowhere in Florida, then that middle might be Vernon, 100 miles east of Pensacola and west of Tallahassee. Which is why it was surprising that a television reporter from Panama City happened to be there in June 1984, when a wild brawl broke out at what otherwise would have been a dull city council meeting.
The fight fascinated, but it was the presence of a certain character, J.C. Armstrong, that captivated the nation. Specifically, what that character was missing — his left hand, replaced by a hook that Armstrong used to repeatedly jab a woman. When his wife was asked by a reporter about the missing appendage, she responded darkly: “I think you know.”
It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot.
Murray Armstrong, former insurance agent
The story of “Nub City” was the worst-kept secret in the Florida Panhandle. Dozens of the town’s 500 residents were missing feet, arms, hands or eyes, the result of a “three-year orgy of self-maiming” in the early 1950s, as career insurance investor John J. Healy recounted in the pages of The New York Times a half-century ago. By the ’60s, at least 50 locals had joined the so-called Nub Club, cashing out payments from $5,000 to $300,000. Desperate times and desperate measures are hardly new in vast expanses of forgotten America, but the extremity of losing one’s extremities makes the cases of Vernon peculiar ones.
Not quite 5 square miles, Vernon sits along Holmes Creek, a former shipping route for gopher tortoises, whose shells could strike a pretty penny. If that doesn’t sound like a sustaining economic engine, well, it wasn’t. But starting around the mid-20th century, Vernon’s residents finally found a way to do something about their money malaise. While there’s technically no proof their self-mutilation was intentional, at one point the tiny town accounted for as much as two-thirds of the nation’s dismemberment cases.
Insurance agents started hearing stories of numerous hunting “accidents,” everything from a man trying to protect his chickens to a farmer mistaking his foot for a squirrel. These folks had taken out insurance policies, sometimes just days before, and those policies made millionaires out of men whose assets were previously more akin to molehills.
In one case, former insurance agent Murray Armstrong told the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) a middle-class farmer took more than $1 million, despite having a tourniquet in his pocket and at the ready for the accident. “In case of snake bite,” the man reportedly explained. “It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot,” Armstrong said.
Eventually, Healy arrived and essentially exposed the acting, even joking that popping limbs off was the favorite activity in town, according to Ken Dornstein’s book Accidentally, on Purpose — the second favorite being watching stray dogs mate in the town square. Premiums rose, and companies refused to insure the Panhandle. The ruckus gradually died down.
Still, the legend drew visitors, including a 20-something Errol Morris, the now septuagenarian documentary filmmaker whose best-known work is the true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line. In the fall of 1976, Morris came across a press clipping that hinted at the scandals behind Nub City. The New York native headed down to Vernon, a land he considered both strange and magical, full of gator hunting and shady authorities. “Down here, we don’t have murders, we have disappearances,” he remembers one sheriff telling him ominously. “I loved, loved, loved the people of Vernon,” Morris adds.
But they didn’t always love him. Morris returned in 1979 and 1980, renting a nearby house and interviewing the residents for what he imagined to be his next great work, with the title Nub City. The locals, however, grew increasingly adversarial, culminating in violence. “I had gone to visit a nubby living close to Tallahassee, a double amputee, both an arm and a leg [on opposite sides],” Morris says, a clear sign of intentional self-harm because it allows one to still hold a crutch. The man’s son-in-law, a military guy, threatened and then beat up Morris. He wasn’t hospitalized, but it convinced him to refocus the film. Morris instead produced Vernon, Florida, a profile of the town’s eccentric residents, which premiered at the New York Film Festival to strong reviews.
What kind of desperation does it take for residents to saw off their own limbs? Morris still isn’t sure, but he saw firsthand both incredible poverty and cultural self-reliance. “Maybe it’s the isolation,” he reflects. And it still haunts him. Now that time has passed, and fresh off producing a six-part Netflix series, Morris says he increasingly thinks about returning to the original story. With the popularity of think-it-through true-crime shows like Making a Murderer and podcasts like Serial, he sees a new appetite for tales that are just as much about the journey as they are about the conclusion. “I think I would tell the story of my investigation,” Morris says.