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Weird News

Florida: America's Weirdest State

Apr 24, 2011 – 7:30 AM
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Ben Muessig

Ben Muessig Contributor

It's the state of butterfly ballots, gator farms and oversized mice.

It's the retirement hub discovered by a Spaniard rumored to have lost his life hunting for the legendary Fountain of Youth.

It's the only place in America where the farther north you go, the farther south you get.

Florida is undeniably a quirky place. But among many journalists and news junkies, the Sunshine State has developed a reputation for being the state that generates the most weird news and the weirdest weird news.

How did a state once famous for its oranges and seniors turn into a hub for all things strange?

According to Florida resident and weird news legend Chuck Shepherd, Florida emerged as a weird news capital a little more than a decade ago.

Shepherd -- credited with inventing weird news reporting in his widely syndicated "News of the Weird" column -- said he knew Florida had come into its own in the late 1990s, when the San Francisco alternative newspaper SF Weekly featured a story on men who surgically remove their sexual organs; two of the paper's three sources were Floridians.
An orange alligator spotted by wildlife official in Florida on Jan. 5, 2011.
Sylvia Mythen, AP
Welcome to Florida -- the weirdest state in the nation. This odd photograph, taken Jan. 5 in Venice, shows an alligator that was somehow covered in orange paint or an orange substance, according to state wildlife officials. No, alligators can't turn orange naturally. And yes, this is the kind of story journalists have come to expect from the Sunshine State.

"When a San Fran writer on sexual aberrations has to buy a ticket to the 'F' state to fill out his story, we have a winner," he told AOL News.

Florida historian Gary Mormino agrees that the Sunshine State overtook California as "the new capital of weirdness" in the 1990s or 2000s.

"The rationale used to be that America tilted toward the west and all the nuts rolled to California," said Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "Now, perhaps, there's been a tectonic shift and America tilts toward the southeast."

For many Americans, that shift first became noticeable in 2000, when Florida bizarrely hurled itself onto the national stage in the aftermath of the contested presidential election.

In the years since, analysis of Associated Press stories has identified Florida as the nation's strangest state, while popular websites like Gawker.com have turned the Sunshine State into a punchline.

Readers of Fark.com categorize news stories with descriptive tags, including "asinine," "obvious," "weird" and "interesting." The only state honored with its own tag is Florida, a keyword on the site since 2001.

"Newest Florida bumper sticker: My honor student pistol-whipped me," read one snarky headline assigned a Florida tag last month.

"Fark put it up, thinking it would be a temporary thing, but we quickly discovered that there were more than enough strange things happening in Florida to warrant the tag," said Tony Deconinck, a Fark admin and AOL Weird News contributor. "Other states have odd stories come out of them, but no state can challenge Florida. It's the heavyweight champion of weirdness."

Here at AOL Weird News, journalists have written more weird news stories about Florida than any other state -- and with pieces about a mom accused of driving her son's getaway car, an orthodontist who repairs turtle shells, bags of stolen dildos, and a bikini brawl at a Burger King -- it's safe to say we're doing it for good reason.

Though Florida only recently achieved recognition for producing so much weird news, the state has an odd history dating back centuries.

From Spanish colonization through American statehood, Florida played host to a variety of eccentric characters and strange happenings, like the "wreckers" who turned Key West into one of the continent's wealthiest communities by legally plundering sinking ships and auctioning their cargo.

But according to Mormino, the Florida we know today -- a "fast-paced and over-the-top" place that is, in many ways, the least southern state in the South -- only emerged in the 1920s.

"You had the wealthy building homes in Miami Beach," Mormino said. "There were the 'Tin Can Tourists' -- the respectable middle class and the working poor -- coming to Florida for the first time in automobiles. That was the beginning of the alligator farms, ostrich farms; the start of the crazy tourist destinations."

That's also when a speculative real estate bubble inflated and burst, setting the bar, in many ways, for a culture of lax regulation that continues in Florida even today.

With a history of lenient divorce laws, it's no surprise that Panama City, among other Florida communities, tops national charts as a divorce capital.

Meanwhile, Florida's "homestead exemption" has long protected private property from creditors, making Florida a place where the bankrupt and highly indebted -- including celebs like O.J. Simpson -- have shielded their assets.

Florida has even advertised its bizarre legal loopholes with the iconic 1980s tourism slogan "Florida: The Rules Are Different Here."

Indeed they are. (This is the state where lawmakers are still struggling to pass a bill that would make bestiality illegal.)

Thankfully for readers of weird news, the rules are also different when it comes to public records laws.

Will Greenlee, the reporter who maintains the Treasure Coast Newspapers' "Off The Beat" blog, said it's unclear whether Florida actually generates more weird news than other states -- or if more weird news stories just happen to find their way into Florida newspapers.

"You may be hearing about it more (than in other states) because the open records laws are very liberal in Florida," Greenlee said. "It's easier to get access to police reports and things that might not be as accessible in other places."

Greenlee spends his days scouring police reports and scanning mug shots in search of newsworthy items, like the story of a suspect who allegedly called 911 to ask about airfares to Guatemala; the time Vanilla Ice's kangaroo and goat escaped and ran wild through Port St. Lucie; and the incident involving a man who deputies claim hid crack in his, well, crack.

"It's certainly not what they taught me in journalism school," he said.

Though Greenlee himself is a Florida native, he said part of what makes the state strange is the fact that it attracts so many outsiders.

"It doesn't seem like anybody is really from Florida -- it just seems like a transient state where all the miscreants wind up," Greenlee said.

According to census data, only about a third of Floridians were born in the Sunshine State.

Barbara Hijek, the blogger behind the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's popular "FloriDUH" blog, said it's the "odd mixes of people" -- "from bootleggers to Baptists" -- that make Florida bizarre.

"A lot of people drifted south to Florida to reinvent themselves. It's an odd juxtaposition of people that makes it so interesting," said Hijek, who has been covering weird news in Florida seven days a week for the past three years.

Hijek's stories spotlight utterly absurd incidents, including a man arrested for allegedly masturbating atop the roof of a club and a woman accused of driving while shaving her bikini line.

Though Florida has been inhabited for thousands of years and is home to the oldest continuously occupied European city in the U.S., large numbers of people only began moving to the state following World War II. That influx transformed what had been the least populous state in the South into the fourth (soon to be third) largest state in the nation.

These new residents helped turn Florida into a destination with a cutting-edge art scene, an international music scene, posh neighborhoods, top-flight resorts and world-class amusement parks, among other attractions.

But with so many people coming from such different backgrounds, Florida was bound to become a place like no other.

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"Florida is both a deep Southern state and the northernmost province of the Caribbean," said Mormino, who teaches courses on modern Florida. "Everyone seems to cluster in Florida -- you've got a million immigrants from Cuba alongside retired Jews from the northeast."

Each Floridian has a different reason for living in Florida, but according to Mormino, much of the state's strangeness comes from the fact that so many of its residents are dreamers.

"It's a 'dream state,'" he said. "It combines the American dream for immigrants with the dream of the promise of a better life or a second chance."

In Mormino's eyes, Florida is so odd because it's a place people go to escape their pasts and pursue their fantasies -- weird as they may be.

"Only California and Florida are legitimate 'dream states,'" Mormino said. "You have the sand dunes, the palm trees, and the promise of a better life ... or at least a better February."

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