INGLIS, Fla. – It truly was an ambitious undertaking: But Carolyn Risher, mayor of this coastal hamlet of shrimp fishermen and God-fearing folk, believed the hour had come to cleanse her town of the giver of evil.
Of Satan himself.
His grip on the community, she’d noticed, had become disturbingly apparent: a father had molested a child, teens were dressing in black and powdering their faces white, pot and crystal-meth use was on the uptick.
So she sat at her kitchen table on Halloween night two years ago and drafted a proclamation. The words flowed from her pen almost, she recalled later, as though God was guiding her hand.
“Be it known from this day forward,” she began, “that Satan, ruler of darkness, giver of evil, destroyer of what is good and just, is not now, nor ever again will be, a part of this town of Inglis … In the past, Satan has caused division, animosity, hate, confusion, ungodly acts on our youth, and discord among our friends and loved ones. NO LONGER!”
“We exercise our authority over the devil in Jesus’ name. By that authority, and through His Blessed Name, we command all satanic and demonic forces to cease their activities and depart the town of Inglis.”
The mayor printed her proclamation on official stationery. She stamped it with a gold seal. She signed it and, along with Sally McCranie, the town clerk, made copies and stuffed them into four, hollowed-out wooden posts on which were painted “repent,” “request,” “resist.”
Then, together with a local pastor, a town commissioner and the chief of police, the 62-year-old mayor went to each of Inglis’ four entrances and, in the name of the town’s 1,421 residents, fixed those messages of banishment into the very ground.
“My main goal was to wake Inglis up,” Risher told a visitor recently. “If the proclamation could get people to wake up and realize that they needed God, then it would be a success – then Inglis would be saved.”
Would it, though? Would banning the Prince of Darkness from the town’s three square miles deliver Inglis from drugs, thieves and drunk drivers? Would it ease the fears of a small, isolated community – frustrated by joblessness and uneasy about war overseas and terrorism at home – and attract an angel of light?
To an outsider cruising in fifth gear along the flat, asphalt ribbon that is U.S. 19, the towns along Florida’s Gulf Coast do not look like Satan’s stomping grounds. They look sedate as they always have, slow and swampy, places where the globes of the streetlights are almost hidden by live oaks and palms, where the bumpers of the four-by-fours are a tad pitted by salty air, where herons jut from the marshes and shallow, brown creeks that cut the Florida scrub.
Inglis, bounded by timberland to the north and east, an intracoastal waterway to the south and the tepid waters of the Gulf to the west, is no different. There’s not a lot going on here economically: a towing business or two, a couple of real estate agencies, a few fruit stands, some bait-and tackle shops, a couple of no-tell motels and a handful of pawnshops, pubs and grills.
If you’d been able to get a degree in engineering or nuclear physics, you might have landed a good-paying job at the nuclear plant a few miles south. If you hadn’t, you’d probably be a struggling shrimp fisherman. Shrimping has fallen on hard times since big buyers began importing cheap shrimp from Asia – “outsourcing of fishermen,” as the locals put it.
It’s a town with a ’50s feel, perhaps because of the big, bent sign on Highway 40 West reminding people that Elvis Presley came to Inglis to film “Follow That Dream,” perhaps because many of the homes and businesses still standing on the main drag went up then, too.
Or, perhaps it’s because of folks like Risher, who is known to drive a wrecker for her husband’s towing business when she’s not busy dispatching city business.
The memorabilia that fights for space on her office walls hint of values the community holds dear: a print of The Last Supper, an NYPD cap worn by an officer at Ground Zero, and her original, now-yellowing proclamation.
There’s also a map of the United States, chocked with multicolored pins. Each locates a newspaper, TV or radio station that sent a correspondent to Inglis to write about her anti-Satan campaign. “We got the world’s attention,” Risher says.
No fewer than 217 news organizations from as far as Sydney, Australia, descended on Inglis in the months following the mayor’s act, as did members of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose Florida chief described the proclamation as “the most extreme intrusion into religion by a public official that I have ever seen in my 27 years as a director of the ACLU.”
Soon, Risher was fielding calls from Dan Rather, Gov. Jeb Bush, Saturday Night Live and The New York Times and squinting under the lighting of CNN, NBC and BBC cameras. “It was like wildfire,” the mayor recalls. “You couldn’t put it out.”
Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” sent a correspondent from New York, dressed him in a red devil’s costume, and had him stand out front of the Lil’ Champ’s convenience store and slip passers-by $20 bills to chase him out of town for the camera.
And there were loads of pranksters. “Carolyn?” a deep, gravely voice said on the phone one day when Risher answered. “This is Satan. I want you, baby.”
Not everyone found the proclamation funny. Risher filled five binders with letters from Christians around the world, all in support of her stand against Satan. Ian and Jeanne Schodder wrote to tell her they’d been so inspired that they were selling their home in Canada and relocating to Inglis.
“We are purchasing and closing on 2 parcels of land on Lee Terrace that we have already walked on, dedicated, consecrated and sanctified by the blood of the Lamb,” they wrote. “We salute you and join you.”
Then, the unthinkable: Someone stole one of the posts and the messages rolled-up inside.
All four were replaced, this time sunk into the ground with reinforced concrete. For good measure, metal caps were installed and a local Pentecostal pastor anointed the posts with oil and a blessing.
Shortly thereafter, a town hall meeting was held. Things got heated. A number of citizens shouted that ACLU lawyers were unfairly pushing their community around. One non-Christian woman who was critical of the mayor’s actions got shouted down. The posts were staying.
The majority of residents did agree to move them onto private property. Risher also agreed to reimburse Inglis in the amount of $13 for the stationary, copying and telephone calls related to the proclamation.
In the end, the ACLU dropped its suit. (Town commissioners said the proclamation was not an official act because it hadn’t been formally approved by a commission vote.)
Gradually, the flood of reporters, lawyers, comedians and religious advocates receded. That was just fine with townsfolk. They’d had their fill of the church-vs.-state politics, and quite enough of the media spotlight.
But as the attention dried up and months passed, it became obvious that not all of the dark forces had left Inglis.
Bobbi Walker slides a quarter and three pennies across the counter beside the six-pack of Coke and gives the customer with the Brillo-pad beard, earring and Coors stomach a so-long nod.
The customer’s fat, ringed fingers scoop up the coins. “Now that I got me the Coke, I gotta get something to go with it.” He winks. Next door to the Lil’ Champ’s convenience store is Amelia’s Packaged Goods, which carries things like rum, this unemployed mechanic’s beverage of choice.
“See ya tomorrow, Mike,” Walker says. She checks the wall clock: 10:24 a.m. “He’s a little early today. Usually, he ain’t in ’til 12.”
At the Mousetrap, a watering hole popular with bandana’d, tattooed bikers and truckers on weekdays and lipsticked, moussed, rock-band lovers on weekends, owner Walt Deal cuts a draft beer and laughs.
“Did people stop drinking? Heck no,” he says. “If anything, business got better. I mean, for a while there, people were driving INTO town to see where the devil is, or was. Only thing it did was make us a laughingstock. I mean, I had relatives calling me from South Jersey saying, ‘What the hell kind of a town are you living in?’”
Steve Morris, a captain on the five-man Inglis force, might take issue with Deal’s analysis. Morris’ main nemesis is crystal meth. The drug isn’t hard to make, and it’s sold cheaply on the street. Since the proclamation, Morris says, drug dealing and burglary are way down and busts way up.
Exactly how much?
He pauses, his regard clouding a bit. “Significantly.” Morris glances upward. “And the Big Man upstairs is the reason.”
Mary Jo Farnan and her husband, Bob, who own the Port Inglis Restaurant around the corner from the police station, aren’t convinced. Their eatery has been broken into three times in less than a year. A few weeks ago, they fired a waitress because she and her boyfriend were getting high in the bathrooms on the evening shift.
“I see Satan all the time,” Farnan, 69, says. “His name is crack, pot, coke and meth, and he roams around Inglis like he always has. Steve Morris? Shoot, he doesn’t even live in this town. After 5 o’clock, he gets in his car and drives home to Homosassa, a half hour away.”
Farnan grinds out his cigarette stub and frowns.
“We used to have two cops in Inglis.” he says. “Now we’ve got five men on patrol. If that proclamation had worked, why did we need more?”
Beneath a canopy of pines and oaks at 42 Daisy Street, Gloria Adams is preparing a stew for her guests: drug addicts, ex-cons, people trying to kick the bottle.
Adams and her husband, Jim, opened “Jesus Is! Ministries, Inc.,” a nonprofit rehab center, in 1979. They have rooms for 32 boarders. Right now they have 31 guests. They’re expecting lost soul No. 32 soon.
Did the proclamation slow down business?
“No, I’m sorry to say,” Adams laments. “There’s still a hunger out there. A hunger for faith, an empty spot in people.”
Gingerly, she stirs the stew. “People are afraid 100 times more, say, than they were 10, 15 years ago. You don’t know if your own neighbor is a terrorist, or where your job’s going tomorrow.”
After lunch, Dan Cummings is drinking coffee behind the counter of his store, D&D Bait and Tackle, waiting for customers. People used to throng the place like seagulls around a piling. These days he waits more than he sells.
“The mayor stood up for faith, and that touched a lot of people,” he says. “But what we really need around here are jobs. Idle hands breed evil, you know.”
A year ago, Floyd Craig, a Korean War vet who owns a farm produce market, ran for mayor against Risher, the incumbent by default for 12 years. Nobody had run against her before.
Craig got whipped. The devil, he says, didn’t.
“Our drunks still drink, our hookers still hook, and truckers still ride like the devil up and down the highway,” he says. “People are going to sin, plain and simple. No proclamation is gonna stop that.”
He bags some lettuce for a customer. “I got nothing against the mayor. She was trying to do right by the community she loves. But if you start thinking that the devil is outside of you, foreign somehow, you stop taking a good, hard look at the evil inside yourself, in your own deeds.”