Back in 1930, Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner of the Treasury Department’s newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics – from which he launched a successful crusade to outlaw marijuana. Many say it was at the behest of the DuPont chemical company, which viewed industrial hemp as a threat to its business interests in wood-pulp paper and synthetic fabrics. Anslinger’s disinformation campaign has become legendary, but perhaps his most salacious lie concerned a man in Tampa, FL, who had murdered his entire family with an ax. Anslinger said the man was high on pot when he did it. He wasn’t. Here’s the true story.
Every city has its share of skeletons lurking in the closet, and Tampa is no exception. Its timeline is dotted with appearances by infamous characters: Robert Anderson, who in 1912 became the nation’s first African-American serial killer; Santos Trafficante Jr., the powerful Mafia don and possible JFK assassination conspirator; and Fidel Castro, the US government’s longtime bête noire. But among Tampa’s more fascinating and little-known dirty secrets is the fact that one of its most appalling crimes was used as the foundation for a series of lies that led to the criminalization of marijuana. It’s a tale that begins with the discovery of the grisly remains of the Licata family on October 17, 1933, in Tampa’s Latino district of Ybor City.
The morning began much as any other, but neighbors began to worry as the day wore on and no one saw any sign of life in the Licatas’ home. The family patriarch, Michael Licata, owned two successful barbershops downtown, but no one had seen him leave for work. The Licatas had two school-age children, yet neither of them had gone to school. And the family had a dog, but no one had taken it for its regular walk. If the Licatas had gone on vacation, they surely would have told someone. With none of the usual noises coming from the family’s home, the neighbors decided to call the police.
The cops had to enter through a rear window; all of the doors to the house were locked. Once inside, the police found Michael Licata lying in the front bedroom in a pool of blood. In the adjoining bedroom, the family’s 8-year-old son, Jose, and soon-to-be-married 22-year-old daughter, Providence, were found slaughtered, their remains barely recognizable as human. In the rear bedroom the cops found Michael’s wife, 44-year-old Rosalie. On the bed beside her lay her 14-year-old son, Philip. He was still alive, but not for long, suffering from numerous horrific wounds.
The police then found the killer – 21-year-old Victor Licata – cowering in the bathroom, dressed in a clean white shirt and well-pressed trousers. Underneath his clothes, however, Victor’s skin was caked with blood. He had murdered his own parents and siblings in perhaps the most vicious manner possible, hacking them to death with an ax.
Victor Licata was a tiny man, just five-foot-eight and 127 pounds. He was soft-spoken and often described as possessing “queer manners” by family and friends. But on October 17, 1933, this small, quiet man was transformed into a savage killer. People naturally wondered how it happened and why.
In the weeks following the murders, the city of Tampa learned the answer. Four years later, the country was given a very different one as part of the newly declared war on pot.
In 1937, Harry Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – a pre-cursor to the modern-day DEA – appeared before Congress and testified that the Licata murders were directly linked to marijuana use. He stated that marijuana was the kind of drug that could turn a formerly rational, law-abiding citizen into a cold-blooded killer, and that its use should be completely criminalized. And he made those statements knowing full well that they were all lies.
However, the general public believed him. Anslinger had long been one of the most respected voices in law enforcement. He rose to prominence in his early 20s fighting international drug trafficking and later became an assistant commissioner in the Bureau of Prohibition, an agency notorious for its corruption and links to organized crime. However, Anslinger earned a reputation for being above such dishonesty – the proverbial man who could not be bought. So when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in 1930, it was no surprise that Anslinger became its first director. And no one had any reason to think he was the type of man who would tell shameless lie after shameless lie in order to change federal drug policy.
Anslinger’s views on marijuana upon his appointment in 1930 were much different than they would be seven years later. In 1930, he stated that he would steer clear of the marijuana issue, arguing that it was impossible to control the cultivation of a plant that grew in the wild like dandelions. Hemp was a cash crop in those days, used for everything from paper to rope to clothing. In the mid-1930s, however, Anslinger announced that he had changed his views after learning about marijuana’s horrifying effects on the human mind. That was the first of his hundreds of lies on the subject.
In the mid-1930s, Anslinger began writing articles that chronicled the crimes allegedly committed by those high on marijuana. He wrote about a lesbian who had murdered her lover while stoned, as well as two New Jersey girls who killed a bus driver because, while under the influence of pot, it seemed like the right thing to do. And he penned a piece about a slayer who’d burst into a hotel room and battered an old man to death, then later claimed he had no memory of it because he’d smoked two marijuana cigarettes.
In all, Anslinger collected and disseminated 200 such lurid tales that later became known as his “Gore File.” Of all the stories, however, none was more important to his anti-marijuana crusade than the Licata murders. Victor Licata’s testimony provided Anslinger with his scariest example of the havoc that marijuana could allegedly wreak on a person’s mind.
According to the police report, Victor said that sometime on the night of October 16, he was woken from his sleep when his father came charging into the room, pulled him from bed and pinned him against the wall. His mother entered wielding a kitchen knife, while his brothers and sisters joined in, pointing and jeering at him. He said his mother sawed off his arms and then jammed homemade wooden appendages with iron claws for hands into his stumps. Victor said that when the attack was over and his family had left the room, he decided to seek revenge. He found an ax on the porch, but it wasn’t a normal ax; Victor said it was a “funny ax,” rubbery, like something out of a slapstick cartoon. He said he took the funny ax and whacked his family members on the head with it, knocking them unconscious. But he never killed them, he said – though when he’d finished the attack, he found it odd that he was able to wring blood out of the ax, which “caused great pain” in his stomach.
What made his story even scarier was that, according to the police, he truly believed it. The investigators came to the conclusion that Victor had had a nightmare in which his family members attacked him as described; then he woke up and, in a hallucinatory state, murdered them with the ax, thus earning the nickname “The Dream Slayer.”
When Anslinger wrote about the murders, he insisted that Victor had confessed to smoking marijuana with friends prior to returning home on the night of October 16 – and therefore the only rational explanation for the sadistic murders had to be the effects of the drug. And when the American public read Anslinger’s tale of a small, quiet man who’d hacked his entire family to pieces after smoking pot, the result was mass hysteria.
With a groundswell of public support behind him, Anslinger convinced Congress to pass the first federal anti-pot legislation, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. This act levied a token tax of approximately $1 on all buyers, sellers, importers, growers, physicians, veterinarians and any other person who dealt in marijuana commercially, prescribed it professionally or possessed it. The act had a larger impact than simply instituting a new tax, however. It set the precedent that marijuana was a danger to society, leading to future laws pushed by Anslinger and others that criminalized marijuana outright.
There was one big problem with all of this, however: Marijuana had had nothing to do with Victor Licata killing his family. According to a court-appointed commission’s report, Victor suffered from a form of dementia – one that ran in his family. In fact, his brother Philip was pronounced mentally ill as well, and Victor had a granduncle who’d died in an asylum and two cousins who were likewise committed. Finally, the commission discovered that Victor’s parents, Michael and Rosalie, were first cousins.
Following the release of the report, the state attorney announced that he wouldn’t indict, saying it would be a waste of time and money prosecuting someone who had been “definitely established” as insane.
Anslinger decided to leave this important information out of his “Gore File” and subsequent congressional testimony on the murders, though he replaced it with a tidbit that was never actually mentioned in the court report: Victor’s supposed confession that he had smoked marijuana that night. Despite Anslinger’s claims, no one has ever been able to find any evidence that Victor admitted this to the police.
In fact, it has since been proven by researchers that 198 of the 200 violent crimes Anslinger blamed on marijuana actually had nothing to do with pot – and the only reason the remaining two have not been proven false is because no one can find any proof that the crimes ever occurred in the first place.
That proved to be standard operating procedure for Anslinger: He told the nation over and over that marijuana made its users crazy and violent, and then ascribed its use – without a shred of evidence whatsoever – to people who committed crazy and violent murders. In those days, Anslinger didn’t have to worry about fact checkers, the Internet or any other group with access to a major public forum that could strike down the lies he told. The amount of information and communication that we take for granted today didn’t exist back then. A public official was taken at his word, and Anslinger exploited that public trust.
But why would he lie? One popular school of thought is that Anslinger was assisting his good friends in the DuPont family. At the time, the DuPont company had patented a new sulfuric acid for producing wood-pulp paper. Hemp, however, made wood-pulp paper economically unfeasible, since 10,000 acres of hemp could produce as much paper as 40,000 acres of forest.
DuPont was also responsible for the development of nylon and rayon, two synthetic fibers that couldn’t compete with the durability of hemp fiber or the far more economical process of manufacturing it. Taxing hemp, as Congress did at Anslinger’s instigation in 1937, took away some of hemp’s financial advantage.
Another theory is that Anslinger lied to save his job. With the Great Depression threatening the budgets of numerous government agencies, he needed to protect the FBN. If Anslinger could convince the American public that a dangerous drug was growing like dandelions in fields throughout the nation, and that he was their last line of defense against getting hacked to pieces in their sleep by their marijuana-crazed children, then the government couldn’t possibly do away with his funding.
It’s likely we’ll never know for certain why Anslinger lied, but there’s no denying the fact that he did. And 75 years later, the roots of marijuana prohibition can be found in a senseless, horrifying crime committed in Tampa that had nothing to do with pot – but that was soon pressed into service as part of Harry Anslinger’s unprincipled War on Drugs.
The complete story of Victor Licata can be found in Paul Guzzo’s new book, The Dark Side of Sunshine. The book is a collection of stories documenting the most infamous people and events in the history of the city of Tampa.