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Friends Recall Leonard O'Cain's Missing Money

By Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian

 

You could tell by the way he carried himself that he was someone other than a run-of-the-mill fish market operator. The tall black hat accentuating his height; the ever-present walking cane in his right hand and his immaculately clean black suit created for him the appearance of someone special.

 

William Leonard O’Cain, 82, was entertaining cronies in his small Main Street fish market.  It was Sunday afternoon, June 26, 1949. He had turned down an invitation to eat the noon-day meal with Wilbur Thomas, an old friend whom he had known since the mid-twenties, and with whom he usually ate Sunday’s noon meal. A massive cerebral hemorrhage would end O’Cain’s life that day and set off years of speculating where his fortune went.

 

O’Cain, who had come to Folkston in 1892 from his home in Woodbury in Meriweather County, Ga., lived alone in the back room of his tiny fish market tucked away on Folkston’s Main Street.

In 1892 he was a 25 year-old construction superintendent for the first wave of Atlanta’s Captain Harry Jackson’s workers who came to the county and failed in an attempt to drain the Okefenokee Swamp. The mission became known as “Jackson’s Folly” after Jackson and other Atlanta investors had sunk over a million dollars in the try. The effort was abandoned three years later, in 1895 after Jackson’s death. Leonard O’Cain sought other employment. The same year, April 3, 1895, Folkston received its first charter as an incorporated town. The county seat was at Traders Hill.

Leonard O’Cain died that Sunday night, June 26, 1949 in McCoy-Jackson Hospital. The death certificate signed by Dr. J.M. Jackson credited his death to a cerebral hemorrhage. He had slumped over, unconscious, while talking with his friends in the back room of the fish market. He never regained consciousness. Then the speculation began! “Where is Leonard O’Cain’s money?”

It was pretty common knowledge that he had a substantial amount of cash hidden away in the fish market after a tift with the welfare department. From time to time he would draw a monthly check from the Welfare Department. One of the local welfare workers discovered that O’Cain had $6,900 on deposit in a Folkston bank, which would prohibit him from receiving financial aid from their department. O’Cain was notified that his welfare check would be terminated. Angered that the bank would reveal “his secret” he stalked into the bank and withdrew every dime of his savings in cash, all $6,900 dollars. The search would provide Folkston with some rare excitement and half the community engaged in amateur detective work.

 

Although he lived alone in the back of his fish market, it had not always been so. Soon after arriving in Folkston, in 1895 he married Genia Roddenberry, the 25 year old daughter of John Wilcher Roddenberry, and the sister of John M. Roddenberry, the county’s tax collector from 1912 until his death in 1925.

 

Leonard and Genia O’Cain lived in Folkston at the corner of First and Love Streets in a building which had been the home and store of Mrs. A.M. Love and for whom Love Street was named. O’Cain bought the home in his wife’s name in September of 1906 for $800. The couple became active in the city’s affairs. They had no children.

 

Death claimed Genia O’Cain on April 8, 1912. She died of cancer just five days before her 42nd birthday. Her husband had taken her to St. Augustine two years earlier and she underwent surgery at Dr. Parker’s Infirmary. They mistakenly thought they had stopped the cancer. Her death caused Leonard O’Cain to become a shattered man as he sought contentment in a bottle.

Alone, he found it impossible to continue to live in the home they had lived in for seven years. On April 17, 1912, only nine days after Genia’s funeral, O’Cain, her sole heir, sold the home to her brother, John M. Roddenberry, the county’s new tax collector, for $800. O’Cain planned to move from the city.

 

A skilled construction superintendent, he left Folkston on May 16 and returned the following week. Several times he repeated the attempt as he searched for contentment. Always he returned to Folkston. He never found the contentment he sought. He finally settled down into his Main Street fish market on land owned by Joe Prevatt, a grocer next door.

 

The tiny Main Street fish market had two rooms, separated by a doorway closed with a printed curtain. He slept on a cot in the back room and cooked and sold fish in the front room. Both rooms had sawdust floors.

 

After O’Cain drew out the $6,900 from the bank he looked around for a hiding place in the two-room fish market. He kept a large ten gallon can near his cot in the back room. In the can he kept the garbage from cleaning the fish. Underneath the lard can, buried in the sawdust, was a small metal box containing the $6,900 in cash.

 

O’Cain thought his money’s hiding place was known only by him. He failed to consider the always-present friends and the sheer curtain that separated the back bedroom from the fish market up front. He often went into the secret “hiding place” to cash checks for customers.

 

That fateful Sunday afternoon, just after two o’clock the fish merchant’s friends called for help as he slumped unconscious in his chair in his bedroom. Adkins Funeral Home sent an ambulance and O’Cain was rushed to McCoy-Jackson Hospital, four blocks away. He never regained consciousness, and died at eight o’clock that night.

 

In his clothes, hospital workers found four tightly folded twenty dollar bills hidden away in a “watch pocket”. An inspection of the fish market that night turned up nothing of value. His large “truck-drivers” billfold, which usually held several hundred dollars, was missing. A search for his buried life savings would be attempted the next morning after clearance from the Sheriff’s Department.

 

The following morning, an “official” search team led by funeral director, Charlie Adkins, went over the fish market with a fine tooth comb, looking for the $6,900 in cash. The searchers removed the sawdust and dug up the dirt from the floors of both rooms. Every nook and cranny in the small building was searched. Nothing was ever found, and the search was abandoned, but the speculation began.

 

He had left a will for probate. In that document he asked that Postmaster Edgar F. Allen be given his large gold pocket watch. They were close friends from earlier days laying rail for Flagler’s railway into Florida. Allen never received the watch because it was never found.

 

Speculation of “Who got Leonard O’Cain’s money” became a popular topic of conversation throughout the small town. Some close friends of O’Cain today claim to have no doubt as to where the money went. Others just wonder.

 

Leonard O’Cain was laid to rest in Folkston’s Pineview Cemetery, beside the grave of his wife, Genia, who died 37 years earlier. Markers identify the final resting places of his wife Genia; his brother-in-law, John M. Roddenberry and his sister-in-law, Mrs. J.M. (Lizzie) Roddenberry, in the same lot. No stone identifies O’Cain’s grave. His survivors included two nephews, W.L. McLendon of Woodbury and P.O. McLendon of Zebulon, Ga.

 

Leonard O’Cain worked and lived among the people of Folkston until his death in 1949. A plain-spoken man, he had no difficulty protecting his belongings as long as he lived. But, in less than two hours after his death, his life savings had disappeared. Relatives paid his funeral expenses.

The long bench which sat in front of the tiny fish market was usually filled as O’Cain swapped tales with his friends. The witticisms of the plain-spoken man are remembered today by many who whiled away a few minutes listening to him spin his stories of earlier years.

 

Many years since his funeral, there has been no positive indication of what happened to his fortune. New suspects cropped up every time one of his old friends spent an unusual amount of money. The book on the case is closed but the Leonard O’Cain chapter in the town’s history will still bring on a lot of conversation among those who knew him.

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