Victor Licata's Strange Legacy

Victor Licata ax

Victor Licata's Strange Legacy

By Earl Perkins | published May 30, 2014 |
Thursday Review associate editor

Victor Licata didn't set out to change the world, but some would argue that's exactly what came to pass eight decades ago.

The Florida Right to Medical Marijuana Initiative (Amendment 2) is coming up for a vote on the Nov. 4 ballot. The initiated constitutional amendment—if it's approved by voters—would allow the cultivation, purchase, possession and use of marijuana for medical treatment when recommended by a licensed physician.

Licata's name should almost certainly be placed front and center in this important debate on the future of the Sunshine State, but politicians and citizens alike will almost certainly shunt him and his legacy aside.

Long known to be dangerous and unstable, the 21-year-old Ybor City resident had a history of mental illness, including an awful case of early dementia. On Oct. 16, 1933, Licata used an ax to kill his entire family in one of the most horrific crimes ever in the United States. The incident would eventually be used as the linchpin in the U.S. Treasury Department's drive to outlaw marijuana usage, according to the Tampa Tribune.

Knowing that Licata's father owned two barbershops and the family was often seen coming and going, neighbors called police when they noticed nobody had left home the following day. A grisly scene awaited officers as they entered the house, first noticing Michael Licata (the father) lying in a puddle of blood in his bed, with an adjacent bedroom containing the bodies of the family's 22-year-old daughter, Prudence, along with her 8-year-old brother, Jose.

The rear bedroom contained the bodies of 44-year-old Rosalie and her 14-year-old son, Philip. The boy was still alive when the police found him, but he would later die at the hospital. The blood-stained ax was lying on the floor next to Rosalie's bed. The one remaining family member had evidently single-handedly hacked the entire household of people to death.

Victor Licata, 5-foot-8 and 127 pounds, was discovered cowering in the bathroom, wearing a clean white shirt and well-pressed trousers. However, underneath the clean clothing, Licata's skin was heavily stained with blood.

He was immediately charged with murder, but officers soon discovered how insane the young man had become. He claimed his father charged into his room the night before, pulling him from the bed and holding him against the wall. He said his mother entered the room and sawed off his arms, while jeering and taunting him. She then supposedly jabbed homemade wooden arms with iron claws into the stumps, and his brothers and sisters pointed and laughed at him during the incident.

The police believe he had a nightmare, then woke up in a delirious state and murdered his family. That's how he received the nickname "The Dream Slayer."

Licata would receive a life sentence in a mental institution, from which he escaped in 1945. Upon his recapture five years later he was incarcerated at the Florida State Prison at Raiford, where months later he killed himself.

The most interesting part of the entire episode was be the government's handling of the case. Henry Anslinger, first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, took it upon himself to prove that marijuana caused normal people to become dangerously delusional, or worse, morph into violent criminals.

Anslinger's anti-marijuana crusade began with a mass media campaign documenting cases of supposed marijuana-induced violence, blanketing the nation with newspaper and magazine articles, which became known as "The Gore Files."

There were 200 violent crimes documented in the series, and researchers would eventually discover 198 of the stories were wrongly attributed to marijuana usage. The other two cases could not be disproved, because no records existed concerning the crimes.

"An entire family was murdered by a youthful addict in Florida," Anslinger wrote. "When officers arrived at the home, they found the youth staggering about in a human slaughterhouse. With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers and a sister.

"He seemed to be in a daze. He had no recollection of having committed the multiple crimes. The officers knew him ordinarily as a sane, rather quiet young man; now he was pitifully crazed. They sought the reason. They said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana."

In testimony before Congress, Anslinger said more families would suffer the same fate as the Licatas if marijuana wasn't outlawed. With a groundswell of public support, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was the first federal anti-marijuana law. The act levied a token tax on all buyers, sellers, importers, growers, physicians, veterinarians and any other persons who dealt in marijuana commercially, prescribed it professionally or possessed it.

Historians are unsure exactly why Anslinger made up the stories concerning the link between marijuana and crime, but many trace its origins to his friendship with the DuPont family. The DuPonts' paper and fiber businesses were, by some accounts, threatened by competing companies using hemp in the manufacturing process. The new law set a precedent that marijuana endangered society, which eventually led to it being totally outlawed.