History of 428 Greene Street
The location at 428 Greene Street has a colorful history. Built in 1851, this location originally served as an ice house, which doubled as the first city morgue in Key West in the days before electric refrigeration. The saloon is also the home of Key West’s ‘Hanging Tree.’ This infamous tree was used to hang 17 people until death; 16 convicted pirates and one woman who stabbed to death her husband and two small children. She became known as the ‘lady in blue’ as she was not only hung in a blue dress but also turned blue in color as she hung from the tree. Her spirit haunts the saloon to this day.
In the 1890′s, 428 Greene Street housed a wireless telegraph station. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, news that the battleship Maine was destroyed came from Havana to Key West. That news was reported all over the world from this building. This location became a cigar factory in 1912, and then several speakeasies, the last of which was called The Blind Pig, specializing in gambling, women, and Hoover Gold (the local’s nickname for bootleg rum).
In 1933, a local Conch, named Joe “Josie” Russell opened Sloppy Joe’s at 428 Greene Street. Ernest Hemingway frequented Sloppy Joe’s during this time. In 1938, Josie Russell, in a dispute with the landlord of 428 Greene Street over a $1 rent increase and a clause in the lease stating that all fixtures must stay if he ended the lease, decided to move the entire bar in the middle of the night (including the fixtures) a half block away to the corner of Duval and Greene Street. During the move, Hemingway insisted on possession of the urinal. He said, “His hard earned money paid for it.” The urinal can still be viewed at the Hemingway House where it remains as a cat trough.
In 1940, 428 Greene Street’s landlord leased the building to Morgan Bird, who opened the saloon as the Duval Club. He was openly gay, and decorated the saloon in late-Victorian style. He threw large, lavish “gay” parties in the Duval Club, where the gay patrons propositioned sailors. This led the Navy to place the Duval Club “off limits” for the sailors, leading to such a loss of business that Morgan was forced to close the Duval Club.
1958 brought the most recent chapter to 428 Green Street, when Captain Tony bought the bar from David Wolkowsky. Captain Tony’s Saloon has been thriving in that location ever since.