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Sheriff John Maloney Spottswood: A remarkable life of service

April 27, 2021

By David Brand, Florida Sheriffs Association 

Sheriff John M. Spottswood was born in Key West, Fla., on June 17, 1920, and died September 27, 1975. His short, 55 years were phenomenal.

John Spottswood was elected sheriff of Monroe County on January 15, 1952, and served until January 4, 1963. After his service as sheriff, he was elected to the Florida Senate serving from January 3, 1963, until January 3, 1971. He was an original Keys “Conch,” with his lineage being traced back to Col. Walter C. Maloney, Sr., who arrived in the Keys in the 1820s and served as the Monroe County clerk of the court, mayor, and state legislator.

The Florida Keys certainly have a colorful and interesting history. The Keys were occupied by pirates for hundreds of years, before the U.S. Navy established the Pirate Fleet in 1822. The Navy still has a strong presence in the lower Keys. No Name Key, located in the lower Keys, has always been an isolated area. Cuban revolutionaries had used the area to prepare for the Cuban Revolution of 1895, which resulted in the Spanish American War in 1898.

On January 1, 1959, Cuban President Fulgencia Batista was overthrown by General Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement. With Castro being influenced by the Communist U.S.S.R., the Central Intelligence Agency established several training areas in Florida to train Cuban exiles for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow the Castro regime. One of the main sites was on No Name Key.

With no bridges for vehicular traffic and few prying eyes, it was a perfect area for training insurgents. While the Bay of Pigs invasion was considered a dismal intelligence failure, the Cuban patriots were considered heroes.

The Early Years

Spottswood enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a paratrooper in the Philippines during World War II, rising from an enlisted soldier to captain in two years. After being discharged, he returned to Key West and established the first radio station in 1945; WKWF. He married Mary Myrtle Sellers in 1949.

He and Mary became friends with President Harry S. Truman, who was a frequent visitor in Key West, and arranged for Mrs. Truman to hear radio concert broadcasts from New York on his radio station. The U.S. Navy built a home for President Truman to live in during his visits dubbed the “Little White House.” It is now a historical site hosting thousands of visitors each year.

The Entrepreneur

Spottswood was elected sheriff of Monroe County in 1952. In addition to those duties, he was the assistant fire chief of Key West as well as the Monroe County civil defense director. Being an entrepreneur, at the beginning of the Cold War he recognized that the isolated Florida Keys needed a way of keeping in touch with the rest of the country and established Cable-Vision, Inc. in 1957. This was one of the first cable television systems in the U.S. and led to the development of modern cable television nationally.

In the 1960s he established his own real estate company, Spottswood and Sons, which bought the La Concha and Casa Marina hotels, and still exists today. He was so respected that he was president of the Florida Association of Realtors from 1962 until 1975.


The early ‘60s were busy years in the Keys with Hurricane Donna in 1960, the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

On September 10, 1960, Hurricane Donna swept over the Florida Keys causing extensive damage. Spottswood, as sheriff and civil defense director, managed the event with mostly existing resources. He moved the Key West city manager and staff to Marathon to ensure the continuity of government. He was later recognized by the Florida State Road Board, the predecessor of the Department of Transportation, for repairing damage to the state highway.

President John F. Kennedy awarded Spottswood the “For Service of Special Merit” for programming “The Voice of America” to Cuba before and during the tumultuous Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, during which the Soviet Union placed intercontinental ballistic missiles in Cuba threatening the United States. 

While he was sheriff, Spottswood hosted President and Mrs. Harry Truman on a cruise to Munson Island, a small island in the lower Keys that he owned. He also helped arrange for a dinner to raise funds for the Truman Library in Independence, Mo. On November 29 and 30, 1962, Spottswood and his wife hosted former Vice President Richard Nixon at their home at 531 Caroline Street as a dinner guest. He also arranged for several dignitaries to visit Munson Island, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey.

In 1962, he was instrumental in getting Warner Brothers to film the movie “PT 109,” the story of President Kennedy’s tour of duty in the Soloman Islands during World War II on Munson Island, now called Little Palm Island. He acted in the movie as one of the PT boat skippers. All of these endeavors brought attention to the Florida Keys.

Spottswood was also a fierce supporter of civil rights. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Florida Legislature established the Johns Committee that held hearings seeking to investigate and expose gays and lesbians in university faculties. He took a firm stance in opposition to these hearings.

He sat on the first nine person board that developed the Florida Sheriffs Boy’s Ranch in 1957 and was later chairman of the Ranch Trustees. Spottswood was instrumental in creating the Florida Sheriffs Bureau in 1955 to augment Florida’s need for a statewide crime-fighting agency. It was sponsored by the Florida Sheriffs Association and controlled by the governor, attorney general and five sheriffs. He was also appointed chairman of the Campaign Committee of the State Democratic Executive Committee of Florida in 1958.

As chair of the Florida Sheriffs Association Legislative Committee, he crafted numerous bills, most of which passed. In 1961, he wrote 14 legislative bills with 13 passing.

The Senator

Spottswood was elected to the Florida Senate in 1963 and continued to partner with the Florida Sheriffs Association. He was later recognized with a lifetime membership by the Florida Sheriffs Association Board of Directors. In 1964, he was the installing officer for the Florida Sheriffs Association officers and was the principle speaker at their Winter Conference. In 1965, Florida sheriffs presented him with a resolution honoring his service. Additionally, during the 1965 legislative session, he served on the Committee on Legislative and Congressional Apportionment and the Committee on Rules and Calendar.

“John M. Spottswood was so much more than sheriff; He was an Army captain, an assistant fire chief, a business entrepreneur and a senator,” said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “But no matter what hat he was wearing, he was always finding ways to serve his community and improve the lives of his neighbors. His record of service stands alone. As sheriff, I’m proud and humbled to carry his legacy forward into the 21st century.”