benefactor told stories of being a war hero, an explorer, a bandit | Florida News
By PAUL GUZZO, Tampa Bay Times
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH, Fla. (AP) – It’s fitting for Bond to bear his name for his entire life story, or, at least as he has told it, seemed ripped from a spy novel.
George Walter Bond Witten gained national fame as a desperado, explorer and soldier of fortune with stories told from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s including fighting in American and Foreign Wars, quelling a tribal battle in Africa, robbing a bank and earning the Wild West nickname from The Texas Kid despite his Brooklyn origin.
He died in 1972, but his local heritage lives on through Crabby Bill’s restaurants, which the owners say were created in part through his benevolence.
Now the family wants everyone to know George Witten’s name.
“Without him, none of this is possible,” restaurant CEO Matt Loder Sr., 57, said of Original Crabby Bill’s in Indian Rocks Beach. “I owe him for telling his story that has been forgotten.”
Loder’s mother, Dolores, was Witten’s babysitter.
So that she could be close, Witten bought the Madeira Beach cottage next to her own and gave it to the Loder family. The five Loder children often frequented the old man’s home, where he shared the exploits that enabled him to lead the Adventurers’ Club of New York – once a private organization with a seat for men who can spin a thread.
“He would say he had worked security for Calvin Coolidge and had something to do with resolving a case involving La Cosa Nostra,” Loder said. “Stuff like that.”
However, the widower Witten preferred to speak of his wife, Bunty Witten.
“He used to say that she was a famous artist who sold paintings all over the world and made original designs for Gerber,” Loder said. “We knew she had talent. Their beach cabin had a room that, from floor to ceiling, was painted to resemble the Garden of Eden. But we didn’t know if she was really famous.
They also wondered about Witten’s stories of heroism and near-death experiences. Were these stories true or great?
Loder’s sister, Eleanor Jenkins, died in 2019. While browsing through her possessions, the family found paintings of Bunty Witten offered to their parents.
A painting by artist Bunty Witten and owned by Matt Loder Sr., CEO of The Original Crabby Bill’s in Indian Rocks Beach.
Curious about whether the stories about Bunty Witten were true, the family searched online for information about the artist. According to news records, she was once nationally known for illustrating books and painting portraits of war heroes.
“I realized there were threads of truth in what he told us,” Loder said.
Newspapers across the country reported that his adventures were genuine, but did so years after stories supposedly happened, only printed what he told them, and reporters didn’t haven’t verified the facts beyond photographs of Witten in military uniform and a look at his battle scars.
Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center has never heard of Witten, but said his stories may be genuine. “People were larger than life then, before the era of wasting time watching TV and spending endless hours on social media.”
The news archive reported the following about Witten:
Born in 1885, he fled at the age of 10 to become a desperado. In the West, he befriended a boy known only as Red. They formed a gang and went to Cleveland, where they robbed a bank. Witten and Red fled and were arrested in Warren, Pa., But released due to their age.
It was then used as a dishwasher on a steamboat for a trip to South Africa. Telling locals that he was a Texan and wore a sombrero, spurs and scarf while taming wild horses, he became known as “The Texas Kid.”
He was then hired to guard a South African quarantine camp, but gave up his post. Witten – still a boy – was arrested and sentenced to serve time in a military camp. Back then, before being adopted for exercise, treadmills were torture devices. Witten was forced to endure daylong runs on a treadmill with just a 20-minute break every 70 minutes.
Once released, he finds Red. The two have turned to cattle rustling in South Africa. Red was killed in a gang shootout, so Witten returned to the United States.
“He lived like few people but that most boys and men dream of,” the Knoxville New Sentinel wrote in 1933.
Used to a life of adventure, Witten came to Tampa to enlist in the US Army’s Spanish-American War in Cuba, but was turned down because he was only 14 years old. So he joined the British Army and served in the Boer War in South Africa for three years.
“He was a full-fledged soldier of fortune and helped win a war before he was 17,” the Tampa Tribune reported in 1952.
Witten then joined the British Mounted Police in South Africa. His exploits with them included exploring Zululand as part of a mapping expedition that got too close to jungle animals and was one of five who rushed into an ongoing battle between two tribes. He brought peace by demanding it in their tribal language.
He returned to the United States, where he was invited to participate in the coup in Venezuela. Instead, he opened up the plot via a talk for a New York publication. The rebels promised to have him killed. They hired a murderous woman to romance Witten at a New Jersey resort. But he detected the plan, pointed a gun at her, and escaped.
“The real adventure told by the members of the Explorer’s Club makes the truth pale,” wrote the Selma Times Journal in 1958.
Witten was then a tramp in Europe before serving in the British Army in World War I, in which he was wounded four times. He then turned to exploring the world with missions that included leading an American expedition to a Honduran jungle.
He then joined the United States Army, served in World War II, and rose to the rank of colonel.
In retirement, he published at least three memoirs. Amazon wears one – Outlaw Trails: A Yankee Hobo Soldier of the Queen.
And, in 1951, Paramount Pictures announced that a television series would be based on the Tales of Witten, but the Tampa Bay Times cannot find proof that it was produced.
Bunty Witten was born Mable Alice Mary Azue around 1900. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother was killed in a German air raid on London in 1914.
Still, her family had money, so she was sent to an exclusive girls’ school in Hampshire. In 1915, the director introduced her to his friend Witten. They married in October of the same year.
Witten nicknamed her Bunty. It was initially his artistic pseudonym but, as his fame grew, it became his main name.
The Wittens moved to Madeira Beach in the late 1930s on a lark. Residing in New York, they planned a trip to Guatemala with a stopover in St. Petersburg to visit their actress friend Ruth McDevitt. The Wittens instead canceled their vacation, bought a house in Madeira Beach and became permanent residents.
Troubled by a large white refrigerator that she found remarkable, Bunty Witten painted a seascape on it. It was the start of his work that turned almost every wall in the house into a mural of an outdoor scene, including the Garden of Eden which Loder remembers.
Bunty Witten died in 1968. It was the same year that Loder’s family moved from New Jersey to Madeira Beach when he was 4 years old.
“My father worked in construction and my mother cleaned the offices,” he said. “My mother’s friend spoke of an elderly man who needed someone to take care of him. She started cleaning and cooking for him. Soon after, he bought us the house next to his.
Loder remembers the smell of pipe tobacco from Witten and his diet of mostly boiled eggs and Tang.
Books and Tang containers used for storage were stacked all over the house. Witten sat in a brown reclining chair and told stories with a unique accent that was part British, part New York.
Witten died in 1972. The Times cannot find a published obituary.
“That’s the sad part,” said Loder, who was 8 when Witten died. “It was this larger-than-life man who did all of these things, but I don’t remember there being a fanfare. He didn’t get the publicity he deserved. I think if there had been the internet back then his death would have been a big deal. People from all over the world are said to have attended his funeral.
Witten bequeathed his cottage to the Loder family. Her older sister, Eleanor, moved in.
Three years later, the Loders opened Captain Bill’s Beach Kitchen. This family business would later become Crabby Bills, which now has two locations.
The family kept the Witten homes for a few more decades, Loder said.
“Without the kindness he showed to my family, I don’t know how long we would have stayed here,” Loder said. “He helped us plant our roots here. We owe him a lot. I think bringing attention back to him is the best way to pay him back. I think he would like people to know his story.
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