25 Sun-Soaked Facts About Florida

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Ah, Florida. The land of palm trees, sunshine, and … a carnivorous pink cloud? To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Florida's statehood, here are more facts about the home of Walt Disney World and the world's worst superhero.

1. The full title of the Florida state song is “Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).”

The choice of "Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851, makes sense when you consider that the retirement industry is the state's second-biggest economic driver, and that by 2030, one out of every four Florida residents will be older than 65 [PDF]. The state officially adopted revised lyrics to "Swanee River" in 2008, replacing its original, racist ones.

2. Florida is 8223 square miles bigger than England.

The state has an area of 58,560 square miles, but a lot of that is swampland. Land totals 54,136 square miles and water covers 4424 square miles.

3. A 3500-year-old cypress tree named The Senator was the pride of Longwood, Florida.

The Senator was among the oldest known trees in the world. Then in 2012, a meth addict climbed inside the trunk and lit up. Senator was reduced to ashes. “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus,” she later said.

4. People really, really love Walt Disney World—and some of them never want to leave.

It’s not legal to scatter human ashes in the Disney theme park, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it on the sly. The Haunted Mansion is an especially popular choice. But the effort probably isn't worth it: staff members who find suspicious piles of dust call code “HEPA cleanup,” after the special vacuum the custodians use to suck up what’s left of Grandma.

5. South Florida is the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist in the wild.

Even if you're not quite sure of the difference between alligators and crocodiles, you can feel confident knowing the ranges of both animals overlap only in South Florida. American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) live across the Southeast from Texas to Florida, while American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) mostly inhabit the Caribbean.

6. Miami banks were losing business in the mid-'90s because rollerbladers didn’t feel like taking off their skates to go inside.

To accommodate banking on the go, one Citibank installed a custom-built rollerblade ATM, complete with a flashy pink ramp. “Hey, that's a great thing for skaters,'' one waiter on wheels told the Orlando Sentinel. ''I'll be using that baby all the time.''

7. A 1998 Florida law requires all state-funded daycare centers and preschools to play classical music to children.

“I want all the kids in the state of Florida to be the best and brightest,” state senator Bill Turner said. The so-called Mozart effect has since been debunked, but the law [PDF] holds.

8. Florida’s nasty mosquitoes have inspired some creative pest-control efforts.

In 1929, the owner of a Florida Keys fishing lodge spent $10,000 of his own money to build a 30-foot wooden tower in the hopes of attracting mosquito-eating bats. Equipped with “all the conveniences any little bat heart could possibly desire” and smeared with pheromone-rich bat poop, the tower would have been a big hit—if any bats had ever shown up.

9. You should keep your distance from Florida's beloved (and endangered) manatees.

The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 makes it illegal to disturb the creatures in any way; violators may face fines up to $500 and be sentenced to up to 60 days in jail. Manatees are also protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. People convicted of violating the federal laws can be sentenced to a fine of $100,000 and a year in jail.

10. Florida's state bird is not the flamingo.

Instead of those ubiquitous plastic lawn ornaments, Florida's state bird is the Northern mockingbird. The rather drab songbird, though an excellent mimic and singer, is a somewhat pedestrian choice for a state that is home to some spectacular species rarely seen anywhere else in the United States—like the roseate spoonbill, purple gallinule, and anhinga.

11. In 1982, the Florida Keys seceded from the United States and declared themselves the Conch Republic.

The move was to protest the placement of a Border Patrol-run road block in Florida City, the mainland gateway to the island chain. Key West mayor-turned-prime minister Dennis Wardlow declared war against the United States. The campaign was short-lived; within two minutes, Wardlow had surrendered and requested $1 million in foreign aid.

12. Florida has its own Bigfoot.

It's an 8-foot tall, hairy, smelly monster known as the skunk ape. Sightings were so frequent in the '70s that legislators feared it was just a matter of time before the skunk ape was caught or killed. They tried to make it a misdemeanor to “take, possess, harm or molest anthropoid or humanoid animals.”

13. A Florida man owns the world’s largest collection of fossilized poop.

Scientists can learn a lot about past flora, fauna, and entire environments from fossil poop, a.k.a. coprolites. Jacksonville resident George Frandsen has amassed more than 1200 of the ancient turds and operates an online museum called the Poozeum.

14. Florida’s lush climate makes it a haven for escaped or introduced non-native plants and animals.

The Everglades teem with invasive species, including 8-inch-long giant snails, boa constrictors, two types of pythons, and crocodile-like reptiles called caimans.

15. Tourists in Florida have been chased by an evil pink cloud.

Travelers in the 1950s and '60s reported being pursued through the woods near Daytona by a strange pink cloud. Citizens told of a carnivorous cloud that would absorb people whole and spit out their bones.

16. Sarasota, Florida, is home to what may be the only Amish beach resort in the world.

Pinecraft is a small community of Amish and Mennonite snowbirds who bring a piece of Pennsylvania Dutch culture with them down south. Amish restaurants and shops in and around Pinecraft welcome all visitors.

17. In 2013, a Florida woman named Linda Ducharme renewed her vows to a Ferris wheel named Bruce.

After a short ceremony, the bride fed the groom a slice of pizza.

18. Florida was Spanish territory for a total of 280 years.

That's longer than the U.S. has existed.

19. NASA built a rocket test facility in Homestead, Florida, in the 1960s.

When the project ended, the government left the site intact—and there’s still a rocket there today.

Brett Levin, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

20. One of Florida's prisons used to serve lobster.

The minimum-security prison at Eglin Air Force Base was so cushy that it was known as “Club Fed.” White-collar inmates enjoyed rounds of golf and lobster bakes before the party ended in 2006.

21. A major annual beach party in Florida includes dead fish.

Participants in the annual Interstate Mullet Toss throw dead mullet—a silver fish common in the Gulf of Mexico— over the state line from Florida into Alabama.

22. Florida was once called the "lightning capital of the world."

That was until NASA discovered that Rwanda actually deserves the title. Still, approximately nine people are killed by lightning strikes in Florida each year, far more than any other U.S. state.

23. Florida got its name from Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.

Ponce de Leon sailed from Puerto Rico to what is now the area of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1513 and is credited as the first European to visit the place. He named the territory Florida because he landed there around Easter (Pasqua Florida in Spanish) and because of its lush tropical foliage.

24. In the 1950s, Miami’s Opa-locka Airport served as the CIA’s base of covert operations against Guatemala and Cuba.

The airport also played a role in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

25. Wherever you are in Florida, you're never more than 60 miles from the nearest body of salt water.

Florida also boasts 7700 lakes, 11,000 miles of river, almost 3000 miles of tidal shoreline, and 700 freshwater springs.

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS at checkout by end of day Sunday, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.