If you ever find yourself in Key West, you may see people wearing T-shirts with an unusual slogan: “Where is Bum Farto?” It isn’t a juvenile flatulence joke, though — it’s a reference to a local legend who went from flamboyant fire chief and beloved community eccentric to a criminal who seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth. In fact, the true nature of exactly what became of him is still one of Florida’s most compelling and elusive mysteries. Allow us to enlighten you!
The man who would become immortalized as “Bum Farto” was born José Farto on July 3, 1919, in Key West. His father Juan was a Spanish-born restaurant owner who came to Florida via Cuba in 1902; his mother, Juana Diaz, hailed from the Canary Islands.
Farto grew up in Old Town with his two older sisters, and his family life centered around Juan’s Victoria seafood restaurant. Yet it was what resided next door to the restaurant that truly fascinated the young man.
“The Little Bum”
You see, beside the restaurant and across the street from the family home was the local fire station. The young Farto came to idolize the firemen who worked within its hallowed walls. In fact, his unusual nickname stemmed from there, at least according to a pal who spoke to The Miami Herald in 1976.
That friend revealed, “He used to hang around the old No. 1 Fire Department on Greene Street all the time and the firemen started calling him ‘the little bum.’ He was always bumming things — asking for favors, like little kids do.”
Farto becomes a volunteer firefighter, but also drives an ambulance
When Farto’s father passed away in 1937, he left school and began working for the WPA’s National Youth Administration. Yet, the siren song of the fire alarms he’d heard so regularly as a boy proved too alluring to ignore, and in 1942 he became a volunteer firefighter.
He would ride on the back of the fire trucks and polish the brass, all while also working as an ambulance driver at the local funeral parlor. He eventually wound up marrying Macie, the sister-in-law of his boss at the funeral home.
Farto sees some things you can’t un-see
According to Keys Weekly’s David Sloan, Farto saw a lot of action as an ambulanceman. He wrote, “He transported R.F. Walker from the scene of a motorcycle accident as the submarine mechanic slowly died from injuries that included a crushed chest and a leg ‘virtually hanging by shreds.’”
He added, “Bum was on the scene of the 1951 mid-air crash of a commercial craft and a Navy plane in the waters off the Southernmost Point. The bodies he transported had been sliced in two by the plane’s seatbelts.”