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Ed Leedskalnin was a little guy who was chronically ill. But in 1923, he took 2.2 million pounds of Florida limestone — some chunks as big as 10 tons — and built a castle. How did he do that? Was it magic? Manipulation of gravity? Help from aliens? Or was it the power of a broken heart?


Story and photographs by Monica Uszerowicz


 
 

They call Florida the Sunshine State. They should probably call it the Limestone State, because that’s what Florida is made of: porous limestone, itself composed partly of mollusks and corals — their dried, skeletal remains.

I am the only native Floridian in my family, and this is my favorite thing about Florida: that it’s a sponge made of dead things. Floridians traverse a wet, aquatic history with every footstep. We walk on a cemetery of sea life.

I don’t know if Edward “Ed” Leeskalnin considered the poetics of this metaphor, but he unwittingly embodied it when he built Coral Castle in 1923. Ed, who was reportedly 5 feet tall, 129 pounds, and chronically sick with a respiratory illness, alone took 2.2 million pounds of limestone and built a giant, megalithic “castle” of a dollhouse. Every piece is limestone: curved crescent moons, towering planets, beds, rocking chairs, tables, star-shaped fountains, a functional sundial, all carved from that brittle, bone-encrusted rock, painful to the touch when it’s sun-starched. Together, the stones total 1,110 tons — including a 9-ton gate, 5.8-ton walls, a 28-ton obelisk — quarried, shaped, and erected by one small, ill man. Ed built Coral Castle in Florida City, where it was named Ed’s Place, then Rock Gate; he later picked it all up, miraculously, and moved it 2.5 miles north to Homestead. The name “Coral Castle” was given to the park in the 1950s.

 
 
 
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Because the roadside tourist attraction is made from the geological stuff that forms the state’s bedrock, it seems to have sprung forth from the ground organically, like a volcano, or spectrally, a ghost from her grave. I’ve only been to Coral Castle three times, because the trip is long and the entry fee isn’t cheap. You want it to be big, but you’ll traverse its entirety in a few minutes, and the flora that sneaks through the cracks in the coral — pink bougainvillea, birds of paradise — is the same sort that grows in your backyard. Florida is weird already, so the place doesn’t flabbergast.

It’s all the questions — and uncertain answers — about how Coral Castle was built that render it a mystery.

Nobody is sure how Ed lifted the rocks and seamlessly nestled them together. (He even fashioned two doors, one 3 tons and the other 9 tons, that still rotate with a light push, balanced on their centers of gravity with small, moving ball bearings.) But people love to guess. There are scads of biographies and conspiracy theories on the subject, bestrewn across the internet from corner to psyched-out corner, all with their own ideas: Ed sang to the rocks till they levitated; he received extraterrestrial support; he “used magnetism.” When strangers enquired how he did it, he’d say he had studied how the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built. But those daunting structures seem a bad comparison: Their blocks weighed 2.5 tons each. Ed worked alone, under no threat, somehow lifting 10-ton rocks with a tripod made of three pieces of Dade County pine.

 
 
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In Florida, it’s hard to forget who and what came first, who cultivated the swamps, who took it all away. America is a dubious narrative; Florida a sticky early chapter. There was never a fountain of youth, only the awful, myth-making hunger of colonizers, and a territory better occupied and cared for by the Tequesta tribe. Still, strange stories persist here, get etched into its substratum. There are few confirmable “facts” about Coral Castle’s history. It is a place devoid of verisimilitude, as if Ed somehow worked with the cosmos to give the place its own gravitational pull, so that all its truths push toward opposing rebuttals. Attempts to elucidate the mystery draw their own criticisms, which is precisely the point.

Ed likely wanted it mysterious. The rest of us do, too. It gives us something to prod at, something that aligns with the weird-Florida narrative. When I first visited Coral Castle, a guide said, “Now, I know you all think Ed used magic to build this place, but he didn’t.” I left the tour. Why debunk a good thing?

But no matter how Ed built it, Coral Castle tour guides and all the associated ephemera will have you believe it’s one thing above all others: a monument to a broken heart.

 
 
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Gave my heart an engagement ring
She took everything
Everything I gave her
Oh sweet sixteen
Built a moon
For a rocking chair
I never guessed it would
Rock her far from here

— "Sweet Sixteen," Billy Idol, 1986

During the first eight seconds of Billy Idol’s video for “Sweet Sixteen,” there’s a still image of a tuxedoed man standing among Coral Castle's stone statues; they engulf him like a sea. Cursive text appears on a tilted axis, postcard-style: “Love Turned to Stone.” The picture brightens till it’s whited out.

According to Rusty McClure’s extensive Coral Castle: The Mystery of Ed Leedskalnin and His American Stonehenge, most of the information on Ed is “speculative, undocumented, and sometimes simply wrong.” McClure is right: Based on what I’ve read, I can surmise Ed was born January 12 or August 10, 1887; he had tuberculosis, or he did not have tuberculosis; he was in love with a girl 10 years his junior, or no such girl existed.

The popular story goes that 16-year-old Agnes Scuffs left Ed, who was 10 years her elder, at the altar in his native Riga, Latvia. Given the age difference, that seems a fair response from Agnes. The catch is that we’re supposed to empathize with Ed's plight.

In McClure’s account, Ed was born in January. The Leedskalnins — originally the Liedskalnins — were farmers working in Latvia’s feudal system. They managed to send Ed, their youngest son, to school through fourth grade; he tended to the fields with his four elder siblings, then became a stonemason. In those late 19th-century days, there was, describes McClure, “a general unrest among the lower classes throughout Europe, and the development of socialism sparked a growing nationalist movement in Latvia,” where most citizens objected to the oppressive rule of Imperial Russia. One of Ed’s brothers, Otto, became a member of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. During a 1905 uprising, another brother, Ernest, was arrested.

Evald Leedskalnin, Otto’s son, believes Ed participated in this revolution, too, says McClure, before adding that there is no “firm proof” of this. But we do know that Ed emigrated to the U.S. in 1912. His grand-nephew, Janis Leedskalnin, “told Andro Stavris, author of Korallu Pils [the Latvian translation of “Coral Castle”] exactly what happened at the ceremony … ‘it is absolutely clear that Ed left for America because he was jilted by his bride.’” Either way: Ed arrived at Ellis Island, and went to New Jersey to stay with Ernst’s cousin and his wife.

 
 
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It is also true he made his way to the Pacific Northwest to work in the lumber and foresting industry, quitting after a tuberculosis diagnosis (allegedly). Then, he maybe traveled to California. He might’ve headed to Texas. He definitely went to Florida City, Florida, a community built by Robert Moser, a Michigan native who first named the city Detroit. Moser, says McClure, found Leedskalnin sick and dying on the side of the road, and nursed him back to health with the help of his wife and daughter. The details of his illness are unclear. By McClure’s account, some called it an unnamed “‘Lung Condition’” (capital L, capital C); others said it was definitely tuberculosis, fully healed by the Florida sun. McClure has included statements, pieced together by Bodil Kosel Lowe — a publicity agent hired by later owners of Coral Castle — from Florida City residents, many of whom saw Ed as a “‘true friend.’” One confirmed that he “‘came to Florida as he was sick in the North. He felt better living here.’” Moving south for one’s health — toward the sun — was not uncommon in the early 1920s.

Or perhaps Florida had something Ed was looking for, beyond a probable cure. Writer Joe Bullard, in an account shared by McClure, says a man told him his father once saw, nearly 400 miles north of Florida City, a “‘little guy walking down the road with a witching rod. … He asked the little guy what he was doing, and the guy just said, When I know it, I’ll find it. When Ed became famous, my father saw his picture in the paper and said that was the little guy on the road with the rod.’” The witching rod was a dowsing rod, and Ed might’ve been seeking water, mapping the specifics of his future construction site.

 
 
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Ed did become famous — there are enough accounts of the construction of Ed’s Place to know people were watching. Some say it was clandestine; others, that it was public. One man, Earl S. Lee, says he saw Ed “‘use a small telephone pole’” to pry rocks out of a ditch. McClure adds that Ed used “tools from old car parts taken from a nearby junkyard” to piece together his structure — a fact mentioned on tours at Coral Castle — and that he had a “block and tackle” and “smaller pulleys and hoists.” The pine tripod could definitely lift 10-ton rocks, but no larger; many “doubt that Ed’s 10-ton hoist was capable of lifting the tallest and heaviest pieces of coral he quarried — and then moving and placing those pieces so precisely.” In a doofy episode of In Search Of, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, a construction crew tries to slice a coral rock slab with a diamond-tipped power saw and lift it with a 600-horsepower crane. The process is unwieldy, even for them. Ed had no such crane.

When Ed’s Place was complete, he offered tours, revealing to visitors what had become a kind of simulacrum of a home built in Agnes’s honor, should his love return to him. There was a throne, a heart-shaped table, a bathtub, and what Ed called his “mad rocker”: a side-by-side rocking chair so that the lovers could face away from each other — but still be close — during an argument. Admission was ten cents, and he’d wax poetic about the unseen girl, her youth, his subsequent humiliation. Celestial objects and others appeared in threes: three moons, three planets, three chairs, as if to imply his love was beyond this earthly plane, or to send the rest of us, generations later, desperately searching for meaning.

In 1937, a young man named Orval Irwin, author of Mr. Can’t Is Dead: The Story of the Coral Castle, piled Ed’s tools onto his flatbed truck to bring them to the new location in Homestead, an account described in detail by McClure. Ed used a tractor and a self-built trailer to transport the stones. When he arrived in Homestead, what would eventually become Coral Castle took on far more cosmic contours than its original location. Ed added fortress-like walls, an obelisk, and a telescope for locating the North Star, all of which are huge.

But the secret to heaving 30-ton rocks, twice over, remains Ed’s own.

 
 
 
 
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But then the moon goes grey with worry
And the sea turns a pale white
You better believe something strange is going on tonight
Down in Bermuda, the pale blue sea
Bermuda Triangle, it's easy to believe.

— "Bermuda Triangle," Fleetwood Mac, 1974

Fleetwood Mac released “Bermuda Triangle” a year before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the band. It’s a rumbling blues — and an eerie one, given its subject. The myth of the Bermuda Triangle was long ago debunked, the stories associated with it proven hearsay. That doesn’t matter. The pervasive strangeness of Florida, South Florida in particular, seems owed, at least in part, to its proximity to that place in the sea where something closes and something else opens, where story briefly becomes truth, where truth ultimately is weirder than any story.

On an episode of the Astonishing Legends podcast dedicated to Coral Castle, hosts Scott Philbrook and Forrest Burgess mention Bruce Cathie, an airline pilot obsessed with the “world energy grid,” a theory that finds its predecessor in the work of biologist and writer Ivan T. Sanderson. Sanderson claimed the Bermuda Triangle was a "vile vortex," one of 12 around the world he plotted using latitudinal and longitudinal lines as boundaries. In these vile vortices, he argued, one might find strange disappearances and other phenomena. The theory starts to blend with others, like the theory of "ley lines," which finds “subtle matter energy” in the alignment of landmarks and religious sites. Astonishing Legends quotes Cathie’s book, The Energy Grid:

At certain positions on the globe, there are localities where the forces of gravity can be manipulated by the application of certain geometric harmonics. Coral Castle, I believe, occupies one of these positions … Where these geometric conditions exist it is possible for people, who know how, to use gravitational forces to construct great buildings of massive material.

Was Ed searching for a vile vortex? For a ley line? For a buzzing, electrified hunk of the magnetic grid? On that same episode, Kristaps Andrejsons, Latvian native and host of the podcast The Eastern Border, tells a version of Ed’s story gathered from Latvian books and a museum in Vecpiebalga. Per Andrejsons' research, Ed studied carpentry and sculpture with his family and, like his brothers, joined the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. He took part in, says Andrejsons, “the struggles of the 1905 revolution in Latvia,” which preceded the Bolshevik revolution and failed. Ed fought the police and the army, fire-bombed an alcohol factory, and “personally assassinated the baron, who’d been a [sculpture] mentor to him.” Furthermore, Ed’s brother, Rudolf, died in a construction accident, rendering Ed “a staunch atheist”; he later became “a complete anarchist,” joining Peter the Painter’s anarchist movement in the U.K. before moving to the U.S. two years later.

Andrejson also describes the gravity — that is, the weight — of ley lines in Latvia: “Ley lines are just magnetic fields, or where the underground rivers go. They’re still used today to determine, for example, where you want to dig your well, where you want to grow your medicinal herbs.” Dowsing rods are used to determine where the energy is, or where it isn’t; it makes sense that Ed was using ley lines to map an ideal location for Rock Gate and later Coral Castle. The idea matches Bullard’s anecdote, too, about the little man with the “witching rod.” Dowsing, Andrejson explains, is also what Ed might’ve used to cure his tuberculosis, finding charged places to rest and heal.

And it wasn’t Agnes Scuffs with whom Ed was in love, Andrejson adds. There was no Sweet Sixteen. Ed’s true love was 24-year-old Hermine Lusis, whom McClure also mentions as a possibility, and whose dowry Ed could not afford. I followed up with Andrejson over email to confirm. “Her surname is not Scuffs,” he explains. It’s actually “Skvut(s), an old-timey way of spelling ‘skūpsts’ which literally does mean a ‘kiss’ in Latvian.”

 
 
 
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Ed also published a few books in his lifetime, among them A Book in Every Home. It describes his “Sweet Sixteen,” and doesn’t refer to Agnes, but to some sort of omniscient “girl.” All the book's words, oddly, are printed only on the left-hand pages. The right pages are blank.

Now, I will tell you why I did not get the girl...Now, I am going to tell you what I mean when I say "Ed's Sweet Sixteen.” I don't mean a sixteen-year-old girl. I mean a brand new one … Anything that we do leaves its effect, but it leaves more effect upon a girl than it does upon a boy or a man, because the girl's body, mind, and all her constitution is more tender and so it leaves more impressions … All girls below sixteen should be brand new.

After espousing his views of the virtue of virginity among young women, he also addresses their “neglects and defects,” namely the error of gummy smiles: “When smiling, the teeth only should be shown. As soon as you show the gums, it spoils the good effect.” Got it, Ed. But, as speculation would have it, this is not the misogynistic, abusive ramblings of a chauvinistic monster — it’s just a code disguised as such. Indeed, Ed prefaces his book:

Reader, if for any reason you do not like the things I say in this little book, I left just as much space as I used, so you can write your own opinion opposite it and see if you can do better.
~ The Author

Blogger Rich Hoffman believes Ed “writes on the left side of the book, leaving the right side for a future decoder of his cryptic work to decipher his numerous mathematical puzzles.” Hoffmann's site tries to decode it: A Book in Every Home is written not from “the perspective of a human but from the perspective of a magnet. … Female magnets are ‘sweet’ when they are sixteen years old. … He also warns that if a ‘female’ magnet is allowed to be in the same room as a ‘male’ magnet, the ‘male’ magnet will ‘soil’ the ‘girl.’” It’s a stretch, or maybe it isn’t. “Sweet Sixteen,” by this logic, is a magnetic charge, not a child’s age, and Agnes seems like fiction. Why Ed would want to turn his methods into creepy, vaguely pedophilic code is not clear.

In the episode of Ancient Aliens detailing Coral Castle, McClure makes an appearance and simplifies the pedagogy of another of Ed’s books, Magnetic Current: “Ed says … that real gravity is a magnet. If you reverse the magnetic forces with the force of some kind of electromagnetic radio frequency, you can make these rocks not as heavy as they seem.” We’re shown an image of Ed’s tripod; zoomed in, there’s a black box at its top. “The black box is the one element no one has ever seen, except in those pictures. We believe it has something to do with how he got these massive, heavy, brittle pieces of rock up in the air.” A man named John Brandenburg, classified only as “Engineer,” corroborates: “We can speculate at this time that there are techniques for using electromagnetism to nullify gravity.” (I imagine someone prodding him beforehand: “Say it! Say that it’s possible!”) In the sleeping quarters at Coral Castle, you’ll find a generator, which Ed describes in his texts as a “perpetual motion holder” for “making all kinds of light.” Could light mean energy?

 
 
 
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In his book Coral Castle: Everything You Know is Wrong, Praveen Mohan, who writes with I’m-not-saying-it-was-aliens-but-it-was-aliens fervor, attempts to prove Ed not only utilized electromagnetic forces to build Coral Castle, but he also filled it with references to — extraterrestrials? Outer space? Building techniques specific to the Great Pyramid? All of it. Mohan's narratives blur together, here and in popular culture: aliens, astronomy, pyramids, Freemasons, “the secrets” of the universe’s origins. It’s difficult to know why Ed would want to visually reference extraterrestrial magic simply because he was potentially using it. The idea, one supposes, is that it’s all coded, cosmically charged language, waiting to be translated. To conspiracy theorists, the tropes seem inherently linked, almost as an aesthetic choice.

Mohan breaks down several items at Coral Castle. Ed’s “mirror” — a small vessel with water — is lined, he explains, with graphite, “commonly used in batteries. By placing aluminum foil on top and filling this receptacle with salt water, Ed turned this into a battery.” (Mohan notes that there are aluminum flakes on the graphite.) The “bathtub,” says Mohan, was a tank for “chemical experiments”; in his books, Ed described the process of testing objects for their magnetic power in water.

At the top of Ed’s 25-foot, 23-ton telescope, there’s a wire crosshair in a hole; depending on the season, the North Star is visible in one of its four quadrants. Coral Castle, says Mohan, references the stars everywhere: The obelisk matches the constellation of Taurus; a triangular, gabled-roof shape on the north wall is Libra; the west wall, T-shaped and stocky, is Virgo.

Then, there is “repentance corner,” replete with holes for a child or Ed’s wife to place their heads — tour guides say Ed would lock their heads into the holes if they misbehaved. It’s a disturbing, abusive, low-key torture device, and the guides seem to get a kick out of it. (“Shows you what kind of husband he was!” one chuckled, last time I was there.)

But heck no, says Mohan. That’s no medieval stockade — it’s Castor and Pollux, the Twins of Gemini.

 
 
 
 
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Imagine: Two men land on the moon in spacesuits shiny as jewels. Their oxygen tanks are sun-orange, and the moon is neither gray nor cratered but dotted with lush, tropical flora and coral towers shaped like the moon itself. The men peer over them, spying the way men do, having discovered what they didn’t know they were looking for: a bevy of topless women and men, fit and inexplicably tanned. The women lounge on coral chaises and thrones and rocking chairs, they communicate with each other stoically and telepathically. Clothing isn’t necessary on the moon; their bodies are sexualized only because the astronauts like breasts.

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Doris Wishman’s 1961 film, Nude on the Moon, was shot at Coral Castle, which is why I watched it, enamored with the idea of the moon as a monument where rocks are shaped like stars and stars are given reverence. Maybe this is a gimmick to everyone else, and exciting only to people like McClure, Mohan, and me, or to Otto Von Schirach, the Miami musician who staged his short film, Pineal Warriors, there, with the late rapper Blowfly: Floridians, or people who are used to distorted realities.

 
 

Ed passed away on December 7, 1951, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he’d checked himself in the previous month. Hospital reports say he had pyelonephritis, a kidney infection — if he ever had tuberculosis, it did not kill him, at least not directly. Coral Castle was thrust into popular culture two years later. Harry Leedskalnin, grandson of Ed’s brother Otto, was living in the U.S. with his wife Mary and had no money to run Rock Gate. In 1953, he signed the property over to Julius Levin, a Chicago jeweler who’d retired in Miami. Levin knew nothing about the attraction, only that the property was available and good for the reasons property was good in those days. But he fell in love with Rock Gate, restoring, re-opening, and renaming it Coral Castle, banking on Florida’s budding tourist industry and the love story behind the place.

“Love Turned to Stone,” as it turns out, was the catchphrase of his marketing campaign.

I emailed McClure to ask him about his fascination with Ed.

“I love stories and mysteries,” he told me. “I believe there’s more to the story and to the castle than meets the eye. I think Ed got on that bus, rode to Miami, checked himself into Jackson Memorial Hospital, and died with his secret. I have no idea what that secret was or is. And no one else does either — legitimately.”

I tread cautiously: Aliens?

“I am open to the possibility Ed tapped into ‘outside help.’ There’s a part in our book about Ed’s references to the Egyptians … and consider the elements of the 5,000-pound door — hung and centered perfectly, pivoting on a piece of foreign/alien rock? How did one guy do this? How did he obtain that rock?”

There’s an ongoing assumption in the spiritualist or pseudo-science community that ancient Egyptians were working with aliens; but there is a rock at Coral Castle still claimed to be of unknown origin, and the feats there are, by any measure, a marvel, because no one is sure of them. To be part of Miami’s mythos is to be forever unsolvable. In any particular light, Coral Castle looks beautiful, uncanny, gimmicky. A megalithic monument to love or aliens or limestone or boredom, nestled like its own stones between the magical narratives of something in the water and something out there, between legend and Florida’s equally strange historical reality.

Nothing about this place feels entirely real.