The Legend of “Nub City”

Vernon, Florida, Washington County: population 732 as of the 2020 census. A small town named after George Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. A small town which, from the 1950’s through the 1960’s, was responsible for nearly two-thirds of all the loss-of-limb accident claims in the U.S., earning the legendary nickname, “Nub City.”

Before becoming infamous for a widespread insurance scam, in which its citizens purposely dismembered themselves for large payouts, Vernon was the idyllic small town you’d see in television shows and movies. At least it was, until economic despair struck the people of Vernon.

Steamboats and trains no longer passed through Vernon, and the sawmill, where many residents once worked, closed its doors. Younger generations left for college and never looked back, leaving the town in dire straits. Desperate and down on their luck, the people of Vernon sought new tactics for acquiring cash quickly. In the coming years, nearly 50 citizens of the town would “accidentally” lose a limb in an attempt to receive compensation. These people would later be referred to as the “Nub Club.”

Although the origin of this scam is not known, it is believed that, at some point, a large payout occurred due to a lost limb. Word spread through the small town, and the rest is “mostly undocumented” history.

The trend was first publicly mentioned in an NY Times article written about an investigator, John J. Healy, who reported that “Nub City” was among the worst cases of his career investigating insurance claims (yes, they had investigators, even then). Healy had been hired by Continental National American Insurance group after claims in the Florida panhandle began to exceed $100,000.00. According to Healy, “Vernon’s second-largest occupation was watching hound dogs mating in the town square, its largest was self-mutilation for monetary gain.”

Healy wrote in one report, “Watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.”

Vernon’s fame persisted when L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent in Chipley, told the St. Petersburg Times that his list of policyholders included a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who purchased a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel.

As more and more of these lost limb claims were filed, the payouts became larger. Some residents even took out ridiculously high insurance policies directly before the “accidents” occurred and provided even more ridiculous justifications for the accidents. Another investigator, Murray Armstrong with Liberty National, claimed that there was one man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 different companies before filing his claim.

Despite the blatantly obvious red flags, it was next to impossible to convict these claimants of fraud. Juries had a hard time believing that anyone would willingly amputate or mutilate their own limbs or appendages. One farmer reportedly walked away with nearly a million dollars from a claim for a lost foot, even though all the evidence pointed to self-amputation.

The scamming finally came to an end in the 1960s when insurance companies wised up and increased their premiums. Some companies even stopped doing business in the Florida Panhandle altogether.

Decades later, documentarian Errol Morris became intrigued by Vernon’s scandalous history. He met with Healy to dig deeper and find out more about this mysterious place Healy had mentioned in the Times article. Healy warned Morris that the people of the town were not fond of outsiders poking around (for obvious reasons), but Morris moved to the area despite Healy’s advice. He began working on a documentary to be titled Nub City. The premise and name of the documentary quickly changed after Morris learned for himself why “Nub City” has become more of a rumor than documented history. Morris knocked on the door of a “Nub Club” double-amputee, whose Marine son-in-law then allegedly physically assaulted Morris for asking questions. That was all the convincing it took to change his documentary’s title to “Vernon, FL” and refocus the film on the interesting characters who still reside in the small town after all these years.

If you find the time to watch the documentary, you’ll see the town has put the gory past far behind them. They are more focused on turkey hunting, wigglers, and growing sand. And while it’s not uncommon for the older residents to be missing a limb or two, they are back to their same old small-town living, acting as if the legend of “Nub City” is in fact just that, a legend.


Tampa Bay Times

The New York Times

Lakeland Ledger

Vernon, FL (1981) by Errol Morris