Thursday, April 9, 2020

Live Human "Alligator Bait" - Fact or Fiction

Widely circulated rumors suggest that white Americans once used black Americans as bait for hunting alligators.  The perception that such rumors may be true has been bolstered in recent years by otherwise respected sources treating the rumors seriously.[i]  The stories may make excellent
“click bait,” but the sources cited do not generally prove the historical truth of supposed, human
“alligator bait.”

The case in favor of a factual basis of the rumor is generally staked on a few isolated “facts” cherry-picked from two isolated “news” items; a 1923 article about alligator hunting in Chipley, Florida, and an account of moving alligators from the winter quarters to their summer quarters at the Bronx Zoo in 1908.  Taken at face value and in their entirety, however, those articles do not actually say what the proponents suggest they do, and in any case, it’s not clear how seriously those articles were taken when they were published, and there are several good reasons to doubt the factual basis of both stories.

Other evidence cited in support of the factual basis of the rumor include souvenir postcards, knick-knacks and other novelty items showing alligators threatening or eating black children, many of them labeled with the expression “Alligator Bait.”  But those items may simply be “jokes,” cruel jokes in keeping with the casually racist attitudes and language of the day; puns on the then-current expression, “alligator bait,” an idiom for black children.  The idiom first came into widespread use in the wake of publication of a wildly successful, mass-marketed photographic print entitled “Alligator Bait,” produced by McCrary & Branson Studios of Knoxville, Tennessee, not as the result of sudden, widespread awareness of dangerous and cruel hunting practices. 

“Alligator Bait,” McCrary & Branson, Knoxville, Tennessee, 1897.

The idiom itself is not evidence of such hunting practices, but more likely an echo of the old wives’ tale that alligators (and crocodiles before them) preferred small children over adults, and black children over white children.

They have a weakness for pigs and puppies, and special fondness, it is said, for pickaninnies – negro children; but the instances in which they have been the aggressors in attacks on grown people are rare . . . .

Detroit Free Press, September 15, 1895, page 27.

Similar superstitions about crocodiles date back to at least as early as the late-1700s.  In Egypt, they were said to prefer Muslims over Christians, and along the west coast of equatorial Africa, they purportedly preferred “negroes” over Christians.

The Best “Evidence”

Alligator hunters in Chipley, Florida, they say, used black children as bait.  But what’s conveniently left out of most accounts is the fact that their mothers willingly rented out their own children for $2 a day, the babies came out of the water “wet and laughing,” and there was no real danger because the hunters “do not ever miss their targets.” Perhaps even more damning than such questionable “facts” is the story’s close similarity to a decades-old string of dubious “crocodile bait” stories, purportedly out of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), East India, India or the Sudan, the first of which was written by a military-humor cartoonist in 1888.  And finally, the Chipley version of the story was written by an itinerant newspaper telegraph operator and copy reader a colleague accused of “hooey,” and who later prospered in a second career as a “sex philosopher” and lecturer with live demonstration models.

The Bronx zoo story that suggested two black children were used as “bait” to lure alligators into their summer pool does not square with a more factual description of the same events published simultaneously the same day.  The New York Times reported simply that the “alligators came out willingly into the cage after a prod from the long sticks.”  But even if the more sensational version is presumed true, the children are said to have “darted around the tank,” which is consistent with running around the outside perimeter of the enclosure.  And the alligators are said to have fallen “with grunts of chagrin into the water, disappointed of their prey,” so it is unclear whether the children, assuming they were there, were ever in harm’s way.

The case for the truth of the rumors is also supported by souvenir postcards and novelty items showing alligators threatening black children, frequently titled or labeled as “Alligator Bait,” and numerous references to “alligator bait,” once a common idiom meaning “black children.”  But the postcards and novelty items may simply be visual puns playing off the idiom; jokes, tasteless to be sure, but not evidence of dangerous or cruel alligator hunting practices.  The postcards and novelty items appeared after 1898, the year in which the expression “alligator bait” first became widely known and used.  The expression came into widespread use following release of a wildly successful, mass-marketed photographic image of a group of black babies entitled “Alligator Bait,” not due to any sudden or growing awareness of any actual alligator baiting.

Although the expression “alligator bait” may conjure up images of dangerous hunting practices, there is no evidence that it was derived from any such practices.  Early, pre-1898 examples of the expression suggest it was used among black children themselves, as a playful taunt.  In an article about an African-American boy describing his efforts to capture an escaped pet alligator in Kansas, he was described as having nearly become “alligator’s bait.”  It was also used as an insult for a couple white, Southern politicians, and as a description of a group of white boys taking a raft into alligator infested waters.  

Surprisingly, perhaps, the earliest example of the expression was in a punch line of a widely circulated joke in 1883, about white, pasty, anglophiles – referred to by the recently coined term, “Dudes.”  

“I suppose you have heard of our dudes, Miss Clarwa?” observed a New York swell to a Jacksonville girl.

“Oh, yes,” she answered, “they are becoming very popular in Florida.  We use them for alligator bait.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1883, page 4.

And in the earliest story in which American babies were said to be used as alligator bait, “a nice, fat baby is rented for the occasion from the cracker [(poor, southern white)] mother to whom a half dollar is ample recompense for the risk that her child is to run.” The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kansas), September 29, 1899, page 11. 

The origin of the idiom “alligator bait,” referring to black children (and frequently applied to adults as well), may have its roots in a centuries old superstition, first recorded in the 1700s, that crocodiles (and later alligators, by extension) were discriminating diners, preferring the taste of Muslims or “negroes” over Christians.  The earliest reports of such beliefs came out of Egypt and “Western Ethiopia,” which under the nomenclature of the time likely referred to the west coast of Africa, in the region of Cameroon.[ii]  So it is possible that the folk tale could have been transferred to the New World as part of the oral tradition of enslaved people brought over from the west coast of Africa, or through references to them in English language texts published in England and the United States, or both.

Although references to the myth have persisted for centuries, it’s not clear how many people ever took it seriously.  For example, an enslaved man on a Georgia plantation gave the following advice on how to avoid the bloodhounds to a Union soldier recently escaped from Rebel custody.

He assured us that the dogs were fearful of the alligators with which that river abounded, and that the slaves were taught that alligators would destroy only negroes and dogs.  He didn’t believe it himself, although his master thought he did.

Captain J. J. Geer, Beyond the lines: or a Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie, Philadelphia, J. W. Daughaday, 1863, page 128.

While tales of using black children may seem plausible in light of the well-documented history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and extra-legal mob action like lynching, the specific allegations of placing children in harm’s way as “alligator bait” are not well substantiated.  Before drawing any conclusions about the underlying factual basis of sensational rumors, one should make a comprehensive survey of a wide spectrum of relevant sources and references from the period, not simply cherry-pick a few purported “facts” from questionable sources. 

You be the judge.  But don’t jump to conclusions.

Chipley, Florida, 1923

The most frequently cited piece of “evidence” in support of the truth of the rumors is a 1923 article about children used as live alligator bait in Chipley, Florida.  But if that article is to be taken seriously on its face, the children’s parents are at least as culpable as the hunters, renting their own children to strangers for $2.00 a day.  And besides, if, as the article suggests in a detail conveniently omitted from most discussions of the practice, the babies “go into the water alive and whole and come out wet and laughing” because “Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their targets,” the whole thing wasn’t as dangerous as one might suppose.  But that, of course, would be ludicrous. 

Mobile, Ala., Sept. 14. – Naked pickaninnies are being used as alligator bait around Chipley, Florida!

But wait. These little black morsels are more than glad to be led to the “sacrifice,” and do their part in lurking the big Florida ‘gators to their fate without suffering so much as a scratch.

With the demand for tanned alligator hides far outstripping the supply, hunters along the Santa Rosa coast of Florida have beset themselves to helping relieve the shortage and incidentally to fatten their purses.  And little negro babies are providing a necessary part of the ‘gator hunters’ equipment.

No, the pickaninnies are not torn cruelly asunder, like wiggling worms, and placed bit by bit upon giant fishhooks, but go into the water alive and whole and come out wet and laughing.

Aside from the novelty of the method, this baiting alligators with negro babies, a scheme said to have been originated by a Chicago man, there is nothing so terrible about it, except that it is spelling death for the alligators.

Above all other things, the alligator is most fond of human flesh as an item of diet.  Hunters say that while an alligator will risk its safety for young dog, it will jeopardize every hope of life for a live baby.  And in the matter of color, the additional information is vouchsafed that black babies, in the estimation of the alligators, are far more refreshing, as it were, than white ones.

According to reports, the method of baiting with the negro baby is simplicity Itself. Nothing is needed but the pickaninny and a Winchester rifle or two. The baby is placed in the edge of the water where it is shallow, near the alligator's haunts, and the rifle in the hands of expert shots, who are hidden behind nearby clumps of bushes and dense growths of marsh grass.

The “bait” is placed in water Just deep enough so that it can frolic and play and splash its fingers through the water and white sand in childish glee.  The “bait” is used naked, which adds no little, so the hunters are said to have discovered, to the value of the “lure.” A black baby, or a baby of any other color, it is well known, likes to splash in the water when clothed, but stripped naked the child is in a heaven of delight and makes a great to do, chortling and laughing, which attracts the 'gator. 

Hunters declare that before the “bait” has emitted half a dozen giggles or laughs, or coos, as his humor may prompt, a slight rustling is heard in some nearby lagoon, and presently a long, dark, shadowy line is detected beneath the water, creeping toward the poor little "bait."

Now, the baby is always placed in such a position that there is shallow water for a considerable distance beyond him, out into the water. Then as the 'gator draws near he is forced above the surface, wading toward the “bait” with his head and forequarters well ex-posed.  Then –

Bing, bing, bing! Three or four rifle shots ring out, and the hunters rush into the water to retrieve their prize.  For Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their targets. 

And as they rush, also rushes, usually, the mother of the “bait,” who almost always accompanies her “coal black rose” to the hunting place.  As the mother gathers up her offspring the hunters finish off the ‘gator by blows from heavy clubs.

And usually while one of the hunters drags the “game” well up on the sands another of the group pays off the mother for the use of her negro baby.  There Is a set price.  It is:

Two dollars.

Akron Beacon Journal, September 14, 1923, page 4.

Some people took the reports seriously at the time.  The NAACP, for example, put out a press release about the Chipley story; a shortened version of the story appeared in several African-American newspapers.  Tellingly, perhaps, their account reported on the supposed events in Chipley, without reference to any historical context of similar, known hunting practices.  In 1923, the people who worked at the NAACP or wrote and edited African-American newspapers would have had parents or grandparents who had lived under slavery, or parents, grandparents, friends or other relations who had lived in the deep south before migrating north, who would have been familiar with similar events, assuming they had happened with any frequency, and yet the reports of the NAACP’s response and accounts of the purported incident in Chipley, Florida made no allusion to any similar hunting methods ever having been used regularly, or at all. 

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 69 Fifth avenue, New York City, today made public the contents of a dispatch printed in the Louisville, Kentucky, Herald, of Sept. 23rd, stating that Colored babies were being used as alligator bait in the vicinity of Chipley, Florida.

The Colored babies are allowed to play in shallow water, with expert riflemen concealed nearby.  When the alligator approaches his prey he is said to be shot by the riflemen.  The dispatch states that “Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their targets.”  The price reported as being paid Colored mothers for the use of their babies as alligator bait, is said to be two dollars

The Buffalo American (Buffalo, New York), October 11, 1923, page 1.

Even Time magazine reported the fact of the article, but without vouching for its veracity.  They published a rebuttal several weeks later.

On behalf of the town of Chipley, Fla., the Orange County Chamber of Commerce branded as “a silly lie, false and absurd,” the story (broadcasted a month ago through the press of the nation) that colored babies were being used at Chipley for alligator bait. In its issue for Oct. 15, TIME printed the fact that the report had been circulated, but in no wise vouched for its authenticity. TIMES story was as follows: From Chipley, Fla., it was reported that colored babies were being used for alligator bait. “The infants are allowed to play in shallow water while expert riflemen watch from concealment nearby. When a saurian approaches his prey, he is shot by the riflemen.”
The Louisville Herald: “Florida alligator hunters do not ever miss their target”
The price reported as being paid colored mothers for the services of their babies as bait was “$2.00 a hunt.”

But not everyone took the story seriously.

 Just a Liar – Macon Telegraph: It takes all sorts of folks to make up the world, including the blockhead who believes that negro babies are used as alligator bait in Florida.

The Tampa Tribune, November 2, 1923, page 4.

Similarly, when a white grocer from Louisiana named Garland Rue told a reporter in 1988 that his great-uncle had used his father as alligator bait, the reporter expressed skepticism.

Now Garland is one Crowley old-timer whose memories I trust.  However, he told one tale that I’m a bit dubious about:

“My father was raised in Cameron Parish,” he said.  “His parents died when he was very young, and his uncle put him out on the bank for alligator bait, then would shoot the alligators.”

The Crowley Post-Signal (Crowley, Louisiana), September 13, 1988, page 2.

The original “crocodile bait” story from Ceylon in 1888 had a similar effect on a reader in New Zealand who claimed to have spent a lot of time in that country.

All I can say in reference to this is that, though I have been a great deal in Ceylon, I never saw the parents who would have hired out their children for such diabolical purposes – one good reason being that in many cases the alligator comes along so quickly that no hunter, however sure a shot, could be certain of saving a child bound to a stake under such conditions.

Otago Witness (Otago, New Zealand), July 6, 1888.

And even assuming parents actually did rent out their children as crocodile bait in India, it was reportedly difficult to rent similar alligator bait in Florida. 

I was in Florida a year or so ago, and tried to hire a baby to experiment with for alligators after the method in India, but folks who owned babies down there didn’t seem to enter into the spirit of the sport, and I couldn’t get one.  I compromised on a rather lively complaining dog.  He was a success, and I had quite a lot of fun, although the sport was a good deal tamer than it would have been if I had only had a baby for bait.

New York Sun, June 24, 1894, page 24.

These earlier skeptics do not necessarily disprove the stories, but they should give pause to modern readers eager to believe them as fact based on the thinnest of evidence.  If so many contemporary readers did not take them seriously, perhaps they should be taken with a grain of salt today.

And there may be good reason to take the story with a grain of salt.  The Chipley, Florida story was written by an itinerant telegraph operator and newspaper copy reader who later found more success as a self-styled “professor” and “sex philosopher,” giving sex-education lectures with “live models” to demonstrate the action, in what was seems to have been a thinly-veiled soft-core strip tease act.  He also hosted radio call-in shows with a psychic, answering questions about sex and relationships.  A former newspaper colleague accused him of “hooey,” and his models’ brassieres and panties were once confiscated and sold at auction to satisfy a bad debt. 

T. W. Villiers

Thomas Wayland Villiers was born in Ohio in about 1890, the son of “an illustrious sexologist” and “nephew of America’s highest salaried Baptist minister.”[iii]  At the time of the 1940 census, he lived in Franklin, Ohio with his wife Alice (25 yrs), and reported his occupation as “lecturer/salesman” in the “retail” industry.  Years earlier, however, he worked as a telegraph receiving operator for a newspaper in West Virginia, where he also served as timekeeper for local boxing matches.[iv]

In 1920, his article, “Trials of a Receiving Operator,” appeared in an Associated Press service bulletin.

Service Bulletin of the Associated Press, Bulletin 56, September 1, 1920, page 38.

During the year before publication of his “alligator bait” piece, his name appears in three other articles, all published as dateline Mobile, Alabama, the same location as the dateline on his Chipley, Florida piece.  In the first of those articles, he is named as the author of an open letter to the WDAE radio station in Tampa, Florida.  He identified himself as the “Radio Editor” of the “Register,” presumably the Mobile Register.

Mobile, Ala., Nov. 3. WDAE: Picked up your concert here on one tube.  Cut in with one stage amplifier and couldn’t keep the phones on my ‘bean.’ T. W. Villiers, Radio Editor, Register.

Tampa Times, November 8, 1922, page 8.

Six months later, he penned a far-fetched article about a textbook supposedly banned by pro-prohibitionists because of a scientific illustration characterized as a “still.”
Apparently determined to do its part in helping the youth of Alabama forget there ever was such a thing as whiskey or other “hard” drinkables in common use in America, the Alabama State Text Book Commission has ordered discarded a grammar school text book, in use in all of the schools of the state.   It contains a picture of a still. . . .

The miniature distilling apparatus was used to illustrate the principle of converting liquids into steam and from steam back to liquids.” 

Shreveport Journal (Shreveport, Louisiana), May 15, 1923, page 5.

In early September, less than two weeks before his “alligator bait” story hit the presses, he was named as a local dog fancier whose German Shepard, “Rino Von Zavelstein,” performed wonders on the golf course.

Many stories have been told tending to prove the extraordinary intelligence of the German shepherd police dog, but T. W. Villiers, Mobile fancier, has re-named his imported police dog “Golf Hound,” and incidentally has quit paying caddies to search for golf balls.  Rino Von Zavelstein, the canine caddy calmly stands behind his master until he swings, Villiers says, then dashes off after the ball.  He does not pick it up but stands over the ball as a living “marker” until the player comes up for the next shot.

Knoxville News-Sentinel, September 3, 1923, page 3.

Following his “alligator bait” piece, however, T. W. Villiers disappears from the headlines, at least as a writer.  Years later, he would reappear as the subject of news articles and in advertisements for his new career as a sex lecturer. 

Knoxville Journal, March 23, 1932, page 8.
From as early as 1928, and continuing through at least 1935, “Professor Wayland Villiers” gave sex lectures in conjunction with “educational” films, sometimes with one or several “live models” onstage to give demonstrations. 

The Danville Bee (Virginia), March 18, 1933, page 10.
Advertised as, “clean,” “moral,” and “legal,” the performances seem to have been (like his models) thinly veiled excuses for soft-core nudity.

Vivian Vaughn, “Miss America” of 1933, Medford Mail Tribune, August 1, 1935, page 7.

Nashville Banner, March 1, 1932, page 15.

During a run in New York City, famed, syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell recognized him from his newspaper days.

Prof. Wayland Villiers who lectures on sex at the 42nd street stand is the same chap who headed the “copy desk” of the old St. Louis Globe a few yrs back.

“On Broadway,” Walter Winchell, Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), June 7, 1932.

New York Daily News, May 23, 1932, page 31.

A former colleague also recognized him in Knoxville, Tennessee, and outed him as just an old “copy reader,” while praising him for his newfound business savvy and divulging his personal problems.

You’ve gone a long ways, Tom, since you and I used to sit side by side at the Press-Scimitar news desk in Memphis four years ago and write headlines.  Your mustache wasn’t waxed then and if anybody called you “Professor” Villiers you would have haw-hawed him a handful.

. . . You had ‘em leaning forward in their seats when you told them you’d reveal how they could tell a girl is chilly.  I still don’t know how to tell from what you said last night, tho.

And then the way they ate up those books you sold at $1 for two.  You brought the hoarded dollars, Tom.  You ought to be working for Col. Frank Knox. . . .

So you got your degree of doctor at the Institute of Bio-Psychology, New York.  I don’t find it listed in the World Almanac but I suppose it’s all right. . . . 

I had a telegram from Jim Joyce, managing editor of the Press-Scimitar, about you yesterday.  Jim says that when you worked for him you were “bothered continually by affairs of the heart and pocketbook.”  That’s what your name meant in Memphis.  But don’t pay any attention to Jim.  He doesn’t realize like I do now that you were an artist at heart, Tom, and those little things ought to be overlooked. . . . “Professor” Steve Humphrey, Authority on ex-copy readers, sexologists and hooey.

Knoxville News-Sentinel, March 22, 1932, page 1.

Villiers also took his show on the radio, sometimes hosting call-in shows where he answered sex and relationship questions while his co-host, a Danish psychic billed as Princess Signe Serene, addressed listeners’ spiritual questions.
Not that someone who gives light-hearted lectures about sex might not have also done serious work on some other subject, but in light of all of the circumstances, the arc of his career, other writings, the factual basis of Villiers’ frequently-cited 1923 story should at least be called into question.  The story should also be questioned because of its striking resemblance to a decades-long string of “crocodile bait” stories, all apparently derived from an 1888 original pen by a military-humor cartoonist named Major-General Robley,

Crocodile Bait

Villiers’ 1923 “alligator bait” story appears to be a retread of a decades-long string of “crocodile bait” hoaxes dating back to 1888, each one borrowing from the last with increasingly far-fetched embellishments.  Within a few months of the publication of the original story in the British magazine, The Graphic, in late-January 1888, several variants appeared in hundreds of newspapers and magazines throughout the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.  No fewer than nine distinct versions of the original story appeared in hundreds more newspapers on a regular basis for more than three decades.

The original “crocodile bait” story of 1888 claimed that British hunters in Ceylon rented small children from locals to use as crocodile bait.  While not every parent was willing to risk their children’s lives, British crocodile hunters’ sharpshooting skills were apparently as highly regarded as those of alligator hunters in Chipley thirty-five years later; they could always find parents whose “confidence in the skill of the British sportsman is unlimited.”  And like the children in Chipley, Florida, no harm ever came to the children of Ceylon.  Following the kill-shot, “[t]he little bait, whose only alarm has been caused by the report of the rifle, is now taken home by its doting mother for its matutinal banana.” 

Robley’s story, which first appeared in The Graphic (London), included nearly all of the basic elements of its later variants.

Sport in Ceylon — shooting a man-eating crocodile

Crocodiles abound in Ceylon, and in many places the natives will “salaam” in dread to the water. At Galle, in the southern province, a saurian was lately killed, whose stomach was found to contain two human skulls.  The crocodiles are very wary, and difficult to kill, and generally manage to sink themselves out of sight.

Our sketches are by Major-General H. G. Robley, who writes: – “My first represents the trail of a big saurian being discovered on a water-side bank. No. 2 refers to the arrangements at a neighboring village for bait, so as to get a sure shot. It is tedious work waiting for the man-eater to come out of the water, but a fat native child as a lure will make the monster speedily walk out of the aqueous lair. Contracting for the loan of a chubby infant, however, is a matter of some negotiation, and it is perhaps not to be wondered at the mammas occasionally object to their offspring being pegged down as food for a great crocodile; but there are always some parents to be found whose confidence in the skill of the British sportsman is unlimited.  No. 3 gives a view of the collapse of the man-eater, who, after viewing the tempting morsel tethered carefully to a bamboo near the water’s edge, makes a rush through the sedges.  The sportsman, hidden behind a bed of reeds, then fires, the bullet penetrates the heart, and the monster is dead in a moment.  The little bait, whose only alarm has been caused by the report of the rifle, is now taken home by its doting mother for its matutinal banana. The natives wait to get the musky flesh of the animal, and the sportsman secures the scaly skin and the massive head of porous bone as a trophy.”

The Graphic (London, England), January 21, 1888, page 54 (text) and 73 (images).

H. G. Robley

Thomas Maclauchlan, History of the Scottish Highlands, Highland Clans and Highland Regiments, Edinburgh, T. C. Jack, 1887, frontispiece.

Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley spent the final seven years of his career in Ceylon, where he would have had the opportunity to observe local crocodile hunting practices.  But he was also known as a contributor of military-humor cartoons to the British humor magazine, Punch, which raises the question of whether his contribution to The Graphic was serious reportage, or another example of military humor of the sort he submitted to Punch.[v]

In one of his cartoons, a peace-loving “Ferris Bueller” plays hooky.

Captain of Rural Corps (calling over the Roll). “George Hodge!” (No answer.) “George Hodge! – Where on Earth’s George Hodge?”

Voice from the Ranks. “Please, Sir, he’s turned dissenter, and says fighting’s wicked.

Punch, Volume 64, April 12, 1873, page 156 (the script ‘R’ in the corner signifies Robley[vi]).

In another, an officer volunteers to be taken prisoner to avoid risking his life in a fight.


Facetious Volunteer Sub. “Look here, Captain; I’m tired of this fun.  Do you mind looking after the men while I go and get taken prisoner?”

Punch, Volume 66, May 16, 1874, page 210.

In a similar vein, the “British sportsman” in Robley’s contribution to The Graphic hides “behind a bed of reeds” with a rifle while an unarmed “chubby infant” sits out in the open near crocodile-infested waters because its parents’ “confidence in the skill of the British sportsman is unlimited.” 

Serious, or hilarious?

Harper’s Bazar

Whether serious or not, Robley’s story spawned a string of imitators, each one embellishing the story with even more sensational details, many of them using the same images or poor reproductions. 

Two weeks after its initial appearance in The Graphic, a nearly identical story appeared in Harper’s Bazar, a weekly magazine with a large, national distribution in the United States.  The Harper’s article used all three of the images from The Graphic, one of them cropped to fit in a different arrangement.  The accompanying text borrowed heavily from Robley’s original, while adding a few more dramatic elements.  For example, Harper’s expanded Robley’s description of the “chubby infants” into “chubby, rice-distended, squally infants.”  Harper’s also dramatized the death of the crocodile, which Robley simply described as, “The sportsman, hidden behind a bed of reeds, then fires, the bullet penetrates the heart, and the monster is dead in a moment.”

As the bullet penetrates the heart this enormous rudder flaps convulsively, the pale fishy eyes are covered with the film of death, the tongueless cavern of a mouth (the gullet of which is closed with a valve) shuts with pistol-like snap, the two front lower-jaw tooth (which are longer than the rest) now show their points through corresponding holes in the snout. (This makes the difference between the crocodile and the alligator).

Harper’s Bazar, Volume 21, Number 5, February 4, 1888, page 76.[vii]

Harper’s omitted the detail about the parents’ “unlimited” confidence in the British sportsman; it was, after all, an American magazine.

American Newspapers

Less than a week after Harper’s carried its version, yet another knock-off appeared, introducing what would become recurring themes in later versions, that the crocodile is “lazy,” suffers from “ennui,” but can be roused immediately when tempted by a “dark brown infant.”  This version begins with an introduction that pokes fun at the proliferation of American classified advertisements for anything under the sun, with colorful musings about what a classified ad for Ceylonese babies might look – “if newspapers abounded in Ceylon as much as crocodiles do,” but since newspapers didn’t abound in Ceylon, hunters were limited to “personal solicitation,” a phrase that in one form or another appears in numerous, later versions of the story.

If newspapers abounded in Ceylon as much as crocodiles do, advertisements worded like the foregoing would be common in their want columns.  As it is, the English crocodile hunter has to secure his baby by personal solicitation.  He is often successful for Ceylon parents, as a rule, have unbounded confidence in the hunters, and will rent their babies out to e used as crocodile bait for a small consideration.

Ceylon crocodiles suffer greatly from ennui.  They prefer to lie quite still, soothed by the sun’s glittering rays, and while away their lazy lives in meditation.  But when a dark brown infant with curling toes sits on a bank and blinks its eyes at them, they throw off their cloak of laziness and make their preparations for a delicate morsel of Ceylonese baby humanity.  When the crocodile gets about half way up the bank the hunter, concealed behind some reeds, opens up fire, and the hungry crocodile has his appetite and life taken away at the same time.  The sportsman secures the skin and head of the crocodile, and the rest of the carcass the natives make use of.

The Owensboro Messenger (Owensboro, Kentucky), February 10, 1888, page 3.

This version would ultimately appear in hundreds of newspapers throughout the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.  The story would later boomerang back to the United States, with slight variations.

“Decoy” - The Golden Argosy

Two months after Robley’s original appeared in The Graphic, a second popular American magazine with national distribution published a short story apparently based on the original.  Captain Henry F. Harrison’s story, “Decoy,” appeared in the March 24, 1888 issue of The Golden Argosy, an adventure magazine targeting young boys. 

Henry F. Harrison was a frequent contributor to The Golden Argosy, but does not seem to have published anything under that name elsewhere; perhaps it was a pseudonym.  At the time, a story under his name appeared in nearly every issue of the magazine.  He claimed to come from a family of sailors going back two hundred years.  Some of his stories were styled as his father’s stories, some as his grandfather’s. 

 “Decoy,” Captain Henry F. Harrison, The Golden Argosy, Volume 6, Number 17 (Whole Number 277), March 24, 1888, page 268.

“Decoy” was written in first-person, as though it actually happened to him.  “Decoy” was accompanied by the original image from The Graphic showing the crocodile being shot.  The Golden Argosy used a second one of Robley’s images (the hunter bargaining with parents) a few weeks later, in another story by Harrison, but in a completely different context and meaning.[viii] 

“Two Queer Adventures,” Captain Henry F. Harrison, Golden Argosy, Volume 6, Number 20 (Whole Number 280), page 316. Caption – In Another Moment the Entire Family Came Out to Meet Me.

Harrison’s story, “Decoy,” differs from most of the crocodile hunting stories in that the baby-baiting crocodile hunting technique is practiced by the locals, not by a British colonial.  The American protagonist is in East India hoping to observe a native crocodile hunt.  On his way to the hunt, he sees a toddler tied to a stake near the river.  He sees a crocodile approaching the child and shoots it to save the child.  He is then set-upon by a number of locals, angry that he had disturbed their hunt.  They had hoped to take the crocodile alive, and had used the baby to attract the crocodile. 

The Captain, angry that locals had endangered the child, takes it back to the village hoping to reunite it with its parents, but without luck.  “No one pretended to know anything about it.  The brute had probably bought the baby for a few rupees of some of the very poorest and most degraded of the natives, and they of course would not let themselves be known.  The man whom I employed as an interpreter told me very cooly that I mustn’t think anything of such little affairs – they were common enough in this part of India.” 

The American, disgusted with the low value the locals placed on human life, takes the child into his own custody, raising him as his own – well, not exactly as his own, but as his ward living as a close member of his family circle.  He names the boy, “Decoy.”  Years later, when they are back in India, the local hunter whose hunt the American had ruined years earlier recognizes him and attacks him; his ward, Decoy, reacts and saves his guardians life, repaying the favor of many years before.  It’s all very neat and tidy, and coming so soon after the basic crocodile-hunting appeared, seems more like a fictionalized version of the original than fact.

New Zealand

When newspapers in New Zealand picked up the American newspaper version nearly verbatim, they added the detail that the story had appeared in the Ceylon Catholic Messenger.  But once again, the story, at least as it is said to have appeared in Ceylon, did not suggest that such classified ads actually did exist in Ceylon, it merely imagined what they would like if they were to exist.

It is not clear whether the American article had actually appeared in the Ceylon Catholic Messenger or not, but the authors of an academic paper with a survey of news accounts of crocodile hunting in Ceylon (including a Sri Lanka-based herpetologist)[ix] failed to find the story. 

The New Zealand version found its way back to the United States, where it appeared in dozens of newspapers.  The reference to its purported appearance in a Ceylon publication may have served to lend the new version a gloss of legitimacy.


If mothers in general shared the nerve exhibited by mothers in Ceylon, trouble would be spared in many a household: “Babies wanted for crocodile bait.  Will be returned alive.”  If newspapers abounded in Ceylon as much as crocodiles do, (says the “Ceylon Catholic Messenger”), advertisements worded like the foregoing would be common in their want columns.  As it is, the English crocodile hunter has to secure his baby by personal solicitation.

Ashburton Guardian (Ashburton, New Zealand), September 14, 1889, page 2. 

If mothers in general shared the nerve exhibited by mothers in Ceylon, trouble would be spared in many a household: “Babies wanted for crocodile bait.  Will be returned alive,” says the New Zealand Tablet.  If newspapers abounded in Ceylon as much as crocodiles do, says the Ceylon Catholic Messenger, advertisements worded like the foregoing would be common in their want columns.  As it is, the English crocodile hunter has to secure his baby by personal solicitation.

Omaha Bee (Omaha, Nebraska), March 9, 1890, page 23.


The imagined classified ad versions of the story seem to have inspired another writer to take it one step further, and claiming that he had actually seen such advertisements in Ceylon.  The narrator, Richard Kinghorn, described his own crocodile hunts in India with the familiar language of “lazy” crocodiles suffering from “ennui.”

“When I first saw this advertisement in a Ceylon newspaper,” said Richard Kinghorn, a guest at the Richelieu, “I thought it was a joke.  Afterwards I learned that it was by this means that the crocodile hunters secured their bait.  It is no trouble for an English crocodile hunter to get these little children.  The Ceylon parents have full confidence in Englishmen, and they will rent out their babies to be used for crocodile bait for a small sum.

“The Ceylon crocodiles are lazier than any other and are harder to get.  They lie for hours perfectly motionless, basking in the sun.  Hardly anything can stir them.  But when tempted by a fat Ceylon baby placed on the banks of the stream they shake off their ennui and their mouths water for a delicate morsel of brown baby.  The crocodile gathers himself together and starts out for the infant.  When he gets about half way up the bank the hunter, concealed behind some reeds, opens fire and gets his game. Then the baby is taken home to its loving parents, to be used for the same purpose the next day.  The sportsman secures the skin and the head of the crocodile and the natives are given the rest of the carcass. 

I’ve shot everything from the little prairie dogs to grizzly bears, but for excitement crocodile shooting with babies for bait is out of sight.”

Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1890, page 8; The Weekly Iberville South (Plaquemine, Louisiana), April 27, 1895, page 4.

It’s not clear whether Richard Kinghorn was an actual person or not.  A prominent businessman and sportsman from Quebec named Richard Scobell Kinghorn died in Montreal at the age of 62[x], but there is no explicit connection between the two, aside from the coincidence of the name.  It’s possible, just possible, that the name is as phony as the story. 

Kinghorn’s version appeared in dozens of newspapers in the United States in 1890.  When the same version popped up a few years later in alligator country, Plaquemine, Louisiana, the paper (significantly perhaps) made no mention of any similarity to alligator hunting practices in the American South.



On May 27, 1891, almost a year to the day after Kinghorn reportedly told his croc story at the Richelieu Hotel in Chicago, an “English traveler” identified as V. M. Atkinson is said to have told a similar croc story at the Leland Hotel in Chicago.  But this time, the story was moved Egypt, and insead of locally leased babies, kidnapped Jewish babies imported from Russia were supposedly used as bait.   

Other details of the story are more-or-less the same as earlier versions, except that the Egyptian hunters were not expert marksmen like the renowned British hunters in Ceylon or India; sometimes they missed.

Chicago, May 27. V. M. Atkinson, an English traveler who was at the Leland yesterday, has recently visited Moscow and other Russian cities. He declares that the Jews are persecuted most cruelly, and portrays a riot where a dozen Jewish infants were torn from their mothers’ arms and thrown into the streets.  Mr. Atkinson says that every stranger coming to Moscow who has a long nose is obliged to go before the Russian authorities and prove that he is not a Jew.  It appears that the Jews cannot leave Moscow until they have signed a document stating that they have no pecuniary obligations in the city.  Mr. Atkinson states that London philanthropists are endeavoring to get the Jews to emigrate to the Arabian shores of the Red sea, and negotiations have been begun with the Egyptian government.  

A Shockingly Inhuman-Traffic.

“You have no Idea of the cruelty inflicted upon the poorer classes of the Jews,” related the traveler.  “For a year or so hundreds of babies have been stolen and shipped to various ports on the Nile to be used as bait by the crocodile hunters.  Of course they are not all eaten up by the animals, but now and then one is caught.  The crocodile hunters place a baby on the shores of the stream, and presently the lazy animals come out of their beds after the infant. When the crocodiles get near the little one, and within shooting range of the hunters, who are concealed in the bushes, they are shot.  The little babes serve as a bait to bring the animals on the bank.  

The Government Runs the Press.

“By this means it is possible to get many animals that could not be reached in any other way.  It has been said that the hunters have let the crocodiles approach too near the babes before firing, and their first shot being ineffectual the little one was eaten up.  At any rate they are used for Bait.  You think it queer that a wholesale kidnapping of babies is not noticed in the newspapers.  That is not strange. You don't know Russia. The papers there can only print what the government approves of.  If an editor gets any news that is sensational he must first submit it to some official before using it.  That is Russia.”

The Racine Daily Journal (Racine, Wisconsin), May 27, 1891, page 1.

Like the Kinghorn version, the Atkinson variant may have first appeared in a Chicago newspaper.  Most of the newspapers repeating the story list Chicago as its place of origin without naming the newspaper.  On its earliest known date of publication, May 27, 1891, it appeared in several newspapers in the surrounding states of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, so a Chicago origin is not far-fetched.  The story would eventually appear in dozens of newspapers across the United States during every month from May through September, and at least once in December.

Although the switch from Ceylon to kidnapped Russian babies in Egypt may seem random, it may have been playing off real current events.  In May of 1891, Russian Jews had already been widely covered in the news for actual atrocities, even before publication of Atkinson’s croc story.

Chicago Tribune, April 23, 1891, page 5.
Chicago Tribune, May 26, 1891, page 5.

It is almost as though a penny-a-line “journalist” checked their annual calendar of story ideas and combined it with current events to create a more sensationalistic story; one which is believable precisely because of the brutal nature of the actual atrocities associated with it, even if the fictional details are otherwise improbable and almost certainly untrue. 

Similarly, proponents of the literal truth of the Chipley, Florida “alligator bait” more than a century later find willing believers because the real history of slavery, failed Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Lynch Law make it seem plausible, despite the lack of actual documentary evidence and obvious holes in what little “evidence” there is.  But if true history is so compelling, promoting false histories would not seem to serve any legitimate purpose.  It may even undermine whatever rhetorical points may be scored by circulating the rumor, due to a possible loss of credibility caused by championing fictional embellishments which are improbable and almost certainly untrue.

In another time and place, the crock about kidnapped Russian babies would make great click bait, even if it was not evidence of actual human alligator bait.

Loud Baby or a “Sulker”

A few years later, an alleged “first-person” account appeared in the New York Sun, and was picked up by dozens of other newspapers across the United States.  An unnamed “ex-officer of the British army” is said to have described the “great sport in India going out after crocodiles with Hindoo babies for bait.”  The story contains all of the familiar elements of the story, while adding fresh details that add life to the story; a discussion about the relative value of a loud baby over a “sulker,” and the “considerate sportsman’s” use of a “nursing bottle, which is part of a crocodile hunter’s equipment.”  He also claims to have tried, unsuccessfully, to rent babies for an alligator hunt in Florida; “folks who owned babies down there didn’t seem to enter into the spirit of the sport.”

“We used to have great sport in India going out after crocodiles with Hindoo babies for bait,” said an ex-officer of the British army.  “The baby wasn’t baited on a hook like a minnow or a fish worm, but simply secured on the river bank so that it couldn’t creep or toddle away or tumble into the river.  Some babies don’t like their being made crocodile bait of, but that fact increased their value to the sportsman, for then they yelled and made a great noise, which was just what the crocodiles were waiting to hear, and they’d come hurrying from all directions to have a chance at the babies.

“Where did we get these babies for bait?  From their mothers.  All the fellow who wanted to go crocodiling had to do was to noise abroad his intention, and it wasn’t long before native women would flock in with their babies to be rented out for bait.  The ruling price per head for the young heathen was about 6 cents per day.  Some mothers required a guarantee that the offspring should be returned safe and sound, but most of them exacted no such agreement.  The babies were brought back all right, as a rule, but once in a while some sportsman was a trifle slow with his rifle, or made a bad shot, and the crocodile got away with the bait, but that didn’t’ happen often.

“If your bait is in good form for crocodiling, and starts in with protesting yells, you may expect to get your corocodile very soon, but if the baby proves to be what is known as a sulker and takes the situation in quietness and patience, you may have to wait some time before you get a shot.  I used to have the option on an Indian baby that was the most killing bait for crocodiles in all that part of India.  I killed more than one hundred crocodiles with that youngster as a lure before she outgrew her usefulness.  She had the most persistent and far-reaching yell I ever heard come out of mortal being and no crocodile could resist it.  She was a real siren in luring the reptiles to their fate, and I was sorry to see her grow and get too big for bait and have to give her up.  That dusky infant always commanded premiums in market and her mother was very proud of her indeed.

. . . A considerate sportsman, though, will not work his baby more than fifteen minutes at a time.  Then he will have his native servant soothe it and refresh it from a nursing bottle, which is part of a crocodile hunter’s equipment.  I have killed six crocodiles over that favorite baby lure of mine in less than a quarter of an hour.

“I was in Florida a year or so ago, and tried to hire a baby to experiment with for alligators after the method in India, but folks who owned babies down there didn’t seem to enter into the spirit of the sport, and I couldn’t get one.  I compromised on a rather lively complaining dog.  He was a success, and I had quite a lot of fun, although the sport was a good deal tamer than it would have been if I had only had a baby for bait.”

New York Sun, June 24, 1894, page 24.

Pulitzer - Want Ads Revisited

In 1896, a new version of the Want Ad variant of the story appeared in more than a dozen newspapers in various forms, sometimes without the want ads and sometimes with an alternate image.  The story must be true, as the copywriter assured the reader that the supposed want ads were made, “in all seriousness.” 

The earliest example of this new version appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, one of the newspapers, along with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, that pioneered the sensational style of news reporting known as “yellow journalism.” 

Although the subject matter of hunting crocodiles with babies as bait might otherwise seem disturbing, the seriousness with which to take this version of the story may be informed by other articles sharing space on the same page.  There’s that one about a tussle over possession of a “petrified man,” between a team of museum archeologists and the son of a Canadian Voyageur named Le Count who “literally” turned to stone after being shot in the chest by an insane Englishman.  

The New York World, August 16, 1896, page 23.

It must be true, as the copywriter assured the reader that the story could “be proven by the elder son of Le Count, who lives at Medicine Lake.”

And then there’s the one about the man who “hangs himself for amusement” at Parisian cafes in Montmartre for fourteen hours a day.  It was perfectly safe.  The copywriter assured the reader that an attending physician monitored his pulse, although he did cut the initial attempt short at ninety-seven hours because, “to hang longer would be extremely dangerous.”

It was 9 o’clock Sunday evening when Durand first hanged himself.  The café was crowded.  He stepped upon the ladder, calmly adjusted the noose and swung off into space.  His face soon began to grow red, then purple, and was soon almost black.  His eyes were closed and the body swung listlessly to and fro as if life were extinct. . . .

For ninety-seven hours Durand hung by the neck in the café-concert, while the patrons indulged in rude jests about him and the singers squalled from the little stage at the end of the room.  At the end of that time the physician watching him cut the rope, saying that to hang longer would be extremely dangerous.

After resting a few hours Durand seemed no worse for his experience, and since then he has been hanging himself for fourteen hours each day.

The New York World, August 16, 1896, page 23.

Pulitzer’s version of the story revisits familiar themes from other crocodile hunting stories, fat babies, loud babies, accurate hunters, trusting parents, and babies more startled by gunfire than by the approaching, open maw of a crocodile.  A good editor might have equally startled by the fact that the copywriter confused a crocodile for an alligator in the first paragraph.  The New York World’s version differs from other versions, however, in that the hunter was portrayed as ethnic Ceylonese rather than British.

Crocodiles like to eat babies – not their own awkward offspring, but human darlings, fat and dimpled.  Skinny babies are not adapted to an alligator’s palate and are passed by with scorn.  But an alligator will crawl a long distance for a fat one.

This liking of the saurian for babies is used by hunters in Ceylon to lure the reptiles to death.  A nice, fat baby is tied by the leg to a stake near some pond or lagoon where crocodiles abound.  Soon the child begins crying and the sound attracts the crocodiles within hearing distance.  They start out immediately for the wailing infant. . . .


A miss would mean death for the baby, but the hunters are expert shots and at the short distance at which they fire a miss is next to impossible.  As a rule the sound of the firearm scares the baby worse than the presence of the crocodile’s jaws and the rows of sharp and glistening teeth, but after being shot over a few times the child takes the shooting as a matter of course and pays little attention to it. 

So expert are many of the hunters that they do not shoot the alligator until it has approached to within a few feet of the baby.  Then, with but a few inches of space between the muzzle of the rifle and the eye of the alligator, the shot is fired that ends the existence of the reptile and saves the child.

WANTED – Some very fat children as bait for crocodile hunting; we guarantee to return them safe and sound to the homes of the parents.  Apply to So and So.

This advertisement, which is inserted in all seriousness, makes its appearance regularly in the Ceylon papers and is said to be productive of good results.  But those Ceylonese mothers must be different from most mothers, or else they have a high opinion of the ability and skill of the men who hunt crocodiles with human bait.

The New York World, August 16, 1896, page 23.

Image accompanying reprint of The New York World story, as it appeared in The Monroeville Breeze (Monroeville, Indiana), September 24, 1896, page 3.


Another crocodile-hunting story went viral (by turn-of-the-century standards) about ten years later.  This time it was written as a first-person anecdote related by a sailor, and generally written in a Cockney-esque dialect.  This version appeared in hundreds of newspapers between 1907 and 1916, and contained all of the standard elements of the story, including lazy crocodiles, naked babies, and sure-shots.  But this time, instead of haggling with the parents, there was a set price, 50 cents (or 2 shillings) a day, with some parents earning as much as 2 dollars (or 8 dollars) a week.  Why not, it wasn’t dangerous.

“Of course,” the sailor went on,” the thing ain’t as cruel as it sounds.  No harm ever comes to the babies, or else, o’course, their mothers would not rent ‘em.  The kids is simply  sot on the soft mud bank of a crocodile stream, and the hunter lays hid near them, a sure protection.

“The crocodile is lazy.  He basks in the sun in midstream.  Nothin’ will draw him in to shore, where ye can pot him.  But set a little fat naked baby on the bank and the crocodile soon rouses up.  In he comes, a greedy look in his dull eyes, and then ye open fire.

“I have got as many as four crocodiles with one baby in a morning’s fishin’.  Some Cingalese women wot lives near good crocodile streams make as much as two dollars a week reg’lar out o’ rentin’ their babies for crocodile bait.

The Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), October 6, 1907, page 18.

Hearst’s “French Traveller”

At least one further variant of Robley’s original crocodile-hunting story appeared before T. W. Villiers’ frequently-cited “news” item of 1923.  It appeared in William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner (and at least one other newspaper[xi]) in 1908.  Hearst’s version moves the action from the Indian Sub-Continent and neighboring islands to Sudan in Northern Africa; but the song remained the same.  Based on a purported eye-witness account by a “French traveler,” and supported by several photographs illustrating the action, one might imagine Hearst paraphrasing himself a decade earlier, “you furnish the pictures; I’ll furnish the story.” 

Hearst’s account revisits most of the standard themes, but with some new details.  Instead of tying the baby up next to the water, it is placed fifty yards away, so that the crocodile leaves the water, making it easier to catch.  And this time it’s the locals using their own babies as bait, not some “Great White Hunter,” and instead of rifles they used spears, and instead of infallible hunters the babies sometimes die, which (purportedly) “causes little excitement in a Soudanese community, where human life is held cheap.”

Aside from its being the umpteenth version of the same old story, and suffering from Hearst’s reputation for sensationalism, the story, as written and portrayed in images, has other problems.  The one photograph of the supposed crocodile hunt bears no resemblance to the description of the hunt as described; no baby, no spears in hand, and at the water’s edge, not forty yards inland.

It is extremely difficult to catch the crocodile by any sort of bait or trap, for he is highly suspicious, and as soon as he detects the handiwork of man he makes for the water.

“There is one bait, however, that the crocodile can never resist, and that is a live human baby.  As soon as he hears the squeals of a child he throws caution to the winds and dashes for his tender prey.  Shocking as it must appear, the African natives take advantage of this fact, and frequently use their own babies as bait for crocodiles.

The natives tie a large, vigorous baby to a stake at a distance of fifty yards or so from the river.  They then go a short distance away and hide themselves behind bushes, rocks and other obstacles.  The poor baby, finding himself left alone and tied up, naturally, begins to cry, He has been chosen on account of his size and vigorous lung-power and his cries are certain to be heard by any crocodile within a mile or so.

The first crocodile who hears the cries dashes out of the water and comes running up the ban, his mouth watering at the thought of the meal that awaits him.  The baby has been purposely tied at a greater distance from the water than the crocodile is accustomed to venture, but in his ravenous desire for human flesh he forgets all about this.

Soon the crocodile arrives within five or ten yards of the screaming baby.  A snap of his cruel jaws will swallow the baby as easily as a man would swallow a cherry.  His fierce little eyes glitter with greediness.

Then the natives spring from their hiding place and attack the crocodile with their spears.  With wonderful dexterity they avoid the snapping of the huge jaws and the lashing of the great tail that would knock down a horse.  Working in unison, they turn the crocodile on his back and then plunge their spears through the soft skin of the underbody into his heart and lungs.

Sometimes, owing to the fact that a number of crocodiles come at once, or to some other accident, the poor baby is lost, but this accident causes little excitement in a Soudanese community, where human life is held cheap.

San Francisco Examiner, October 18, 1908, American Magazine Section; Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana), February 11, 1909, page 2.

The details of tying up the bait far from the water and using hand-held weapons to subdue the crocodile could easily have been borrowed from a more plausible account of an alligator hunt that appeared in the Chicago Inter-Ocean, the New York Sun and several other newspapers nearly a decade earlier, illustrating how a newspaper copywriter might cobble-together elements from different stories to craft their own version of an earlier hoax.  And the Chicago Inter-Ocean article itself is nearly identical to an article first published in the Chicago Times another decade earlier, in 1890, further illustrating how “journalists” of the time repackaged and repurposed old content as new, making it difficult at times to sort out fact from fiction.

In an article dateline Magnolia Plantation, North Carolina, August 7, 1900, a “special correspondent” of the Chicago Inter-Ocean described an alligator hunt he witnessed on the Waucamaw River (he described it as the Waccamucca) near the South Carolina border.  In an article published in February 1890, a “correspondent of the Chicago Times” gave an account of an alligator hunt he witnessed on the “Waccamucca River” near Alligator Swamp, North Carolina.[xii]  

It is not clear precisely where the story took place.  There is no “Waccamucca River” on current maps.  However, the Alligator Swamp is an actual location in Waccamaw, North Carolina, and the nearby Waccamaw River flows into South Carolina, about twenty miles further south. 

In both accounts, the author is travelling with a companion (“Denton” in 1890, “Gregory” in 1900) and an African-American guide (“Caleb” in 1890) and (“Pete” in 1900), but in all other details the stories are identical.

The group is crossing the “Waccamucca” river on a ferry when they hear a loud commotion.  The ferryman, a black man named Joe, tells them that group of locals are trying to capture a large alligator that had recently eaten several pigs a calf. 

The group goes to investigate and finds a dozen men and boys who, like Hearst’s Sudanese crocodile hunters years later, are “armed with clubs, poles, and axes” and surrounding an alligator on open ground, about one hundred yards away from the water.  They had lured the alligator away from the water with a “half-grown puppy” tied “to a small tree about 200 yards from the water.”  Alligators, they explained, “are extremely fond of dog meat, and they will follow a dog far into the fields or swamp with the hope of catching him.”[xiii]   
The Lincoln Republican (Lincoln, Kansas), March 13, 1890, page 2.

Ten and twenty years after publication of the two Waccamucca alligator hunting stories, Hearst’s “French traveler” version moves the action to Sudan, replaces the dog with a baby, and substitutes spears with clubs, poles and axes.  Fifteen years after Hearst’s version, T. W. Villiers moved the action to Florida, swapped out the crocodile for an alligator, and instead of tying the baby far enough from shore to expose the alligator, placed the baby in shallow water far enough from deep water to force the alligator “above the surface, wading toward the ‘bait’ with his head and forequarters well ex-posed.”  But the change in distance makes sense in context, if Villiers’ story is to be given any credence, because Florida marksmen “never miss” and do not need to be as far from the water as people hunting with spears or clubs, poles and axes.

The dramatic elements of Villiers’ 1923 version were also essentially unchanged from the Robley’s original 1888 “crocodile bait” story; a hunter negotiates with parents, the parents place an irrational trust in expert skill of the hunter, the babies are best used naked and fat babies, crocodiles and alligators are generally lazy and difficult to find, but have an irrepressible appetite for babies (sometimes a specific appetite for black babies over white), and the hunter is portrayed as infallible, never missing a shot.  But even if Robley’s story is responsible for launching a string of imitators, his story might have been influenced by a much older acount about crocodile hunting in Egypt

Benoit de Maillet was a French diplomat and naturalist who spent sixteen years as the French general consul in Egypt.  Maillet’s anonymous and posthumously published work, Telliamed (his name backwords), contained one of the earliest, pre-Darwinian scientific speculations about evolution and the origin of species.  But in 1735, three years before his death, he published a less controversial book about Egypt, which included a section about the dangers of crocodiles. 

Maillet described several common ways in which Egyptians hunted crocodiles.  They dug ditches and covered them with straw, for crocodiles to fall into; they set snares; or they baited hooks with a quarter of a pig or with bacon.  Maillet also described one unusual, more sensational method which may have been used only one time.

One of the inhabitants of the Upper Egypt took one of them, the last year, in a manner which deserves to be mentioned, both on account of its singularity, and the danger to which the man exposed himself.  He placed a very young boy, which he had, in the spot where the day before this animal had devoured a girl of fifteen, belonging to the governor of this place, who had promised a reward to any one that should bring him the crocodile dead or alive.  The man at the same time concealed himself very near the child, holding a large board in his hand, in readiness to execute his design.  As soon as he perceived the crocodile was got near the child, he pushed his board into the open mouth of the creature, upon which his sharp teeth, which cross each other, entered into this board with such violence that he could not disengage them, so that it was impossible for him after that to open his mouth.  The man immediately further secured his mouth, and by this means got the fifty crowns the governor promised to whosever could take this creature.

Benoit de Maillet, Description de l’Egypte, Paris, Quay des Augustins, 1735, Lettre Neuvieme, page 32-33 (English translation from Thomas Harmer, Observations on divers passages of Scripture, volume 4, London, J. Johnson, 1787, pages 288-289).

Maillet wrote in French, but English translations were available and kept alive for decades, frequently in books mixing scripture with first-hand observations of life in the Middle East in an attempt to reconcile biblical text with the real world.  In his book Observations on divers passages of Scripture, an English minister named Thomas Harmer used Maillet’s crocodile writings as support for his speculation that “crocodile” would be a better fit for “whale” in English translations of the bible.  In Book of Job, for example, he felt that “Am I a sea, or a whale,” would make more sense if translated as, “Am I a sea, or a crocodile.”  Further, he believed that that Maillet’s account of crocodile hunting was consistent with the idea that people in the region might “set a watch over” a crocodile, as suggested in Job.

Maillet’s story was kept alive through at least four printings of Harmer’s work, one every ten years after the original date of publication. The story stayed in circulation in similar books building on Harmer’s religious theories, like Richard J. Martin’s Sacred Zoology[xiv] and The Bible Expositor[xv] published by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and others, quoting Harmer extensively.

For more than 150 years stories about baiting crocodiles with young children were confined, for the most part, to obscure religious texts.  That all changed in 1888, with the publication of several similar “crocodile bait” stories in quick succession, which were then kept alive for decades in a string of copycat versions before culminating in perhaps its least plausible, but perhaps most believed, version, T. W. Villiers’ 1923 opus about supposed alligator hunting techniques in Chipley, Florida.

The Bronx Zoo

The second most frequently cited article cited as “evidence” of the truth of the rumors that children were used as alligator bait is a 1908 article describing the scene at the Bronx zoo when moving the alligators from their indoor winter quarters to their outdoor summer quarters. 

Their greedy eyes eagerly fixed on two plump pickaninnies, the crocodiles and alligators in the New York Zoological Garden were decoyed from their winter quarters in the reptile house to the cool and shady tank just outside the building.

It was the keeper’s idea to bait the saurians with pickaninnies, knowing as he did their epicurean fondness for the black man.  So as two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house among the throng of visitors he pressed them into service.

The two crocodiles and all but four of the twenty-five alligators wobbled out as quick as they could after the ebony mites, who darted around the tank just as the pursuing monsters fell with grunts of chagrin into the water, disappointed of their prey.

Washington Times (Washington DC), June 13, 1908, page 2.

Outdoor Alligator Pool, Popular Official Guide to the New York Zoological Park, 12th Edition, 1913.

The New York Times story about the same event, published the same day, paints a less controversial picture.

Equipped with poles and ropes, Head Keeper Snyder, assisted by Keeper Toomey and some men drawing moving cages, approached the reptile house at 2 o’clock and commenced their task.  The small alligators came out willingly into the cage after a prod from the long sticks, but the older ones had to be lassoed and yanked out by force.  As the unwieldly creatures, fighting every inch of the way, slid down the plank with a rush into the pond, the children screamed with delight, and wanted Snyder to do it all over again.

New York Times, June 13, 1908, page 1.

But even if the more sensational version is taken at face value, it does not necessarily portray anything as dangerous as those who promote the truth of the alligator bait rumor.  The children were said to have merely “run around the tank,” which may have referred to simply running around the outside of the enclosure, trying to get the alligators’ attention, in which case there would have been no danger. 

Detail of a Map of the Bronx Zoo showing the Reptile House and adjacent outdoor alligator pool, Guide to the Nature Treasures of New York City, New York City, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1917.

A report of lax safety practices at another New York zoo a decade earlier, however, may shed a light on the low level of concern zookeepers had for even their own safety.  When a chain used to pull up the drain plug from the alligator tank at the Central Park Zoo became disengaged from the plug, zookeepers were relegated to using buckets to empty the pool, which they did with alligators present.  Two keepers were inside the enclosure, while a third stood outside, “ready to empty the buckets of water as they were handed him.

Paddy stood near the edge of the tank with a pole in his hands to keep the alligators away.

The men were rapidly emptying the tank when some one in the crowd suddenly yelled for Paddy to “look out.”

Nick, the old eight-foot alligator, seeing that Paddy was not paying any attention to him, and thinking he would square an old account, made for the keeper with his jaws wide open.

As Paddy turned, after receiving the warning, he lost his balance and toppled over in the tank, disappearing from view.

Only for a second, however, did Paddy remain under water, he came up spluttering and kicking as if he were a dozen miles out in the ocean, with no prospects of rescue.

He was soon dragged out by Snyder and Shannon.

The New York World, July 12, 1896, page 33.

In any case, New York City was not the Deep South and the operators of the Bronx Zoo were not the Ku Klux Klan.  It seems far-fetched that any children would have intentionally been put in harm’s way, in the open, for all the world to see, during regular operating hours at the Bronx Zoo.

The Bronx Zoo story also smacks of a hoax of sorts, an elaborate joke, albeit one based on real events, playing off the then-common expression, “alligator bait,” an idiom generally referring to black children specifically, but sometimes applied more broadly to all African-Americans. 

Nature Fakirs

If many of the alligator and crocodile hunting stories were fakes, they were not the only stories about animals to be faked.  Fake stories about animal behavior were so widespread that there was an expression for people who generated the stories, “nature fakirs.”  The problem so offended President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a known adventurer and nature lover, that he embarked on a brief campaign against “nature fakirs,” a campaign that may have backfired.


The nature fakirs are having the time of their lives, and it begins to look like the whole country wants to enjoy the pastime so strenuously denounced by our strenuous President.

A few days after Mr. Roosevelt denounced the Dr. W. J. Long and Jack London stories, a fellow broke loose over at Meridian with a story about a motherly old cat having adopted a family of rats and was tenderly nursing the rodents.  Then the outbreak commenced.  Instead of the Presidential decree putting a quietus on the nature fakirs, and inspiring the fitting respect for his high office and lore as a game-killer seemed to demand, the opposite effect resulted.  Nature faking has become epidemic.

Jackson Daily News (Jackson, Mississippi), August 19, 1907, page 4.[xvi]

Some “nature fakir” stories exaggerated or invented animal behaviors that did not exist in nature; a monkey and parrot fought over the parrot’s profanity (the monkey had been reared in a Christian family), a dog caught a fish larger than himself and dragged it home to its master, a sparrow committed suicide by hanging himself with a thread from the rafters of an attic in which he was imprisoned and close to starving to death.  The stories about crocodiles and alligators “epicurean” preferences seem to fall into this category.

Other “nature fakirs” invented new animals with fanciful names and characteristics.  When Roosevelt went hunting in African after leaving office, for example, the “nature fakirs” named and described some of his quarry; the “dinga-linga-dinga, an animal which cannot live on land and instantly dies in water, its natural habitat being air at a temperature sufficiently hight to be called hot,” and the “blue-bearded bongo,” “hoogo,” “tukotuko, wauwau, the wombat and the cuscus.”[xvii]  Other examples include the “polar trout” of Glacier National Park, and the “Jackalope” of the American West, about which the Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog has previously written (see the earlier post, “Civic Pride through Taxidermy – a Many-Pronged History of Jackalopes”).

A “nature fakir” even invented a baby-eating monstrosity called the “Snolligoster,” that incorporated some of the elements of the standard crocodile hunting story in a more obviously fanciful, if equally distasteful story.


“Speaking of faunal naturalism,” said W. T. Cox, nephew of Palmer Cox and a well known nature fakir yesterday, “there are few animals that appeal to the lover of nature more than the Snolligoster. . . .

“This creature, which is found chiefly in the Neverglades of florida, resembles in its general contour an alligator with some remarkable differences.  It is covered with seal like fur, has neither legs nor fins, and has three, long, powerful tails which it revolves with inconceivable swiftness while rushing through the water, being impelled by the gyrations of its tails in much the manner of a boat by a screw propeller.

“On its back, it has like the Snuff-Wallopus, a long, horny spike, very sharp, upon which it impales its prey.  It prefers above all other edibles fat, young, wouthern pickaninnies for which it lies in wait along the banks of the marshes and bayous.  After spearing the screaming alligator bait, the Snolligoster digs a hole with its snout in which it places its prey and macerates it, into a sort of colored Mulligan stew. . . .

“Like the Jabberwock and the Frumious Bandersnatch, makes a plaintive, blood-curdling, groaning cry at night in the marshes which once heard is never forgotten.  This noise can be heard ten miles and fills the negroes with uncontrollable terror when they hear it.  The Snolligoster is also much feared by the lumber jacks and others who work in swamps.  The animal is fond of the cypress trees and is most frequent in the cypress swamps.”

Albuquerque Journal, May 5, 1909, page 6.

Alligator Bait

Beginning in 1898, the newly popular expression spawned hundreds of jokes, songs, postcards and knick-knacks riffing on the notion that black children were “alligator bait.”  The idiom itself, and the jokes, postcards and memorabilia is inspired, may have been in poor taste, in keeping with the dark humor and casually racist language and attitudes of the time, but they were not evidence of the actual use of babies as alligator bait.  Instead, they may have been merely an expression of the centuries old superstition that crocodiles (and later alligators, by extension) had particular dining preferences, preferring Muslims or black Africans over Christians or white Europeans.

The expression, “alligator bait,” dates to at least as early as 1885, but not necessarily as an overt racist epithet.  Some of the earliest examples suggest it was used as a playful taunt among black children themselves.

The expression seemed novel when heard on the streets of Cherryvale, Kansas in 1885.

The colored people seem to have no trouble to find hard names for each other.  “You great big black alligator bait!” is frequently heard among the colored boys of the city.

Cherryvale Bulletin (Cherryvale, Kansas), December 19, 1885, page 5.

In 1897, a racetrack reporter overheard the expression in an exchange between two stable hands during the opening weekend of Fort Erie Race Track in Fort Erie, Ontario, across the river from Buffalo, New York.

Interesting Scenes on the Fort Erie Track.
Visit With the Stable Boys.

All day Sunday these stable boys, most of them black, sat or lay in the sun dozing or else played craps and poked fun at each other and at the hundreds of visitors who walked about the stables, picking their way among the boys and dogs.

“I say, dar! Gimme a nickel, suh, and I’ll gib you good ting on de fust race tomorrow,” said one little atom of ebony who was lying in the sun in front of one of the stables.

“G’wan dar, yoh alligator bait,” said a swipe who was near.  “Yoh ain’t got no good ting, an yoh ain’t got no call to say yoh hab.”

Buffalo Courier, June 21, 1897, page 10.

Fifty years later, whatever connotations the expression may have carried in the interim may have faded away.  In the early 1950s, Dr. Marcus H. Boulware, an African-American speech pathologist who wrote articles for African-American newspapers encouraging people to learn “standard” English speech and who also published and sold pamphlets of current slang, noted without further comment that “alligator bait” was prison slang and student slang for bad food.[xviii]

But not everyone forgot.  When the Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Gibson, played minor league baseball in Columbus Georgia, one, particular fan called him “alligator bait.”  The word was apparently uncommon enough, at least in Omaha, Nebraska where Gibson grew up, that he initially found it amusing and laughed.  Later, heard that white kids would tie black kids to a rope as bait for hunting alligators, he realized it was an insult.[xix]  The rumor may not have been true, but the expression had come to be used as a racial epithet, as evidenced by this photograph from an anti-segregation protest in Texas in 1956.


The Gazette (Montreal, Canada), September 1, 1956, page 1.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the earliest, widely circulated “alligator bait” joke, which appeared in hundreds of newspapers, did not refer to black children at all, but to white Anglophiles with a sense of fashion then referred to by the newly minted word, “Dude.”

“I suppose you have heard of our dudes, Miss Clarwa?” observed a New York swell to a Jacksonville girl.

“Oh, yes,” she answered, “they are becoming very popular in Florida.  We use them for alligator bait.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1883, page 4.

And “dudes” were not the only white people proverbially fed to the alligators. 

A backwoods-y description of the Battle of New Orleans remembered reducing the British invaders to “food for alligators.”

And’twas on Gineral Jackson the British turned their backs on at the battle of New-Orleans” . . . and he did smash Gineral Packingham . . . right down into the Mississippi swamp, food for alligators; and the rest they run away to save their bakin.

The Raleigh Register (Raleigh, North Carolina), November 13, 1827, page 1.

In 1886, a widely circulated item recommended that a United States Senator from Florida, Charles W. Jones, be used as “alligator bait” for shirking his duties with an extended vacation in Canada and Detroit, Michigan, in what was rumored to have been some romantic entanglement.

Senator Jones is reported to have arrived at the conclusion that the merry maiden of Detroit for whom he has pined so long was not made for him, and has decided to return to the everglades of Florida.  The old dotard has succeeded in making an eleven story ass of himself and his constituents should utilize his frame for alligator bait. 

Leavenworth Times (Kansas), October 1, 1886, page 2.

In 1893, a critic believed that the Secretary of the Interior, Hoke Smith of Georgia (who later served as Governor of Georgia) was not good enough to be used as “alligator bait” after packing the pension examining board with all Democrats and no Republicans, which was believed would result in less favorable decisions for Union soldiers who had served in the Civil War.

Oh southern patriotism! Thou art a jewel – if you are a specimen.  [Hoke Smith] wouldn’t make good alligator bait; the hungriest crocodile in the swamps of “Jawja” wouldn’t nibble at your erratic carcass.

Council Grove Republican (Council Grove, Kansas), August 25, 1893, page 4.

When a group of boys (presumably white; under the journalistic standards of the day their race would generally be mentioned if they weren’t) from Topeka, Kansas determined to make a Huck Finn-like trip down the Mississippi on a flatboat.  People skeptical of their chances for success joked that they might just become food for the alligators.

Six Topeka boys, who are willing to surrender themselves as alligator bait, are going to make a trip to New Orleans on a flat boat.  The craft is being built at Lawrence, from which place the start will be made.  It is expected that it will require two months to make the journey.

The Larned Eagle-Optic, August 24, 1894, page 1.  

Surprisingly, perhaps, the earliest Ceylon-style “alligator bait” story, told in language nearly indistinguishable from most of the earlier crocodile hunting stories, referred to renting “cracker” (poor southern white) babies.  The story appeared in more than a dozen newspapers.  In most cases, it was included as a portion of a a longer report on alligator hunting by United States soldiers returned from Cuba in the Spanish-American War, but sometimes as a stand-alone article describing the similarity between the "familiar" crocodile hunting techniques in Asia and Africa and those sometimes practiced in Florida.

Those who are up in crocodile lore are well acquainted with the fact that in Asia and Africa babies are rented for bait to crocodile hunters, but there are few, unless they have had the actual experience, who would believe that a similar practice was in vogue in the south of Florida.  It is a fact, however, as any experienced hunter will attest.

The alligator is like the crocodile in this respect.  He likes to eat babies, not his own awkward offspring, but nice human babies, fat and dimpled.  To obtain such a delicacy for his palate an alligator will travel far and risk much.  This fact is so well known that it has become the practice for alligator or crocodile hunters to use babies as bait to lure the reptiles to their death.

A nice, fat baby is rented for the occasion from the cracker mother to whom a half dollar is ample recompense for the risk that her child is to run.  The baby is then taken to the shore of some pond or river, where it is attached to a stake by means of a stout cord that has been tied around its waist, while the hunter conceals himself in the brushes or swamp grass near the place.  This method of treatment is usually too much for even the self possession of a cracker baby.  He is used to being neglected and even ill-treated, but being tethered to a stake then left alone is rather more than he is willing to stand, and he voices his indignation to the full extent of his lungs. . . .

The alligator has eyes only for the screaming and kicking child, and the hunter realizes how important is the position in which he has placed himself.  A miss would mean death for the baby, but, it is pleasing to record the fact, such misses are seldom made.  On the other hand, some of the hunters are such crack shots that they allow the monster to come within a few feet of his prey before they send the single shot that causes instant death, directly into his eye.

Some of the babies that are rented out as bait in the alligator regions of Florida have been “shot over” so many times that they do not mind the experience, but when a child has never baited a ‘gator before it is pretty thoroughly frightened when the ordeal is over.  As a rule, however, the sound of the firearms scares the baby worse than the presence of the monstrous jaws and the rows of sharp and glistening teeth, but with gentle handling after the alligator has been killed the youngster quickly recovers his normal condition of endless repose.

The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kansas), September 29, 1899, page 11 (See, "Did Crocodile Hunters Use Babies as Bait in India?," Janaki Lenin, September 8, 2016).

Sometimes, however, “alligator bait” was sometimes just that – alligator bait.  In the first cartoon, when a goat swallows a rope attached to alligator bait, the goat inadvertently becomes the bait.  In the second, two white guys are served up as alligator bait. 

Los Angeles Express, August 18, 1918.

And even when the notion of "alligator bait" (if not those words, specifically) was used figuratively, the "bait" was not always black.  Here, a white boy is dangled as bait in a political poster opposing votes in favor of the sale of liquor.
He wants the revenue--Is the game worth the bait? / Z.? Deball. , None. [Westerville, ohio: published by american issue publishing company, between 1915 and 1919] Photograph.

The expression, “alligator bait,” did not come into widespread use until 1898.  But the expression appears to have been based on a much older folk wisdom, old-wives’ tale or superstition, that alligators (and crocodiles before them) had specific preferences for one sort of person over another.  Superstitions along those lines had been circulating since at least the late-1700s.  The earliest reports of such believes came out of Egypt and “Western Ethiopia” (likely referring to the central west coast of Africa), and were as much about religion as race.

Alligator Preferences

 C. S. Sonnini

Charles Sigibert Sonnini was a French naval officer, engineer and naturalist who spent significant periods of time in South America, North Africa and the Middle East during the 1770s and 1880s.  His works include four volumes on reptiles and two travelogues, one of which covered his travels in upper and lower Egypt. 

In Egypt, Sonnini encountered Christians and Muslims who he says embraced a superstition that crocodiles preferred Muslims over Christians.  Christians, he said, took undue risk in the crocodile-infested waters, while Muslims steadfastly avoided them.  It’s possible, however, that it was only the Christians who were actually superstitious; the Muslims may have just used common sense.  Since Egyptian Christians and Muslims were presumably more-or-less racially indistinct, this superstition was apparently not based on race. 

These same Catholics, who concentrate the superstitions of various religions, entertain a belief, the effects of which must frequently prove fatal to themselves.  They are persuaded that the crocodile, connoisseur enough to distinguish the Christian from a Mussulman, only attacks the latter, but respects the worshipper of Christ.  They are so much prepossessed in favour of this opinion, that they bathe without fear in the waters of the Nile, where these huge and hideous lizards exist; whilst the Mahometans, whose credulity urges them to acknowledge a predilection miraculously occasioned, dare not expose themselves there. 

Charles Nicolas Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, Volume 3, London, John Stockdale, 1807, pages 256-257 Voyage dans la haute et basse Egypte, fait par ordre de l’ancien gouvernement, et contenant des observations de tous genres, Volume 3, Paris, F. Buisson, 1799, pages 293-294.

 Dufart, Buffon and Sonnini, Histoire Naturelle, Generale et Particuliere de Reptiles,  Paris, F. Dufart, Volume 2, Plate 27.

Sonnini also wrote that he had read an account of a similar belief in “Western Ethiopia” (likely in or near modern-day Cameroon) which was couched in mixed racial/religious terms.

I remember to have read something similar to this in the first volume of a description of Western Ethiopa.  The author affirms that the Christians have nothing to fear from crocodiles, but that they devour many of the negroes. 

Charles Nicolas Sigisbert Sonnini de Manoncourt, Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, Volume 3, London, John Stockdale, 1807, pages 257.

Sonnini’s use of “Western Ethiopia” likely referred to the central west coast of Africa, not to the western portions of the nation-state now known as Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa near the Indian Ocean and Red Sea on Africa’s east coast.  Brice Andrew’s Grand Gazetteer, or Topographic Dictionary (1759), for example, describes the “Camarones River” as lying between “Guinea” and “lower or western Ethiopia, in the Kingdom of Biafara, in Africk.”  A map of Africa in the Atlas Ortelius (1584) shows the Camarones River in the location of what is now called the Sanaga River in Cameroon, a region from which large numbers of people were enslaved and transported to the New World.

It is not clear whether Sonnini’s distinction between “Christians” and “negroes” was as ambiguous at the time as it may seem today.  Modern Cameroon is about 70% Christian, but it is not immediately apparent what the religious breakdown of Cameroon would have been when the source Sonnini read was written.  It is also unclear whether it was Sonnini himself who made the distinction between “Christians” and “negroes,” or whether he was mischaracterizing the source material.

If Sonnini did misquote an earlier reference, he was not the first and will not be the last person to make such a mistake.  Just a few years ago, for example, mischaracterized statements in an 1850 magazine piece citing Sonnini. contributor, David Emery, wrote in his 2017 piece debunking the myth of children being used as alligator bait in the United States, that Fraser’s Magazine has reported “as a scientific fact in 1850,” that crocodiles “prefer the flesh of a negro to any other delicacy.”[xx] 

I rate Emery’s statement on as false.  Like Sonnini a half-century early, Fraser’s Magazine simply reported the existence of the belief, not the factual basis of the purported preference.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Frasers Magazine also misconstrued Sonnini’s writings in another way; where Sonnini only implied that the Christians were white, Fraser’s was explicit.

. . there goes a saying, that they prefer the flesh of a negro to any other delicacy.  Sonnini, when he notices the belief above referred to, that the Christian bears a charmed life against the crocodile, while the Mussulman is devoured, states that he has read somewhere that in Western Africa the reptile not only prefers the negro, but never touches the white Christian.

 “Leaves from the Note-Book of a Naturalist, Part XII,” Fraser’s Magazine, Volume 42, December 1850, page 629.

Moreover, if Sonnini’s reporting was accurate, it suggests that the myth about crocodiles’ (and later alligators’) race-based dining preferences may have originated in Africa, in which case it could have been brought to the United States as part of the cultural traditions of enslaved Africans instead of, or in addition to, writings of European and American naturalists.

          American Myth

Regardless of where the myth started, or how it came into being, the old-wive’s tail or folk tradition that alligators preferred the flesh of black people over that of white people was in circulation among whites and blacks in the American South in the mid-1800s, but was not universally believed.

In 1863, a Union Army officer named Captain J. J. Greer published his accounts of experience he had behind enemy lines during the Civil War.  Greer was born in Virginia, but grew up primarily in Ohio.  A staunch Union man and abolitionist, he nevertheless harbored what he called “Virginia prejudices against the negroes.”  But while on the run in the swamps of Georgia after escaping confinement at Macon prison (he had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Shiloh), he encountered people whose kindness, intelligence and spirituality helped cure him of his old prejudices.  One of the people he encountered was a man he only knew as “Uncle,” who gave him food, shelter and assistance getting a “ride” on the Underground Railroad.

“Uncle” realized Greer was one of the prisoners who had recently escaped from Macon, because someone had come to his plantation the day before looking for bloodhounds to help hunt them down.  He told Greer to keep to the water if he were closely pursued by the hounds.

He assured us that the dogs were fearful of the alligators with which that river abounded, and that the slaves were taught that alligators would destroy only negroes and dogs.  He didn’t believe it himself, although his master thought he did.

Captain J. J. Geer, Beyond the lines: or a Yankee Prisoner Loose in Dixie, Philadelphia, J. W. Daughaday, 1863, page 128.

The myth was repeated innumerable times over the years, frequently in non-serious ways, making it unclear whether anyone actually ever believed it much in the first place.

From a satirical piece written in southern dialect:

N[-word] babies you must know, ar the favrit bait of the alligator.  A white man may go in swimmin’ and the alligator won’t tech him, for his skin is so white, an’ shines so that the alligator gets skeered and scoots away; but let see a n[-word] or a pickaninny in the water, an’ he jest slips up and licks um up like salt.

The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana), May 16, 1871, page 1.

Several years later, in an article sometimes cited as "evidence" of the practice, a fisherman claims to have been told that he could catch alligators using large hooks and young black children as bait.  Setting aside the common reputation of fishermen for stretching the truth, the article on its face does not suggest that anyone actually did so.  It even closes with the writer's suggestion that at least in this particular case, no one had and no one would catch the alligators in that manner, or any other manner.  It remains an open question whether this incident merely reflects a cruel, racist joke based on the myth of alligators preferring black babies, or actual evidence of the practice. 

He was told that the alligators could be caught on large hooks baited with pickaninnies, but none being handy, the experiment had to be abandoned and the alligators are, presumedly, happy yet.

The Brenham Weekly Banner (Brenham, Texas), June 21, 1878, page 2. 

A similar story using identical language about "large hooks baited with pickaninnies," also appeared in an article about fishing in Lee County, Florida, calling the veracity of the report into question. See, Janaki Lenin, My Husband and Other Animals 2: The Wildlife Adventure Continues (Westland 2012) (excerpted at "Did Crocodile Hunters Actually Use Babies as Bait in India?", May 22, 2018).
Another example of the myth published in the United States appeared in what purports to be a description of the Southern Press Association’s “annual meeting in Jacksonville, April 1,” published on April 1st, which was then, as now, April Fools’ Day.

Thomas Carnegie has invited the members of this association to pay a visit to Dungeness, his home in Cumberland Island, after which an alligator hunt is proposed.  Alligator hunting has become one of the regular occupations of the South and they are captured in larger numbers by fishing than by shooting. They are enticed by fresh pork, of which they are more fond than colored babies, the traditional bait.

The Inter-Ocean, April 1, 1885, page 12.

But not everyone agreed.  Someone suggested that race made no difference, at least not in the United States; in India, crocodiles preferred missionaries.

People with infant children from five-eighths to seven-eighths of a yard long are not particularly recommended to keep many alligators lying around loose, because there is nothing on a bill of fare that an alligator prefers to a baby.  As to whether it is white, dark, or even black, it appears to have no choice.  I am speaking of the United States alligator, as every boy knows that the Ganges alligators prefer fresh missionaries; in fact, missionaries in that section make better alligator bait than any other substance known.

The Sun (New York), January 18, 1873, page 4. 

On occasion, newspaper writers would take race-neutral reports of what appear to have been factual incidents and recast them in racial terms for comedic of political effect, playing off the old saw about alligators’ preferences. 

For example, a report out of North Carolina in 1851 described the capture of a large alligator, a “whopper.”

We understand that a “whopper” in the shape of an Alligator, was recently killed in Brown Marsh, Columbus County, which measured eighteen feet in length.

Our Columbus friends should preserve his hide, Barnum will doubtless be in want of a curiosity before long. – Wilmington Herald.

North-Carolinian (Fayetteville, North Carolina), June 7, 1851, page 1.

Newspapers hundreds of miles away appear to have embellished the race-neutral wire reports of Columbus County’s “whopper” with a cryptic remark and an ugly detail about the contents of the alligator’s stomach.

A Whopper. – An alligator, only eighteen feet long, was killed the other day in Columbus county, N. C. He had three little negro babies in his meat basket.  He was one of ‘em.

Camden Phenix (Camden, Alabama), June 10, 1851, page 2; Athens Post (Athens, Tennessee), June 27, 1851, page 3.

Similarly, what appears to have initially been a factual report of a tragic attack during attempts to capture a rare alligator in Norfolk, Virginia, turned into something uglier a few months later.

An Alligator Swallows a Negro – He is Captured.  The Norfolk Journal of yesterday has the following bit of exciting news: . . . At a turn in the canal [the alligator] ran among a crowd of negro boys who were swimming, and notwithstanding the heat of the pursuit, he took time to lay hold of one of them, which he managed to swallow as he continued his retreat. . . .  It is seldom one of these fierce creatures is seen so far north.

Richmond Dispatch, July 6, 1868, page 3.

A Democratic newspaper in Doylestown, Pennsylvania repurposed the basic facts of the event for political effect at a time when post-Civil War Reconstruction was still a hot topic, with Democrats opposing the extension of full civil rights radical reconstruction, with Republicans in favor. 

The Doylestown (Penn.) Democrat, edited by a bitter copperhead, who was defeated three years ago by Gen. Hartranft for Auditor General, commenting upon the fact that a negro had lately been swallowed by an alligator in Norfolk harbor, says: “Let us have “more alligators.”  A few Forrests[xxi] might answer the purpose, as they would discriminate in favor of colored democratic orators.

Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts), September 4, 1868, page 2.

Versions of this article appeared in dozens of newspapers.  A Democratic newspaper in Arkansas doubled down on the statement, putting words in the alligators’ mouths, “Let us have more n[-words].”  Many newspapers repeated this line, with most of them condemning the remark as an illustration of the cruelty of Democratic, largely Southern, attitudes on race.

We couldn’t speak this unfeelingly of the death of a dog.

Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), September 23, 1868, page 2.

The kindly feeling towards the negro, alluded to by Gen. Lee, sticks out strongly occasionally in Southern papers.  For instance, the Doylestown, Ky. [(sic)], Democrat, after relating how a negro was lately swallowed by an alligator in some Southern port, adds the pious aspiration, “Let us have more alligators.”

Burlington Free Press, September 10, 1868, page 2.

“Let us have peace,” said Grant.

“Let us have more alligators,” says the Democrat.

Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), September 5, 1868, page 2.

Although most of the political versions of the “whopper” story were critical of the underlying sentiment, at least one southern newspaper approved, tacking on an more ugly pun on Ulysses S. Grant’s line, “Let us have peace.”

When [the alligators] saw their companion swallowing the savory and odorous morsel they with one voice bellowed – “Let us have (a) piece.”

Fayetteville Weekly Democrat (Arkansas), October 10, 1868, page 2.

In a similar manner, a silly comment about alligators at the Central Park Zoo was turned into a vehicle for repeating the myth of alligator dining preferences.

The original comment, which was picked up by a few other papers, was race-neutral.

The tropical heat of the last few days has infused new life into the alligators in Central Park, New York.  The largest of which snaps its jaws with great unction whenever a fat baby looms in view.

The Boston Globe (Massachusetts), July 9, 1872, page 1.

Months later, some “clever” copywriter revised the old joke.  The new, race-conscious version appeared in more than a dozen newspapers.

The alligators in Central Park are accused of leering lovingly at the colored babies which are taken to see them.

Buffalo Morning Express, October 8, 1872, page 2.

          Actual Attacks

There are numerous reports of what appear to be actual alligator attacks on humans throughout the 1800s, with victims young, old, black and white.  Frequently, even if no black people were known to have been injured, the reporting nevertheless alludes  in some way to the myth of alligator dining preferences.

One of the earliest apparent allusions to the myth I came across was an account of the dissection of an alligator that had invaded a bath house in New Orleans in 1844.

The monster was immediately “roped in” and dragged ashore.  He measured but an inch or two short of nine feet in length.

Not knowing but this formidable creature might have made a hearty meal of some hapless n[-word] baby, he was forthwith dissected, and that too upon the regular principles of anatomy, when lo! No such things as n[-word] babies, dogs or young shoats were to be seen in his craw, but in their stead were one pine-know and sundry stones, which the poor starved creature had no doubt swallowed to keep soul and body together.

The Times-Picayune, August 27, 1844, page 2.

The author’s expectation that an alligator might have eaten a black baby may have been based on the belief that an alligator had a specific appetite for them, but not necessarily so.  It is possible that the living conditions of many black people in or near alligator infested waters placed them in harms’ way more frequently, resulting in more reports of attacks on them.  Young babies, toddlers or small children living in more ramshackle conditions, in or near swampy areas, might simply have been victims of circumstance, more so than any specific preferences (or supposed preferences) of the alligators.

Young babies were, in fact, reported as having been eaten by crocodiles from time to time.  But even so, some such reports were less plausible than others.  Like the “crocodile bait” and the “alligator bait” stories of 1888 and 1923, far-fetched “news” reports were frequently followed by skeptical replies.

In 1848, for example, a baby was reportedly swallowed whole – and removed alive hours later.  The story, which was picked up by several Midwestern newspapers, purports to have come out Tensas Parish, Louisiana, and includes a description of what some might consider surprising (for the time) cooperation between white and black bystanders to save the child.  It closes with stark reminder of what life could bring under slavery.

The child presently crept, it is supposed, close down to the water, when a large Alligator seized it, and disappeared beneath the turbid waters!  The other children, who were witnesses of the startling affair, instantly gave the alarm, and the adult population of the vicinity, black and white, were speedily on the spot.  Two or three boats were procured and manned by full crews, armed with axes, hand spikes, boat-hooks, &c., and a strong “alligator drag” thrown around the circuit enclosing the spot where his Alligatorship disappeared.

Several pulls came up “water hauls,” and after two hours’ toil and anxiety, the party concluded to give up the search.  One of the crowd proposed to make one more trial any how, which was accordingly done; - when, as luck would have it, an “old residenter,” upward of fourteen feet in length, was dragged to the shore.  His brains were dashed out as quick as wink, and his belly opened with a Bowie knife.  And lo and behold! There, sure enough, was the little “she n[-word],” still alive!  . . .

After this, I think our State can boast of producing a Jonah – or rather a Jonahess, as well as the old Scriptural world.  I have offered eight hundred dollars for the little critter, as soon as she is weaned.

The Portage Sentinel (Ravenna, Ohio), July 5, 1848, page 2.

In response, the New York Daily Herald expressed skepticism in an item picked up by numerous other newspapers.

An account of a negro child being swallowed by an alligator, retained in the beast’s stomach two hours, and then restored to light, health, and its mother’s milk, is given by a correspondent of the Cincinnati Dispatch, writing from Parish Tensas, La.  This is the last whale story[xxii].

New York Daily Herald, June 25, 1848, page 3.

A similar story out of Cuthbert, Georgia elicited a similar response twenty-five years later.  The writer, anticipating pushback, emphasized that this was “no newspaper lie, but was reported to us by a lawyer (and they never lie).”[xxiii]  The reassurances, such as they were, did not stop the doubters from doubting.

This story is told the Cuthbert Messenger by a lawyer, and therefore ought to be true; but we shall feel a little doubtful about it until that lawyer points out the creek the alligator crawled out of, or produces a lock of the little negro’s wool.[xxiv]

Interior Journal, April 21, 1876, page 1.

          Actual Bait

In an extensive search of several newspaper databases and online libraries, Early Sports ‘n’ Pop Culture History Blog identified only two plausible examples of black people used as “bait” during an alligator hunt, but in both cases it was done willingly, with consent and for a price.

In one case, first published in Detroit, described a hunting party in Mississippi who paid one of the guides or assistants 50 cents to swim out into alligator infested waters.  The story appeared in dozens of newspapers and at least two magazines over the next six months.

Baiting Alligators.

We went out to a Mississippi swamp accompanied by several negroes, and as the Colonel had promised two bits to the first black man who should sight an alligator there was a feeling of rivalry among them. The day was awful hot, and though alligators were as plentiful as frogs, we beat around for an hour without getting sight of one. . . .

As we finally gathered on a long spit of sand which projected out into the bayou for 200 feet, the Colonel called up one of the blacks and said:

“Come, Moses, if you’ll swim for it I’ll make the prize half a dollar.”

“Sure I won’t be cotched, massa?”

“Oh, there’s no danger.  Here are five rifles to protect you.”

. . . “He’s baiting ‘em!” whispered the Colonel.”

“But suppose one of the reptiles seizes him?”

“Then I’ll give the oney to his widow!”

The black swam out about thirty feet, kicking and splashing, and we walked slowly down the spit.  All of a sudden he screamed out and turned for the shore, and as we looked we saw from ten to fifteen great saurians making a bee line for him from as many different directions. Everybody opened fire, and the reports of rifles, the yells of the swimmers and the shouts of the other blacks made an exciting scene. . . .

When the battle ended two of the reptiles were floating belly up, and they were hauled ashore and left to be skinned.

“How did you feel?” I asked the swimmer when he had dressed.

“Didn’t have no feelings t’all, sah,” he replied.  “It was jist like my arms an’ legs war’ tryin’ to swim a piece of ice back yere.”

Detroit Free Press, September 1, 1885, page 3.

A similar story, from thirty years earlier, comes with a surprising twist; an enslaved child demanding money from his “master” – and getting it.

In the early-1850s, a famous British hunter named John Palliser toured the United States with his brother, from New York to New Orleans to Yellowstone, back to New Orleans, and back home again via Cuba.  His detailed account of his travels and hunting experiences includes an episode his brother witnessed at Lake Jefferson in Arkansas.

A young boy ran up him and the owner of a plantation, excited and out of breath.  He had been attacked by an alligator.  During their pursuit, it was proposed the send the boy in as “bait for the alligator.”  But surprisingly, perhaps, the threats of his “owner” could convince the boy to get in the water.  He eventually agreed, but only after being offered a dollar.  The story also appeared in at least eight newspapers in Scotland and England.

“Oh, massa! Terrible big alligator; him run at me.”

When we got him to speak a little more coherently it appeared that he had been bathing in the lake, and that an alligator had suddenly rushed at him, and when the boy, who luckily was not in deep water, had escaped by running to land, the brute had actually pursued him for some distance along the shore.  We instantly loaded our rifles and started off in quest of the monster, accompanied by the boy, who came as a guide. . . .

[A]s we waited a long time without any result, we proposed what certainly was a most nefarious project, namely, to make the boy strip off his clothes and start him into the water again as a bait for alligator. It was some time before we could get the boy to come round to our view of the matter: his objections to our plan were very strong, and his master’s threats failed completely, as indeed they generally did, for he was the kindest hearted man in the world to his negroes. 

At last I coaxed him with a bright new dollar.  This inducement prevailed over his fears, and the poor boy began to undress, his eyes all the while reverting alternately from the water to the dollar, and from the dollar to the water.  We told him we did not want him to go in so deep as to be obliged to swim.  “By golly, then, me go for the dollare;” and in he walked, but had hardly reached water higher than his knees, when crash went the reeds, and the little fellow cut in towards our place of concealment at an astonishing pace, pursued by the alligator. . . . [W]e nailed him with two capital shots through the head that effectually checked his career.  The triumph of the boy was complete.

John Pallisser, Rambles of a Hunter in the Prairies, London, John Murray, 1853, pages 60-61.

The comment about the “owner” being the “kindest hearted man in the world to his negroes” may come across as a bit too convenient, and may cast the rest of the story into doubt.  But the story was told by a British visitor for publication in Britain, not an American slaveowner with a motive to sanitize the incident for a domestic audience, so perhaps there would not have been much reason to shade the truth in favor of the “owner” in the first place.

Hunters not the Hunted

All of this focus on “alligator bait” may leave the mistaken impression that all alligator/crocodile-related literature paints the non-Anglo characters in the role of victim or dupe; far from it.  Beginning with Maillet’s Egyptian crocodile hunters, many, if not most, descriptions of crocodile and alligator hunts, the hunter or guide displaying the most courage is the Egyptian, West African, Indian, Sri Lankan or other non-Anglo race or ethnicity.

Hunting techniques varied. 

One technique, described in several sources on several continents, involves placing a stick or large hook inside of a small pig or dog, attached to a length of chain or rope, or both.  When the alligator or crocodile swallows the animal, then jerk on the line, engaging the hook or lodging the stick inside the creature.

 A “Chinaman, Malay, and Anglo-Saxon” catching a crocodile in Malaysia, William T. Hornaday, Two Years in the Jungle, the Experiences of a Hunter and naturalist in India, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and Borneo, New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1885, between page 306 and 307.

More daring techniques involved close-up knife work.

We are assured by Labat, that a Negro, with no other weapon than a knife in his right hand, and his arm wrapped round with a cow hide, ventures boldly to attack this animal in its own element.  As soon as he approaches the Crocodile, he presents his loeft arm, which the animal swallows most greedily; and this sticking in his throat, the Negro has time to give it several stabs under the throat; and the water also getting in at the mouth, which is held involuntarily open, the creature is soon bloated up as big as a tun, and expires.

The Natural History of Reptiles and Serpents, Dublin, J. Jones, 1824, page 48.

But even where the hero is African-American, the storyteller might still trot out the old superstitions.  

One such story is said to have been told by an African-American professional hunter and fisherman in Mansfield, Louisiana named “Uncle Ben,” a man known for his hunting stories.  He “chuckled with delight” while telling this one.

Uncle Ben had caught a giant catfish which he intended to sell to some boarding houses, because folks in boarding houses will eat anything.  He wanted to keep the fish alive in water until he had time to take it into town, so he built a small pen and tied up the catfish with a string through its gills.  The large catfish attracted the attention of alligators, and one of the alligators killed his dog.  Enraged, he baited a stick attached to a length of chain and a rope with the remains of his dog, eventually capturing and subduing the alligator in a three-hour struggle.  After securing the exhausted alligator on shore, he taunted a bunch of puppies on its nose, and applied the coup de gras; his grandson. 

He was so outdone kase he couldn’t get dat pickaninny an’ dem puppies dat he jess die ob a broken heart.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, December 5, 1891, page 11.

“Alligator Bait” Photographic Print

Although the notion of the religious or racial preferences of alligators was very old, the expression, “alligator bait,” as an idiom for black children did not come into widespread use until about 1898, following the publication of a wildly successful, commercial photographic print entitled, “Alligator Bait,” showing several black toddlers in a variety of poses.

The popular image spawned numerous imitators, postcards and “jokes,” and ensured widespread dispersion of the previously regional idiom.  Many of the copycat postcards and images even borrowed one or more of the baby images from the original. 

The original “Alligator Bait” image sprang from the creative team of McCrary & Branson, photographer and portrait artist.  Lloyd Branson, a nationally recognized fine art and portrait painter, was partners with Frank McCrary in a commercial portrait studio and framing shop in Knoxville.

McCrary & Branson’s print, “Alligator Bait,” was displayed at The Art Building in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 1897.  It must have made quite a contrast with the works by Rembrandt and Corot displayed as part of a “loan exhibit” at the same time.  A reviewer described McCrary & Branson’s three works (the others were “Yard of Coons” and “All Coons Look A-Like to Me”) as “very creditable” and “droll and original.”[xxv]

Within a few weeks, prints of those works and several other “Life Photographs of Southern Darkies,” each one more cringe-worthy than the next.

Life Photographs of Southern Darkies – “Honey, Does Yer Lub Yer Man,” “Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose,” “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” “Alligator Bait,” “Lawd, Chile! You’se Gwine to Marry Rich,” Grand Pap Gib Us de Base,” “Us Four and No More,” and others, all appropriately framed.

Evening Star (Washington DC), November 5, 1897, page 7.

McCrary & Branson apparently carried on a lucrative cottage industry producing similar images for many years.  More than a decade later, in 1911, Branson’s studio placed a job notice for for “energetic women of good appearance to sell their famous “Koon pictures,” including “Alligator Bait.”

WE start you in business; no capital required; want energetic women of good appearance to sell Branson’s famous Koon pictures in every town (“Alligator Bait, &c”)’; answer in own handwriting. Branson Studio, Knoxville, Tenn.

The Washington Post, November 27, 1911, page 10.

Examples of their work still survive and come up for sale on occasion.  Notice how individual images from “Alligator Bait” have been placed in other images, and how in “Alligator Bait” and other images, some people appear more than once in different poses. 

“Last One In’s a N[-word]”
“Gimme de Rine” and “Ain’t Gwine to Be No Rine”

“All Coons Look Alike to Me”[xxvi]
“Alligator Bait” apparently struck a chord with customers.  Within months, the image had circulated as far away as Hawaii, where a description of the image included a reference to the old wives’ tale about the discriminating palate of an alligator.

Alligator Bait Photographed.

In the windows of the Pacific Hardware Co. is a photograph of about a dozen negro babies in natural costume and various poses.  The title is “Alligator Bait,” and refers to the special tooth of the alligator for the little pickaninny.  J. B. Atherton received the photo from a prominent Southern statesman.  It was taken from life by an enterprising firm of artists at Knoxville, Tenn.

Evening Bulletin (Honolulu), December 30, 1897, page 1.

The image must have struck some kind of chord with the public.  Notices and brief descriptions of it soon appeared in newspapers across the entire country, from New York to California.  The photograph was described variously as, “strikingly funny . . . a laughable lot, and the title of the picture, ‘Alligator Bait,’ is sure to raise another laugh,” “quite attractive,” “a cute picture,” “a very comical picture,” “it’s cute,” and “the funniest picture that ever graced a wall.”[xxvii]

Although, for the most part, these notices did not refer directly to the hunting of alligators, at least one made the connection, although it is not known whether the person responsible for the item had specific knowledge about hunting practices in southern swamps, was merely projecting based on the title, or misremembering one or several of the earlier crocodile bait stories they might easily have read over the previous decade.

“Alligator Bait” at Rundel’s.”  The real thing. Just what they use in the Sunny South to attract Mr. or Mrs. ‘Gator with.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 4, 1898, page 12.

But not everyone was a fan of the image.  In Huntington, Indiana, a man referred to as “Col. Hunt,” described as “the old colored man around town,” made his displeasure known.

There are two pictures in the window entitled, “Alligator Bait” and “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which do not at all suit the colonel.  When speaking his indignation at such sacrilege, as he thinks it, he says: “Why the man that made them pictures ought to be ‘rested.  He ought to be put in jail. Dey ain’t right.”

Daily News-Democrat (Huntington, Indiana), September 19, 1898, page 8.

Postcards bearing later variations of the image received criticism when used in mailings for political campaigns a decade or so later.

Whether [Judge Raulston] will be able to overcome the hostility that has sprung up among the negroes lately because of the “alligator bait” card remains to be seen.

Chattanooga Daily Times, July 6, 1912, page 8.

The colored voters, all of them Republicans, raised a howl of protest, and the gang bosses yanked Mac on the carpet.  They ordered him to call in these, “Alligator Bait” cards and burn them up, or at least to only use them where the colored voters wouldn’t hear of them.

And so McElhaney has been busier trying to gather up his “Alligator Bait” than he was in circulating it.

Portsmouth Daily Times, November 1, 1912, page 12.

The postcards referred to in these two incidents could have been one of many postcards playing off the “alligator bait” theme.[xxviii]  Many such cards even reused cropped images of some of the children from McCrary & Branson’s original “Alligator Bait” print, sometimes with clothes painted on.

Some advertising images appear to have borrowed from the earlier crocodile hunting stories out of Ceylon - at least in mirror image.

Left to Right: “Sport in Ceylon – Shooting a Man-Eating Crocodile,” The Graphic (London, England), January 21, 1888, page 54; “Shooting the Game”,  The Morning Call (Paterson, New Jersey), February 12, 1888, page 4; Advertisements for Stainilgo laundry soap (1902) and Little African licorice candies, “The Coon Caricature: Coons as Alligator Bait,”

McCrary & Branson's “Alligator Bait” and the copycat images and other items that followed were not the first such images.  Earlier images played off the notion of alligator preference even before the idiomatic use of “alligator bait” came into wide usage.

A carnival sideshow at an exhibition of horses in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1853, for example, had a display, perhaps taxidermy, showing black people being eaten.  But since the animal involved is described as a “crocodile,” it is not clear whether the choice of victim necessarily relates to the old superstition or not.  The victims may have been meant to be Africans, who would be more likely to live near crocodiles, than African-Americans, who would be more likely to live near Alligators.  But still, it suggests the imagery was used nearly a half century before McCrary & Branson published their “Alligator Bait” photograph.

“Living curiosities,” a sideshow, with “large men, deformed children, and fat ladies . . . young ladies, (very appropriately dressed in Bloomer costume) with beards that a Hungarian might envy” and a display of “crocodiles, represented swallowing innumerable negroes.”

New York Times, October 21, 1853, page 1.

A racist punchline at the end of a long discussion about the pros-and-cons of alligator leather for boots and shoes (waterproof, so they are good for gout and excellent substitute for rubber overshoes for people allergies; but the leather doesn’t breath and only good for cooler weather) suggests that a shoe store had an advertising image or poster on the wall.

[H]e glanced up at a picture of a long, scaly alligator in the act of swallowing a pickaninny.  “Yes, they’re good for tender feet, too,” he mused.

The New York Sun, June 10, 1877, page 3 (also several other newspapers).

The shoe store and photograph described in the article belonged to a man named Henry J. Mahrenholz, a shoemaker and leather tanner in New York City who pioneered the use of alligator leather in shoes and boots.  He also owned one of the large alligators on display in the Central Park Zoo.

Mahrenholz’s casually racist comment about  the multiple benefits of alligators was certainly tasteless, at least by today’s standards, but even that comment may not be the most tasteless thing he ever did.  In 1876, in time for the Centennial of American independence, Henry J. Mahrenholz made a pair of boots from human skin which he reportedly sent to the Smithsonian Institution.  He also sent a pair of alligator boots, which were expected to be placed on exhibition during the Centennial.

Mahrenholz was disappointed in the human skin boots because the originally white skin had turned a “light, brown color.”  But he planned to continue his experiments, hoping to perfect a process that would “preserve its original whiteness.”  If successful, he planned to tan the skins of a man, woman and a baby, and have them stuffed “for exhibition in the Bellevue hospital medical museum.”  But at least he was an equal-opportunity taxidermist, he also planned to “tan and stuff a colored brother and a sister.”

Years later, Mahrenholz caused a minor sensation by denouncing his Catholic faith when a Catholic cemetery refused to bury his daughter because, he said, she died quickly, before last rites were performed.  But given his history with human taxidermy, perhaps that was just an excuse.

In 1883, ladies’ fashion got into the act with an item that seems out of place.

A Few Aestheticisms.

Pansy, buttercup, rose and myrtle pins are much worn.

Pretty powder boxes are of bronze or ivory in the shape of a sea shell.

An alligator swallowing a pickaninny is one of the newest designs in lace-pins.

The Daily City News (New Castle, Pennsylvania), November 14, 1883, page 4.

Surprisingly, perhaps, as of this writing, necklaces and earrings with little plastic alligators eating teeny plastic babies are available for order today on, with images available on  A pro-choice advocate wearing similar earrings at a rally in Washington DC made minor news headlines in some circles in early 2020. 

But at least the baby was white – we’ve come a long way (?) . . . baby.

Within about the first two years of sales, McCrary & Branson’s “Alligator Bait” reportedly earned $5000 ($150,000 in today’s money[xxix]).  A fellow artist named James Henry Moser, who had once shared a room with Branson in New York City when they were students, attributed the success of the image in part to the name, which Branson told him was chosen from hundreds of entries in a contest to name the picture.[xxx]

Branson’s friend Moser painted a more flattering and sympathetic image of two black children playing checkers, which is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[xxxi] 

Smithsonian American Art Museum, James Henry Moser, Untitled (Two Children Playing Checkers), n.d., pastel on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Carolyn A. Clampitt in memory of the J. Wesley Clampitt, Jr. Family, 2010.10.

Although Branson, a painter not a photographer, was likely not the artist responsible for creating “Alligator Bait,” his firm marketed and profited from it and other “Koon Pictures.”  But he later mentored Beauford Delaney, an American modernist painter associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and ‘40s, taking him on as a student and encouraging him to move to Boston for further training.[xxxii] 

Like the history of the persistent rumor of American hunters using black children for alligator bait, the history of race relations is not clear-cut and not easily reduced to one or two isolated facts.

“Alligator Bait” Idiom

Before release of the “Alligator Bait” photographic print in late-1897, there were only a few scattered examples of “alligator bait” in its idiomatic sense referring to specifically to African-Americans, and as many if not more examples of white people referred to as “alligator bait.”  But the idiom proliferated in widespread use beginning in 1898, almost immediately after McCrary & Branson’s print came onto the market.

The caption of a stereopticon image copyrighted in July 1898, for example, used the idiom to describe children diving for money in Key West, Florida.[xxxiii]

Alligator Bait Diving for Money, Key West Harbor, Fla. U. S. A.
Although over the years “alligator bait” most frequently referred to young children, it was sometimes applied to adults.  Several early examples in print related to troop movements in the early stages of the Spanish-American War.  In one instance, someone seeing off the troops called some of the black soldiers “alligator bait,” which didn’t go over well.

It is a heartless cuss who referred to the soldiers en route for Cuba as “alligator bait.”

Shepherdstown Register (Shepherdstown, West Virginia), June 23, 1898, page 3.

In a separate incident, a white soldier on a troop train responded to a black woman who had called him a “tin soldier.”

“Why, you alligator bait, I fought to free you,” he remarked, to which she replied with considerable vehemence and emphasis, “Yes, and you will now hab to fight to free yo-self.”

The Atchison Daily Champion (Atchison, Kansas), May 11, 1898, page 5.

And a letter from young soldier from Pennsylvania on a troop train, riding through the South for the first time, remarked on the unremarkable Southern Belles meeting them at every stop (they were no prettier than the women at home) and noted that “the country is thick with ‘alligator bait.’”[xxxiv]

In 1899, songwriters Henry Wise and Sidney Perrin capitalized on the newly popular expression, with their song, “Mammy’s Little Alligator Bait” (Charles K. Harris, Publisher, Milwaukee, 1899).[xxxv]

The song is not about hunting.  It’s about controlling children through fear.  A mother promises to give her son a toy and take him to the bayou, which “made his eyeballs fairly jump with joy;”  but warned him to be good, because of “de alligators dat ate up black boys dats bad, and wouldn’t mind their mammy dear.”

[Update 5/9/2022.  Surprisingly, perhaps, both members of the songwriting team, Wise and Perrin, were black.  See my post, "Blackface, Yellow-Face and Alligator Bait - Sidney Perrin's Complicated Career."]


H. L. Mencken

In his autobiography, H. L. Mencken, the “Sage of Baltimore,” journalist, essayist, editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines, and scholar of American English, recounted an alligator hunting story he once heard from his uncle, a travelling salesman.  The anecdote is frequently cited as “evidence” of the factual truth of the practice of using babies to hunt alligators in the American South. 

But second-hand stories told by uncles or travelling salesmen are not direct evidence of anything; much less any such stories recalled fifty years after the fact.   According to the timeline laid out in his autobiography, his uncle told him the story following a business trip to Florida in about 1890 when Mencken was about ten years old; which coincides with the time period during which various stories about hunting crocodiles in Ceylon appeared regularly in newspapers across the country. 

The story was one of many “tall tales” his uncle told him, and Mencken admitted that he did not know whether it was true. 

My Uncle’s hunting trips extended much further than the shores of the Chesapeake.  Whenever he made a business journey, which was pretty often, he always took his guns along, and usually he would come back with many souvenirs and tall tales of the chase.  He went all the way to Florida, which was then only a wilderness, to shoot alligators, and returned with the story that he had lured them out of the bayous by tying Negro babies to stakes along the bank.  Whether or not this story was true I do not know, but my brother Charlie and I believed it firmly at the time.

H. L. Mencken, Happy Days, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1940 (Sixth Printing, August 1963, accessed via, pages 221-222.


There is little evidence that alligator hunters in the United States once used children as bait.  And there is no evidence that such dangerous or cruel hunting techniques were widely practiced, known or tolerated.

 The two newspaper articles frequently cited in support, the 1923 story out of Chipley, Florida and 1908 story about the Bronx Zoo are not direct evidence of anything of the sort, and have credibility issues; a questionable source for the former, and conflicting contemporary reports for the latter.  The various crocodile hunting stories from Ceylon, India or Suday which are sometimes cited by analogy, in support of the notion that similar hunting techniques might have been used in the United States, are also suspect, having originated with a piece by a military humor cartoonist.  The existence of “alligator bait” postcards and knickknacks may merely be visual puns playing off the idiomatic use of “alligator bait” to refer to black children specifically and sometimes applied to adults.  And the idiom itself is not direct evidence of dangerous or cruel hunting techniques, but a manifestation of an old superstition about the discriminating palate of crocodiles and alligators.

But that’s not to say there is no evidence suggesting that cruel or insensitive hunters might, on occasion, have used children as bait in hunting alligators or something equally dangerous. 

Better Evidence?

Two separate and unrelated items published in newspapers in 1849 suggest that children might have been used as bait to hunt alligators and cougars.  These two items do not prove that any such thing actually happened, but they are much better evidence that they may have happened than nearly all of the “evidence” portrayed in the numerous internet memes or articles purporting to prove that the rumors are true.

The item about alligators is not a first-hand account, but a negative portrayal of a southern fisherman by an angry angler in Buffalo, New York, responding to a scathing critique of northern fishing that appeared in the New Orleans Picayune. 

A Southerner scoffed at fishing up north.

The people of the North do have some fun in fishing, in a small way.  Fishing for speckled trout in a mountain stream, with a fly, treading down the tall grass along the banks, and bending aside the willows and alders, in order to throw into the exact “good hole” beneath the overhanging bank and adjoining the gnarled roots, is rare sport in its way. . . .  This is, however, only like shooting robins, when deer and bear are plenty.  After fishing all day even with good luck, your trout basket perhaps weighs five pounds.

The Times-Picayune, September 3, 1849, page 2.

A Northerner defended his regional honor.

I know nothing of Southern fishing, but am certain it must be insipid, compared with the varied entertainment here, at the north, among the most sublime and picturesque scenery ever spread out doors.  Plashing about in a swamp, with a deep sea-leade, a shark hook and a small dog or a cheap negro child, for bait, is not to be considered amusement, in an extended sense.  It is true, you have the excitement of meeting with an occasional alligator, or now and then intruding upon the domestic retiracy of a Copperhead, while the odoriferous Buzzard, wheeling above your head, suggest pleasing anticipations of your fate in case of your taking a siesta under the glowing cypresses.

Buffalo Courier, October 1, 1849, page 2.

The accusation was made by someone who admittedly knew nothing about fishing down south, so it is unclear whether the reference to using a “cheap negro child” as bait was a product of the writer’s own imagination, perhaps fueled by a northern abolitionist’s perception of slave culture cruelty, a reflection of some actual incident the writer had heard or read about, or a speculation consciously or unconsciously influenced by familiarity with Maillet’s description of a crocodile hunt in Egypt a hundred years earlier.

The writer’s characterization of a young enslaved child as “cheap” may also reflect unfamiliarity with the realities of the slave economy.  In 1857, for example, “slave babies” were reportedly valued at $200 at birth[xxxvi] and an average of nearly $800 full-grown,[xxxvii] nearly $6,000 and $24,000, respectively, in today’s money.[xxxviii]  At those prices, even the most heartless slave-driver might pause, considering that a puppy, young pig or a goat might do the same job.

Whereas the alligator hunting reference in 1849 may not come from an obviously credible source, the account of a cougar in 1849 involved specific people, in a particular place, during a known historical event, which may lend it more credence, although it may still not be as nefarious as a casual reading might suggest.

In 1849, pursuant to the Treaty of Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War, the United States sent a survey party to San Diego, California to meet with Mexican counterparts to establish the boundary line between the two countries.  The group was initially led by John B. Weller, a former Democratic Congressman from Ohio (the newly elected Whig President, Zachary Taylor, later replaced him with John C. Fremont).  Weller would settle in California, and later served as a U. S. Senator and Governor.  His brother Charles L. Weller was also a member of the survey party.

Another member of the party was a doctor from Ohio named E. K. Chamberlain.  Chamberlain had served as a surgeon during the war with Mexico, where he was known as “Old Medicine.”  Chamberlain stayed briefly in California, returning to Ohio by 1852, but not before leaving a mark as an historical footnote in California history; he was a member of California’s first state legislature following admission of California to the United States, a State Senator from San Diego and President Pro Tem of the Senate.

In early-1849, Weller, Chamberlain and the rest of the survey party travelled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, sailed through the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, crossed the isthmus and boarded a ship for San Diego.  While crossing the isthmus, they encountered wildlife and enjoyed hunting.  E. K. Chamberlain shot a cougar, with the help of a “negro boy.”  The story was taken from a letter home written by a member of the party named Mr. Coleman.

Sport on the Chagres River.

I almost forgot to mention about the game that abounds in this country.  Coming up, we saw plenty of parrots, monkeys, alligators and turkeys. – Several of these were shot by the company.  Old Medicine beat all by shooting a tiger! Or properly, a cougar.  In company with Chas. Weller, he procured a negro boy and proceeded across one of the many beds of the river.  Learning from the boy there was plenty of tigers, he sent him ahead, as he says, for “bait,” and in a short time came on a tiger sure enough, which he brought down the first fire!

The Weekly Mississippian, May 11, 1849, page 1.

Once again, however, it is not clear what actually happened.  The letter writer chose to put “bait” in quotes, as though it was used in jest or in an unconventional or non-literal sense.  Slavery had been abolished in Panama, so “procured” here more likely refers to the hiring of a local guide than to any sort of coercion.  The guide may have been familiar with the area, told him there were plenty of “tigers,” and led them to the game, as agreed upon.  The boy, or guide, may not have believed he was in any particular or unusual danger, and accepted any danger there may have been willingly for the going rate.

If you are inclined to look at E. K. Chamberlain’s Panama hunting efforts in a negative light and take perverse joy in the pain of others, you might be inclined to see karma at work in his death four years later, from “Panama fever” contracted while crossing the isthmus again on his way back to California.

The Indiana Herald (Huntington, Indiana), March 2, 1853, page 2.

Taking the Bait

There is at least one example of a black child nearly "eaten" in front of a white man for sheer amusement; but only the child was amused -- it was a practical joke and a white man took the bait, hook-line-and-sinker.

Will Be Boys.

"Boys will be boys," observed a traveler from the south, "and I guess it doesn't make much difference whether they are white or black, city or country. . . .

"A few days before I leftI was taking a walk down by the shore of the bayou, when I heard a scream.  Rushing into the tall grass and weeds that fringe the water I saw the most horrible sight my eyes ever beheld.  That colored boy was hanging with his hands to a sapling, and his feet were in the mouth of a huge alligator. . . .

"I was so horrified that it seemed as if my heart would refuse to beat.  I wouldn't look upon such a spectacle again for $10,000.  It drove me finally wild. . . .

"As I seized a fence rail and rushed up to beat the reptile over the head that boy grinned at me in delight.  You see, the alligator was a dead one, and the pickaninny had gone down there and stuck his feet in his mouth and hollered when he saw me walking his way."

Memphis Avalanche (Memphis, Tennessee), October 14, 1885, page 2 (and a dozen other newspapers).

The Natural History of Reptiles and Serpents, Dublin, J. Jones, 1824, page 45.

[i] “Alligator Bait Revisited,” Franklin Hughes, Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, June/July 2017. (“there is compelling evidence to suggest that the practice occurred.”); “Black Babies Used as Alligator Bait in Florida,” Chuck Strouse, Miami New Times, February 3, 2014, 9:32 am (“[i]t has been pretty well documented recently that, during slavery and into the 20th Century, black babies were used as alligator bait in North and Central Florida.”; Chuck Strouse claims to have “shared two Pulitzer Prizes”); Sharon Draper, an award-winning writer of historical fiction for children and 1997 Teacher of the Year, included an alligator-baiting scene similar to other accounts of the method in her book, Copper Sun (New York, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006, pages 156-160) which, although fiction, is frequently cited as evidence of the practice based on her reputation and credentials.
[ii] Brice Andrew’s Grand Gazetteer, or Topographic Dictionary (1759) describes the “Camarones River” as lying between “Guinea” and “lower or western Ethiopia, in the Kingdom of Biafara, in Africk.”  A map printed in the 1500s shows the Camarones river in the location of what is now called the Sanaga River in Cameroon.
[iii] Knoxville Journal, March 23, 1932, page 8.
[iv] Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, West Virginia), August 10, 1920, page 13 (T. W. Villiers, time-keeper at all recent bouts excepting the Sheppard-Alexander go, will hold the watch.).
[v] “Punch and his Artists,” M. H. Spielmann, Contemporary Review, Volume 60, July 1891, page 67 (Perhaps the best military contributor of jokes Punch has had is Major-General H. G. Robley.  Keene, as I have already said, re-drew the majority of his sketches, which dealt, for the most part, with military life on foreign service.  Twenty-seven contributions, many of them unsigned, and of varying degrees of importance, came from him during the years 1873-8).
[vi] George Somes Layard, The Life and Letters of Charles Samuel Keen, London, S. Low, Marston, 1893, page 179 ( “These drawings in ‘Punch’ you see marked R, are from sketches sent me by a very obliging correspondent, a Captain Robley, in the 91st Highlanders; he sketches very well, and sends me lots of suggestions, and, as he naturally likes to see his name to some of them (that don’t touch Government up too much), I’m glad to make him that acknowledgement.  You see a mess-table makes a very good ‘preserve’ for ‘Punch’ subjects.  I don’t follow his drawings very much, but they are very useful in military subjects, as it gives me the regulation number of buttons, etc.”)
[vii] Partial copies of the original Harper’s Bazar article appear in a posting at
[viii] “Two Queer Adventures,” Captain Henry F. Harrison, Golden Argosy, Volume 6, Number 20, April 14, 1888, page 316.
[ix] “Were Human Babies Used as Bait in Crocodile Hunts in Colonial Sri Lanka?” Anslem de Silva and Ruchira Somaweera, Journal of Threatened Taxa, Volume 7, Number 1, January 26, 2015. Anslem de Silva is with the Amphibian and Reptile Research Organisation of Sri Lanka, Gampola, Sri Lanka; Ruchira Somaweera is with the Biologic Environmental Survey, North Perth, Australia.
[x] The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), May 13, 1927, page 5 (obituary of Richard Scobell Kinghorn, age 62, “Belonged to Football, Golf, Curling, Snowshoe and Fishing Clubs – Had Retired From Business.).
[xi] Billings Gazette (Montana), February 11, 1909, page 2.
[xii] Angola Herald (Angola, Indiana), February 19, 1890, page 3.
[xiii] Chicago Inter-Ocean, August 12, 1900, page 28.
[xiv] Richard J. Martin, Sacred Zoology; or, the Scriptures illustrated by the natural history of animated nature, Intended to establish the authenticity of the sacred writings in connexion with zoology, Selected principally from the most esteemed, authentic, and celebrated voyages and travels into the East, by Bochart, Shaw, Irwin, Chardin, Thevenot, Pitts, and others, Volume 1 1st American Edition, Richmond, Virginia, 1828, pages 177-179.
[xv] Bible Expositor, Confirmations of the Truth of The Holy Scriptures from the Observations of Recent Travellers, New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1844, pages 217-219
[xvi] Jackson Daily News (Jackson, Mississippi), August 19, 1907, page 4.
[xvii] The Boston Globe, May 12, 1909, page 10.
[xviii] Pittsburgh Courier, June 24, 1950, page 15 (student slang); Pittsburgh Courier, February 16, 1952, page 7 (“prison slang”).
[xix] Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas), July 8, 1968, page 23.
[xx] “Were Children Used as Alligator Bait in the American South?” David Emery,, June 9, 2017.
[xxi] Likely a reference to Nathan Bedford Forrest.
[xxii]  A “whale story” was an idiom with the same meaning as a “tall tale.”
[xxiii] St. Albans Daily Messenger (Vermont), March 17, 1876, page 1.
[xxiv]  “Wool” was at the time a common word used to designate kinky hair.
[xxv] The Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), October 14, 1897, page 3.
[xxvi] The image reproduced here shows a copyright notice from “Atkinson Bros., Toronto.”  The Atkinson Brothers of Toronto appear to have been McCrary & Branson’s agents or partners in Canada.  Canadian Patent Office records for March 1898 list the “Atkinson Brothers” as holding the Canadian copyright for both “All Coons Look Alike to Me” and “Alligator Bait.”
[xxvii] Daily Times (New Brunswick, New Jersey), January 28, 1898, page 5; Phillipsburg Dispatch (Phillipsburg, Kansas), April 14, 1898, page 5; Mendocino Coast Beacon, February 19, 1898, page 8; Evening Herald (Ottawa, Kansas), May 27, 1898, page 4; Geneva Daily Gazette (Geneva, New York), September 30, 1898, page 3; Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 4, 1898, page 12.
[xxviii] Historyon maintains collection of “alligator bait” imagery.
[xxix] Currency conversion from an online currency converter.
[xxx] Washington Times (Washington DC), January 28, 1900, page 13.
[xxxiii] United States Copyright Office records for 1898 indicated this image was copyrighted July 11, 1898.
[xxxiv] Indiana Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania), June 1, 1898, page 10.
[xxxvi]The Morning Post (London), September 19, 1857, page 3.  
[xxxvii] “The average price of a slave, regardless of age, sex, or condition, rose from approximately $400 in 1850 to nearly $800 by 1860. During the late 1850s, prime male field hands aged eighteen to thirty cost on the average $1,200, and skilled slaves such as blacksmiths often were valued at more than $2,000.”  The Texas State Historical Association, .
[xxxviii] Currency conversion from an online currency converter.

Revised May 18, 2020, adding a section on H. L. Mencken and references to articles in The New York World, August 16, 1896.

Revised July 21, 2020, adding a reference to an article from the Brenham Weekly Banner in 1878, and to similar language about Lee County, Florida, from a book by Janaki Lenin. 


  1. "fake news, eh?" awesome, well researched article.

  2. This is a lot of effort to defend a messed up slavery practice

    1. It would be as silly to defend something that didn't happen as it would be to condemn something that didn't happen. Most people addressing the question make no effort to support their claims, so I appreciate your recognition that it took a lot of effort. I am interested in any additional evidence on the subject matter one way or the other. If you have something to add, please let us known.

  3. those people did every thing else but ain't feed black babies to alligators. Saints lol

    1. Thank you for reading. If you have any evidence I missed, please share.