Alligator Bait Revisited - June/July 2017
In light of other articles and researchers doubting the validity of black and brown babies being used as alligator bait, do you still believe the practice happened?
Why is the alligator bait concept so difficult for people to accept? During the enslavement period and Jim Crow, the atrocities leveled against African American men, women, and children were countless, not to mention the brutalities that occurred in other colonized countries such as Brazil, India, Ceylon, the Congo and Namibia. It seems that many contemporary people may not want to accept what was done to black people—because of their race and because they were viewed as less than human. We find in conversations at the museum, that some people want to set a morality level that they believe others cannot cross, like the alligator bait concept, for example. But, if one reads the accounts of lynchings and how entire communities participated—men, women, and children—then, the use of black children as bait for alligators seems plausible. I suggest one read the account of Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, who was tortured and lynched in 1918, by a white mob after she protested the lynching of her husband the night before. Read how her baby was cut out of her womb (Valdosta Daily Times, 2010). (For a full detail of the Mary Turner incident, read “The Work of a Mob” by Walter White of the NAACP published in The Crisis Magazine September 18, 1918, pg. 221-223 http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1292949804983625.pdf )
Allow me to make a few points about previous stories of alligator or crocodile bait and point out some other recently discovered accounts; these accounts confirm my belief that this was a real practice. I would also like to reiterate that something does not have to be a widespread practice in order for it to have occasionally occurred.
I would like to address some of the questions people may have about a few sources I used in the Jim Crow Museum article “Alligator Bait.” The T.W. Villiers story “Pickaninny Bait Lures Voracious ‘Gator to Death” (Oakland Tribune, Sep 21, 1923); The New York zoological “Baits alligators with picaninnies” (Washington Times, June 13, 1908); and the Ceylon reports of “Babies for crocodile bait” (Roanoke Times, June 20, 1890).
In the syndicated story by T.W Villiers of black babies being used as alligator bait in Florida, Time magazine offered a rebuttal of the story after they first published it in 1923. Time ran a response from the Chipley Chamber of Commerce that called the account “a silly lie, false and absurd” (Time Magazine, 1923). However, my question is, what evidence was provided to Time to discount the accuracy of Villiers’ account—other than reporting that the Chamber said the story was false? I understand that the Chipley Chamber of Commerce was the source that contacted Time in order to refute Villiers account. That does not necessarily discredit the initial. Villiers could have simply been truly reporting the truth of such acts or selling a “tall tale” for unknown personal gain reasons. The Chipley Chamber would have had many reasons to refute the story including the possibility that they were either unaware of the situation happening and/or they did not want their city associated with such practices, regardless of whether the story was true or not. Therefore, there could be some truth to either side of the story and both could have benefitted by telling their version of the story.
In 1919 the Florida Department of Agriculture made a concerted effort to stop the advertising of “alligators lying in wait for pickaninnies” on postcards and illustrations as they were becoming “destructive advertising for the livestock development in Florida.” The Florida State Live Stock Association also urged all Florida Chambers of Commerce and civic organizations to discourage such “unfavorable advertising for their respective communities.” However, this does not prove that the practice did not happen; it only confirms that the Chambers were doing as the Department of Agriculture asked in order to change the image of their counties by not selling or advertising the alligator bait images. (Florida Dept. of Agriculture, 1919, pg 82).
The fact is newspapers and magazines widely reported the story. I included the newspaper accounts a source material. No contemporary observer has firsthand knowledge.
The New York Zoological incident was also reported in a number of papers. In this case the keeper “coaxed” two small black children to bait the alligators out of their winter quarters. The New York Times also reported the alligators being moved, yet they did not mention the alligators being baited by children. Because the report from the New York Times did not use the word “pickaninnies,” the story has been dismissed as a fabricated troupe. But why? If a number of papers reported the story one way and one paper, the New York Times, reported it another, does that provide enough evidence to dismiss the incident? I am not convinced that it does. In fact, the New York Times article goes into detail about how one of the crocodiles, named Abdallah, could only be moved into the new quarters when a “bronzed-looking man, dressed in a serge suit with panama hat” yelled out in Arabic “Backsheesh” to get the animals attention so it could be snared and moved (New York Times, 1908 Alligators in Summer Home). This account, with the “bronze-looking man” and the shouts in Arabic did not appear in other versions of the same story. Does that mean the way Abdallah was moved should be discounted? If the “pickaninnies as alligator bait” is a troupe, then why isn’t the “bronze-looking man” a troupe, as well? And, if both stories include fabricated accounts, then both should be dismissed, but if both stories include expanded information on separate aspects of the same incident, then both could serve as credible sources of the incidents.
In 2015, a pair of researchers, Anslem de Silva and Ruchira Somaweera looked into the question of babies being used by crocodile hunters as bait in Ceylon or Sri Lanka (there were a number of reports about this practice in magazines and in newspapers in the United States and in Europe see the British Newspaper Archive to view some http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/search/results?basicsearch=%22crocodile%20bait%22 ).
The researchers were unable to find “any additional records of human babies being used as bait” that would confirm the practice as widespread in Sri Lanka, but they were also unable to provide evidence to refute the articles as merely folklore (de Silva & Somaweera, 2015).
Since the original article for the Jim Crow Museum, I was able to find quite a few more articles that referenced the practice of using children as alligator bait. Here are some:
- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 24 April 1921, page 25, “The Sporty Adventures: Being the Story of Central Americans Who Pitted an Alligator Against a Wolfhound” the Central American hunter is said to have heard about “Negro babies” being “excellent alligator bait” but questioned the morality of such a practice. Granted, the hunter may have been reacting to just a rumor, but assigning a moral value to the practice indicated he believed it to be a true practice.
- The Kansas City Gazette, 6 August 1894, page 6 “Use Babies for Bait: A Peculiarity of Crocodile Hunting in East India” is a story about babies being used for crocodile bait in East India. The story is similar to other Ceylon reports, but has a few more details, especially about one particular baby that the hunter is said to have used to kill over 100 crocodiles. The story even goes on to say that even the child’s mother was very proud of her.
- I also found a report in the Decatur Herald 14 May, 1886, page 2 “No Feeling: A colored Man’s Sensations While Serving as Alligator Bait” where a black man accepted the challenge of being bait for alligators for the price of a half dollar. Granted the man was not a baby, but he was a human, and asked to act as bait for an alligator for money. It is unknown at this time if the story was an actual happening or just a weekly leisure reading column.
As it stands, one can believe the reports were anecdotal myth and/or folklore or they were based on actual events. Researchers de Silva and Somaweera state that the “frequency of reporting of these cases does not necessarily imply that the practice was common or widespread.” This is a key point. Using babies as alligator bait was obviously not a very widespread practice, but that would not be confirmation that it did not happened. Given the thousands of horrific incidents and negative attitudes of many toward African Americans and people of color, I do not find this a stretch in anyway.
In the book Happy Days: Mencken’s Autobiography: 1880-1892 Volume 1, there is talk about the use of Negro babies as alligator bait. The account came from a Christian Abner and his experiences hunting in Florida. Abner apparently wrote “a glowing account of alligator-hunting in Florida, and urged them not to be upset by the use of Negro babies as bait” (Mencken, 1936 page 222).
In a Forest and Stream article 1913, Edward T. Martin writes an article entitles “Another Talk by the Old-Timer.” In the article, the author tells a story about a couple of boys using a barn door with duck decoys attached to it to hunt ducks, but when locals protested because of the success of the method, the boys shifted their attention to “snaring young alligators.” The article compares the boys ensnaring alligators away from the “hen” alligator to a Florida “Negro woman” who would rent her pickaninnies to lure gators (Martin, 1913 Pg 486).
A 1890 book Stanley and the White Heroes on Africa: Being an Edition from Mr. Stanley’s late Personal Writings on the Emin Pasha Relief Expidition…Including the Explorations and Adventures of Bruce, Mungo Park…And Others in chapter XVII “How Stanley found Livingstone,” there is mention that the game in Africa was so abundant that there was no need to “hire from mercenary parents the pickaninny bait.” Furthermore, on the page prior, there is an illustration of a hunter shooting a crocodile that is coming ashore toward a small African baby tied to a tree on the shore (the same illustration was also used in articles about crocodile bait in Ceylon). The caption says, “Bagging a Man-Eating Crocodile with Bait Warranted to attract.” (Kelsey, 1890, pg. 474-475). The preface of the book makes the argument that the statements in the book are from Henry M. Stanley himself and careful attention has been paid to make sure “the words of the explorers themselves are so faithfully adhered to” (Kelsey, 1890, pg. viii).
1901 Harpers Magazine article by Rupert Hughes “Animal and Vegetable Rights” there is a strange correlation between the rights of humans versus the rights of animals and plants. The author states in the opening paragraph:
“Nowadays, though I may buy almost anything else at the shops, I cannot buy human slaves; it is even forbidden me to go to Africa and adopt for my own property a low-browed savage whose facial angle displeases me; it is not considered refined to use new babies for alligator-bait” (Hughes, R., 1901, pg. 852).
This comment could be somewhat tongue-and-cheek, but the author also mentions human slavery in the same vain and therefore the context is that babies being used as alligator-bait was just as real and as wrong as slavery.
In the book Carrying Jackie’s Torch: The Players Who Integrated Baseball-and America, the second chapter is about Monte Irvin. In the paragraph after Irving talked about the 1923 massacre of African American residents in Rosewood, Florida, Irvin said that being called “alligator bait was no joke because there were people who disappeared and were just never found” (Jacobson, pg. 19). Again, the concept was told as a fact and shown in the light of other atrocities that had happened to African Americans in the United States.
In the 1915 book Country life in America, Volume 27, Richard L. Rinckwitz, photographer and author of the article “A Photographer’s Game Bag,” writes about his travels photographing wildlife all throughout America. Rinckwitz writes about farmers in the Everglades and their dealings with bull gators. The author states, matter-of-factly, that the gators are “passionately fond of dogs and Negros.” Rinckwitz goes on to say both the dog and the “Negro” are referred to as “alligator bait.” (Rinckwitz, 1915, pg. 35).
In an article from 1933, a Dr. Charles Sherwin spoke at a First Presbyterian Church for a Men’s Brotherhood event. Dr. Sherwin is said to have told stories of his practice helping the needy. Dr. Sherwin spoke about the famous “Alligator bait” cartoon and mentioned that the ancient Egyptians would cast children to crocodiles in the Nile river for human sacrifices. Now neither Dr. Sherwin nor the article writer provided any other evidence that this was the case, but it was presented as if it were historical fact. Another interesting portion of the article is when Dr. Sherwin gave an example of his work “helping the needy.” Dr. Sherwin tells of an incident where he treated two “negro” girls who had no money and who actually cost him money to treat. Sherwin said that people would say about him treating the “negro” girls “Well they are just alligator bait and it doesn’t make any matter if they live or not” (Alton Evening Telegraph, 4 January, 1933). Dr. Sherwin then goes on to say how appreciative the girls were for him saving their lives.
I think it important to remember that we cannot project today’s values and morals onto the past. For example, when people read about real babies being used as alligator bait, many times their first inclination is to find a way to dismiss the claim as folklore or myth, but at the same time, no one would dismiss that dogs or other animals were used as alligator bait. The practice of using a dog to bait alligators today would almost universally be condemned, but that does not mean that it never happened. I believe the same is true for using babies of color as alligator bait, especially since peoples of color were considered “savages” and less than human. Again, I do not think it was a widespread practice and that everyone was aware of it happening. Some people believed it was just a legend while others believed it to be true. There is compelling evidence to confirm that the practice occurred. There is also compelling evidence that many whites and peoples of color believed the practice to be very real and very true and that belief shaped and formed narratives, attitudes and actions.
Jim Crow Museum
Alligators in Summer Home. (1908, June 13). New York Times, p. 1.
Babies for crocodile bait (1890, June 20). Roanoke Times, Image 3.
Baits alligators with picaninnies (1908, June 13). Washington Times, p. 2.
Betz, F. Jr (1921). The Sporty Advertisers: Being the Story of Central Americans Who
Pitted an Alligator Against a Wolfhound. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 24 April 1921, page 25
Brotherhood Hears Talk by Doctor on Helping the Needy, (1933, January 4). Alton Evening Telegraph, page 6.
De Silva, A., & Somaweera, R. (2015). Were human babies used as bait in crocodile hunts in colonial Sri Lanka? Journal of Threatened Taxa, 7 (1). http://threatenedtaxa.org/index.php/JoTT/article/view/1790/3121
Department of Argiculture. (1919). Business Session. Florida Quarterly Bulletin, 29 (1), 82.
Hughes, F. (2013, May). Alligator Bait. Retrieved June 21, 2017. Jim Crow Museum
Hughes, R. (1901, November). Animal and Vegetable Rights. Harper's Monthly Magazine, 103(618), 852-853.
Jacobson, S. (2007). Carrying Jackies torch: the players who integrated baseball-and America. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review. pg. 19.
Kelsey, D. M. (1891). Stanley and the white heroes in Africa: being an edition from Mr. Stanleys late personal
writings on the Emin Pasha relief expedition ... including the explorations and adventures
of Bruce, Mungo Park ... and others. St. Louis , Mo.: Scammell & Company. pg. 475
Martin, E. T. (1913, July 5). Another Talk by the Old-Timer. Forest and Stream, 81(1), 485-487.
Mencken, H. L. (1996). Happy days 1880-1892. Baltimore (Md.): The Johns Hopkins University Press. page 222
No Feeling: A Colored Man's Sensations While Serving as Alligator Bait. (1886, May
14). The Decatur Herald, p. 2.
Ramos, K. (2010, May 15). Remembering a dark page of history. The Valdosta Daily Times. Retrieved June 21, 2017.
Rinckwitz, R. L. (1915, February). A Photographer's Game Bag. Country Life in America, 27(4), 31-35.
The British Newspaper Archive. (n.d.). Retrieved June 21, 2017.
Time Magazine. On behalf of the town of Chipley, Fla. (1923, November 12). Time Magazine, 2(11).
Use Babies for Bait: A Peculiarity of Crocodile Hunting in East India. (1894, August 6). The Kansas City Gazette, p. 6. https://www.newspapers.com/image/?spot=11548735
Villiers, T. W. (1923, September 21). Pickaninny bait lures voracious 'Gator to death. Oakland Tribune, p. 32.
White, W. F. (1918, September). The Work of a Mob. The Crisis, 16(5), 221-223.