Outside magazine, March 1994
I'm no admirer of tabloid newspapers, but last November, while standing in line at the grocery, I noticed a startling headline on the front page of Weekly World News: "Half-Alligator, Half-Human Found in Florida Swamp!"
Was it possible that such a beast had been captured without the authorities notifying one of the nation's foremost experts on kindred phenomena--me?
Yes, apparently, although even by the standards of carrion journalism, the claim seemed outrageous. But the accompanying photograph had to be given serious consideration. The image was terrible to behold: the dehydrated head and chest of a human growing from the body of some kind of crocodilian. It had tiny little clawlike hands and a facial expression that might be grotesque by decent standards but is all too common on Florida's beaches: the Spring Break Glaze, a dumb, expectant look, as if the jaw has thawed too quickly beneath two frozen but eager eyeballs. Undeniably, the photograph had the ring of truth.
Even so, as an expert, I initially concluded that an alligator had swallowed the bottom portion of some unfortunate man. A German tourist, perhaps--the Teutonic life expectancy in Florida is now exceeded by some species of mayfly. Indeed, a German tourist had recently disappeared a few miles from my own southwest Florida home. If a massive manhunt had not finally found him wandering crazed after three hellish nights lost in the mangroves, he too might have become part of the food chain, claimed by some bull gator that could not ingest more than half of anything weaned on sauerbraten. It made sense.
But Weekly World News insisted upon another explanation. According to the accompanying story, the creature had been found, alive, by two hunters who wanted to kill it. Fortunately for the creature, a paleontologist named Simon Shute happened to be working on a nearby Indian mound, and he, along with a Florida bureaucrat, interceded. After saving the creature, Dr. Shute and the bureaucrat, true to the traditions of their vocations, decided to take responsible action. The beast had presumably been living innocently in the Everglades, wild and free, a threat to no one. Their duty was clear: Not only was this thing unregulated and unlegislated, but worse, it was also untagged. So they roped the creature, caged it, and transported it to a secret marine lab in the Florida Keys.
"An intense search is underway to locate any other gator-man creatures," Shute was quoted as saying. "It's difficult to believe that just one of them managed to survive on its own."
Undoubtedly...if the story was true. And granted, some of Weekly World News's details were compelling. But the whole tale was unraveled by a couple of key points that any sophisticated reader would spot as pure fantasy. One: If a Florida bureaucrat, or any bureaucrat, had been involved, he would not have attempted to capture Gatorman alone. He would have used his cellular phone to call for backup. Two: If Gatorman was accurately represented by the photograph, Weekly World News would not have quoted Dr. Shute. It would have quoted the creature. Unless Gatorman spoke only German, in which case the tabloid would have invented a quote and run with it.
Obviously, the photograph was there, but the facts were not. It was a fascinating problem--not because I believed Gatorman existed, but because I have a long-standing interest in those strange and weird beasts that inhabit the human mind with far more certainty than they inhabit the regions credited with hiding them.
Intentionally or not, I think most outdoorspeople collect these stories. Indeed, they contribute to a pet theory of mine: The decline of a wilderness region can be gauged by the decline in the number of folklore creatures said to live there. And another: Folklore monsters embody the geographical feature that a region's human residents most fear.
Naturally, because I live in Florida, I was pleased to read about Gatorman--for the last few years this state's most feared geographical feature has been Miami; its monster, the feral adolescents who stalk it. A half-man, half-alligator living in the swamps seemed reasonable by comparison. Just the rumor of such a thing earned back some respect for the Everglades. And it seemed to kick a little of the starch out of the bureaucrats who now dominate the place.
Over the next few months, I checked out details of the Gatorman story, and discovered the following: First, no paleontologist I could find had ever heard of Simon Shute. Second, Shute's name does not appear in state motor vehicle records or in any Florida telephone directory. Third, no Florida paleontologist named Simon Shute has ever applied for a state or federal grant--final, bedrock proof that the man does not exist. Furthermore, Eddie Clontz, editor of Weekly World News, might have a comment on the origin of the Gatorman story, but he doesn't return phone calls. Not mine, anyway. And lastly, Weekly World News is known as Wacky World News to some reporters at its sister paper, the National Enquirer, one of whom told me, "Wacky World is a big moneymaker, but you can't believe anything in it." A searing indictment, considering the source.
The photograph was real--of that I was convinced. But each refuted detail was like a bullet in Gatorman's breast, or maybe its thorax, if Gatormen have such things. Hard to say for sure. Anyway, I dropped the investigation until, by coincidence, a Louisiana friend mentioned that he knew a man who knew a man who, many, many years ago, had seen a creature fitting Gatorman's description, alive and on display in a New Orleans brothel.
Am I making this up? Nope. Was my Louisiana friend? Nope. Was the long-gone man in the brothel making it up? Let us hope so.
It doesn't matter. America and its wildernesses are being urbanized, neuterized, and sanitized on an hourly basis, and those of us who love wild places--and the folklore creatures that are a measure of their vitality--have to be content with what we can get.
My search would continue. Even if it meant going to New Orleans.
Halloween's timing is off; spring is when the monsters come out. It's the first March thaw that lures to field and wood and bog the hibernators and winter dozers and God only knows what other hellish beasts. I don't say this from rumor or cheap hearsay; I know from experience. I was just an infant when I had my first encounter with a bigfoot-like creature--or so my mother told me. We were living in a remote farmhouse in Ohio; my father, a highway patrolman, was away on duty when, one March night, my mother was awakened by the steady thud of someone--or something--walking outside. Then the house began to shake, as if massive shoulders were being rubbed against the clapboards. For nearly an hour, the assault continued. We had no telephone. My mother lay awake until dawn, then went outside to investigate. There had been a fresh snow. Her description of what she saw never varied over 30 years: The prints of a barefoot man circled the house, each print a broom handle and a half from the next. Caught in the clapboards were tufts of silver hair. A farmer happened by, and he and my mother measured the prints again. The farmer contacted the state patrol, but the snow melted and the evidence disappeared.
In later years I would say to her, "It was a cow." She would reply, "Honey, I know cows. I grew up with cows. Don't tell me about cows." I would say, "Then it was a bear." She would reply, "If it was a bear, I'd hate to try and buy shoes for it. The Sears catalogs don't mention size 20-D." Then she would add, mildly accusatory, "And you slept through the whole blame thing."
What did she expect? I was an infant at the time and not equal to a more mature response. When one is incapable of diving under the bed, one is better off sleeping. It's nature's way.
I believe what my mother said; I don't believe what she saw. Not the way she interpreted it, anyway. But the place where we lived was a desolate, unpeopled place--if not wild, at least isolated enough to empower all the potential of human imagination. That requires space. It requires inaccessible thickets, or swamps, or lakes without bottoms, or murky water, or a wooded place not veined with trails.
North Carolina, where most of my family has lived for generations, had all of the above, plus plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins to share tales about them. There were the Brown Mountain Lights--lights of a ghostly source that we never saw, but we knew plenty of people who had. There was the Devil's Circle, where nothing ever grew because of an ancient curse. For a similar reason, there were indelible hoofprints at Bath, and there was a creature that inhabited a bog on the Pee Dee River, only some said it was a giant eel, and there was a pack of wild dogs that roamed the pine woods, grown huge from feeding on solitary fishermen and kids foolish enough to camp in the forest alone--which we often did.
I grew up hearing all of this but believing none of it. Even so, I liked the stories. My theory about the relationship between true wilderness and folklore monsters evolved. Which is why I am not surprised that, as the population grows and spreads, the regional creatures seem to be disappearing. They are an endangered species not mentioned on any government list.
Before proceeding with my investigation into Gatorman, I decided to contact a few knowledgeable people around the nation and inquire into the well-being of creatures in other regions. I was lucky enough to reach Allan W. Eckert, author of the six-volume historical series The Winning of America. Eckert, from his home in Bellefontaine, Ohio, described in broad fashion a variety of folklore monsters, including a gigantic black cat that was said to roam Ohio's hill country and a great wolf of the Plains states that could destroy half a herd of cattle in a night.
"I think most of these stories come from a period when people had enough leisure time to sit on their front porches and trade stories," Eckert told me. "Maybe that's one reason I seldom hear them now. When I did hear them, it was usually in the spring, when the weather allowed people to get out."
Joe Arterburn, on the staff of a Nebraska mail-order outfitter called Cabela's, converses daily with outdoors people, and I decided he would be a good one to ask, too. But like Eckert he hadn't heard a fresh story for many years. "You used to occasionally hear of a bigfoot sighting," Arterburn told me. "But not often. It stands to reason, because there aren't a lot of places to hide in Nebraska."
I received a similarly disappointing response from outdoor sportswriter Lionel Atwill in Vermont. "Even Champ, the monster of Lake Champlain, hasn't been reported since last summer," he said. "The little town of Port Henry, New York, makes a living off those stories, and you'd think Champ would show a little more concern for its welfare."
The cynosure for reports of unidentified creatures is the International Society of Cryptozoology, located in Tucson, Arizona. According to the society's secretary, J. Richard Greenwell, cryptozoology is different from other forms of zoology in that it not only welcomes anecdotal information about undiscovered species, but seeks them out.
"A cryptozoologist becomes interested in a supposed animal based on previous information," said Greenwell. "Folklore, archaeological artifacts, native accounts--we use all of these sources. Then we take a hard look at the data and try to decide if the supposed animal really could exist. It's a different philosophical approach than regular zoology."
The Cryptozoology Society, according to Greenwell, has more than 800 members, many of them highly regarded professionals. "We're not in the sensationalism business," Greenwell told me. "Indeed, we avoid it. We investigate previously unidentified species in a very careful way, and publish the results of field-workers in our annual journal. We try to assume nothing, then assign a percentage of probability. Take the Sasquatch, for instance. If it does exist, I find it incredible that despite hundreds of reported sightings from almost every state, not one specimen has been shot and killed by a hunter, or hit and killed on the highway, or collected in some fashion. Yet we still approach the possibility of its existing with an open mind."
Greenwell didn't think much of my folklore-requires-wilderness theory. "No, a whole new mythology has evolved," he said. "Urban folklore. It's like the stories of alligators and turtles living in the sewers of New York City. We've all heard the stories; some believe them. But there was only one verified case of an alligator being found in those sewers, and that was more than 80 years ago."
Nor did Greenwell give much credence to my story about Gatorman. "Years ago, there were a few reports about some kind of swamp creature that fits that description. But we dismissed them as too bizarre. And the reports came from the Carolinas, not Florida."
My God, I thought upon hearing this. Was the bastard following me?
I went to New Orleans. I ate some great food, did the usual things. But I didn't find Gatorman. Angus Lind, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune relayed a wonderful story about the loup-garou, a werewolflike creature said to live out in the bayou. Then I spoke with Joe Rau, a collector of antiques and stories, who said he knew a man in Long Beach, Washington, who might have all the information I needed.
Rau was right--that's where I found the half-man, half-alligator as pictured in Weekly World News. Not that I went to Washington. There was no need. Wellington Marsh, owner of Marsh's Free Museum in Long Beach, sent me a postcard of the creature--a creature he has owned, and had on display, for many years.
"I don't know how that newspaper got ahold of my postcard," Marsh told me, "and I don't know why they made up the story to go along with it. I call the thing Jake, and he's very popular with the folks who come through the museum. When they ask me about Jake, I tell them the truth. I don't know if he's real or not. But I know a man who knows a man who said he saw a creature just like Jake down someplace in Texas."
"East Texas. In some kind of swamp or something. Not that I believe it.