Crocodile hunting was very profitable in the 1800-1900s. The skin was used to make shoes, bags, belts, and other items. However, white hunters often lost their arms and sometimes their lives as they attempted to attract alligators to the surface so they decided to use ‘bait’.
Little black children were used as bait to catch alligators. Some say it was done by white men during the slave era in Florida and Louisiana and other parts of the American South.
Slaves who had babies were a target and their children would be stolen during the day while they are in the fields working. Alligator hunters would grab these children and take them down to the swamp, and sometimes leave them in pens like little chicken coops.
They would go down there at night, take these babies and tie them up, put a rope around their neck and around their torso and tie it tight.
The hunters would throw the babies in, tied to this rope and in a matter of minutes, the alligators were on them. The alligator would clamp his jaws on the child and once he clamped on them you couldn’t see anything but the rope.
”Baits Alligators with Pickaninnies,” reads a Washington Times headline on June 3, 1908. The article continues, “Zoo Specimens Coaxed to Summer Quarters by Plump Little Africans.”
The New York Zoological Gardens’ zookeeper sent two black children into an enclosure that housed more than 25 crocodiles and alligators. The children were chased by the hungry reptiles, entertaining zoo patrons while leading the alligators and crocodiles out of the reptile house where they spent the winter, into a tank where they could be viewed during the summer.
According to the newspaper article, “two small colored children happened to drift through the reptile house.” The zookeeper “pressed them into service.”
He believed that alligators and crocodiles had an “epicurean fondness for the black man.” He also believed, along with all the people who allowed it to happen, that the lives of those sons were nearly valueless.
There is no mention of punishment for the zookeeper in the 166-word article. It offers not one adjective that would imply that the actions of the zookeeper were despicable, unthinkable, or even reckless.
The idea that black children are acceptable gator bait was not born in the head of one zookeeper, it was a practice in the American Everglades that inspired lore and occasioned memorabilia. In 1923, Time magazine reported that “colored babies were being used for alligator bait” in Chipley, Florida.
“The infants are allowed to play in the shallow water while expert riflemen watch from concealment nearby. When a saurian approaches this prey, he is shot by the riflemen.”
This tactic was more humane than the one described in a Miami New Times article.
Alligator hunters would sit crying black babies who were too young to walk at the water’s edge. With rope around their necks and waists, the babies would splash and cry until a crocodile snapped on one of them. The hunters would kill the alligator only after the baby was in its jaws, trading one child’s life for one alligator’s skin. They made postcards, pictures and trinkets to commemorate the practice.
This horrendous act was later characterized in sheet music, post Cards, and figurines.
Years later, a candy Manufacturer of black licorice drops created a distasteful advertisement that featured a hungry-looking alligator leering at a black baby.