It 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.
The problem with that claim? We have drawings, staged photographs, and songs about “gator babies”, but no evidence that any child was ever used as live bait for alligators.
The strongest evidence for “gator bait baby” stories is a rumor that was covered by several journalists in 1923. Time mentioned it in Oct. 15, 1923:
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.”
Time’s Miscellany column of Nov. 12, 1923 has a follow-up article:
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.
To believe that story, you have to believe black mothers would risk their children’s lives for two dollars.
There are three strong reasons to doubt the stories of gator bait babies.
- The stories have no supporting evidence.
The horrors of US slavery and the Jim Crow era were thoroughly documented by Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Tuskegee Institute, and countless others, yet none of them mention gator babies. Crimes by white people against black people were documented at the time; for example, when researching this article, I saw in the Atlanta Independent on October 11, 1923, right next to an article titled “Babies Used as Alligator Bait In State of Florida” a story titled “White Molests Colored Girls”, which named a white man who was arrested for the offense.
Yet the stories about gator babies are vague. None provide a specific date when a black baby was used as alligator bait. None name a mother whose child was used or a witness who saw a baby being used or a hunter who bragged about using a baby. The stories have no verifiable details because they needed none. They were just sick jokes for racists.
2. The stories make no sense.
Slavery was a business, and slaves were expensive. From Measuring Worth — Measuring the Value of a Slave:
Using these measures, the value in 2011 of $400 in 1850 (the average price of a slave that year) ranges from $12,000 to $176,000.
No alligator was worth a slave. A hunter who wanted to use live alligator bait would trap an animal like a muskrat for free. Using a slave baby makes less sense than using a foal or a calf today. Business people don’t throw away money casually.
And a dead animal is better bait than a live one because the smell attracts alligators. At Alligator bait | Louisiana Trappers & Alligator Hunters Forum, one hunter advised,
If your stomach is tough enough, 3 day old dead chickens from the chicken houses. They are a little rank, but will call in the gators.
3. The stories have an ironic tone.
The 1923 Oakland Tribune article by T. W. Villiers includes details like this:
…black babies, in the estimation of the alligators, are far more refreshing, as it were, than white ones.
No one did a taste test with white and black babies to see which ones the alligators preferred. Villiers was simply indulging in racist humor.
Gator bait stories are not history. They were only a way for racist whites to laugh at the idea black people were so worthless their own mothers would rent them as gator bait for $2.
Live Human “Alligator Bait” — Fact or Fiction is very thorough and concludes that it’s fiction. I especially like this find from the Tampa Tribune, Nov. 2, 1923:
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 Coon Caricature: Coons as Alligator Bait and Media Assassin: Gator Aid makes no claims about the origin of the stories; they simply describe them and include many examples, beginning in the 1890s, when the first stories of gator bait babies may have appeared.
Jim Crow Museum: Question of the Month: Alligator Bait is interesting and well-documented, though the writer assumes the examples have a basis in fact.