The Widow, Alligators and the Third President.

Her husband had commanded a ship that smuggled guns and ammunition right past the British without getting caught. His page is the next one in the series.

 

While most smugglers brought in everything except arms and ammunition he was one of four (three got caught) that fearlessly and consistently brought in that cargo which meant certain death if he had been captured.

After the war he built a shipping company bringing in merchandise from Europe. In his forties he finally decided it was time to marry and he married a wonderful woman. She was 17 years young and everyone said it was a perfect match (except for his mother who like most mothers are overly concerned about their children even at 48 years of age). One was from North Carolina and one from South Carolina.

She was perfect in manners, highly intelligent and one of the most beautiful of women in the south I had been told. She was quoted as saying that she saw all other men as pests after she had met him. She often stated that he was more exciting that 100 other men and then would ask 'what more is there' in complete innocence.

Young girls wanted to have fun in the 1700's..

A friend, a Secretary, maybe of the Navy had simply asked me in a note to see her. Adding that she no longer glowed as she once had. Her husband's ship had been lost at sea along with all hands and the cargo. She not only suffered the trauma of her loss and that was affecting her tremendously but she was having trouble with claims against her husbands estate. The claims were for loss of the merchandise that went down with the ship.

Three lawyers had told her she would lose the case if it went to court since it was their word against hers. Since she had no intimate knowledge of her husbands dealings while they were intimately involved in their company only their word would count in the courtroom.

Two thirds of the shipment they said had not been insured and it's value was greater than his net worth including his house which was now hers. The shame of this would ruin her. Being from the south it would leave her with no honor at all.

She came on a rainy day. Wednesday comes to mind. Since her furs were plastered to her body she looked more like a wet weasel than a woman. She was frail and uncomfortable, just plain uncomfortable. I tried to make it as easy for her as I could but she seemed in an upset that I could not remedy. I wondered if this was the same woman I had heard so much about. She warmed a bit after awhile and a glass of wine helped. Then she came out of her shell a bit. It came to me that maybe she was still in a bit of shock from the news of her husbands death so I honored him as much as I could.

She was exhausted I found out from a twelve hour trip in a leaky coach that left her and her valise soaking and right on my porch. A rooming house was nearby and I assured her my butler would take over her valise as well as a second case and she could dry them out there.

She asked me what could she do if anything. She looked dejected and I kept thinking this must be a different woman or maybe a practical joke by my friends. This was the kind of joke Ben Franklin would have pulled when he was alive. I thought she was probably a local 'working girl' hired as a lark to lighten me up.

Until she pulled out the papers and then things got very serious and they got that way very fast. I told her the claims against her husbands estate sounded a bit exorbitant from what I had been told and then I asked her for the ships manifest.

She said with her southern drawl and a slight amount of her charm regained from the trip, 'Suh, you have me at a disadvantage as I do not have any idea of what you are referring to. Had you asked me about mending the tear on your coat on the back of that chair I could tell you five ways you could mend it using twine, hair, gut and two with jute. It would never show nor sag nor rip for the life of your coat but suh this manifest is something I do not know about. She had roused from her sully demeanor to deliver her little monolog for my pleasure and it had been a delight to hear. Having established that she was as sharp as a whip but just not learned in the field that her husband was engaged in, I charged ahead and explained what the manifest was.

She said 'Oh, the list, why didn't you say the 'list'' and she handed it to me without any fanfare. The manifest was not signed and the other sides contention was that it was not actually the manifest but a list of what was being put on the ship. This argument had won their war for them it appeared at first. They said her copy was lacking the final two days of merchandise that were loaded on the ship.

After looking at it for a few minutes I asked for the list of items they claimed they had shipped and she handed me that list and it was twice as long. I noticed the value of the 'new' items were greater than the others and usually it was the other way around. The most valuable items were usually loaded first in the most secure place in the hold and then less valuable merchandise was packed in around it so it would not get taken by crew or pirates if they came on board. So in less than two minutes I was more than suspicious but it was still not enough to win her case as they would claim the last and more valuable merchandise had come from another ship that was delayed in delivering it.

There were about Ten tons of soft goods alone. Then there were casks and casks of liquor. I multiplied that in my head to get the weight of the casks and then I went on to the next item and figured the weight of that and on down the list. It took me a few minutes and then I told her 'frankly the merchandise they claimed weighed out at almost three times the tonnage of the ship.'

'What do you mean' she asked and I replied, 'The ship would have sank to the bottom of the bay on a calm day before they had gotten it three quarters loaded. What they are doing is trying to commit a fraud. Now a fraud in this case is'...she cut me off with 'Suh I know the meaning of the word 'fraud' and I know the meaning of the word 'extortion' as well.' With that she bit her lip and would not say anything more until she calmed. Why she was biting her lip and talking of 'extortion' I had no idea. Her eyes now lit up with anger and hatred. It was time for me to move out of her sight before she unleashed on me again. She left and I thought no more this little vile rat like animal that almost bit me twice.

She sent me a letter thanking me for the help and included $50. I could not figure out what to do with the money.

She profusely apologized for directing her anger toward me. She explained that all she had when she came to me was her honor and it was rapidly leaving her except that I respected her so fully that she felt completely good for the first time since her husband had died.

Then she tried to confirm what I had told her since three other lawyers told her she could not disprove the claim without a signed ships manifest. I had been the only one who pointed out that in her case a signed manifest was not needed. She thought I could not be right as I contradicted so many of her other lawyers..

So she asked numerous people but she never got beyond 'Can you tell me if what Thomas Jefferson told me is right in a matter of law?' and they all would say, 'yes'. Not a one even wanted to hear the rest of her question. Then she realized that I had just given her back everything that she had lost to the company that was suing her.

Being from the south and being a single 23 year old widow threatened by shameless scoundrels meant there were about 500 men willing to protect her and defend her honor. And now I was certain that her need for help on a personal level was taken care of also. The company that was suing her would definitely lose in court and her men friends would make certain they would never do business in the south again.

Apparently she threatened to turn the lawsuit completely around and imprison them for fraud and destroy their company by quoting my name. The word 'extort' came into play next. Instead she 'pressured' them into an iron clad contract for the shipping of their goods at an exorbitant price for the next three years. Then she went the bank and borrowed against the contract and then she cornered the entire Georgia alligator pelt market (Alligator skins were just becoming a fad in Europe and the ultimate fashion statement). She more than tripled her net worth in less than two years.*

When she visited again I was stunned at her radiance. It was incredible, as if a flame burned inside her. She was warm beyond belief and as cheerful as I had ever seen anyone. Just walking into the room she lit it brightly. She was a completely transformed woman. We sat facing each other and talked at great length. Then she started explaining in detail that the reason for her visit to the capital was to settle her late husband's affairs and each time she said the word 'affairs' she lingered a little longer until some how she managed to make the word 'affairs' the center word of the conversation around which all the other words flowed but they didn't matter.

Her diaphanous blue dress made me stop every two sentences because it was so translucent and bordering on transparent that you could see where the shadows fell inside of her dress and there was a clear outline of every issue being of even the remotest interest to a healthy man. The 'issues' were all perfectly clear even to this day and perfect in every way according to my interests.

Then my pants kept getting tighter and tighter. But I was managing a straight face and felt certain she had not noticed. I was sure it was all completely under control but then she started moistening her lips with her tongue as she spoke and that issue took a terrible toll. Then she bent toward me while looking over my shoulder at the wall. Then she bent closer so her cheek was next to mine in order to get a better look, She exclaimed saying. That's the same growth of mold on the wall that I saw the last time that I was here. It used to be about four inches' and she clamped her hand solidly on my leg to steady herself, only it wasn't only my leg that she clamped on to, 'My word, it must have grown to at least eight inches' and then she turned and smiled the most deliciously mischievous smile I had ever seen in my life.

Thomas Jefferson was never the same. And he never forgot her.


*I'm sure that in part she went into alligator pelts so that she could get to get to go on alligator hunts. Women were 'cordially not invited' to attend. It was due the concern men had over the dangers inherently involved and the need for great strength.

She could have lived very well for the rest of her life and traveled to Europe every couple years on what her husband had left her. But she wasn't lying or stretching the truth when she said she married the most exciting man she had ever met and did so for the excitement and not his money. The alligators were the proof of that love and when her arm got badly bitten by her mascot alligator it was what got all of her in-laws to finally accept her. It's weird that took her arm being almost bit off to get them to accept her.

That mascot was named William and he was a little too big to have around as a pet at about 4 1/2 feet long. She took it with her to sell her gator accessories and even to Europe. It made the Washington papers as a short inch and a half column when she took it with her shopping, on a leash, in Charlottesville.

His mouth was wired shut to 'protect the dogs' she would say. It was when she was wiring his mouth shut, which she did whenever she took him out in public, that it bit her. The wiring must have been inside of his mouth because you could not see it from the outside and she only told people his mouth was wired shut when they started to hysterically scream (which was often). She usually had me help her when she took the wire off. So that she would not get bit I'd hold William still by grappling him around the neck.

She kept trying to add to my notoriety saying that I earned it. She once took William to Monticello where it and her had the house completely to themselves for two days as no one would go inside. Apparently a necklace got stolen the previous time she visited and she took care of it herself by terrorizing the entire household and letting them know why she was doing it. They sent a note to me in the capital and it read really strange so I could not figure it out. She never told me about the necklace saying that she wanted to give me some notoriety and also relieve me of having to worry about anything other than the Presidency.

She said the office of president made me too stuffy. Next to the European rulers I looked positively puritanical and it would be impossible for the next president to live up to the illusion that I presented.' The truth is that was the truth. England was looking for any issue of lawlessness or illegal moral conduct as a reason to invade us again so there were many things that were kept out of the papers and would not get put into papers until after the 1950's. After 1805 England was in wars in Europe so they paid less attention to the US and a few more things made it into the papers. The only one of us who was considered scandalous was Ben Franklin but since he was not prominent in the federal government his actions did not affect the nation in this respect.

[There were trials that turned into bloody drunken brawls and the judge often jumped right into the middle of it swinging away. One of these we got lucky with since that trial was in Philadelphia and the next case scheduled ten minutes later involved a charter contract dispute between English and Americans and the English had not showed up when the fight was on. Two of the participants in the fight had to be carried out the back of the courtroom as the English walked in the front and found the clerk wiping up the blood. They did not recognize what the sticky stuff was that they sat in. These English were well known by Parliament and on their word alone the English would have moved to the edge of war.]

She must have wanted the most exciting life possible because she found a loophole in the unwritten rule against women going on alligator hunts by owning the company. She would disappear into wilds of the southern swamps for months at a time. They would carry her out in fever's and near death but in three weeks she would be ready to go right back into the swamps. Never was a man or a woman so enthusiastic about going back into those wilds than she was!

In the winters when the alligators were hibernating she would go to the Continent and take William with her. She would start in Scandinavia in the fall and then Russia in the dead of winter and then back to France and work her way across Europe. She would end up banging on doors in Germany in the spring time, insisting that they had to do business with a woman if they wanted to buy her pelts. And I mean banging the doors because they were so against women in business that they would lock the doors when they saw her carriage pull up. She would see them run inside so she would shamelessly terrify them by dragging William with her or as she would say with an innocent smile that only a refined southern women could manufacture according to need, 'I'd drag out out my 'Willie' and parade it right in front of them' Then with a mischievous twinkle in her eye add, 'right there in the middle of the streets of Hamburg'. Then she would break into a giggle that no other woman over the age of 13 ever allow to come out of their mouth. That giggle always settled everyone.

She was great with everyone and kids liked her especially.

I was always very concerned about her expeditions and perhaps those to Europe more than in the wilds. Such were the criminals on the open roads of Europe. She always took lots of expensive pelts but she said the pelt that had legs protected all the other pelts and that included her own pelt (skin). Everywhere she went she took a feather comforter and five warmers which the hotels put hot coals in every morning for William. Still the cold got through so that every night she had to thaw out William and she would often take him downstairs to warm him in front of the fireplaces at the inns she stayed at. He would soak up the heat like he did the sun in the wilds.

She got most of her business and personal leads this way. Also, the thieves and highway men learned about her this way. They would have friends at the hotels that scouted out their victims ahead of time. Many travelers had exotic breeds of dogs that highways men and thieves never knew existed.

Some breeds like the Staffordshire Terrier (pictured below) are really a refined version of it's relative, the pit bull.

Even a small 20 pound Staffordshire like this one, if so motivated, can place a person in the hospital very fast.

So being ignorant of alligators the thieves assumed that William was the same as a trained exotic dog but one that could bite your arm off so they were terrified of him and only one time did she have a problem with bandits and the pistol in her handbag took care of that.

In fact I was more concerned about her than my own daughters who were following in their father's footstep as far as being rebellious was concerned. After my wife's death they, the servants and all the younger children looked to my visitors as a substitute for my wife and I began to worry that I might come home to this.

Or this

 

They were charmed by my lady friend to the point where I began to wonder if one of the children might take off into the wilds of Mississippi with her. At Monticello someone once asked her if William liked being paraded around and taken to all those places she visited. Her reply was that he got all the fresh fish and chickens he could eat (which impressed most people since both were expensive food items) and he got to see England as well as the continent (which is where all people wanted to visit at least once in their life). She stated that the great food he ate meant both her and William had to work but he could quit the job any time he wanted to and become two valises, four handbags, five hatbands and three pair of shoes. She would change the numbers as time went on. Each four chickens would equal a hat band and two and a half hatbands would be the same as a belt, etc. She continuously calculated to the last square inch what William could be made into.

At one time alligators went all the way up at least as far as Delaware or as they would say, any where that the ground did not freeze solid in the winter. New York used to have them in the sewers at one time. [I found a map that shows they still go as far north as the Carolinas.]

There are two ways to kill an alligator and the methods were very different.

First you could not kill them with a rifle as the lead balls we used were inadequate for the task. They would not penetrate the skull where it had to hit a walnut size brain in order kill the gator faster than he could swim away. If he was shot anywhere else he would just go up under a riverbank where his den was and since alligators did not seem to get infected they would heal most of the time.

Once I was on a hunt and a man made a perfect shot at the brain but the alligator just swam slowly away as if nothing had happened.

I told him he had made a perfect shot. He said 'Yep, and killed him too, but that alligator is so dumb he wont know he is dead for another week'.

It took a cannon to kill any that were over five feet in length. And I do mean a real cannon. They used a two pound gun and with that they could literally blow the top off their skull. That seemed to stop them pretty well.

However, the Alligators learned really fast about the cannon and gunfire in general and if they were within about five miles they would feel the vibration (not hear it) and go hide for a week. You had to do a lot of rowing when you used a cannon.

The other way to hunt alligators was the kind I got caught up in. You get five men with pitchforks and two boys (one to hold the lantern and one to pick it up and hold it when the first one got scared and ran away).

For the men the object was to drink enough whisky so that you wouldn't run away but not enough so that the alligator could catch you.

You can probably tell why it got exciting really fast and why my lady friend got involved in this endeavor.

The object was to get the alligator over on his back and then one of men would jump on him and slit his throat real fast. It still took a while for him to die but the alligator couldn't move his head once you slit the muscles in the throat.

If you got a big one and he had not yet got you then there was only one way to deal with him (if you didn't have a cannon).

You had to get a noose over his head and that involved getting him to snap at you so that his head was up in the air. The typical 12 to 20 foot alligator often didn't stop at just snapping and they were less reliable than a bull in a bull ring. You didn't know where they were going to attack. Once you got a rope over his head you would throw the other end up over a tree limb and get 3-5 men to pull him high enough to reach his throat and slit it.

If there were no trees then you would run the rope under a root that was underwater and pull him under and then leave him there to drown while you celebrated and got drunk on the rest of the whisky.

The average alligator that we killed when we went hunting was four feet longer than this one on the right. The record is another two foot longer than the ones we usually got which were smaller because they did not grow as big in Virginia as in Florida. Alligators are like sharks in that they never stop growing and they don't die of old age it seems. On the right you are probably looking a foot of growth for every ten years of age. With no natural enemies, it's not hard thinking this guy could have easily lived another 40 years if it was 200 years ago when there were very few people and not a single one with a high powered rifle to kill him with.

I know I am going to get letters telling me that their great grandfather used to hunt alligators and he didn't do it this way. He lied, that is all I can say.

 

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