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 her husband. She often stated that he was more exciting than 100 other
men and then would ask 'what more is there' in complete innocence.
Young girls wanted to
have fun in the 1700's.
I was the Vice President at the time and 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
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
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
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
[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
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.
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
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
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.
© 2004-8 John