In the summer of 1905, a Manhattan-based herpetologist, Dr. JT Tenderfoot, boarded a train at Grand Central Station bound for New Orleans. A Louisiana gentleman had written to him describing the existence of the “Lafitte Gator,” a reptile of such substantial proportions that it could consume a portly man in a single gulp. An academic of intense curiosity, Tenderfoot donned his explorer’s hat, traveled to Acadiana, and after a few days of fact-finding among the local population, planned an expedition across the various swamps, lakes, and marshes surrounding the dusty town of Lafitte in search of this dinosaur.
“Six times the size of a normal alligator” one fellow told him. “Able to chew a man and spit out only the bones,” mentioned another. A third exclaimed, “Killer of nearly twenty men after the Civil War!” These comments did not deter the explorer, who assumed that these bizarre anecdotes spilled casually from the town drunkards after a few swigs of Bark Juice.
While in town, Tenderfoot was known to have taken acquaintance with an old woman named Carol Anne Stokes. She was a relic of Lafitte, a woman who could be found on her porch most afternoons with a needle in hand, sewing flags or blankets for the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Stokes warned Tenderfoot that even if he located the Lafitte Gator, he might not be happy with what he found. But with a chorus of rural legends ringing in the doctor’s ears, he found a dozen of the ablest men in Southern Louisiana, outfitted them with the most sophisticated technology that money could buy, and set out to find the reptile.
For six weeks they traveled back and forth across the Bayou. By day, each man hid his eyes in shade under a wide brimmed hat, and by night they kept their eyes on Tenderfoot’s solitary lamp. Threading the trees from marsh to marsh they moved about, sometimes on fan boat but often on foot. There were two casualties, as was to be expected in an expedition of that scale, and they discovered many a large alligator (in fact, on Tenderfoot’s Expedition, as it came to be known, they laid claim to the largest alligator ever tagged in North America), but none at the scale described by those men in the saloons of Lafitte.
Having returned to the town empty-handed and perhaps having enjoyed a few sips of Bark Juice at the local saloon himself, Dr. Tenderfoot spent one final night in Lafitte recounting this journey for all who would hear it. “Had I known that I might travel this great distance, find myself on the precipice of death via mosquito, lose two men and thousands of dollars of equipment, I might not have taken the advice of these backcountry folk, who would rather believe there is a dinosaur in these marshes than see that a few men enjoyed too much beverage and couldn’t stumble a path out of the Bayou.”
Amidst heckling and booing, the doctor stood and turned to face the patrons of the saloon. “See this hat?” he began, pulling his wide-brimmed exploring hat off his head, “This hat has been there for them all – pesky boars of the Outback, the black mamba of the Amazon, wild hippopotami of the Serengeti. I’ve burrowed through thickets, canoed down piranha-infested rivers, slept many nights on damp soil with the sound of carnivores ringing in my ears. I’ve been all over the world.” He paused for a moment. “I’ve come here to help with your gator problem. Of course, there is the opportunity that wealth may befall me if I found this legendary beast. But nonetheless, I’ve come to assist. But perhaps there isn’t much for saving in this town.”
His sermon included other statements, more and less disparaging, more and less provocative. He discussed the fruitlessness of the land, and even the fruitlessness of the people. But at the end of the night, wallpapered as he was, provocative as he was, he found a friendly face in Carol Anne Stokes. Despite protests from the town, she found it within herself to guide him to his hotel.
On their walk across the town square, as she and a few others propped him up, Dr. Tenderfoot asked about her late husband.
“Oh you don’t want to hear about that,” she said.
“No but I do,” he replied.
“He was here for investments,” she said, “an Illinois banker who traveled here after the Civil War to invest in infrastructure. We fell in love despite protests from my father and other members of the town.”
“How did he die?”
“Wandered off into the Bayou one night and never returned,” she said, before pausing for a moment, “I owe the town a great debt now, for how they supported me. And I have to make good on that debt from time to time.”
She walked him up to his room, and even as he continued to sloppily question her, and even as he continued to degrade the very town that her father and his father had called home, she tucked him in.
But as it so happened, she was the last to see him, for by the morning, Dr. Tenderfoot had disappeared. The train station was searched, telegrams were issued to the conductor of the early train, and the Sheriff phoned the largest hotels in New Orleans. In a final act of desperation, a few members of his expedition searched the nearby shallow marshes.
After a few hours of searching they found him hidden among the Spanish moss, waist-deep in swamp water, just a skeleton covered in reptilian bile. As if in answer to an imagined question – how can we be certain these are the remains of that great explorer, Dr. JT Tenderfoot – there sat on the skeleton’s head that explorer’s hat he so proudly sported the night prior.