Gators and Wildcats and Snakes, Oh My!

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Nicholson catching rattlesnakes. According to Gore, one technique Nicholson used was to distract the rattler by dangling a handkerchief with one hand while grabbing the back of its neck with the other. (Photo courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center)

Augustus Milton Nicholson was in his 20s when he arrived in Orlando around 1885. At the time, the city already had doctors, blacksmiths, teachers, hoteliers, and even an undertaker. But, there was one profession Orlando was still missing: a taxidermist.

According to Eve Bacon’s Orlando: A Centennial History, Nicholson was the first taxidermist in Orlando. His shop, located somewhere along West Church Street between Orange and Garland, had a large pen in back containing live reptiles that Nicholson caught in the Florida wilds. Sometimes he would sell them, such as when he reportedly received an order for 100 live snakes for a traveling show. Other times, he would turn their skins into belts and souvenirs or milk the snake venom to sell for laboratory research.

Nicholson also provided live animals for zoos, museums, gardens, and private parks. In a brochure in the History Center’s archives, Nicholson advertises a wide variety of animals for sale, including 14 species of snakes, 38 species of birds, and numerous mammals both large and small, commonplace and exotic. Alligators have their own section, priced by length. A one-foot baby alligator cost 50 cents while a 12-foot alligator was $50.

Locals and tourists alike would bring Nicholson snakes, fish, alligators, and other creatures to mount. In one memorable incident, detailed in the Orlando Sentinel, a man was bitten on the leg by a six-foot alligator, which he then captured, put in a box (even though it “still had considerable life”), and drove 12 miles in a wagon to Nicholson’s shop. Still bleeding, Nicholson bathed the man’s bite with turpentine and advised him to see a doctor as soon as possible.

In another instance, Nicholson was called upon to ship an alligator that had been housed in a coop on the shore of Lake Eola to its new home at the New York Aquarium. The gator had apparently been at Lake Eola for some time, and the Sentinel reported that there were “no alligator tears shed over his departure.”

Though Nicholson’s story exemplifies the exploitation of wildlife that was prevalent around the turn of the twentieth century, it also reflects the wonder, appreciation, and discovery of Central Florida’s unique natural environment. Nicholson was a keen observer of animal behavior and his passion for nature came through in his writings. He also acted as a guide for visiting wildlife researchers (most notably, Mary Cynthia Dickerson, the first curator of herpetology at the American Museum of Natural History), helping to collect and preserve specimens for future study.

While Nicholson kept his animals at his shop on West Church Street, according to E. H. Gore’s History of Orlando, he was “notified to remove them from the business section of the city” after a large alligator knocked down a part of the fence and escaped, along with Nicholson’s collection of snakes. Nicholson moved his business to present-day South Division Avenue, which was, at the time, considered the country. Although there were several more animal jailbreaks over the years, including a wildcat that found its way into a neighbor’s hen-house, Nicholson lived and worked on Division until his death in 1926 at the age of 66.

Lesleyanne Drake is the Curator of Collections at the Orange County Regional History Center.

One response to “Gators and Wildcats and Snakes, Oh My!”

  1. Kate Mabry says:

    Dear Lesleyanne Drake:

    I really enjoyed the article in which you recently wrote about my Great Granddaddy Nicholson until your comment in the first sentence in the next to last paragraph whereby you said, “Though Nicholson’s story exemplifies the exploitation of wildlife that was prevalent around the turn of the twentieth century,…” as you were wrong to make that assumption about a taxidermist as you would therefore be implying that all taxidermists exemplify the exploitation of wildlife. My Great Granddaddy Nicholson had a pet zoo at his home as he cared for and loved his animals very much along w/contributing to scientific research whereby he extracted (“milked”) and sold rattlesnake venom. I have several photographs in my possession taken together of him and his animals and I recall many delightful childhood stories my Mother shared with me that her Mother had shared with her about her pets and her Dad during her childhood. My Grandmother as a young girl, Irma (Peggy) Nicholson Rucker, Great Granddaddy Nicholson’s daughter, had a pet Kingsnake in which she loved very much. Most children in those days usually had dogs, cats, domestic farm animals for pets and some few had wild animals as pets. It was a different time in those days when there were no TV’s, no radios, no computers/Internet, no telephones, no Smartphones, etc., so family entertainment consisted of singing, piano playing, children playing outdoors, or attending all day church functions, family reunions, traveling to visit family members or perhaps the world’s fair on rare occasions or attending the circus when it “rolled’ into town. Life was much simpler in those times and difficult, whereby most people barely eked out a living unless they were a “Rockefeller” or a “Vanderbilt” or members of other such wealthy families. I hope you will research more of our nation’s wonderful but often times sad history regarding both people and animals in the days before conservation was popular or there was federal legislation to protect humans and animals when genocide was prevalent as witnessed by many tragedies historically, i.e., slavery (modern day slavery), slaughter/relocation/demise of our Native Americans and the rivalry/hatred between them, the settlers, the U.S. Calvary and the U.S. government, women’s suffrage, civil rights, equal rights, the environmental movement, etc., and the extinction of so many species like the Passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, and many more in the twentieth century and those in the century or so before such as the Eastern elk, etc. Many more species would have followed had it not been for the noble and great efforts of so many extraordinary conservationists like President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and many others along with congressional human rights and environmental legislative acts that followed in the twentieth century. Because of my Great Grandfather’s influence, many of his descendant’s have followed in similar careers involving and caring for animals as my niece, Allison Foil, an equine veterinarian in Ocala, Florida and myself, an animal rescuer and former park ranger. My Great Grandfather’s son lived in Orlando and owned and lived on an island there that later became part of Disneyworld. He also served as an Orlando City Commissioner. My Great Grandfather’s life as a taxidermist touched many lives positively and as you can see and he had nothing to do w/the exploitation of wildlife in the twentieth century as he not only eked out his living to support his family in which he loved but also he cared for well and loved his animals. There is nothing in his extraordinary and “colorful” life that contributed to the exploitation of wildlife in the twentieth century. I hope you will print a retraction of that statement in the near future as it is not truthful in regards to my Great Grandfather Nicholson and is a negative reflection upon his character.

    Kate Mabry

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