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.