Holly Richardson: Old children’s rhyme has a horrible history

Holly Richardson (2019)

“Five little monkeys, swinging in a tree, teasing Mr. Alligator, ‘‘Can’t catch me, you can’t catch me!‘”

To my chagrin, I learned this week that what I thought was a simple children’s rhyme was steeped in gut-wrenching racism, reflecting a time in the United States when Black babies were used as alligator bait. I am absolutely horrified at the stories I found.

In the book Happy Days: Mencken’s Autobiography: 1880-1892 Volume 1, H.L. Mencken writes of a trip his uncle took with a man named Christian Abner. Abner sent his relatives in what is now Germany a “glowing account of alligator-hunting in Florida, and urged them not to be upset by the use of Negro babies as bait.” Then, he justified it.

“At first,” he explained that he couldn’t do it, because the actions were “incompatible with Christian principles and German Kultur, but,” he said that travel had expanded his mind and he had decided that it was “bigotry to judge the mores of a new and progressive country by those of Europe now so old and decadent.”

Pardon me while I vomit.

In 1902, the St. Louis Republic described floats in their “Veiled Prophet Parade,” an event sponsored by a former Confederate soldier to celebrate the Louisiana Purchase. Float number 15 was called “Plantation Life in Louisiana” and depicted a “negro cabin” with a “monstrous alligator swallowing a fat pickaninny” (a derogatory racial term describing Black children) in the back of the cabin while at the front, fishermen and their companions danced happily to a banjo being played by a “snowy-haired African.”

In 1908, the Washington Times printed an article about how zookeepers coaxed more than 25 crocodiles and alligators from their winter quarters to their summer tank. As visitors watched, two small Black children were put forward as bait and ran around the tank (presumably in terror) as the animals chased them.

In 1923, Time magazine ran a story of Black babies being used as bait in Florida and the Miami News Times told of alligator hunters who would tie ropes around the necks and waists of babies and dangle them in the water, waiting for a crocodile to snap.

Memorabilia around “alligator bait” abounds, including postcards depicting crying babies with the words “Alligator Bait” on the bottom and one with the words “Free Lunch in the FLA. Everglades” followed by this little ditty:

“Have you met the Florida Gator?

He is the champion negro hater.

Although he finds many things to eat

His favorite morsel is negro meat.”

The “alligator bait” theme was used on other products as well, including Black licorice sold under the name “Little African Licorice” with the subtitle “A dainty morsel” while the artwork depicted a large alligator ready to eat a frightened Black baby.

Household items included figurines of alligators eating Black children, and an alligator pencil sharpener, where the head of the pencil was a Black baby, so to sharpen it, you had to stick the baby into the alligator’s mouth.

There are some folks today, 100-plus years later, who believe the “alligator bait” stories to be folklore. Perhaps they are, but if you read any stories of the atrocities perpetrated on Black people — men, women and children (even babies), then surely there is reason to believe the accounts are plausible.

What is indisputable, however, is that the notion of “alligator bait” was used in postcards, memorabilia and music, perpetuating an absolutely horrid notion that babies could be used as bait.

I know for me and my house, we will never sing that children’s song again.

Holly Richardson

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune.