Said to be a giant alligator that inhabited swamps close to the Florida-Alabama border, Two-Toed Tom gained near legendary status for being apparently impervious to firearms and even dynamite. Tales of his aggressive attacks on both people and animals, beginning in the 1920s, earned him the moniker ‘the demon gator’.
Since the earliest reports of a huge, man-eating alligator in the extensive swamplands of southern Alabama emerged during the 1920s, tales of Two-Toed Tom have grown to describe something more than just an alligator. Named for the distinctive footprints he leaves following the loss of three toes in a spring trap, one of many unsuccessful attempts to catch or kill him, many locals grew to believe that Tom’s aggression and size reflected his true nature as a demon of the bayou, rather than a mere animal. Many describe him as possessing glowing red eyes and being large enough to easily drag cattle or horses into the water, as well as preying on dogs, mules and, reportedly, people.
The first recorded reference to Two-Toed Tom come from 1934 travelogue Stars Fell Over Alabama, written by University of Alabama professor Carl Carmer. During his visit to the area to conduct research for the publication, Carmer was told by locals of a massive alligator that resided in the nearby swamps, measuring at least 15 feet in length (4.5 metres). Alligators were common in the area but were generally shy creatures, avoiding humans in most instances. Tom was different, showing little fear of people and aggressively hunting livestock, seemingly undeterred by the efforts of local farmers to trap or shoot him. Those that frequented the bayou lived in fear of spotting a pair of glowing red eyes in the water, or the giant gator’s distinctive tracks. A significant bounty was offered to anyone that could kill the animal, and many hunters claimed to have shot the alligator, only to find their shots seemingly ineffective, watching their quarry shrug off the bullet wounds and disappear into the murky waters. At the time that Carmer visited the area, locals told him that Tom had been plaguing them for almost 20 years.
One of the best known encounters with the animal comes from the story of a farmer named Pap Haines, the owner of a 40-acre lifestock farm. Tom was said to have dragged off and devoured dozens of his animals, badly affecting the profitability of his farm. After finding one of his mules dismembered and a bloody trail of two-toed footprints leading to a nearby pool, Haines set out to kill the animal, reckoning that the time it would take to digest its hefty meal would give him the time to act. Enlisting the help of his adult sons, Haines peppered the pool with 15 buckets filled with dynamite, reducing the pond and surrounding trees to a twisted mess of mud and broken wood.
Despite the destruction, the men were soon disturbed by the sound of thrashing and screaming from a nearby pool. After grabbing rifles they set out to finish the task of killing the beast, only to find Haines’ 12-year old granddaughter eviscerated by the edge of the water. Locals speculated that the girl had been drawn from the house to investigate the sound of the explosions, only to be ambushed by Tom on her way there. Haines would spend the rest of his life obsessively hunting the alligator, even remaining in the area after many of his family members and neighbours moved away to seek better fortunes elsewhere. He is said to have passed away a bitter, lonely old man, having failed in his quest for vengeance.
Perhaps driven by the fanatical hunt of Haines, stories of Two-Toed Tom appear to have shifted from Alabama to northwestern Florida shortly after, where he began to frequent the waters of the Choctawhatchee River. Locals that spotted him basking on the riverbank estimated his size to be anything up to an improbable 25 feet (7.5 metres) and more stories emerged of firearms having no effect on him.
Over the years, sightings of the giant alligator became increasingly infrequent, and he was eventually assumed to have succumbed to old age. Rumours of his continued existence however were stoked over sixty years after the first records of him. In the mid 1980s, an alligator path, created when an animal regularly drags itself into and out of the water in the same place, was found on Boynton Island, deep in the Florida bayou east of Pensacola. The size of the path suggested an individual of extreme size and weight, and the footprints along the path included those from an alligator’s foot with only two toes. The finding reignited speculation that Tom was alive and well, and several unsuccessful hunts were organised. Since then, occasional sightings continue to be reported, and there remain those that believe the demon gator still haunts the swamps.
As with much folklore, there appears to be a basis of fact behind the stories of Two-Toed Tom. While there is little concrete written evidence, many of the claims, particularly from early in his reported reign of terror, are not so outlandish as to be unbelievable. As with many species, alligators possess a membrane known as the tapetum lucidum at the back of their eye, used to reflect light back into the iris to improve vision in low-light conditions. When a light is shone at them in the dark, it gives the impression of glowing red eyes, as can be seen in the feature image, above. Early estimates of a size of around 15 feet is within the known range for a particularly large American Alligator, and the period of regularly reported sightings falls well within the recorded potential lifespan of a gator, who have been known to live over 50 years. It is in the later reports that we appear to move far more into the realms of fantasy, or at least embellishment. Suggestions that Tom reached a size of 25 feet seem extremely unlikely (even at 15 feet, Tom would have been amongst the largest gators on record). He would have almost certainly succumbed to old age well before reports of his re-emergence in the 1980s, particularly given his size from reports in the 1920s meant he must have already been well into adulthood at that stage.
Feature image: Larry Lynch/Natural History Museum