According to Edward Avery “Ned” McIlhenny, the gator he bagged January 2, 1890, was the larger part of twenty feet in length, 19.2 feet to be exact. By any measure, that’s a monster of cinematic proportions.
The next biggest alligator we have on record is only about fifteen feet long. That makes McIlhenny’s kill longer by the length of a teenage human being.
It’s not that it’s not possible. Maybe gators were bigger in 1890 or maybe he bagged the last of the giants. The problem with McIlhenny’s claim is that historians have little proof other than his word that the beast was so large.
Within that proof, there are some large holes, starting with McIlhenny’s reputation.
Born March 29, 1872, the son of the man behind Tabasco (the hot sauce brand not the state in Mexico), McIlhenny grew up in a privileged Louisiana family.
As such, McIlhenny grew into the role of business person but also developed an affinity for nature. As such, he dedicated much of his life conservation.
He was particularly interested in birds. To that point, he was instrumental in setting up a large bird preserve, the Bird City wildfowl refuge, near the family estate on Avery Island in Louisiana in 1895.
McIlhenny was also instrumental in securing some 175,000 acres of marshland as a wildlife refuge. It’s almost enough to forgive him this one transgression.
The reputation of the man is a mixture of truth and lore. Some of that lore is from pure fabrication, whether intentional or not and the rest from tall tales.
What’s challenge is sorting the wheat from the chaff. The indisputable facts of his life center on his education and exploration.
He was at one time a student at Lehigh University, a member of Phi Delta Theta. This was after graduating from a private military academy in Illinois.
Even though he dropped out of college, the man left well educated in 1894. He left to join an Arctic expedition. When that failed he financed another expedition in 1897.
By 1900, he’d married and settled in New Orleans.
Capture of the giant alligator pre-dated his marriage and life in New Orleans by ten years. In 1890 McIlhenny set out from the aforementioned Avery Island with two assistants. Armed with hunting rifles, they’d planned to traverse the bayous in search of geese.
After shooting two mallards in a stream, McIlhenny noticed a massive log floating in the water. Upon further investigation, he discovered it was an alligator, a big one. Raising his rifle, he shot the monster in the head, killing it.
To be sure it was dead, McIlhenny slept on the boat, returning to the site with his assistants the next morning to retrieve the prize.
They found the gator, tied a rope around its carcass, and pulled it ashore. It was so heavy, according to McIlhenny, they couldn’t tow it onshore. They had no choice but to leave it.
Before leaving, McIlhenny measured the beast in the water with the only instrument he had big enough for the task, his rifle. It was a clean thirty inches long.
Laying on the carcass three times, he figured the gator was nineteen feet and two inches.
For one, the man was yet a boy. Ned McIlhenny was only seventeen in 1890. Add to that, he’d measured the beast with a rifle; better than nothing, but certainly prone to problems. At best it was an estimate, not an absolute length.
Adding to problems with McIlhenny’s claim was his proclivity for exaggeration. He once claimed that he introduced the muskrat to Louisiana, having ferried the species from Argentina.
Perhaps because folks now consider muskrats an invasive species, the McIlhenny Company today denies that old Ned brought them to the marsh.
So, was McIlhenny exaggerating or is someone trying to rewrite history in light of modern perceptions? Good luck with that.
All that aside, one has to wonder why McIlhenny couldn’t bring back something from the gator, a skull or femur. He had the ability to take something. Why not?
Fisherman and hunters are notorious for “the fish that got away” stories, but they also take prizes of worthy hunts. Some proof would have helped his story.
In 1935, McIlhenny released a book, The Alligator’s Life History. In it, he detailed the events from above. The book–rightfully so–established him as the foremost expert on gators, a fact that would be hard to dispute.
McIlhenny died from a stroke in 1949. They buried him on Avery Island. The man’s conservation efforts stand just as strong as his claim on the largest gator hunt on record.