Forty years before Pete the python caused Cowtown’s collective hair to stand on end, Joe the alligator performed a similar follicular feat.
On the night of October 11, 1914 a carnival company arrived in Fort Worth by train. The carnival was in town in conjunction with the Stock Show, which back then was held on the North Side in October.
At the T&P station (located where Frank Kent Cadillac would later be) carnies unloaded a bear, a Shetland pony, and Joe, a six-foot alligator. Joe was muzzled and tethered to a stake on the station grounds preparatory to being transported to the carnival site the next morning.
But early on the morning of October 12, after his overseers fell asleep, Joe, feeling that he deserved a better lot in life and perhaps recalling Robert Frost’s “Freedom lies in being bold,” boldly slipped his bonds and slithered thither to freedom.
After carnival workers discovered that their gator had said, “See ya later,” two witnesses came forward. A packing plant worker nicknamed “Hot Stove” said he had seen Joe in some weeds and had been much afraid. Joe “snorted like an elephant,” Hot Stove said. Another witness said he had seen Joe in some weeds near the mouth of a sewer near East Front Street (now Lancaster Avenue).
After three hours of beating the bushes for Joe, carnival officials concluded that Joe indeed had gone underground: He had crawled into the city sewer system.
“It is said the alligator can live in the sewer for months,” the Star-Telegram said.
Cue the “I’m never going to lift the toilet lid again” paranoia.
On October 13 the Star-Telegram reported that the search for Joe continued. Note that the alligator—while still at large—was said to be worth $150 ($3,400 today).
Turns out that Joe’s freedom had been briefer than was known by the public at the time. On Thursday the Star-Telegram reported that the alligator all-clear had been sounded.
At this point a remarkable player takes center stage in our little tail-dragging drama. Seems that about 9:30 a.m. after Joe’s predawn escape on Monday, one W. O. Phillips, driver of a horse-drawn laundry wagon, was at the train station picking up linen when he saw Joe hotfooting it under a building. Phillips did what any driver of a laundry wagon would do upon seeing a six-foot AWOL alligator: He grabbed Joe by the tail and pulled him out and loaded him onto his laundry wagon. Apparently Phillips kept Joe in the wagon as Phillips made his rounds of laundry pickups and deliveries that day because Phillips later said “that night I took him out to the house” in Arlington Heights. Phillips said he was not afraid of Joe. “I took his muzzle off and dug him a hole in the barn where he could wallow around in.”
On Tuesday morning Phillips made inquiries and discovered that indeed a carnival was one alligator short of a congregation. (Congregation is the group noun for alligators. This I swear on a stack of matching luggage.)
On Wednesday Phillips left Joe in his wallow hole in the barn and went out to the North Side carnival location. Phillips later told the Star-Telegram that he was “half-way expecting” a small reward from the carnival owner. After all, the October 13 news story had said the alligator was valued at $150.
Phillips recounted his meeting with the carnival owner:
“I asked him if he had lost an alligator—didn’t tell him I had it. He said one had gotten away from him. I asked him what he [the alligator] was worth. He said he had eight of them, and he would sell me the whole outfit for 50 cents each.”
(Seems that a $150 alligator in the bush is worth only fifty cents in the hand.)
Phillips said the carnival owner then got mad and threatened to have Phillips arrested for not advertising the fact that Phillips had custody of the escaped alligator. Phillips countered by asking the carnival owner why he had not advertised the fact that he was missing an alligator.
To which the carnival owner replied he had advertised—“in a secret form.”
At which point Phillips asked “what good secret advertising did.”
At which point negotiations broke off. Phillips said the carnival owner could darned well send a wagon out to Arlington Heights and fetch his ol’ fifty-cent alligator.
Which the carnival owner did that night.
And so Joe the six-foot alligator, show biz trouper that he was, returned to his gypsy life in the carnival, perhaps now and then remembering Fearless Phillips and the wallow hole in the barn.
Subterranean labor note: The Star-Telegram said that during the brief time Joe was thought to be AWOL in the city sewer system the prospect of an impromptu strike by sewer workers had loomed as they refused to set foot down a manhole.