The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of a Panther-Trapping, Gator-Wrestling Wild Man
Trapper Nelson was a Florida legend from the day he hopped off a boxcar to the day he died. But did he really kill himself, or was he murdered?
Photo courtesy Florida State Parks Department | Edited by W.M. Akers
As you ride up the Loxahatchee River from its mouth in Jupiter, Florida, the canopy of slash pines and cabbage palms eventually starts to close in on you. Wildlife hides in the gnarled thickets of mangrove like a secret, given away by a splash only half seen from the corner of your eye. Everything about this place feels prehistoric, making its visitors feel like interlopers — the very thing this river has evolved to keep out. The turns become more and more hairpin, deceiving and disorienting you, as turtles and alligators eye you wearily before slipping beneath the murky water.
Nearly eight miles up the northwest fork of the river, a weathered, wooden boathouse juts out into the dark water: the first sign of human existence seen for miles. Alongside it is a dock that leads through a bamboo thicket into what was once the heart of wild Florida: Trapper Nelson’s homestead, zoo and jungle garden.
From 1945 through the 1960s…
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