There are times when the line between folklore and reality is murky and ill-defined. Often the most bizarre, puzzling tales of strangeness in the world of folklore have their roots in real events, emanating from something that really existed or happened in some form. However, some stories make it difficult to ascertain just where myth and reality intersect, leaving us to puzzle over just where to draw this line. One such story comes to us from the swamps of the southeastern United States. It is a tale of horror and monstrous, bloodthirsty beasts, which has become embedded within the sinister, spooky folklore of the region and just may have a factual basis in the real. Starting from the early 1900s, the region was held besieged by what was reported as a gargantuan, demonic alligator, which left in its wake mauled dead bodies and its curious two-toed footprints. This is the tale of Two-Toed Tom, the demon gator of the southeast.
Deep in the dense, stagnant swamps along the border between Alabama and Florida a curious story began circulating among the locals in around the 1920s, and was first officially recorded by the University of Alabama professor Carl Carmer when he visited the area in order to write his 1934 travelogue Stars Fell on Alabama. During his visit, locals told Carmer of a vicious alligator measuring 4.5 meters (nearly 15 feet) long, which had emerged from the swamps to wreak havoc on the community, and while alligators were a fact of life in this area, nothing was like the enormous beast that allegedly appeared out of the muddy murk to begin terrorizing the area from seemingly nowhere. Contrary to normal alligators, which are shy and mostly avoid humans, the lore is that this particular massive alligator had begun to aggressively haunt the swamps near Florala, Alabama, actively and fearlessly attacking dogs, cattle, mules, horses, and even people, but it seemed that in addition to its unusual size this was no ordinary alligator. It was said that the creature possessed fiery red glowing eyes and was immensely powerful, able to easily rend large prey to pieces with its jaws, and its tail was claimed to be able to flip over a full grown horse with one lash. One of the beastly alligator’s feet had allegedly been partially shorn off by a steel trap at some point, giving it a distinctive two-toed track and leading to its nickname “Two-Toed Tom.”
As attacks spread to other areas and became more frequent, rumors began to spread that the alligator was not an ordinary animal at all, but rather a malevolent demon from Hell, and his allegedly sinister exploits grew from attacking livestock and humans to hunting down and raping women it found out in the swamp by themselves. As such stories spread, so did the terror they invoked, and those who wandered into the wilderness or near the water were very wary of the telltale two-toed footprints in the muck, and red eyes glowing in the evening gloom. Locals in the areas where the monster was said to lurk were said to have begun to take matters into their own hands, waging a war against the demon gator. A hefty bounty was supposedly offered for Two-Toed Tom, and hunters scouring the swamp supposedly often shot the beast but it was unfazed, laid steel traps which it managed to mostly avoid, and it proved to be very good at eluding those who would kill it while at the same time continuing its bloody rampage. For nearly 20 years it was said that the mysterious gator was actively hunted, even as it mercilessly stalked the swamps for more victims, yet it always managed to get away or shrug off all efforts to harm it.
Perhaps the most well-known incident during this raging battle against the monstrous Two-Toed Tom is the account of a farmer named Pap Haines, who raised livestock on 40 acres of land he had purchased from a lumber company. Although he had been assured that the tales of the monster alligator were just scary folklore, Haines allegedly one day found one of his mules ripped apart and two-toed tracks trailing blood and viscera down to a nearby pond. Speculating that the beast was probably still wallowing in the pond digesting its meal, the infuriated Haines then set about destroying it once and for all. With the help of his sons, Haines filled up 15 syrup buckets with sticks of dynamite and began tossing them into the pond 3 at a time, perhaps not overkill considering the creature’s legendary toughness. The loads of dynamite resulted in a spectacular explosion that sent plumes of water, mud, vegetation, and shattered trees high into the air, completely devastating the pond and leaving very little chance for anything to have survived.
Satisfied that Two-Toed Tom would soon be “floating belly up,” everyone present got quite a shock when, just moments after the massive eruption of water and flying debris, there were screams accompanied by a riotous thrashing of water coming from another nearby pond. Knowing what this undoubtedly meant, a grim Haines went to go finish what he’d started, along with his sons and a posse of 8 armed local men. When the men arrived, they were greeted by the glinting red eyes of Two-Toed Tom sinking under bloodied water still frothing from all of the splashing about. It soon became apparent where all of the blood had come from, as the badly mauled, ripped apart corpse of Haines’ 12-year-old granddaughter was reportedly laying nearby. It was later surmised that she had been on her way to the other pond to see what all of the explosions were about when she had come across the vengeful demon alligator, perhaps none too happy about the explosive efforts to exterminate it. The heartbroken, furious Haines would allegedly spend the rest of his days caught up in an obsessive quest to kill the beast, and it is said that even when hard times hit the community and his friends and family were moving away to make a living, Haines refused to budge, instead intent on remaining where he was in order to complete his vendetta to slay Two-Toed Tom. He would die a lonely old man without ever having gained the vengeance he sought.
One of the reasons that Haines may not have been able to ultimately kill the enormous alligator could be because it is said that shortly after the dynamite attack, Two-Toed Tom apparently went on the move, crossing the state line into Florida to continue his marauding slaughter of cattle and people. Two-Toed Tom began to actively prowl the waterways of Choctawhatchee River and Holmes Creek swamps of Holmes, Walton and Washington Counties, as well as Sand Hammock Lake in the town of Esto, in Holmes County, where he was often seen wallowing about or basking on shore, and it was said that his groaning bellows could often be heard reverberating through the night. The alligator was often said to let out a terrifying grunting roar in response to the whistle signaling shift changes at the Alabama-Florida Lumber Co., and his shining red eyes and two-toed tracks became a common sight in these areas. It was reported that Tom drove out all of the other alligators in the areas he frequented, and that the corpses of slaughtered cattle, as well as dogs, missing chickens, and other farm animals were common. Interestingly, sightings of Tom at this time tended to make him out to be much larger than he had ever been depicted before, and one group of boys who spied him basking on a sandy shore described the beastly gator as being from 5.5 to 7.3 meters (18 to 24 feet) long. Again, efforts to shoot Tom proved futile, and it was reported that the creature was impervious to bullets.
One particularly dramatic encounter that occurred during this period happened when a young girl was walking with her mother along a sandy path near Sand Hammock Lake. The girl went ahead to play and was surprised to hear her mother let out a sharp, panicked scream. When the girl turned to see what was going on, she was met with the sight of the monstrous alligator lunging out from the brush onto the path they were on. Two-Toed Tom then allegedly reared up on its hind legs and let loose with a bloodcurdling roar which, along with the screams of the girl and her mother, attracted the attention of some nearby local men. The men reportedly came running to the scene, with one of them armed with a high-powered rifle. A few rounds were fired at the beast and it fell still, seemingly dead, yet when the men gathered around it to inspect the corpse, Tom jumped to life and allegedly swept them all off their feet with a mighty lash of its tail before scurrying off into the swamp.
The legend of Two-Toed Tom was so persistent in the region that the gator has even appeared in literature. The beast makes an appearance in Lee Harper’s book Go Set a Watchman, which was finished in 1957 but not published until 2015. The book makes mention of several real-life locations and people, and in Chapter 6, two of the characters share an exchange on the giant killer alligator. In the scene, the characters, named Jean Louise and Henry, are walking towards the river when they have the following conversation:
She said, “You can feel the river already.”
“You must be half alligator,” said Henry. “I can’t.”
“Is Two-toed Tom still around?”
Two-Toed Tom lived wherever there was a river. He was a genius: he made tunnels beneath Maycomb and ate people’s chickens at night; he was once tracked from Demopolis to Tensas. He was as old as Maycomb County.
“We might see him tonight.”
After years of terrorizing the swamps, rivers, and lakes of the region, Two-Toed Tom started to be seen less and less, until he apparently just sort of disappeared. The tales of the giant alligator were very much still alive, though, and he became a prominent legend in the area. Then, in the 1980s, a giant alligator path was found scrawled across a muddy sandbar on Boynton Island on the Choctawahtchee, which suggested a specimen of enormous size. When the tracks of the alligator were examined, it was found that one of the feet had only two toes, once again propelling Tom into the limelight and igniting talk that the killer gator was still alive and well. Despite the fact that Tom would have been coming along in years by that time, sightings reports of the legendary beast started coming in again, and several hunts were organized to try and track the creature down without success. There was much speculation about what had happened to Tom in the previous years, with talk that he had merely gone into hiding in the remote areas of the swamp. To this day there are those who claim Two-Toed Tom is still out there prowling the swamps of Northwest Florida and Southeast Alabama, with the occasional sighting still made, and the alligator is a major fixture of local folklore. There is even a Two-Toed Tom Festival held every summer in the town of Esto, Florida.
Considering the creature’s legendary status and the countless stories told about him, it is difficult to say just how much of the tale of Two-Toed Tom is mere dark, spooky folklore and how much could possibly be based on fact. Alligators most certainly do live in the region, and the original sizes of around 15 feet reported for Two-Toed Tom are within the range of a very large American alligator. Indeed, alligators are known to keep growing throughout their entire lives, so a very old individual could possibly fit the size descriptions, although reports of 24 feet seem fairly exaggerated. It seems possible that a very aggressive alligator, a “man-eater,” could have very well been the origin of the tales, after which the legend took on a life of its own and became more embellished with retellings over the years. The glowing red eyes, apparent indestructibility, talk of demons, the enormous sizes later reported, and even the horrific extent of its bloody killing spree, could have all been elements added later in the folklore. Considering that the gator was claimed to be alive in the 1980s and beyond, such reports would be pushing the limits of a typical wild alligator’s lifespan, which is around 50 years in the wild, although they can get up to 80 in captivity. It is perhaps feasible that an American alligator could live long enough to account for the same individual being sighted in the 1920s and 1980s, but one as large as Tom was reported to have been would have been quite old at that time already, and it is more likely it was simply the reemergence of the myth.
Was Two-Toed Tom ever real, or is this all pure folklore and eerie campfire stories? If it is based in factual events, how much of the tale has been exaggerated and how much is true? We may never know for sure the answers to these questions, but it seems to be an interesting case that illuminates how legends of strange creatures can take off, weaving around themselves ever expanding tales that make the line between reality and fantasy blurred and uncertain, as well as the possibility that such tales potentially have their roots in real animals. Folklore can certainly be a potent force in the world of cryptozoology, and has shaped and evolved the way in which many of the world’s alleged hidden animals are regarded. Indeed many real, known animals are highly steeped in such folkloric elements, and much folklore is based on at least some fragment of truth. Where does myth end and reality begin? More than just being considered flights of fancy, perhaps such stories are worth further analysis, maybe offering insights that can be revealed if we just dig deep enough and make the line between the real and fantastical clearer and more defined. Who knows? Maybe Two-Toed Tom is lurking out there after all, more than just a dark tale, coiled in the gloom ready to pounce, his malevolent gaze piercing the swamp night.