A Rich Historical Heritage

The "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" digital archive contains 40 original full-text articles profiling the history of Palm Beach County. The archive is a companion site to "Palm Beach County Issues & Views." Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, author of the book "Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida" and related articles about Florida's past. This archive is the winner of the Florida Historical Society's 2019 Hampton Dunn Digital Media Award.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Life and Times of Palm Beach's 'Alligator Joe'

By Bob Davidsson
        The highlight of the 1907 winter social season on the isle of Palm Beach was not a grand ball at Henry Flagler's decade-old Royal Poinciana Hotel, nor the annual motor yacht races on Lake Worth. No, the season's big event, attracting hundreds of Palm Beachers and visiting socialites to the oceanfront, was a wrestling match between burly, 300-pound "Alligator Joe" Frazier and a 12-foot Florida saltwater crocodile.
        Newspapers from West Palm Beach to New York City published eyewitness accounts of the "Man vs. Reptile" showdown in Flagler's upscale resort community.
        The March 3, 1907 New York Times reported, "He (Alligator Joe) towed a crocodile weighing 200 pounds well out into the Atlantic Ocean. Frazier released it, then made a quick jump landing stomach down on the creature's back."
        "Over and over they went," the narrative continues, "like boys wrestling. Gradually, (Joe) worked the reptile to a steep bank. A rope was thrown to him. Keeping the crocodile underwater, he tied the cord around its long snout in two places."
        "It was dragged ashore," the article concludes. "The reptile toward the end looked totally fagged, but (Alligator Joe) Frazier showed no exhaustion."
        A life-long reptile show promoter and entertainer, Alligator Joe (born Warren Frazee) knew there was little chance of losing life or limbs from the encounter with the huge reptile. Unlike its aggressive African, Australian and Central American cousins, the Florida crocodile was a relatively docile opponent.
        Alligator Joe learned this fact months before, when he promoted and staged a match between a Florida crocodile and an American alligator before a raucous crowd of farmers and Flagler's railroad workers on the Card Sound Road south of Miami. The alligator quickly mauled its Everglades reptilian neighbor.
        Alligator Joe was the owner-operator of the "Florida Alligator Farm". It was located one mile south of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, on the west end of what became Worth Avenue where it meets the Lake Worth Lagoon. Bicycle-powered wicker carts were used to transport wealthy visitors to "Alligator Joe's," as it was commonly called, along a pathway known as the "Jungle Trail Road".
        He opened his reptile park as a tourist attraction in the year 1900, offering guests twice weekly gator wrestling performances during the winter seasons. In addition to hundreds of "gators and crocs," the reptile farm featured turtles, manatees and native birds.
        Alligator Joe was a showman who excelled in self-promotion. During his performances, he created the false image of a "half-breed - half Indian, half Mexican and half cavalier." He perfected the role of a frontier hunter (which in truth he was), complete with a feigned Seminole accent.
        To complete the stage persona, he wore a bushy walrus mustache, a cowboy field hat, khaki clothing, and often a carried a resolver at his side to protect fearful guests from his reptiles. In truth, no one ever reported the showman using the handgun in defense.
        Alligator Joe was the exact opposite of Palm Beach's well-bred and educated resident socialites, and that was his public appeal.

The Haves and Have-Nots of Early Palm Beach
        Throughout its 106-year history, the Town of Palm Beach has always been an island of dreams - a place of the haves and have-not, the wealthy and the working poor, the servants and the served, or as they were known in 1907, the home of the Old Guard and their fawning want-to-be Monkey Set.
        The Old Guard included the resort community's founder, Henry Flagler, and wealthy landholding scions such as the Binghams, the Munyons and the Bradleys. Flagler built the Royal Poinciana Hotel and the Palm Beach Inn (the Breakers) on the ocean, then connected his resorts by rail and sea to the Florida East Coast Railway and the Palm Beach-Nassau Cruise Line in the 1890s.
        While Flagler had the vision, and paid talented architects and engineers to design his hotels and mansion, it was mainly African-American labor in the neighboring Palm Beach community of "Styx" that poured the concrete and swept the floors in his architectural monuments.
        An estimated 2,000 resident-renters lived in the shantytown community of Styx from the 1890s until their eviction in 1912. They were the island community's have-nots. Styx was located literally "in the sticks," north of the Royal Poinciana Hotel near what is today Sunset and Sunrise Avenues along North County Road.
        Lacking the basic public services of electricity, plumbing and waste disposal, entering Styx was like crossing from Mount Olympus into Hades. The brothers John and Colonel E.R. Bradley purchased the Styx property in 1910, and in 1912 ordered the remaining renters and squatters to leave their land within two months.
        Most of the African-American residents moved to northwest West Palm Beach, or to the new planned black subdivision of  Pleasant City, established in 1905 north of Lake Mangonia. What remained of Styx was cleared and burned to create the new island subdivision of Floral Park.
        In January 1911, the City of West Palm Beach petitioned its legislative delegation to pass a bill in the Florida Legislature allowing the annexation of the wealthy island community of Palm Beach. In response, the power brokers in the unincorporated township called for a referendum to establish Palm Beach County's second city.
        A total of 35 white male voters went to the polls and created the Town of Palm Beach on April 17, 1911. Under Florida law, women could not vote in 1911, and the black residents of Styx were not given an opportunity to cast their ballots at the Palm Beach Hotel. The first mayor and town council reflected the race and goals of the voters.
        Within the Palm Beach social caste system, Alligator Joe was a "have-not" who aspired to become a member of the "Monkey Set" through hard work and the limited upward mobility of that bygone age.

The Life Story of Warren 'Alligator Joe' Frazee
        Warren was born the second son of Randolph and Anna B. Frazee, March 1, 1873, in Jacksonville, FL. Warren and his brother James were raised in the Mayport section of the city, where his father worked as a steamboat watchman, bartender and farmer to support his family.
        A defining moment in his young life took place in 1887 when 13-year-old Warren visited a "Sub-Tropical Exposition" in Jacksonville. A huge reptile known as "The Alligator Joe (also Joe or Old Joe)" arrived from Polk County and was penned in Jacksonville's Waterworks Park until its death in 1904.
        Warren became a trapper and hunter of reptiles. By the time of his arrival in the Palm Beaches, he had assumed the moniker of "Alligator Joe" Frazier, and in 1897 began offering wealthy visitors hunting adventures in the Everglades.
        The Feb. 18, 1898 edition of the Miami News reported, "In 1898, he took Sir Edward and Lady Colbrooke of England on a hunt for alligators. He successfully bagged one more than 11 feet long and was paid $25 for his service. The animal was taken to a taxidermist where it was stuffed, mounted and shipped to England."
        The same year, the Everglades entrepreneur gathered 2,900 alligator eggs and shipped them to northern markets. He also acted as an informal agent for local Seminole Indians, gathering 600  alligator hides from the tribe and reselling them at E.L. Brady & Co. in downtown Miami.
        During the summer off-seasons, Alligator Joe collected a menagerie of reptiles, with his featured manatee, and shipped them north by rail as a traveling live exhibit of Florida wildlife for gawking crowds whom had never seen such creatures. Occasionally, he hired Seminoles for his gator wrestling shows.
        One of his stops was Dreamland Park on Coney Island, N.Y., where he created a sub-tropical version of the Florida Everglades on the island. Other cities on his summer alligator show circuit included Chicago, Boston, Denver and Kansas City. In 1903, he shipped a pair of Florida manatees to the New York Zoological Society for display in the city's aquarium.
        To meet the demand for his various reptile ventures, the entertainer established a second farm on leased land along the Miami River, west of the City of Miami in 1905. It was called  "Alligator Joe's Crocodile and Alligator Farm". At his new enterprise, he raised gators for his shows, and sold reptile hatchlings as pets nationwide.
        A star attraction at his new farm was a huge 18-foot alligator named "Jumbo Joe," in honor of the gator farm's owner.
        While in Miami, Alligator Joe married  Della Hamilton, a native resident of Dade County, on May 9, 1906. They honeymooned during one of his reptile road shows. The marriage only lasted three years. They were divorced in 1909.
        However, the same year, the 35-year-old divorcee met and married 19-year-old Cleopatra "Cleo" Croft of Kansas. The wedding took place at the Kansas City "Electric Park Fair" where Alligator Joe and his traveling reptile show were performing.
        The 1910 U.S. Census recorded Warren Frazee as the head-of-household, residing in Precinct 3 of Palm Beach township. His household consisted of his second wife, Cleo; his British-born widowed mother-in-law, Carlotta "Lotta" Croft, 39; and his 64-year-old widowed father, Randolph.
        After Alligator Joe's mother, Anna, died in 1909, his father moved from Jacksonville to his home in Palm Beach. He worked at his son's alligator farm in Palm Beach.

Alligator Joe's Farm Becomes the Everglades Club
        By the year 1913, smelly frontier gator farms no longer suited the civic image the Town of Palm Beach and City of Miami wished to present to the outside world. Alligator Joe lost the lease to his Miami River reptile farm in 1911. It was developed as the Spring Garden development in 1913.
       On Feb. 20, 1915, the Pan-American Pacific Exposition opened in San Francisco. Alligator Joe transported 4,500 gators and crocodiles, as well as a manatee, pelicans and a blue herons by rail. He  set up what would become his final exhibit at the winter event.
        He contracted a high fever in the cold, wet San Francisco climate, and was admitted to the city's "German Hospital" on May 27, 1915. Four days later he died at age 43. Frazee was cremated three days after his death. A prior autopsy revealed he suffered from pleurisy, pneumonia, tonsillitis and fatty degeneration of the heart.
        After his death, his traveling exhibit made one final stop in San Diego before it was liquidated in a San Fransico Superior Court. The court estimated the value of his menagerie at $5,295. Alligator Joe's prized manatee was donated to the California Academy of Science, where its skin and skeleton went on display.
        Warren Frazee's Palm Beach reptile farm site was bought by Paris Singer, the millionaire son of sewing machine inventor Isaac Singer. Paris hired his friend, architect Addison Mizner, to design the Touchstone Convalescent Club to care for World War I disabled veterans.
        Construction began in July 1918. By the time it was completed in 1919, the war was over. The convalescent center failed to attract enough patients to turn a profit.
        Singer converted the landmark structure into a private "Everglades Club," which would become internationally famous and infamous for its exclusive membership during the 20th century.
(c.) Davidsson, 2017.
NOTE: See additional articles below and archived in Older Posts.

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