Originally written for Visit Florida, the tourism marketing arm of The State of Florida
“The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee” lived off the land in the northern Everglades. He was a legend in his own time. And when he was found dead with a shotgun hole in his belly, the legend grew.
Hobe Sound, FL – I’m in pursuit of a ghost. But as I glide up the dark-green waters of the Loxahatchee River, into the interior of the northern Everglades, I’m not really sure that I want to find him.
“Trapper” Nelson (born Vincent Nostokovich) lived in the murky swamps and mangroves of the Loxahatchee from the 1930s until 1968.
He was called “The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee” – and with good reason. He stood 6-feet, 4-inches, with 240 pounds of muscle. He lived in a log cabin. He ate only what he could kill – and he never went hungry. He hunted, he fished, he trolled the “River of Grass.” And he apparently had little fear of the alligators, water moccasins, rattlesnakes and panthers who also trolled the “River of Grass.”
Trapper Nelson caught so many creatures that he eventually built a small zoo to house them, buying 800 acres from the surrounding landowners (the cages are still here).
He entertained visitors by wrestling alligators. He apparently had an eye for the ladies, as well – many of whom hired guides to bring them upriver to his cabin.
As he got older, however, Trapper became convinced that people were trying to steal his land. And he began complaining of various ailments. He wasn’t the type to go to a hospital. So he diagnosed himself with cancer.
On July 24, 1968, an acquaintance found Trapper Nelson dead inside his cabin, with a shotgun hole in his belly.
The county coroner ruled it suicide, that Trapper had done himself in because he figured he was dying. To this day, however, some locals maintain the killer was a jealous husband, or a disgruntled landowner who believed Trapper had “stolen” his land.
Some people, though, will swear that Trapper Nelson is still there.
Cheryl Wells, park ranger at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, said during her first encounter with the ghost of Trapper Nelson in 1994 that he was looking for love. “If I weren’t dead, I’d be asking you out,” Wells said the ghost told her, according to Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida, by Joyce Elson Moore.
“It was the first week of training,” Wells said. “All of the sudden I heard him. He was flirting with me. (Later) I said, ‘Was Trapper a ladies’ man?’ And (the instructing ranger) looked at me and said, ‘How did you know that?’”
Another story has it that two men landed their canoe at Trapper Nelson’s cabin. One was struck by something he couldn’t see. Others claim to have seen Trapper waving from the dock, as if trying to get their attention. And some have been tapped on the shoulder inside the cabin.
Mark and Rose Watson live near the Loxahatchee, on the dirt road on which Trapper used to go for supplies. They claim to have seen him at least a half-dozen times. And Rose Watson speaks from first-hand knowledge… because she knew him.
When she was little, her older brother used to take her along when he rowed upriver to visit Trapper.
“My brother Buddy was 20 years older than me,” Watson says. “And he and Trapper were good friends. After they put me to sleep, they would sit up most of the night talking by candlelight. I remember all the animals Trapper kept there. And I remember he was a huge man – especially to a little girl. I never saw him with a shirt on. And I don’t remember him wearing shoes.”
One night several years back, while she and Mark were watching TV, Rose suddenly felt goosebumps on the back of her neck. She didn’t think anything of it at the time. But a month later, it happened again. This time, she turned around, toward the sliding glass door in the rear.
And she saw Trapper Nelson.
“I saw him clearly,” she says. “A big man, with the outline of the face I remembered from childhood. There was – I don’t know how else to say it – sort of an aura around him. He was moving back and forth, side to side, as if he was trying to see inside.”
She heard him, too.
“I heard him running down the old path he used to take for supplies,” she says. “Then I’d hear the footsteps stop, when he was looking inside the house. And then I’d hear him take off again.
“I saw him clearly,” Rose Watson says. “There’s no doubt in my mind. It was as real as it could possibly be!”
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books. In addition, his articles have appeared in major media all over the world. In pursuit of “The Story,” he’s been shot at in Northern Ireland, been a cowboy in Arizona, trained with a rebel militia in the jungle, jumped into an alligator pit in the Everglades, climbed 15,000-foot peaks, flown World War II fighter planes in aerial “combat,” trekked glaciers in Alaska, and explored ice caves at 11,000 feet in the Alps.