Mark Spitzer

When Gars Attack

It's curious that the infamous 1922 "garticle" in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Alligator Gar More Dangeroous [sic] Than So-Called ‘Man Eater' Shark," does not have a writer attached to the story—but it would be pushing it to suggest that this is because the author is trying to protect himself from publicizing folly. Like most of the articles in this newspaper at that time, there are no bylines; meaning, it was probably written by a staff writer. 

But whatever the case may be, this article did little to advance anyone's knowledge of the fish. In fact, it did the exact opposite by sensationalizing gar through subtitles reading "Many Authentic Instances of Human Beings Being Attacked Especially While Standing in Water" and "Only One Case of Man Being Attacked by Shark." 

The result was a plethora of piscine plume-pushers referencing this work of "journalism" for more than 85 years. Whereas some have remained skeptical, though, the brunt of ichthyological ink leans toward a certain historical respect for what this article has to say.  Which, in part, is this: "There is an instance recorded of the killing of a human being by a ‘man-eater' shark something over ninety years ago, but unfortunately it is not possible to say whether this occurrence was thoroughly investigated or not." 

Of course, it is also not possible to say whether the information in this anonymous article has been "thoroughly investigated or not," but that doesn't matter to the unknown author, who goes on to stress that there is no evidence of an alligator, crocodile, or bear ever attacking a human, but (and this is basically his implication) there are roving gangs of gar out there eager to bust down your door and go postal on your family!

That's my own embellishment of how the article operates, because that's what it tries to do: picture gar as more ferocious than other creatures on the planet that are known for ripping into humans. And it does a pretty good job at that.

This article, however, is full of typos, which do not bolster its authority. And there are other mistakes as well that destabilize its credibility. For instance, our enigmatic author states that there are three types of gar in Louisiana, when there are four. Also, it says that the Louisiana Department of Conservation knows the habits of gar "fairly well"—a statement it later contradicts in the section entitled "LITTLE KNOWN OF ‘GATOR GAR.'" And then we're offered this little gem with no segue whatsoever:

 

If you should happen to emerge from a bath in one of the bays or streams on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico next summer with an arm or a leg missing or so badly mangled that you have no further use for it, do not bring the customary indictment against the shark or the alligator, both of whom can prove a satisfactory "alibi," but present the alligator gar to the grand jury, and you will have little trouble in obtaining the return of a true bill or in convicting him on expert testimony.

 

Fear tactics are then employed: "There are instances too numerous to be recounted to show that he will attack human beings."

But where's the proof? This isn't Journalism! This is anti-gar propaganda! 

Nevertheless, a case is made regarding gar attacks on humans, with the first charge coming from "David Starr Jordan, an authority of worldwide fame," who mentions an alligator gar killing an Italian barber bathing "off Spanish Fort a few years ago." This is no doubt the incident referred to by Edward Ricciuti in Killers of the Seas, who made the mistake of claiming these details came from a letter.

The suspect second-hand info (which is probably actually third- or fourth-hand) is supported by hearsay from an unnamed "conservation official" who "is one of the most experienced hunters and fishermen in the state." The story of Major William Arms, a "crack rifle shot of the Washington Artillery," is then relayed. It seems he was cleaning squirrels on Bayou La Branche when he "unconsciously dropped his hand in the water," attracting a gar "about nine feet long." Allegedly, it chomped on and dragged the Major into the water. His pal, however, sprang into action with an axe, and the Major's hand was extracted from the fish.

Such stories, involving hands and feet getting munched, are not uncommon—as our ambiguous author demonstrates by once again citing the official, who enters into evidence the story of a certain Mrs. Taige. While washing laundry in Bayou des Allemandes, she was seized by some sort of pet gar, which fishermen at Camp Coco Taige had been feeding for years.

This indictment is followed by an often-referred-to but still unverified account of how an employee of the state museum was fishing with a friend and his son in Little Lake. According to legend, there were gar feeding on refuse (in some accounts, it's "offal") being thrown from the boat, when the kid decided to plop his little piggies in. A big old gar, of course, clamped on and a struggle ensued. The child was almost pulled from the boat, but the men used oars to bonk the gar upside its head, until it finally released the boy—who was probably nicknamed "Stumpy" after that.

Hence, we have another fish tale in the tradition of C.C. Abbott's "An Ugly Customer," published in an 1867 edition of Riverside Magazine. Supposedly, Abbott witnessed an angler plunge

 

his arm in the water to seize a shad that was about to escape, and before he had reached the escaping shad, the gar made a dash at him, seizing him just above the hand, and held on so tenaciously that the man bitten dragged the gar into the batteau, and then was compelled to cut the jaws of the animal before he could free himself.   

 

Abbott's story, however, did not register in the public consciousness to the degree that the N.O. Times-Picayune article did. Whereas Abbott's article was essentially entertainment reading (it preceded a story entitled "Uncle Ainslee's Squirrel Story" and was lumped among works of fiction), the anonymous garticle was published in a type of media expected to be factual.

Speaking of which, the N.O. Times-Picayune also mentioned physician Dr. James Giggett, who took the virtual stand in the case of Alligator Gar vs. the People of the United States. Supposedly, back when Gigget was a student in college, he was wading in a spot in the Mississippi where three other students had recently been killed by what were reported to be sharks, when he was "seized by a fish, and he was drawn under." According to our unknown journalist, though, Gigget escaped, but not without injury: "The marks on the foot of young Gigget . . . showed he was attacked by an alligator gar, and the conclusion as to the other three was revised accordingly." 

Additionally, we are told that this "matter is of record in the State University at Baton Rouge." Still, there is no reference whatsoever to the specific location of this information at LSU. Thus, it appears that our alligator gar know-it-all only repeated a few sketchy stories and passed them off as fact.

Despite the obvious holes in this article, it was seminal in establishing the gar's reputation as a bloodthirsty, man-eating monster lurking in both fresh and saltwater. Which, in a way, made it okay for other judges to condemn Cajun barracudas based solely on witness testimony, rather than solid evidence. 

But there are other factors to take into account, like statistics when it comes to sharks. As David Johnson asserts in "Sharks! Myths and Statistics about the Oceans' Most Fearsome Creature," "The actual number of attacks is hard to determine because of poor reporting in many areas." Plus, "News about shark attacks is often repressed so tourists will not be driven away." 

Poor reporting aside, it is also important to consider that we are now in an era that pays more attention to statistics than back in 1922. For instance, there were plenty of alligator gar caught in Missouri in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which weighed well over 200 pounds, but none were ever acknowledged by the State until 2001, when an extremely rare 115-pounder was killed by an arrow near Cape Girardeau. 

And it's pretty much the same for other states, which kept track of other lunkers for decades, but refused to recognize gator gar as a fish worthy of attention. Unless, that is, some dummy cleaning fish happened to drop his hand in the water during a feeding frenzy.

But as Johnson also notes, in 2004, there were 61 confirmed shark attacks worldwide, resulting in 7 deaths. And not only that, but "between 1580 and 2004 there were 1,969 confirmed shark attacks around the world," with the bulk of them (761) being in American waters. So with a bit of extrapolation, here's where the score stands today:

 

Confirmed shark attacks = 2,000

Confirmed gar attacks = 0

 

This isn't too surprising, considering that there have always been reports of alien abductions, Sasquatch sightings, Loch Ness monsters, ghosts, goblins, angels, flying saucers, etcetera. Accounts that I hereby verify are way more common than valid reports of Gar Gone Wild.

As noted by the Missouri Sportsmen's Information Network, "Despite their intimidating size and teeth . . . alligator gar are not aggressive and pose no threat to Missouri fishermen." The statement is backed up by the Florida Museum of Natural History, whose online information on the Lepisosteiformes affirms: "There is no documentation of attacks on man by alligator gar." 

Ultimately, though, those who are closest to gar know that they've been swimming with people for centuries——no problem! A point made by trophy fisherman Steve Ryan in his article "Leave the Bacon in the Fridge," when he recounts how he "hopped into the water with a 7-foot plus, 150-pound alligator gar" to swim with it while he released it. 

So if you should take a swim next summer and emerge from a river missing a leg, don't go and blame the alligator gar, but look to piranhas instead. Or Al Qaeda, or domestic abuse, or E.coli, or cigarettes, or our fear of the unknown—which all have verified histories of crippling and killing humans. Because when it comes to gar, all we have are fish stories.

 

© Mark Spitzer

 
 
 

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