Photo courtesy Florida State Parks Department
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, visitors from nearby West Palm Beach could take this same trip upriver and see Trapper’s wild menagerie. The biggest attraction, though, was Trapper himself. Known as Tarzan of the Loxahatchee, he’d wrestle alligators, trap wildcats, and dazzle guests with his infallible good looks and stories of the wild.
The most famous photo of Trapper was taken sometime in the late 1940s. He stands in front of a thatched Chickee hut, shirtless and strapping in swim trunks. His right hand rests casually on his waist, his left one wraps tightly around the neck of a six-foot boa constrictor. He isn’t smiling, but he isn’t displeased either. His expression is almost a dare.
Trapper Nelson was a man of contradictions. He loved solitude, but was a kind and affable host. He was a man who lived without electricity or running water, but read the Wall Street Journal every day. He was a primitive hunter who died just before becoming a millionaire.
Summer 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Trapper’s death, and the end of his life still remains almost as mysterious as the beginning. His story is a brackish swirl of history and legend, the folklore increasingly impossible to parse from the truth. What we do know is this: on Tuesday, July 30, 1968, Trapper Nelson was found dead at his homestead from a gunshot wound to the upper abdomen. He was 59-years-old. The Martin County Sherriff’s Office ruled it a suicide, but stories still persist today about hidden treasure on his property, about a murderous brother who had a vengeance to exact, about developers looking to take control of the vast acreage he’d amassed over the years. All of which beg the question: was Trapper Nelson sick and misunderstood, or did someone want him dead?
The first thing people recall about Trapper is his appetite — which, strangely enough, is partly how he ended up in Jupiter in the first place. Before any of that, though, Trapper was born Vince Natulkiewicz on November 6, 1908 in Trenton, New Jersey.
When Vince was around 18, he, along with his brother, Charlie, and their friend John Dykas, left New Jersey to head west toward Colorado. They hunted, trapped and sold hides along the way. From there, they meandered their way to the southernmost part of Texas, where they crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico. As Vince was setting traps along the river, he was arrested by a group of Federales, who thought he was likely running guns across the river to the rebel groups that remained after the Mexican Revolution.
That’s how Vince found himself sitting in a Mexican prison. For several weeks authorities debated what to do with him. They had no evidence — and they couldn’t afford to keep feeding him; this six-foot-four, 220-pound American was eating his way right through their budget.
Years later, Vince became close friends with one of the founding families of Jupiter — John and Bessie DuBois. They ran a fish camp near the mouth of the Loxahatchee, and often had Vince over for dinner. One night, Bessie brought out a large lemon meringue pie for her guests. One of them took a modest sliver for himself; Vince took the rest of the pie.
After his release from jail in Mexico, Vince met back up with Charlie and Dykas and headed to Miami. It was September 1931, and the United States was nearly two years into the Great Depression. As their boxcar slowed for a cargo stop, Vince peeked out between slats of the train car and saw a landscape he’d never imagined. The oyster beds were so thick they looked like rocky islands, and surrounding them were tide pools full of mullet fish. Farther out lay the infinite stretch of the Atlantic.
Vince was 23, and already accustomed to trapping, hunting and tanning as a means to survive. Looking out the train car at the bounties of the lower Loxahatchee, he knew only that he wanted to stay awhile. With his new home came a new name: Vince Nelson. The way he figured, people couldn’t pronounce Natulkiewicz and Vince just wanted to make it easier for them.
The three men settled by the beach, where they thatched a small lean-to and spent their days trapping and fishing. Trapping remained a viable business as furriers up north paid good money for pelts — $2 for raccoon, $15 for otter — for customers who could still afford such luxuries. Even so, money was tight, and tensions grew in the small hut. The way Vince’s brother Charlie saw it, their friend John Dykas wasn’t doing his share of the work but was still collecting his share of the money.
On December 17, 1931, Charlie Nelson walked into the West Palm Beach police precinct and confessed to murder. “Finally I’d just had enough,” Charlie wrote in his confession. After months of frustration, Charlie’s temper was on a hair trigger. During one particularly heated argument over money, Charlie reached for his gun and shot Dykas in the face. When he arrived at the police station, the weapon was still warm in his car.
Vince had been out checking his traps and never saw or heard a thing, but at the trial he did something most people presume wasn’t easy for him: he testified against his own brother. He said John was a skilled trapper and had been holding up his share of the bargain, and that Charlie was the instigator of their feud. He didn’t think John had deserved to die. Then he watched from the gallery as the judge handed his brother a life sentence.
Just after the sentence was read, Charlie turned to Vince and swore that he would find a way to kill him.
Perhaps it was all of this — the murder of his best friend, sending his brother to prison, years on the rails — that led Trapper Nelson to move up to the last crook of the Loxahatchee. Maybe he was tired, maybe he felt as murky and unknowable as the river itself, or maybe he was invigorated at the idea of doing it all on his own. No matter, he was alone now, and he settled somewhere that would keep it that way.
He planted a pineapple patch, citrus trees, almonds and guava and built an elaborate, hand-pumped irrigation system for the gardens. He spent every morning chopping firewood, using a custom-made ax because his hands were so large that he kept breaking the handles on the standard kind. It was a new life, on no one’s terms but his own. So once again, he changed his name just before his 25th birthday. From then on, he’d only be known as Trapper Nelson.
With the name came the beginnings of a legend even bigger than the man. In the local imagination, Trapper became the real-life version of Tarzan, the vine-swinging, primal-yelling wild man that Johnny Weissmuller had brought to life on the silver screen at the time.
“Trapper skinned so many raccoons, wildcats, and other game that even though he bathed … when dogs got downwind of him they would catch the scent of wildcat and bark themselves hoarse — which embarrassed both Trapper and the dog owners,” Bessie DuBois wrote in The History of the Loxahatchee.
As the stories made their way around town, more and more people’s curiosity got the best of them. Were the rumors true? Was there a man really living that far into the river jungle? Was he as kind and gentle as people said? They had to go and see for themselves.
A brood of guinea fowl roosted in the trees near Trapper’s dock and would warn him of visitors by raising a nearly intolerable racket. Trapper played right into the image his callers wanted to see, emerging from the hut with a large indigo snake draped around his neck. He’d show visitors the alligators, the surly wildcats stalking back and forth in their cages, and the snake pit that was like something straight out of a nightmare: teeming with writhing, venomous rattlers that Trapper thought nothing of reaching in and snatching just behind the jaw.
As an old Railway Express agent recalled to James Snyder in his book Life and Death on the Loxahatchee, Trapper once dropped off a cage containing an adult black panther at the rail station. It was headed to a zoo in New York, and Trapper’s only instructions were, “He’s a mean cat, so don’t pester him.”
Sometime near 1938, Trapper decided to start making some money off all these visitors, which were now coming by the boatload. With a steady hand, he painted in careful print the sign that still hangs today: Trapper’s Zoo and Jungle Garden. Admission was 50 cents for adults, 25 for children. The kids would approach cautiously and press their quarter into his enormous hand, wide-eyed with equal parts fear, awe, and curiosity at this giant figure.
Despite their initial hesitation, people remember Trapper as kind and affable. He taught local kids how to trap gopher tortoise and paid them a dime for each one. Not coincidentally, gopher tortoise stew was Trapper’s favorite food.
Business was good, and Trapper expanded both the zoo and his property line. He was buying up as much land as he could, eventually ending up with nearly 1,100 acres. He still traveled into town each day, though now by Jeep instead of rowing the seven miles each way. He’d say hello to the DuBois family, use the payphone outside their fish camp, and buy his Wall Street Journal.
“He’d polish off a box of Hershey bars and wash it down with a quart of milk,” Roy Rood, who’d worked at the DuBois’s fish camp, recalled to Snyder.
The population of Jupiter boomed after World War II, and people had more leisure time and money to spend. Boat captains brought full charters of tourists and locals up the river for a day at Trapper’s. Word of Florida’s wild man spread across the country as tourists took their stories of Trapper wrestling gators in only shorts and a pith helmet back to their cities. Soon, the celebrities came. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal visited together during their infamous love affair. Boxer Gene Tunney, Edsel Ford, and Palm Beach socialites like the DuPonts and Kennedys also made the trip.
He was a gracious host, building fires for visitors to cook their lunch and answering questions about how one could live without so many modern conveniences. They had left their air-conditioned homes to come look up-close at the alternative, at what it would be like to leave it all behind. Trapper’s life, on the outside at least, was uncomplicated, dangerous, and sexy. But then the mosquitoes came, an unfamiliar howl echoed from the bush, maybe a storm rolled in, and the visitors got back in the boat and headed back to where the river widens, leaving Trapper alone once again.
In August of 1960, Trapper surprised everyone when he returned to solitude permanently. He cut trees across the narrows to make his homestead unreachable from the river and gated the access point from the dirt road.
No one quite knows for sure why Trapper soured on his time in the limelight, but many have a guess. The population of Jupiter had nearly tripled between 1945 and 1960, and Trapper felt the squeeze of development all around him. The taxes on his land increased sharply, public health officials were imposing regulations on his camp, and developers were doing all they could to drive him out of the precious, waterfront property.
Trapper, like all of Florida at the time, was caught between a reverence for the area’s natural beauty and the inevitable wave (and financial lure) of development. He may have lived primitively, but Trapper was a businessman too, and he knew he could cash in. He sought the counsel of trusted friends and family, but the fate of the property weighed heavily on him. The man who’d trapped wildcats and rattlesnakes without so much as blinking became, for the first time, fearful.
“Have closed my camp to all the public including the cruise,” Trapper wrote to his brother-in-law in a letter dated September 8, 1960. “Now I feel a lot safer as it was a real risk in many ways dealing with the public.”
He also began complaining about his health. He told his last remaining friend, John DuBois, that he was convinced he had colon cancer. John tried to convince him to see a doctor, but Trapper didn’t trust them.
For the next seven years, Trapper withdrew more and more from old friends and acquaintances. In his letters to his sister and her husband, his tone turns from weary of development to being excited by it. In May of 1968 he wrote: “The State Park is now definitely taking steps to make me an offer on my ranch.”
Trapper had been in the negotiation stages of a deal that would allow him to stay on his property until his death and would preserve his acreage as protected state park land. It also would make Trapper Nelson a millionaire.
In late July that year, he dropped his car off at a service station for some repairs. The next day, the shop’s owner, Joe Vleck, drove the truck out to Trapper’s. Through the fence, he saw Trapper across the property. They both waved but said nothing. That was the last time Trapper Nelson was seen alive.
John DuBois knew something was wrong when Trapper missed an appointment on July 30, 1968. As much as he had changed, Trapper was still not one to skip out on a meeting. On instinct, John drove up to Trapper’s camp and unlocked the gate. The guinea fowl started carrying on, but Trapper didn’t come out to settle them down. Before he got much farther, John caught the smell and followed it to the picnic shelter down by the river. There, face down in the sand, was the body of Trapper Nelson.
“Trapper was lying on his face on the dirt floor of the Seminole Chickee type shed,” DuBois told the Palm Beach Post. “There was a hole in the back of his head.”
His shotgun lay a few feet away. A single shot had entered the left side of his upper abdomen and exited through the back of his head. The Florida heat and the animals had taken a toll on the remains.
The Martin County Sherriff’s Office ruled the death a suicide, citing a lack of signs of a struggle or footprints in the sand. They concluded Trapper had put the gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. Immediately friends and acquaintances doubted that conclusion. He was days away from becoming a millionaire in his land deal, and had mentioned being excited to use the money to travel.
Friends who knew Trapper’s proficiency with guns were baffled that he would choose to kill himself in a manner that left such room for error. Also, the shotgun had no fingerprints on it, not even Trapper’s. The Sherriff’s office had been correct in that there were no footprints — but it’s not that there hadn’t been two sets, indicating an intruder — there were none at all.
Rumors swirled about hitmen and mobsters, but one name kept rumbling around more than all the others: Charlie Nelson. A local woman named Ruby Lanier and her husband, Elzie, had been good friends with Trapper. Late in her life, she recalled to author James D. Snyder that Trapper often told her husband he thought Charlie was coming back to kill him and fulfill that courtroom promise. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, Charlie Nelson had been released from prison on November 20, 1951. The investigation into Trapper’s murder was closed before any of the detectives tried to locate Charlie.
Trapper’s family, however, thought suicide was plausible. If he felt he was growing sicker, they believed he would have killed himself before becoming a burden to his loved ones.
“I guess we’ll never know until somebody gets a little too much to drink and brags a little bit,” Bessie DuBois told the Palm Beach Post in 1974.
On August 6, 1968, a few friends and family members scattered Trapper’s ashes into the calm waters of the Loxahatchee. He had been 59 years old.
It’s been 50 years since the day John DuBois found Trapper dead, and we’ll likely never know what happened in those last moments before a gunshot echoed over the water of the Loxahatchee and ended the life of Florida’s wild man. If he really was alone that day, it would mean Trapper Nelson died as he lived: on his own terms. But was he authoring his own destiny, or had years of solitude in a relentlessly untamable jungle driven him to end his own life?
Today, Trapper’s camp is one of the main attractions in the 10,500-acre wilderness of Jonathan Dickinson State Park. The original buildings all remain, as do the gardens and cages, as permanent a fixture in Florida history as the Legend of the Loxahatchee himself. The buildings lie empty now, but with a bit of imagination you can see Trapper coming around the corner, larger than life, welcoming you with an inky black snaked draped over his chest.
Tonya Malinowski grew up in West Palm Beach, Florida and now calls Charlotte, North Carolina, home. Her work has appeared with ESPN, The New York Times and more.