Nothing says springtime quite like a stroll through the Boston Public Garden. The birds are chirping; squirrels are fattening up, bothering tourists for a morsel; and the smell of fresh flowers is wafting on the breeze.
But 120 years ago, when the Red Sox were known as the “Boston Americans,” people gathered at the park for a decidedly different pastime: to watch alligators chow down on rodents.
It’s true. In 1901, the country’s first public botanical garden was home to the live reptiles.
Great Floridian beasts these were not. But the alligators were, as you’d expect, quite a spectacle in often-chilly New England.
There are several newspaper articles from the time that make reference to the alligators, which lived in a basin — or pond — near the Arlington Street entrance among a “splendid” array of lilies. Accounts differ, but for some time there were between three or four alligators on the grounds, striking additions to the many other exotic features of the Public Garden back then.
A story in the Sept. 19, 1901, issue of the Boston Post said three of the alligators were given to the city by “a lady living in Charlestown” who “became afraid of them and presented them to the city of Boston.” The fourth alligator was given to the city by a man from Chelsea, though just why is unclear.
One article, which appeared in an Aug. 9, 1901, edition of the Boston Globe, said the alligators — described as being babies — were owned by William Doogue, the city’s superintendent of Common and Public Grounds.
Doogue supervised the Public Garden from 1878 to 1906, according to the Friends of the Public Garden, a nonprofit that advocates for Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and was known for his exceptional green thumb.
“Outspoken, media savvy, and politically astute, Doogue was a consummate showman,” the organization wrote in a blog post in 2019 about the history of the park. “He courted the press to promote his horticultural extravaganzas and to defy the critics who accused his floral displays of ‘gaudy’ bad taste.”
The alligators certainly rubbed some city residents the wrong way. But it wasn’t so much their presence that was unnerving — people often crowded around the basin to look for them — as it was how they were being fed at times.
“Some Objection Raised to Feeding Those in the Public Garden Pond with Live Rats and Mice,” read the sub-headline of the August Globe article.
The newspaper reported that the alligators would be placed in the Public Garden when “warm weather comes,” and be fed by park officials once per week.
But residents often had other plans: tossing rodents they’d caught in traps to the gators for fun. Hardly a highbrow affair.
“Live Rats Thrown to Hungry Alligators,” read a headline in the Boston Post on Aug. 9, 1901. “Public Garden Exhibition Attracts Morbid Interest of Women and Children.”
The article said “the city does not feed them in the summer... the city does not need to,” because “the alligators earn their own living by furnishing amusement to the public.”
The story included an illustration of primly dressed people gathered around a small pond-like structure, watching as a man knelt down to feed the alligators, the animals’ mouths wide open.
In great detail, the article described how the rodents were cast to their doom.
“The victim is thrown into the pond,” it read. “As it splashes the water the three alligators start towards it. Kicking and squealing it is dragged beneath the water ... they fight violently, the mud is stirred from the bottom of the shallow pond. Then through the muddy water appear splotches of red. The crowd slowly disperses. The fun is over — for now.”
Some onlookers were not pleased by the vicious spectacle.
“Of course, mice and rats must be killed, but why should they be killed in public for fun?” one spectator was quoted as saying to the Post.
But others sided with the alligators, describing them as “the dearest, sweetest little things in the world,” perhaps because “they are so homely and stupid,” the Globe reported.
Indeed, they did seem to have something of a fan base, despite some protest about the live feedings.
A second Globe article, dated Oct. 13, 1901, described how the alligators were removed from the park for the fall and winter months. It was a sight to behold, one that drew curious people from nearby.
“Alligators Hooked Out of Public Garden,” the headline read. “More Than Three Hours Spent Getting Biggest of Four.”
“The event of the week in the Public Garden was the removal of the alligators from their happy summer home in the basin of the fountain near the Commonwealth [Ave.] gate,” the story read.
The alligators were then moved to their “winter quarters,” a hothouse at Franklin Park in Dorchester, according to reports.
A 1901 map of Boston Common and the Public Garden on the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center’s website shows a small, circular area in blue near the main gates. The spot on the map is marked “Basin,” the same term the article used to describe where the alligators were kept.
There’s now a fountain, called “Boy and Bird,” where the basin was pictured on the map. The structure is a stone’s throw from the George Washington statue that greets people as they enter the park. It’s across the street from Commonwealth Avenue, which intersects with Arlington Street. (One time, a gator reportedly got out and walked halfway to the Arlington Street Church.)
It’s not clear how long the alligators were on the grounds, but one article indicated they may have first been introduced by Doogue around 1900. A blurb in the Globe from 1906 — just months before Doogue died — seemed to suggest they’d moved elsewhere in the park by then.
“That Boston zoo that was talked of a few months ago hasn’t been realized as yet,” it read. “But we can all go out on the Arlington-Beacon st. corner of the Public Garden and see the alligators.”
Boston Parks and Recreation Department officials said they didn’t have additional information about the alligators. But there was a Public Grounds department budget item from 1901, in the amount of $30.91, money to be used for “food for cats, dogs, and alligators,” according to the Boston Guardian newspaper, which also published a story about the the animals Friday.
Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, said in a statement that the organization was “amazed to learn” that among his many other talents, Doogue kept alligators in the basin. She called it “a strange and wonderful story that surfaced from the past.”
But could history repeat itself?
“The alligators, normally a water animal of more tropical climes, might be right at home with the tropical plants in the Garden,” Vizza said jokingly.