The Ghost of Trapper Nelson

From My Article for The  State of Florida Division of Tourism

I’m in pursuit of a ghost. But as I glide up the dark-green waters of the Loxahatchee River, into the wild interior of the northern Everglades, I’m not really sure I want to find him.

The “Wild Man of the Loxahatchee” lived off the land, and was a legend in his own time. But when he was found dead with a shotgun wound…he became a legend for all time.

“Trapper” Nelson (born Vincent Nostokovich) lived alone in the murky swamps and mangroves of the Loxahatchee from the 1930s until 1968.

He was called “The Wild Man of the Loxahatchee” – 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 Everglades “River of Grass.” And he apparently had little fear of the alligators, poisonous water moccasins, rattlesnakes and panthers who also trolled the “River of Grass.”

Trapper Nelson’s house
Trapper Nelson’s house (photo by Steve Winston)

Trapper Nelson caught so many creatures that he bought 800 acres of land from the surrounding landowners and built a zoo in which to house them. And the cages are still here. He enjoyed providing special entertainment to his visitors – for example, 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 folks, though, swear that Trapper Nelson is still here.

Cheryl Wells, once a park ranger at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, claimed that during her first encounter with the ghost of Trapper in 1994, he was apparently 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 a sudden I heard him. He was flirting with me. Later on, I asked the ranger at the site if Trapper had been a ladies’ man. And he 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 claimed he’d been 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 say they’ve been tapped on the shoulder inside the cabin.

Mark and Rose Watson lived near the Loxahatchee, on the dirt road on which Trapper used to go for supplies. They claimed to have seen him at least a half-dozen times after he was dead.

And Rose Watson spoke 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 once said. “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 some years back, while 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 there was Trapper Nelson.

“I saw him clearly,” she said. “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 said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. It was as real as it could possibly be!”