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Biography of Explorer Charles Waterton

About the English explorer Charles Waterton, biography and history of the man who rode an alligator.

CHARLES WATERTON (1782-1865), The Eccentric Explorer Who Rode a Caiman (Alligator)

"Squire" Charles Waterton, 27th Lord of Walton Hall (Yorkshire, England), hated being called an eccentric, but an eccentric he was. He liked to get under the dinner table and bite the legs of his guests like a dog; he walked barefoot in the tropical forests of British Guiana; he climbed the cross of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome and put his gloves on its lightning conductor; he knocked out a boa constrictor with a mighty punch; he tried to fly from the top of an outhouse ("navigate the atmosphere," he called it), only to land on the ground with a "foul shak"; he fashioned weird monstrosities out of hollow animal skins through his own preserving methods (one, the bearded "Nondescript," made from the skin of a red howler monkey, was probably a caricature of his enemy, Treasury Secretary J.R. Lushington); he bled himself, against doctors' advice, at least 136 times in his life ("tapping my claret"), taking from 16 to 20 oz. of blood each time.

But he was not entirely crazy. He was an enthusiastic field naturalist and conducted valuable expeditions into the South American wild. On 259 acres of the family estate in England, he started the first wild bird sanctuary in history. His book Wanderings in South America was a popular best-seller though, according to some naturalists, somewhat short on relevant details.

At age 48 he married a 17-year-old orphan, Anne Edmonstone, granddaughter of an Arawak Indian and descendant of Scottish kings and Lady Godiva. He then described himself as a tall man (5 ft. 11 1/2 in.) with muscular legs, graying hair, and a furrowed face. His wife died shortly after giving birth to their son, Edmund. She was only 18. After her death he slept on the floor, with a block of wood for a pillow.

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