February 8, 2019

Kentucky Alligator-Horse

        The Kentucky alligator-horse is a fabulous mythical creature, as magnificently illustrated in this wood block print from a ballad broadside.  I like the use of the gouged wood texture for the ground.  I suspect that the two little British soldiers are separate blocks, probably ones the printer already had on hand rather than carved for this purpose.  They certainly make the alligator-horse look big.
        The origin of the creature, alas, is not quite as exciting as its appearance.  “Half horse half alligator” was a common description of Ohio and Mississippi riverboatmen in the tall tales of the early nineteenth century, and it was used in a song written to commemorate Andrew Jackson’s 1815 victory in the Battle of New Orleans.  The lyrics include:
And if a daring foe annoys,
Whate’er his strength and forces,
We’ll show him that Kentucky boys
Are alligator horses.
          …
Behind it stood our little force,
None wished it to be greater,
For ev’ry man was half a horse,
And half an alligator.
        So while the song was apparently enormously popular, that’s a little disappointing compared to the enormous ramping beast of the woodcut, which you’d think would at least lurk in swamps and do something fantastical.  Nevertheless, I think this creature is ripe for new life in legend.

[Picture: The Hunters of Kentucky, or Half Horse and Half Alligator, wood block print c.1815 (Image from Wikimedia Commons.  See another version from the Library of Congress).]

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