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Which historic hotel used to have live alligators roaming the grounds?

When The Jefferson Hotel opened in 1895, it immediately became a popular destination for a new generation of tourists…and several scaley guests. According to the hotel, both locals and guests began dropping off alligators which they had purchased as souvenirs during a trip to Florida.


Statue of Old Pompey, the last alligator to live at The Jefferson Hotel (image courtesy of The Jefferson Hotel).

The opening of The Jefferson Hotel coincided with the rise of automobiles. This novel mode of transportation gave Americans the opportunity to travel up and down the eastern coast. Thanks in part to a successful marketing campaign, thousands of tourists flooded into Florida, eager to explore the swamps and get a look at a real live alligator. It was quite common for postcards to feature alligators as a way to advertise the “exotic” and “tropical” state. Visitors could pose with taxidermized alligators, or buy products featuring their tanned skins.

In fact, an 1899 census showed that more than 8,000 baby alligators were purchased by visitors who carted them up the eastern seaboard, apparently not taking into account that babies grow into adults. When they outgrew the kitchen sinks and bathtubs, the alligators were donated to northern zoos or even unceremoniously dumped into sewers, prompting the rise of the urban legends that alligators still roam the sewers of New York City.

Palm Court Lobby

The Palm Court Lobby at The Jefferson Hotel (image courtesy of The Jefferson Hotel).

However, some of these alligators were lucky and were left at The Jefferson Hotel to spend their days lounging in the hotel’s luxurious Palm Court. How exactly The Jefferson became a gator-friendly hotel is unknown, but its location may have something to do with it. Located in Richmond, Virginia, the hotel is ideally situated between Florida and New York, making it a popular halfway respite during a lengthy road trip.

“New Yorkers would bring baby alligators with them,” Paul Herbert wrote in his book The Jefferson Hotel: The History of a Richmond Landmark. “They bought them as household pets and if it didn’t work out, they could leave them at the hotel.”

According to Herbert, the reptiles were not always fenced in and would frequently climb out of the fountain in the Palm Court during the night to sleep on one of the more comfortable lounge chairs. Old Pompey, the last alligator to live at The Jefferson Hotel, was notoriously known for finding alternative sleeping arrangements. Staff would return in the morning to find the eight foot gator in the hotel’s lobby draped across several chairs.

Pompey alligator

Statue of Old Pompey outside the valet stand at The Jefferson Hotel (image courtesy of The Jefferson Hotel).

Pompey passed away in 1948, but a life-size bronze statue of him continues to greet guests outside the valet stand. Other whimsical references to these legendary reptiles can also be found throughout the hotel.

This has been a Historic Hotels History Mystery.
For more fun facts, trivia, and historic highlights, check out our History Mystery pages for Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels Worldwide. Subscribe to our newsletter below and follow us on social media to play along.

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