Updated: Aug 17, 2021
Why would a robust, rugged 59-year-old man want to kill himself – especially when he was in the midst of selling his land and emerging a millionaire?
Today, people who visit the homestead of legendary Vince “Trapper” Nelson in Jonathan Dickinson State Park still argue and theorize as to why he was found dead outside his cabin over fifty years ago. And as author of Life and Death on the Loxahatchee – the Story of Trapper Nelson, I get the same questions whenever I speak.
So, when Philip Celmer says Nelson was neither robust nor rugged in 1969, we should listen. Celmer, now 76, spent his boyhood summers trapping and helping run his uncle’s “Zoo and Jungle Garden.”
“I think he had a cancer caused by Formaldehyde,” Celmer said by phone from his summer home on the Jersey shore. “Formaldehyde is wicked stuff, and my uncle always kept a five-gallon tank of it next to his cabin. He would take things like hawks’ talons, garfish heads and rattlesnake heads, mount them on wood and soak them in Formaldehyde. Then they’d be sold to tourists at his souvenir stand.”
Celmer still remembers the poisonous fumes and the spills on the ground that “probably found their way into his well water.” Today, he adds, “if the public health people find your house has wood with Formaldehyde in it, you’re told to evacuate until it’s replaced.”
Weeks before Trapper’s death, Celmer says his uncle was “using a catheter” and complaining that he couldn’t keep food down. “And his outlook on life was probably influenced by the fact that his best friend had just died of prostate cancer.”
Phil Celmer had long gone off to college and a career when the shotgun blast felled his uncle, but he’s sure it was suicide – not murder.
P.S. Celmer recently discovered several reels of 16 mm film that his father took with a home movie camera during family visits to Trapper’s homestead. With a little tech help, we’ll try to put them in digital form when Phil returns to his winter condo in South Florida.