Easy Come, Easy Go. By Eugene Meyer. This article appeared in the April 2005 Terrapin Institute issue.
When diamondback terrapins thrived in the Bay, an enterprising man came to Crisfield and made a bundle on turtle soup. Like most booms, it went bust.
<p>THE TERRAPIN INSTITUTE IS GRATEFUL TO THE AUTHOR AND THE CHESAPEAKE BAY
MAGAZINE FOR PERMISSION TO POST THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE. THIS ARTICLE
APPEARED IN THE APRIL 2005 ISSUE.
Easy Come, Easy Go
by Eugene L. Meyer
When diamondback terrapins thrived in the Bay, an enterprising man came to Crisfield and made a bundle
on turtle soup. Like most booms it went bust.
Long before the University of Maryland basketball team made the “Terps” a household name, and a century
before the diamondback terrapin become Maryland’s official state reptile in 1994, there was the Terrapin
King of Crisfield, Md. In 1887, Albert T. LaVallette Jr. of Philadelphia, armed with family money, a
winning way and a Caribbean recipe for turtle soup, breezed into Crisfield and, to the puzzlement of local
watermen, began buying up all the diamondback terrapins he could find.
This was indeed odd behavior on the Eastern Shore, where terrapins had long been regarded as nuisances,
unwelcome incidental catches, and hardly a culinary delicacy. Indeed, terrapins still had the reputation from
pre-emancipation days of being mere “slave food.” So it was little wonder that watermen were happy to sell
their inadvertently caught terrapins to LaVallette at any price—not knowing, of course, that he was making
an obscene profit by selling the turtle meat to high-end East Coast restaurants—where he himself had
created a market for Maryland terrapin soup. No doubt the watermen soon caught on. Perhaps they even
reaped a small share of the profits as LaVallette amassed his fortune over the next two decades, built a
waterfront home just outside Crisfield—and, yes, contributed more than any other person to the decimation
of the diamondback population on the Eastern Shore. But, while the terrapin’s decline at first seemed to
have little effect on his business—no doubt because prices rose accordingly, and also perhaps because
LaVallette was a master of what we now call “spin”—the bubble eventually burst. By 1908, all that
remained of LaVallette’s turtle kingdom