Superfluous Snakes

Superfluous Snakes. A Burmese Python cake by Francesca Pitcher of North Star Cakes

Superfluous Snakes. A Burmese Python birthday cake by Francesca Pitcher of North Star Cakes

As a good Fortean I always like to mark in some special way the birthday of Charles Hoy Fort, the founder of our feast. Last year we celebrated with an electric sea serpent. And the year before that with a Damned in Danville fish-fall. This year we have something a little rarer–some snake-showers associated with a weather prophet. Plus a snake cake.

In the 1870s, John H. Tice, of St. Louis, Missouri, burst like a thunderclap on the weather prognostication scene with a dizzying array of disasters. He spoke of the effect of the Planet Vulcan on earthly weather patterns as well as the role of electricity in generating tornadoes. He cited “planetary equinoxes” and “meteorological cycles” and warned against  “violent and unusual atmospheric” disturbances. He was as good as the Weather Channel’s Storm Stories.

Tice, who called himself “Professor Tice,” was a self-made electrician, mathematician, astronomer, and meteorologist. Although the papers were full of his alarming predictions, biographical information is in short supply. This is one of the few references to him I’ve been able to find online.

He published his own weather almanacs such as “Professor Tice’s Weather Forecasts and American Almanac [1877-1884] and received high praise from some of the newspapers. For example:

Prof. Tice appears to be something of a prophet, and he ought not to be without honor in St. Louis. In this connection we quote the following observations made by a writer in the Louisville Commercial:

It certainly looks as if Prof. Tice is either the teacher of a new philosophy in regard to meteorological laws, or a good guesser. He first accounted for the dry summers of the past two years upon a theory which he said was based on observed facts. The theory fitted what had transpired admirably. But he went farther and predicted a summer of storms up to the middle and possibly all through July, based upon the same theory. And he also stated that these causes were cosmical, and effect [sic] the whole globe. And up to this time his predictions have been verified. For not only has the atmospheric ocean been perturbed in an unusual manner everywhere, but we hear of earthquakes in various quarters of the globe, and volcanic convulsions to an unusual degree-in Asia Minor, in Central and South America, in the islands of the sea. Then storms are numerous and constantly occurring and the rain fall abundant…Prof. Tice has struck out a new path, which he says is based upon facts recorded, and his book now in press [Elements of Meteorology] will be looked for with great interest, in view of the remarkable fulfillment of his predictions. Quincy [IL] Daily Whig 23 June 1875: p. 2

Others, less dazzled, suggested he take a line from the meterologists of the Signal Service Bureau, the precursor to The National Weather Service.

Professor Tice, the St. Louis meteorologist, predicts that on August 25 and 31 there will be meteorological phenomena of a very violent character, especially at sea, where they will take the form of a tropical cyclone.”

I cut the above fearful prophecy by Professor Tice some time ago from your paper. We passed through the 25th instant without a cyclone, and up to the hour of writing on this, the 31st, no violence has occurred in nature. Professor Tice had better try again.

General Myer, head of the Signal Service Bureau, never prophesies for more than twelve hours in advance, and then very modestly presents his announcements to the world as “Probabilities.”

Professor Tice, go thou and do likewise!

John Singleside,

Stockbridge, August 31.

Evening Post [New York, NY] 6 September 1875: p. 1

Although he still had his defenders, Tice’s star seemed to be waning in the mid-1870s. The piece below suggests that in response to his diminishing popularity he moved from simple thunderstorms to more dramatic Fortean precipitants.


It may be safely asserted that there is no real need of any addition to our present supply of snakes. Any man who wishes to lay in a full stock of snakes, from the deadly rattlesnake to what may be delicately mentioned as the elastic-ligature snake [snake-shaped ladies’ garters], can do so at a very trifling expense. We have all the snakes that a free, intelligent, and Christian nation needs, without including the world of ideal snakes in which the consumer of Western whiskey is accustomed to revel, and hence any attempt to increase the number of North American snakes shows a lack of judgment which deserves to be frankly and firmly rebuked.

It is now fully two years since an enterprising Western meteorologist by the name of Tice undertook to compete with the Signal Service Department in the weather business. Mr. Tice at first attracted a good deal of attention by the boldness and liberality of his promises. When the Weather Bureau would cautiously predict nothing more startling than an area of low barometer in the lake region, followed by clear or cloudy weather somewhere between Maine and California, Mr. Tice would predict a hurricane in New England, extreme heat, together with frequent ice-gorges in the Middle States, and an assortment of selected earthquakes in the region of the gulf. Of course, persons who preferred striking and sensational weather to familiar every-day weather, ceased to patronize the old established bureau, and gladly dealt with Mr. Tice. In time, however, it was discovered that Mr. Tice promised more than he performed, and that his weather seldom justified his enthusiastic descriptions of it. Thus he earned the reputation of a busy, energetic, but not altogether trustworthy person, and, of course, his business gradually decreased as his deceived patrons deserted him and transferred their custom to the old shop.

In these circumstances, Mr. Tice felt that bold and decisive measures must be adopted, unless he was prepared to retire from business altogether. It was just at this period in his career that the Western part of our Union was visited by those extraordinary showers of butcher’s meat, frogs, and back hair, which inspired Western editors with the hope of becoming familiar with the taste of meat, and held out to boarding-house keepers the prospect of a substantial decline in the price of the materials for butter manufacture. It is not certainly known that these meteorological novelties were the work of the enterprising Tice; but it is very certain that the Weather Bureau had nothing to do with them. That Tice, however, should attempt some startling novelty in the line of weather was precisely what might have been expected by those who were familiar with his character and business habits, and there is certainly a strong probability that he was the real originator of the meat and hair showers.

It will be remembered that the hopes created by these remarkable showers were never realized. The meat was found to be little better than mere refuse, and was so obviously uneatable that even the local cats sniffed at it disdainfully. The back hair was also of a coarse and brittle nature, and was unfit either for toilet [false hairpieces] or butter purposes. Thus, Mr. Tice’s showers, although they drew public attention to him, were as worthless for all practical purposes as were his predictions of hurricanes and earthquakes. They possessed a certain gaudy and meretricious brilliancy, but they were really cheap and useless.

Another shower, possessing precisely these twin features of gaudiness and worthlessness, has just taken place at Memphis, Tenn. It was a shower of small snakes, of from six inches to a foot in length. At first it was the universal opinion of the male inhabitants of the town that the time for signing the total abstinence pledge had arrived, and the doctors’ offices were thronged with haggard men, who begged for composing draughts, and swore henceforth to lead temperate and sober lives. The reality of the snakes was, however, thoroughly substantiated by hundreds of the women of Memphis, who rushed wildly through the streets, clutching their tightly-folded skirts, and occasionally dealing fierce blows at their surprised ankles. It was not long before the snakes wriggled out of sight; the frightened men returned to their accustomed beverage, and the excited women sought comfort and consolation in hysterics. A few snakes were thoughtfully captured and preserved in alcohol by fearless members of the Good Templar society, and these still remain to prove the truth of the unprecedented shower of snakes.

Now, if Mr. Tice is responsible for this last and most useless of all abnormal meteorological phenomena, he should be plainly dealt with. If we are to have showers of other materials than rain, snow, and hail, let us have something that is useful as well as novel. When the Israelites were hungry, they were refreshed with showers of good, wholesome manna, which, when nicely cooked and seasoned with a little Chutney or Worcestershire sauce, was extremely palatable. A shower of sausages, or pork chops, or shellfish, would, perhaps, have been equally interesting to scientific Hebrews, but such showers would have been useless from a culinary point of view, while a shower of snakes would probably have driven the Hebrews back to Egypt— where undesirable showers of all sorts were accustomed to fall exclusively upon the Egyptians. If Mr. Tice wants to advertise his weather business, he should prepare a few inexpensive but useful showers of such materials as dried beef, pickles, or condensed milk. He would thus earn the gratitude of the public, and would completely undermine the popularity of the Washington Weather Bureau. Such a miserable trick as a shower of snakes is, however, utterly inexcusable, and if Mr. Tice ventures to repeat it, he should be prosecuted under the statute which forbids any one to deface natural scenery with business advertisements.

Domestic Explosives and Other Sixth Column Fancies, William Livingston Alden, 1877

While fish and frogs are so common as to be barely worth mentioning,  those reprehensible snake-showers are a rarer event. A Geo-Bibliography of Anomalies lists only six of them to several dozen fish- or frog-falls. (Possibly that is because, as we saw with maggot falls, snakes in dens are less accessible to levitating winds.)

There was a previous rain of snakes in Tennessee in 1869:

Another Shower of Snakes

We thought Tennessee was bound to beat that Indiana shower of snakes, and here it is, sure enough. The Knoxville Press and Herald says:

Indian Grave Gap, Cambell county, Tenn., through which the Knoxville and Kentucky Railroad is being built, was the scene on Sunday afternoon of a natural phenomenon, the lie of which had never before been hard of by the oldest inhabitants of that wild and picturesque portion of the State.

About four o’clock a heavy snow storm broke over that region, and deluged the surrounding country. The storm lasted nearly an hour. While at its height the gap was suddenly filled with a countless number of snakes, which were seen falling for nearly ten minutes. The snakes were the common ringed species, and measured from five inches to two feet in length. The strangest part of the story is that the serpents were all found dead, and it was supposed they were killed by the fall. The news of this freak of nature soon spread among the farmers of the region and created the most intense excitement among them. By evening the vicinity of the Gap was crowded with hundreds of people, drawn together to witness so novel a spectacle. Various surmises were indulged in by the puzzled spectators, but the general opinion was that the mysterious shower was a premonition of some dreadful scourge. Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 16 July 1869: p. 1

This is one of the few snake-showers where the snakes were found anywhere besides on the ground.

A Detroit paper says that just after the hard shower in that city last week, a gentleman on walking about his premises, discovered a large number of striped or garter snakes, averaging about six inches in length. Some of them were on the front porch, four feet from the ground, and some on the kitchen door steps. He commenced killing the reptiles until he had dispatched forty seven by actual count. His neighbors also killed quite a large number, and the finding of the “snaix” continued four or five days. The inference is that there must have been a shower of snakes. Wheeling [WV] Daily Intelligencer 29 August 1859: p. 2

There are a number of references to “tiny” or “hair” snake-falls, which suggests that they were worms or larvae.

Frisco Has Shower of Snakes

San Francisco, Cal. Jan. 28. Thousands of tiny snakes poured from the clouds into Golden Gate park during a storm. Elkhart [IN] Daily Review 28 January 1909: p. 2

This was the usual squib about the Memphis snake-shower printed at the time:

A Snake Storm.

Memphis, January 17. During a heavy rain storm on Monday, a fall of small live snakes was observed in the southern part of the city, where thousands of them could be seen yesterday. The snakes are from one foot to eighteen inches in length. Lebanon [PA] Daily News 18 January 1877: p. 1

Charles Fort had several things to say about the Memphis snake-fall, but I’ll just condense to the bare facts:

That, in Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 15, 1877, rather strictly localized, or “in a space of two blocks,” and after a violent storm in which the rain “fell in torrents,” snakes were found. They were crawling on sidewalks, in yards, and in streets, and in masses—but “none were found on roofs or any other elevation above ground” and “none were seen to fall.”…This matter of enormousness of numbers suggests to me something of a migratory nature—but that snakes in the United States do not migrate in the month of January, if ever. The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort, 1919: p. 90-91

Of course, the 1876 Kentucky showers of flesh were a Fortean classic. The reference to hair is to hair or wool, which also fell with the flesh:

“Other qualities inconsistent with flesh, are attributed to it, as, for instance, a woolly fibre.” The New York Herald 21 March 1876: p. 6

I’m not quite sure what role hair played in butter manufacture, but an 1894 report on food adulteration reported shreds of hair and bristle in butter. It was a running nineteenth-century joke that cost-conscious boarding-house keepers served third-rate or fake butter.

Fort refers to Tice just once in his collections, which is a little surprising since Tice was so very prolific:

I am not listing all the unknowns of a period; perhaps the [aerial] object reported by john H. Tice, of St. Louis, Mo., Sept. 15, 1859, should not be included; Mr. Tice was said not to be trustworthy ——but who has any way of knowing? The Complete Books of Charles Fort, Charles Fort, 2013: p. 413

Professor Tice died 30 November 1883; his prophetic legacy, regarded as a joke by journalists, was carried on by his son-in-law Harry Lewis Lillingston.

The fact that Weather Prophet Tice lived to a good old age and died a natural death, is regarded as honorable testimony to the self-restraint of the people of Missouri. Cincinnati [OH] Commercial Tribune 5 December 1883: p. 4

Like Tice, Fort too had his critics (“writes like a drunkard;” “patron of cranks”), but confounded them to become a prophet of the anomalous, suggesting such outrageous ideas as teleportation and alien abduction and the Super-Sargasso Sea. Unlike Tice, he said, “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.”

Happy Birthday, Mr. Fort—many happy reptilians of the day!

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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