SNAIX: Vintage Snake Tales

Giant snakes were often reported in 19th century papers

A giant anaconda as reported by Col. Fawcett’s South American expedition.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Snake. I was born in a Snake Year, so I feel like starting the year off right with a post on some strange snake stories—or “snaix” as the papers jocularly referred to the monstrous snake stories that were printed in such profusion in the 19th century papers that some publishers joked that they needed a “snake editor.”

Snakes taught themselves to play church organs, milked cows, were swallowed with spring water, only to grow to immense, writhing size in victims’ stomachs, and shared bowls of milk with infants. They were reported in length from 3 feet to over 50 feet and were proverbially as large around as stovepipes. When cut open they were found to hold such things as a mowing machine or the bones of a peddler. “Snake story” had the same connotation as our “fish story,” with reporters vying to produce the most colorful snaix tales in the silly season.

Since I would be spoiled for choice in trying to select the crème of the giant snake stories, let us concentrate instead on stories of reptiles remarkable for something other than size.

DEATH FROM THE BITE OF A RATTLE-SNAKE

The Cincinnati Gazette says that Mr. Jos. Wright, an old citizen of Cincinnati, was bitten by a rattlesnake in Vanceburgh, Lewis County, Kentucky, on the 4th inst., and died in less than fifteen hours. The reptile struck its fangs in the back of his hand, and by the time he reached home he was entirely blind, and his body and head were covered with spots of the same color as those of the rattlesnake.

In preparing the body to be laid out, a singular phenomenon presented itself. In addition to the spots referred to, there was a picture of the snake itself—perfect in shape and color, and as distinct as if daguerreotyped there—extending from the point on his hand where the fangs had struck, up the arm to the shoulder, and then down the side to the groin. To the truth of this, our informant assures us not only himself, but some four or five other citizens, who saw it, can positively testify. Coshocton [OH] Progressive Age 27 July 1859: p. 1

The following series of stories told of a snake attacking a rider near Lima, Ohio. Although snake experts were skeptical, subsequent articles told about Packer being disabled long after the initial injury.

GIANT SNAKE IS REPORTED NEAR FOREST

KENTON, O. June 1 A snake story to end all snake stories was related today by Orland Packer, of Forest, who is in Kenton hospital with a broken ankle.

The fracture, Packer stated, was suffered while he was riding horseback through a woods near Jumbo, Hardin county. Packer said he felt a sudden blow on his ankle and looked down to see a snake “four inches around.”

“I could see at least eight feet of him in the tall grass,” Packer related.

Packer slid off the horse before the snake struck again. The second strike left a welt on the horse’s side. Marysville [OH] Tribune 11 June 1946: p. 1 

 Limaite Has Ankle Crushed by Snake

Orland Packer, 32, an employee in the shay shop of the Lima Locomotive Works, Inc., was in San Antonio hospital, Kenton, Tuesday recovering from injuries suffered during a battle with a huge black snake.

Packer, a resident of Forest, told hospital attaches he was attacked by the snake while riding horseback thru a woods. The reptile struck at him, then wrapped its body around his leg, crushing his ankle, he related.

Helped by his brother-in-law John Ward, who was riding with him, he returned to his house and later was taken to the hospital.  The Lima [OH] News 11 June 1946: p. 2

Columbus Zoo Snake Expert Visits Kenton

Kenton, June 20 Everett Dawson, snake authority of the Columbus zoo was in Kenton Wednesday to investigate reports of the “huge snake” in this area.

While in Kenton he indicated that the reptile might be a snake that escaped from a zoo or circus and that possibly it is a tree type serpent. He refused comment on the story of Orland Packer, Forest, who said a huge snake attacked and crushed his ankle on the John Ward farm, near Jumbo, recently.

Dawson was to hunt the snake on the Ward farm, as well as on the Willis Shepherd farm, where Elmer Risner reported seeing the same type reptile last Friday.

It is understood that Dawson brought with him equipment with which to capture the snake without killing it. The Lima [OH] News 20 June 1946: p. 12

There was an odd belief in the ability of poisons to linger in the body. People were often said to have died of rabies and snakebite months or even years after a bite.

HAS BRAND OF SERPENT

Rattlesnake King of Oregon Awaits Death to End Peculiar Malady

Luther King, better known as the “Rattlesnake King,” who is slowly dying in Florence does not believe that he will till August and that at last there will be an end of his affliction which he himself terms the serpent’s brand that the Bible speaks about and which has no parallel in the catalogue of local afflictions.

Recently the Evangelical Church of Florence prayed in a body for the old man.

In the early part of August 1875, 38 years ago, Luther King was picking blackberries in the mountains of Idaho, when a rattlesnake, disturbed in its sleep, struck quickly and without warning and closed its teeth so firmly upon his leg a little below the knee that he dragged it as he ran, whipping and jerking, for 200 yards or more.

He reached camp all right, the poison was extracted from the bite, the wound healed in a few weeks, and probably, as he believes, all the subsequent history of the bit, the suffering it caused and its strange, almost incredible, manifestations would not have occurred had it not been for one circumstance—the time of the year. August, as is well known, is dog days, and during this month snakes shed, are blind and they strike at everything they hear. It was the bit of a blind and shedding snake that brought dog days and recurrent death into the life of Luther King.

For 20 years, an unaccountable period of dormancy of the effects that afterward took place, he went about sound and well, the snake-bite practically forgotten. Then on the last day of July, 1895, he felt a peculiar irritation on the bitten leg, but upon the instep and not just below the knee, where appeared the faint scar of the bite. The next morning, August 1, he woke up feeling dizzy and to find that the irritating spot on his instep was sore. All that month he slept from 18 to 20 hours a day, drank little and ate scarcely anything, while the functions of the body stopped. On the 1st of September he got out of bed and called for something to eat. By the 4th of September the sore was completely healed.

On the last day of July the next year he felt again an itching on his instep, two itchings and at the same time he felt dizzy as with malaria. The next morning the year-old scar upon his instep had revived into a sore and not two inches away was another sore. Again he slept the whole month through, with little drink or food, and imagining in his delirium that a rattlesnake was coiled up on his leg under the skin. On the first day of September he got up hungry. By the 4th of September the sores were well.

And so each year for 18 years, with inexplicable regularity, on the 1st of August, his state of enforced coma and fasting has begun, all the scars of the preceding year have revived, accompanied unfailingly by a new sore, and with equally strange regularity, the sores have never failed to be entirely healed by the 4th of September. He now has 18 scars upon his leg. That first sore upon his instep, like a periodic volcano, has revived 18 times, the second 17 times and thus it becomes a simple problem in progression to find that Luther King, bitten once by a live rattlesnake, has been rebitten 171 times by an invisible and ghostly snake that all through each August lies coiled there and a dread and unjust Nemesis, upon his leg. But still the affliction is as strange in its inconsistencies as in its consistencies. No unusual effect, as has been noted, was felt till 20 years after the bite took place, and the scar of the bite did not break out anew till three years ago, 35 years after he had been bitten.

It seems, indeed, as he believes and asserts, that a preternatural correspondence is being worked out between his life and the life of the snake that bit him.

“I’m just like a snake in August,” he says. “I shed then. The skin comes right off my leg; I can just strip it right off. I don’t eat nothin’ and I sleep all the time. And I’m pizen like a rattlesnake then. If I’d bite you in August, I’d kill you.” He has always thought that when the sores reached the number of the snakes’ rattles, they would stop increasing and stop reviving, and, although he knows nothing of the size of the snake except that it was very large, he has been waiting hopefully each year, thinking the “rattles had at last been counted.” Washington [DC] Post 8 June 1913: p. 1

Choked by a Phantom Snake.

A very remarkable case is reported from Danbury, Ct. It is the champion snake story of the season. A few days ago a farmer named George Fraleigh went to work in the hay field. The other men in the field saw the hay fall from the fork and cover Fraleigh. He lay writhing on the ground and they ran to him. Coiled closely around his neck was a large black snake which was slowly choking him. It took two men to uncoil the reptile. Fraleigh was black in the face and almost unconscious. The following morning at the same hour he experienced a choking sensation and a black band appeared upon his neck. The next morning he had a similar experience and the attacks have continued each morning. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 29 July 1893: p. 4

 The Very Latest Snake Story. This One Comes from Tiffin and Is a Corker

TIFFIN, O., May 13—A queer freak of nature was discovered by J.W. Yochem, a well known business man of this city a few days ago. Mr. Yochem and several ladies were in the woods adjacent to the city gathering wild flowers, when one of the ladies became frightened at a small snake. Mr. Yochem procured a club and struck the reptile, and was surprised to hear the blow accompanied by a metallic sound, and the snake appeared to pay no attention to the club with which he was belabored. Finally a well-directed blow crushed its head, and it was then discovered that two-thirds of the snake’s length was incased in a section of gas pipe one inch in diameter. The snake was two feet and ten inches in length, and had evidently crawled into the pipe when it was quite small and had been unable to extricate itself. The ironclad reptile is on exhibition at Mr. Yochem’s place of business, and is attracting considerable attention. Marion [OH] Daily Star 13 May 1892

As a side note, one Warren G. Harding was owner/publisher/editor of the Marion Daily Star at this time. He never met a big snake story he didn’t like.

There was a subset of “helpful snake” and “baby’s pet” stories.

STRANGE SNAKE STORY

Black Snake Kills Rattler in Defense of Three-Year-Old Child.

Mrs. Warren W. Jessup, residing near Conklin Forks, New York was the hysterical witness of an exciting battle between two snakes, the prize they were after being her three-year-old child. Last summer the Jessup farmhouse was infested with rats and mice. Every effort to remove the vermin proved ineffectual. Suddenly they began to disappear, and when all had left the premises Farmer Jessup found the cause to be a black snake that had taken up its residence under the kitchen porch. He gave orders the reptile should not be injured, and even set a pan of milk out for it occasionally.

The snake became quite tame, and grew to be the pet of three-year-old Margery, who fed it daily. The snake got to know the little one, and showed no fear when she was near. Last week Margery was playing about the yard when the mother, hearing a strange whirring sound, looked up and saw a large rattler coiled on a stone in the doorway ready to strike. She dare not scream and precipitate the tragedy, and was in a frenzy of terror when from under the porch the black snake glided direct toward the foe. So quick was the movement that the rattler did not see him until too late. He reared and struck forward toward the black snake, but the latter, with lightning speed, coiled himself about his enemy’s throat, rendering his jaws harmless. In vain the rattler tried to strike. Tighter and tighter drew the coils until the intruder fell back limp and dead. Then the blacksnake uncoiled itself and retreated to the porch. Washington [DC] Bee 1 July 1899: p. 10

 Baby Fed a Pet Snake.

When the Reptile Was Killed Its Little Partner Grieved Himself to Death

New Orleans Picayune

William Wilson, the sable-hued man of all work, whose duty through the long night watches is to wash bottles, sweep floors and furbish the big soda fountain at William’s Pharmacy on Canal Street, tells a story in his own quaint way which, for originality, might stand on a par with some of Baron Munchausen’s choicest adventures. But for all the story’s strangeness and improbability, William swears it is true and says that a reputable white physician, well known in New Orleans, will vouch for it….

William heard the reporter and other present at the time discussing the finding of the big boa constrictor underneath the old St. Louis Hotel, and the discussion moved the dark-skinned man to talkativeness and inspired him to relate something of a hair raiser….

Years ago William had a little baby brother, who, true to the instincts of one of his year, had a fondness for milk and bread. The baby was called Joe, and William and the rest of his family, including Joe, lived on St. Patrick Street, now Rampart, in a thinly-populated locality where weeds and grass and other reminders of the world’s primitive state disputed ground with civilization’s advancement.

The house where the Wilsons lived was fronted by a broad gallery, and every day, when Joey was given his bowl of milk and bread, he would toddle to a favorite spot on the extension and sit himself down to enjoy his feast.

Joey, it was noticed, managed to get rid of his milk and bread some way or other in a great hurry, and Mammy Wilson began to marvel at the voracity of her offspring’s appetite. She would give him his milk and bread, see him go to the gallery and perhaps five or ten minutes later, when she would look for the lad, she would find him sitting with empty bowl and a wistful expression on his little black face.

The strangeness of the thing appealed to the mother; she reasoned that a little fellow like Joey would hardly be able to dispose of such a quantity of food in so short a time and to solve the riddle she made up her mind to watch the lad.

The next day she gave him his portion…and as Joey’s diminutive form disappeared through the doorway, going toward the gallery, she hurried through the house to a front room whose window overlooked the porch and took up a point of vantage, her eyes gaining the desired exterior view, through the slats of the blinds.

The mother saw Joey seat himself in his favorite place and watched him closely as the little fellow began to coo and call in the softest of voices. He formed no words, but form his lips came a gentle sibilant sound, such as one uses when coaxing a timid cat, and Mamma Wilson stood still, wondering what was coming.

A potato vine which grew in the yard just at the edge of the gallery was slowly agitated, and from its meshes a flat speckled head was craftily protruded and two little beadlike eyes were trained on the boy. “Good Lord, it’s a snake!” the mother gasped, as from the vine a long sinuous body glided, passed through the banisters and approached the pickaninny. Joey had the bowl placed just before him and held the spoon in his hand, apparently waiting for some creature to come and join him in his lunch. He saw the snake, and shouted with delight, and the reptile, as though he appreciated the welcome and knew that he was expected, continued a wriggling course to the bowl, raised his head on an arched back and then, lowering it over the edge of the receptacle, began to slowly suck the milk.

While the mother stood paralyzed with fear and horror at the danger her baby ran, Joey appeared to be enjoying himself. Several times he was seen to reach forward and stroke the scaly crawler with his chubby little hand, and the snake didn’t appear to mind the touch in the least, but continued drinking the milk.

The scene even grew more trying to the mother when she saw Joey repeatedly dip his spoon into the bowl from which the snake was drinking and partake of the milk and bread himself. Then companionship was a close one, and while the snake disposed of most of the milk, the boy ate the bread.

Soon the bowl was empty, and then Mamma Wilson almost took a fit when she saw Joey lift the seemingly willing snake’s head to his face and fondle it, laughing with gee all the time. The mother determined to kill that snake, and running to the kitchen, she took a kettle of boiling water from the stove and hastily returned to the window.

Slowly opening the blinds she leaned over the sill, and as the reptile started at the faint noise, was gliding away, she threw the contents of the kettle over him. The snake described some awful twistings and writhings and died a cruel death, as the mother heaved a sign of relief, thinking that she had saved her child from a dreadful danger.

Joey was too young to appreciate at the time the loss of his pet, but he came to realize it soon enough, with dire results to himself and to the heart of his mother. The following day, with his bowl of milk and bread in his arms, he made his way to the gallery and seated himself as was his wont. He cooed and called, but the friend of yesterday was dead and there was no response to the summons. The baby did not eat his mush, but in a little while, his playmate not appearing, he fell to sobbing and crying bitterly.

Day after day for a week he went to the porch with his bowl and called in vain to the snake, and then leaving his food untouched, he would re-enter the house to cry himself to sleep. The child feel sick, steadily grew thinner and more gaunt, and the doctor summoned to him diagnosed his disease as being a most peculiar one. “He’s fading away,” said the man of medicine, “and it seems to me something is worrying or troubling him.”

Only a little dark shadow to what he once was, a frail, delicate skeleton, poor Joey would lie weak and helpless son his bed and whisper the soft cooing call to his serpentine protégé. This continued for a fortnight, when the little black boy went to sleep to awake no more, and the doctor, after hearing of his strange attachment for the snake and combining with it other circumstances of the unusual case, concluded that Joey had died of grief.

William is very solemn and sad-faced when he tells the story, and argues that if his mother had not killed the snake Joey might be alive and well today. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 3 December 1904: p. 13

The “baby’s pet” snake stories vastly outnumber the more probable stories like the following:

 George Wharton, of Brown County, Ind., tells a blood-curdling snake story. Mrs. William Huxelly, living in a log cabin, was making soap in the back yard, having kissed her sweet little six-month babe to sleep in the cradle. Presently the baby screamed, and she rushed in and was horror-stricken to find a hideous black snake of enormous size trying to swallow the child, having engulphed the hand, had swallowed it up to the armpit and was writhing in its contortions and efforts to make further progress. Grasping the hideous reptile in the middle, it seemed to relax its hold and disgorge the child’s arm, then turned upon its mother. She dashed it to the floor, and in her wild frenzy stamped it to death. It proved to be of the black racer species, seven feet two inches long and measuring six and one-half inches in circumference. The baby lived, and the only inconvenience it suffered from its terrible experience was that its arm and hand were blistered as if scalded in hot water. Malvern [IA] Leader 25 December 1890: p. 7

There was a story from 2011 about a snake-infested house in Idaho that had to be abandoned, so this next yarn may or may not be a tall tale.

SNAKES WRECK A HOME
A Reeking Nest of Reptiles Undermine a House.

FARMER GITHENS’ FRIGHT

Lambertville, N.J. Startled—The Crawling Things Drove the Owner From His Place.

Eastern and Western papers are all giving the following serpentine story:

Lambertville, New Jersey, and its environs swarm with snakes. Off to the east of the town, where the country grows wild and rocky, there are dark holes at every turn that seem a likely habitat for the crawling things, and make one shudder. But the uncanny experience of Farmer Joseph Githens, who lives about a mile and a half from the post office, gave a rude shock to the townsmen last week, accustomed though they are, to the “pesky varmints” and women and children start nervously to-day at the very mention of the “beasts.” The word sets their flesh crawling.

Githens stopped at the old Lamberville Hotel last Saturday to water his horses, and as he told his story the listeners eyed him mouth agape.

A DILAPIDATED HOME

The house he calls his home is a rude log affair, with two rooms on the ground floor and a garret. It stands back from the country road in a rocky field. It is a rough shanty, full of cracks and crevices; rank grass flourishes under the stone steps in front and reaches up toward the dilapidated window sills. There is a seedy looking acre of land about the hut that bears no sign of cultivation now or at any time.

The farmer and his wife have seen snakes in plenty here, and there in the neighborhood, but so have all the country folk for miles around and thought nothing of it. It is a land of reptiles, and little toddling boys and girls learn to tramp on and kill garters and slim black snakes as they would toads. There is no dread of them.

MYSTERIOUS THIEVINGS.

It was about two months ago that Mrs. Githens began to tell her husband of various articles being stolen from their upper larder in the back yard. Milk would be dipped out of the pans, eggs and butter taked bodily away, many chickens disappeared, and almost every conceivable kind of victuals took its departure in a strange way. The things were generally missed in the morning, but not always. Thieves were suspected. Tramps are continually moving back and forth through the country, and Mr. Githens laid the sundry robberies at their door. He kept his rusty old gun in a handy place, and gave his wife a lesson or two in handling it. He laid in wait nights when he could. He finally got a small black-and-tan dog to keep watch, but this animal disappeared, and the farmer gave it up as a bad job. The things that disappeared were not valuable enough to give the couple much worry, but the thieving went on as the weeks passed.

A CAVE-IN OF THE KITCHEN FLOOR.

The crisis came on Friday last. As Mr. and Mrs. Githens moved around to get their breakfast that morning they noticed the earthen floor about the big stove in the kitchen somewhat cracked. But they gave it little attention and went on with the meal. Soon after eleven o’clock the farmer left the house and walked 100 yards off to the barn, where he was getting in some hay. His attention was called from the job not long afterward by a wild shriek from his wife, who rushed out of the rear door of the hut and beckoned excitedly for her spouse. He hurried toward her.

While Mrs. Githens was upstairs in the garret she had head a jumbling sound below and looking down the rickety stairway to the kitchen saw a strange sight. The stove was gone, and in its place was a gaping hole, three or four feet across. Without waiting to investigate she summoned her husband.

Amazed at the collapse of his kitchen floor Githens got a Lima bean pole from the yard seven or eight feet long and shoved it down into the gaping chasm to test its depth. Standing back from the edge lest the earth should further crumble, he reached the rod down six feet, when it seemed suddenly to be gripped by a muscular hand, moved and twisted about, and was finally wrenched from his grasp.

A SEETHING NEST OF SNAKES

Involuntarily he started back and his wife screamed. Things were serious enough to make a call upon the neighbors desirable. A number of Githens’ friends were told of the crisis and hurried with him back to the kitchen.

The hold meanwhile had become bigger. A piece of newspaper was touched with a match and tossed into the aperture. As it blazed up in its descent it revealed some sort of life in the big cavern. A lantern was finally gotten and its rays thrown down the black hole.

And then the three men saw a sight that made them sick with fright. The whole bottom of the chasm was one bristling bed of snakes—smooth, shining and very black snakes. The reptiles were of every size. A big head, with open jaws and darting forked tongue, was raised up above the squirming heap, and must have belonged to a huge 12-foot crawler. Wound n and out through his folds were scores of baby snakes from six inches to three feet long. The whole earth seemed to be wriggling, and at the disgusting sighting the party threw themselves backward from the loathsome place. They took one more look, that was enough. The whole house it was evident, would soon be overrun with the creeping horde, and Farther Githens and his wife moved away to a neighbor’s.

A HOME DESERTED.

Since Friday noon they have not set foot near the worse-than-haunted spot. No one will approach the place. Even the men folk are afraid.

But Mr. Githens now knows that the den of slimy snakes is the den of thieves for which he watched for many weeks. The reptiles had cleaned out the big hole under the house, made a nest of it, and ten preyed for food on the Githens provender. It was these stealthy robberies that made off with the butter and eggs, the chickens and bread and that had lapped the milk from Mrs. Githens pans. It was probably the snakes, too, that seized and carried off the dog set to watch the robbers, and dragged him down into the crawling hole beneath the store.

And now the neighborhood does not talk lightly of its snake population, and the “vermin” and their nests are given a wide berth by every farmer and household wife. Mr. Githens swears he will never return to his rickety house even should it be purged of the teeming snake life down below. Lima [OH] Daily Times 6 August 1891: p. 5

One could do an entire post on “snakes in a grave,” as the creatures frequently put in grave-side appearances. In one case, in Ohio, a noted atheist, Chester Bedell, had challenged God on his deathbed:  “If there is a God,” he was reputed to have said, “let snakes infest my grave!” Of course, writhing masses of snakes were found on his grave immediately, helped, it was hinted, by local ministers paying boys to catch and dump the reptiles. People came from miles around to see the snaky spectacle. No doubt some of the pious smiled at the thought of Bedell writhing in a nest of asps in hell. You can read the religious viewpoint in a tract, “The Infidel’s Grave and Some Strange Incidents About It”, by William M. Smith. A more balanced view is found here.

A Strange Incident at a Funeral

(From the Daily Times, June 16)

The Glen’s Falls Times says at the funeral of a colored man at Kingsbury last Sunday a black snake four feet long was found near the grave and could not be clubbed away by the pall-bearers. As soon as the coffin was lowered the snake sprang upon it, opening its mouth and sticking out its tongue menacingly. The attending clergyman interfered and asserted that the object on the coffin was not a snake, but was supernatural. The men then reluctantly covered the snake and the corpse and left for their homes. Times [Troy, NY] 23 June 1881: p. 3

SNAKE COILED

Glided into the Grave at a Jersey Funeral

Sequel that was Tragic

The Strange Fatality in the Lorch Family.

Woodbridge, N.J., Oct. 27. Death has taken two members of the Lorch family and another member is seriously ill and may die. There is a tragic side to the story. William L. Lorch was stricken after returning from the funeral of his youngest sister.

Mr. Lorch was married only a week ago last Thursday to Miss Carrie Sellers. The young couple resided with the father of the bride on Fulton Street.

After he had returned from the funeral of his sister Lorch was seized with pains in his heart and died soon after of heart failure. Grief over his loss is believed to have brought on the attack.

As the coffin of Lorch’s sister was lowered the grave a huge snake entered the grave. Many regarded it as an omen of evil and left the cemetery with a deep sense of something about to happen.

Mr. Sellers, the father of the bride, while endeavoring to revive his son-in-law, was stricken with a severe attack of nervous prostration. It is said he may not recover. Cincinnati [OH] Post 28 October 1896: p. 7

For more information on big snake reportage, I recommend the book Boss Snake by Chad Arment. And I wish you all a very happy Year of the Snake with no evil snakes in graves or undermining your homes.

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