When I think of the classic fortean repertoire, my first thought is “fish falls,” followed closely by “people riddled with reptiles.” You know the drill: some unfortunate is plagued by mysterious stomach aches and a ravenous appetite but is eventually cured after vomiting up a frog, a lizard, or a snake. They then recall drinking from a spring long ago, and feeling something slide down their throat, the beginning of all their woes. The name for the folklore motif is the “bosom serpent.” The usual victims are young ladies, but in the following case, the infested one was a Canadian farmer.
[Correspondence of the Halifax (N. S.) Sun.]
Bathurst, Gloucester, July 1st.— A circumstance of an extraordinary nature having happened in this community, I take the liberty of bringing it before the public through the medium of your journal. A farmer in this county, James Mulock, of the flat lands, has been for some three years and a half confined to his bed through weakness proceeding from emaciation; the cause of his sickness was unknown, and the symptoms bore no resemblance to any other disease that has appeared in this community. All the doctors have prescribed for him, and all with the same result— complete failure. A few weeks ago, however, a gipsy woman, who has been telling fortunes for some time past, offered to cure him for $100, the sum to be left in the hands of Ferguson, who was to be the judge of the cure; Mulock was to put himself completely in her hands, and leave his home for one week. He did so, although his wife demurred to the arrangement, and tried to dissuade him from it; he, however, persisted and went with her, accompanied by his younger brother Charles, and now we may as well take the story of the latter:
“We went with her to camp; immediately after entering we had some bread and ham, Jim and I both eating heartily. After dinner the gipsy said she wished to speak with me alone. I went into the woods, back from the camp, when she at once asked me if I was willing that Jim should be handcuffed and his feet bound, and to submit altogether to her. I said I was not. Then said she, ‘It is no use wasting words about the matter; if you don’t do so, he’ll never be cured.’ I asked her to explain herself; she said she would not. I at last consented, thinking to myself there can be nothing wrong while I am here. At tea we had some salt pork fried and good bread. Next morning on waking, after a very watchful night, for I never closed my eyes, I found Jim tied up. He seemed rather put out, but the gipsy told him at once that she had done so because he was to suffer a good deal of pain before being cured. I assented to this. He said he was willing to go through with it, since he had begun. We had breakfast, salt pork and bread; I fed Jim, and we laughed at the farce as we considered it. I had no faith at all in her. After breakfast I talked with the gipsy, and asked her what she meant; told her I was no child, and must either know her plans or I would unloose Jim and go home again. She then told me that she knew that Jim had some living reptile in him, and that the only way to cure him was to feed him with salt food for a day or two, and then stop him from drinking altogether, when the animal would come out to seek water. She had cured others, but I must expect to see him suffer awful pain and torture when his water was stopped, but it would only be for twenty-four or thirty hours. I went to Jim, told him all, and asked him if he was willing to undergo it. Says he, ‘Charley, that woman has it; I’ll stand it.’ Well, that day passed— salt pork and bread, and Jim a very limited supply of water; the next day the same, till alter dinner, when the water was completely stopped. Now commenced the work. He begged and prayed for water; he howled till he was hoarse ; the woman gave him a drink of what I considered water, but which she told me after was salt pork fat melted, with water on the top; he drank it in a few mouthfuls, and in a few minutes more he was worse than ever. He begged me to shoot him, to drown him, to do anything with him, only not leave him in that state; toward evening he became quite out of his mind; water and springs was all he raved about. He lay that way for some time, almost until morning, when he got into a high fever. I got alarmed, and told the gipsy I thought it had gone far enough; that Jim was too weak to stand it. She told me I could do as I liked, but if I would leave him two hours longer I would see whether she or the doctors were right. She likewise told me that if loosed he would kill himself drinking at the first water we met. I tried her. In about an hour after she asked me to drag him to the spring a few rods away from the camp. We got him beside it. She laid his head with his lips almost touching the water; she took up a birch panikin and commenced lifting up water and letting it fall just before his lips. He was all this time quiet as if he was dead; sometimes only he gave a slight shiver, his mouth wide open and his eyelids opened and shut; the white of the eye only was seen. After about ten minutes she said to me, ‘Now, who’s right? But keep quiet.’ I leaned over and saw a large green lizard peeping out of his mouth; it did not seem as if it wanted to come out, but drew itself in again. While she was speaking two lizards glided out of his mouth into the water; the gipsy quietly killed one, and I killed the other. We waited again for five minutes, when three came out, but not together; these we killed, although one almost escaped from the water to his mouth ere it was completely dispatched. We then waited nearly an hour longer, but no more made their appearance. The gipsy then said, ‘There’s no more,’ and proceeded to pour water on Jim’s forehead. She did so twenty minutes; she then gave him about a spoonful of water to drink. It actually hissed in his mouth. She kept him confined that day and half the next before she let him free, gradually increasing his allowance of water.” Such is the story told by Charles Mulock, and although I am not personally acquainted with the gentleman, I am informed that he is one of the last men in the country to tell a willful untruth. One fact, however, is clear— his brother has completely recovered his health, and not only his health but his flesh, and now weighs 160 pounds, his former weight being only 73 pounds. The lizards are of a bottle-green color, about five inches long, red eyes and forked tongues. There is a peculiarity about them different from the ordinary lizard tribe, there being only two feet and sloping thence in a wedge into a tail. Two of them have been preserved in spirits and sent to Professor Agassiz, of Harvard University. One is preserved in spirits and kept in Ferguson’s office, and the other two were forwarded to Professor Jack, who has written to a legal gentlemen here to say that these are the only specimens he has ever met with, with the exception of the one found in the museum of the University of Munich that is called the Lacerta homo in the language of the schools; and the Munich specimen was supposed to be the only one extant, although it is well known to the ancients. “The description given by Pythagoras,” says he, “I have read with your specimens before me, and I have yet failed to discover, in any respect, the slightest difference in their formation or color.” He thinks that Mulock must have received them in an embryotic state by some of those mysterious secrets that are found in every path of science. A species, he says, corresponding to it, is unknown to live on land, and all naturalists have agreed that it requires the local action of the human stomach to produce it. This is, he says, the only explanation that can be offered that is not unphilosophical; his parallel is clear and striking. He says: “The pine forest is cut down, its own species seldom appears upon the same soil, but birch, poplar and small shrubbery succeed; these again in their turn being destroyed are succeeded by the whortle, bramble and raspberry,” and argues that a certain local cause found in unison with a certain developed germ is necessary to produce such an effect; that in this way only the lizard was produced, contrary to the opinion of various ancient writers and common vulgar belief, that they are received into the system by drinking water or some other natural cause of that description. [!!] He has likewise sent to the same gentleman a series of questions to propound to the gipsy; where the other cases occurred ; were they similar in formation to those, etc., he having been put in possession of all the facts when the specimens were sent him. Fergusson, we believe, intends to present his specimen to the St. John Natural History Society; it will probably be forwarded to the Curator by the first careful person going to your city, when you and others will have an opportunity of seeing the reptile. I have sent a copy of this letter to the Gleaner [a New Brunswick paper] for insertion.
The Sacramento [CA] Daily Union 17 August 1864: p. 3
Well, that is quite the reptilian yarn! The poor man was simply teeming! Alas, in the time-honored tradition of fortean objects, the lizards (which are described as looking like wyverns) never arrived at Harvard or at the St. John Natural History Society. The notion of alimentary amphibians being lured out by a food or drink is a very old one–perhaps going back to the 12th century, as described by this article on the “bosom serpent,” a concept so well-known that it inspired herpetological hoaxers:
Annie Brown, the notorious snake-woman, turned out to be a fraud. She has lately been at the Wayne County, N.Y. infirmary, and the physician, seeing the snake’s head protrude from her mouth, seized her by the throat to prevent swallowing, and made her disgorge the reptile, which proved to be nothing more nor less than a piece of black India rubber, that she had been accustomed to slip down her throat, and then, with her convulsive movements, raise up and let down again. Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 11 July 1871: p. 1
While I found no Mulocks (also spelled Mulloch) in New Brunswick, the location suggested by the byline and “flat lands,” the name is a very common one in Nova Scotia. If the James Mulock buried in St Matthew’s Churchyard Cemetery in Upper LaHave, N.S. is the correct one, he lived to the ripe age of 83. As a fortean, I try to avoid dogmatic assertions about impossible events. Yet the whole excruciating ordeal (overseen by a gypsy, no less!) has a definite dime-novel flavor. Is this yet another one of those silly season tales using the names of prominent citizens? An allegorical representation of DT detox? Or an actual event where a man was cured by a conjuring trick? I once read of a doctor, an amateur magician, treating an Asian patient not only with western medicine, but as her local shaman might have done: He darkened the room, burned mystic powders and waved his arms impressively and when the patient vomited, he showed her the basin, complete with live lizard, which he had placed there. This was apparently the impetus she needed to make a full recovery.
At least Mr. Mulock did not share the sad fate of a young Ohio lady who was said to have died of lizards (her doctor apparently confirmed this by autopsy), although the coroner refused to allow that cause of death to be listed on her death certificate. [See The Victorian Book of the Dead for details.] Spoilsport.
Any other bosom serpent stories? Or further information on James Mulock? I thirst for details. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
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 hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.