Frankly I can’t remember what combination of keywords led me to this tale of a snake with fur. This is one of those stories that make the historic truth seeker want to throw themselves into a “slew” in frustration.
LIKE A COW’S TAIL
It’s Remarkable that Nobody Has Ever Seen a Snake like This
Snake stories grow alarmingly scarce of later years, but a correspondent of Nature’s Realm relieves the dearth somewhat by telling one which has never been printed before, but which ought to have been told just after the war. The correspondent says: “In the fall of 1869 I was in La Crosse, Wis., and having some business in La Crescent, on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi, I crossed the river in a ferry boat. There is, or was, an arm of the river on the Minnesota side called, in western parlance, a ‘slew.’ Over this there is a bridge; on going over it I saw a snake coiled on a ‘butt’ that had been sawed off a tree of about two feet in diameter, and it was floating in the water. The snake was so different from any animal of the kind I had ever before seen that I gazed on it for fully five minutes. It was evidently asleep and within ten feet of me—was, in fact, directly under me as I leaned over the side of the bridge. The ‘slew’ had no current in it, for the water was very low; I had, therefore, ample opportunity to observe the snake. It was red, and, more extraordinary still, it was thickly covered with hair. It resembled no snake I had ever seen before. It was exactly like a red cow’s tail. The hair on it was fully an inch long and as thick as that growing on a cow’s tail. Having no means of capturing the snake, I determined to make it show itself and flung a piece of stick at it. It awoke at the splash in the water, uncoiled itself and dived into the slough. It was certainly 6 feet long or more. I have told some dozens of people in La Crosse about it, among them Mr. Davidson, of the Clyde house, but none of them remembered to have even seen such a snake. Mr. Davidson is the best known sportsman in La Crosse, and it is strange that he never should have seen any snake like it.”
Osawatomie [KS] Graphic 6 March 1891: p. 4. The Nature’s Realm reference is Nature’s Realm, Vol. 2, February, 1891, p. 74.
Initially I thought that the furred “snake” was a vine adhering to the bark of the log. A natural mistake, with the log bobbing about in the water…. I well remember a frustrating childhood chore of trying to clear away vines with reddish, fur-like tendrils that clung like limpets to wall and tree. Alas, the narrator scotched that theory by throwing a stick.
Walter L. Davidson was, indeed, the proprietor of Clyde House in La Crosse, although I can’t vouch for his prowess as a sportsman. If this is a “Snaix” tall-tale, once again we find a prominent person named in a hoax story. Nature’s Realm was a monthly magazine, and, according to its title page, “the only publication in the world devoted solely to popular natural history.” The author, T.O. Russell, also contributed a perfectly sound and sober piece in the same issue on “The Cuckoo–A Mysterious Bird.” The curious snake tale appeared under the “Notes and Queries” department in company with items headed “The Sky Lark,” “Two West African Fishes,” “The Claw in the Lion’s Tale,” “The Flower Clock,” “The Great Turtle of Australia,” and “Can Dogs Talk?” This mixture of serious nature study, folklore, and popular theories is typical of the publication, which also published poetry and fiction. We cannot discount the snake story solely on the basis of the company it keeps.
Wisconsin is home to several water snakes, such as the Queensnake and the Northern Watersnake, but they do not seem to run to orange coloration, nor, stating the obvious, to fur. If not toying with the gullible readership of Nature’s Realm, what might Russell have been describing? Is this another northern herpetological hoax along the lines of the famous fur-bearing trout? Did he mistake an otter dragging its prey for a 6-foot snake? Or is there a disease that might make a snake look furry? I will hold off jumping in the slew until I hear from you. 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.