Today we flicker an enquiring tongue over some stories of scary snakes. About a third of the population is afraid of snakes–is it the most widespread phobia on earth? Obviously there is often good reason to fear deadly vipers or strangling pythons. In the early 20th century, learned professors scolded their timorous US readers for fearing snakes when there were so few poisonous ones, and claimed that the fear of snakes was not instinctive, but taught to children by nervous mothers. Today it is thought possible that our fears are the result of some distant memory of when reptiles ruled the earth.
Most vintage snake stories tend to be all of a muchness: the horrid things slither, they are very large, they are aggressive, they are very poisonous, and they escape from circuses and terrorize neighborhoods while hunting parties are gotten up. But a few, whether Snaix fiction or Snaix fact, stick with us like an antlered deer sticks in the craw of an overambitious python.
Here’s a combo-phobia: Fear of heights and fear of snakes with a side-order of dynamite.
BLOOD CURDLING BATTLE
Quarryman Attacked by Snake While Suspended in Midair
Trenton, N.J., Aug. 26. John Hutchinson, professional blaster at the quarries on the Mercer County Farm, a detention institution, had a thrilling experience today while at work on a slender rope in a rocky chasm, 150 feet in depth.
Hutchinson had been lowered about half way to the bottom of the chasm and was preparing to place a blast of dynamite in the rocks when, looking up, he beheld a monster pilot snake of the mountain variety, which had twined about the rope above him, gliding stealthily upon him.
He dared not drop the dynamite lest he cause an explosion that would have blown him to pieces. He was obliged to keep a tight grip on the rope or be hurled to the bottom of the pit .He was unarmed except for the little drill which he carried.
Hutchinson quickly slipped the dynamite into one of his pockets. Then he got a fresh grip on the drill, and as the snake dropped almost within reach of his head he struck out violently at the intruder. Again and again the drill descended, and finally the reptile dropped to the pit below.
Hutchinson signalled for help and was drawn up to the top of the quarry in an almost exhausted condition. As he stepped back from the rope that had hauled him to safety two other pilot snakes struck at his legs, but his heavy boots saved him from their poisonous fangs. These snakes were speedily dispatched. Evening Times [Grand Forks, ND] 26 August 1907: p. 2
A folkloric tale of fearing snakes (and the Reaper.)
FATE NOT TO BE BAFFLED
The familiar story of Solomon and the Angel of Death is almost paralleled by Madame Lecomte Lisle’s snake story in a recent number of the Annales des Sciences Psychiques:—
Mr. X. had consulted a fortune-teller, who predicted to him that his death would be caused by a snake. This gentleman was in the Civil Service, and he felt so impressed by the warning that he persistently refused an appointment at the Martinique, this island being infested by most venomous reptiles.
At last Mr. B., Home Secretary at the Guadaloupe, persuaded him to accept a lucrative position in the offices of that colony, which is free from snakes, although it is situated in the vicinity of the Martinique.
After having served his time at the Guadaloupe, Mr. X. sailed for France on a ship which called at the Martinique. H would not even go on land for a few hours, but fate was not to be thwarted. Some negresses came on board as usual to sell fruit to the passengers. He took an orange from a basket and drew his hand back with a shriek, exclaiming that he had been stung. The negress turned her basket upside down, and a snake crawled from under the leaves with which it was lined. The reptile was killed, but Mr. X. died a few hours afterwards. Borderland: A Quarterly Review and Index, Vol. 4, William Stead, 1890
This is a story of ophidiophobia that seems, to my sepentine logic, to have a subliminal/Freudian subtext, whether the tale is true or not.
GOES TO IRELAND TO BE CURED OF FEAR OF SNAKES
New York, July 15. Driven by a loathing for snakes, Richard Bailey of Chicago is on his way to Ireland—free from reptiles since the days of St. Patrick. Bailey was recently married, and he wishes to get out of a country where he is thrown into a convulsion every time he sees a snake.
“I am leaving the United States for good,” said Bailey today. “For years I have tried to rid myself of my fear of snakes, but have found it impossible. Recently in Chicago a case of rattlers was on view in a drug store. I saw one through the glass, and when I recovered consciousness I was in a hospital.
“I was violently ill for three weeks and have not recovered my nerve yet. The doctors tell me only a prolonged stay in Ireland, the only country in the world free from snakes will cure me.” The Spokane [WA] Press 15 July 1909: p. 6
I remember being sickened as a child by pictures of a python gorging on a pig. There are far fewer reports of people swallowed by snakes than I would have expected, given the accepted exaggeration of many snake stories. This one is improbable, but not impossible, given some accounts of man-eating snakes we have seen in recent times.
Swallowed by a Snake
A Japanese Story of a Woman-eating Serpent
San Francisco Aug 12 The steamship Oceanic, which arrived last night from Hong Kong and Yokohama brings copies of a native Japanese paper called the Kokkai, which publishes a remarkable story of a monster serpent. It says that on the 17th inst. a man called Neemura Tahichi, twenty-five years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was forty-eight, to pursue his usual avocation of tree cutting in Koshitamura Province of Lamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu Yama. Shortly afterward, while engaged [in] felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being three feet in circumference, had Otora’s head in its mouth and was engaged in swallowing her despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbors, who when they reached the scene of the catastrophe found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet and was slowly making its way to its home. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested. The Province of Lamba is one of the most desolate in Japan and monster reptiles and wild animals are frequently killed there. New York Times 13 August 1891
NOTE: There is no Province of Lamba since there is no “L” in the Japanese language. The location is probably the Province of Tamba. When I saw the age difference in the couple (if reported correctly), I wondered if this was just a murder embellished with a big snake story, but supposedly there were other villagers as witnesses…. Still, presumably the husband had an ax or tree saw–why didn’t he attack the snake instead of going for help? Fishy. Or perhaps snakey…
The Bombay Courier contains some particulars of a snake, which tend to illustrated the extraordinary accounts of that voracious animal. A Malay prow, arriving off the port of Golantalla, in the island of Celebes, too late to enter it before dark, came to an anchor, shortly after which one of the crew went into the woods in search of beetle-nut [sic] His comrades continued a considerable time in the boat, expecting his return, and were at length alarmed by his cries at some distance. They were armed, and hastened to the place from whence the voice came, but too late to save their unfortunate ship-mate, who had just before been devoured by a snake. Being acquainted with the nature of these monsters, which, having partly swallowed their victims, remain barely animated till their food is a little digested, they advanced to it, and cut off the head, carrying it on board, together with the deceased Malay, whose head, breast, and every other bone, appeared to have been crushed to pieces by the snake, which was 30 feet in length, and about the size of a man’s body, having twisted itself about him. The Monthly Mirror, Vol. IX, 1800
The next tale reminds me of a friend who told me that she could hear the large black snakes crawling up the spaces between the outer and inner walls in her 1860s home. She said the snakes wintered in the attic, which she avoided. A stock 19th-century snake story was that of a man seeking shelter from a storm in a cave, which turned out to be crawling with deadly serpents. Domestic infestations seemed to be rarer (see my previous “Snaix” post for a house destroyed by snakes), but equally unnerving.
North Carolina mixes her hideous snake story with the honeymoon of James W. Hight of Franklinton. Scarcely had Hight installed his bride in her new home, when the reptiles made their appearance—at first by twos and threes, then by battalions. The first one killed was 10 feet long, and since then Hight has seen one 20 feet long, with a body as big as a man’s leg. They ate chickens; kept up an unpleasant hissing around the house all night, and one actually chased Mrs. Hight over her own doorstep. About a week ago she waked her husband; there was a queer noise in the house, she said. He struck a light, and found half a dozen snakes of the largest size squirming about on the floor. Mrs. Hight started for the door, declaring that she would stay no longer in a snake den; she was going back to her father’s. Hight followed. Springfield [MA] Republican 1 July 1879: p. 5
The notion of torpid snakes roused to attack by human campfires is a common one in the “awoke in a snake den” literature. Throw in a doomed young couple on their wedding night and you’ve got a corker of a story:
A HORRIBLE SNAKE STORY
A Kansas Man and His Bride Stung to Death on Their Wedding Night.
George Higgins, a Topeka traveling man, confirms the story briefly told in the press dispatches last week of the shocking death in Cherokee County of August Schrader and wife by serpent’s poison. Incredible as it may seem, these two unfortunate young people were bitten to death by copperheads and rattlesnakes at a time when the thermometer registered at nearly freezing point, and that too, on their wedding night. Mr. Higgins was one of a party of hunters consisting besides himself, of ex-Postmaster A.M. McPherson, ex-Sheriff James C. Babb, W.F. Sapp and W.E. Stice, all of Galena, Kan. They were in camp on Shoal Creek, not far from the Indiana Territory line and within gunshot of the cabin occupied by Schrader and his bride, and in the early evening participated in the festivities given by old man Schrader in honor of the marriage of his son, says the Washington Star.
The cabin was less than 100 yards from the domicile of old man Schrader, and had been newly-built on the latter’s farm for the occupancy of the young couple It consisted of one room, and was built of rough logs, chinked, rough pine lumber for the floor and a roof of the same material. It was peculiarly constructed, in that a perpendicular stone bluff was made to form one end of the structure. Against this bluff a fireplace of the old-fashioned kind was built, the chimney extending up its side and towering above the edge of the bluff. In this fireplace the first fire was built which warmed the house ready for the reception of young Schrader and his bride after the festivities at the parental home should be over. They retired to their home at midnight, and the few guests who had gathered to celebrate the event dispersed.
Hardly had the camping party retired to their tent, when, about 2 o’clock, they were aroused by calls for help from old man Schrader. They responded, and, guided by the cries, hastened to the cabin of the young couple, where they found them writhing in the throes of death and the old man and his wife standing over them and crying piteously. About the floor and on the low bed were seventeen huge snakes, of all species, principally copperheads and rattlesnakes, some of which had been killed and others chilled to death.
The hunters took in the situation at a glance and ran back to their tent for some whisky which they tried to administer to the dying couple, but the remedy was too late and the victims died before morning.
Upon investigation it appeared that the fireplace had been built in close proximity to a sort of cavern in the bluff, in which the reptiles had hibernated in the winter. The roaring fire had warmed the serpents into life and they were driven out into the cabin by heat. Young Schrader was able before he died to explain that he and his bride had been aroused from their slumber by the frightened moaning of a house dog sleeping at their feet, and which, too, was bitten to death. Following this Schrader heard a hissing and rattling sound, and leaping out of the bed to ascertain the cause, his bare feet lighted upon the cold and writhing body of a serpent. Next he felt himself stung, and by the light of the dying embers in the fireplace he saw a number of reptiles crawling about the floor or coiled in the attitude of striking. He was stung again and again, and his cries arousing his wife, she too, jumped from her bed only to meet her husband’s fate. Then they ran for the door and cried for help, and in a very short time old man Schrader appeared. The open door, however, rendered human aid unnecessary, as the cold draught quickly chilled the room and the reptiles became torpid and were easily dispatch.
On Saturday, two days after the tragedy, the young couple were buried in the Indian burying ground, on the banks of Spring River, in the Quapaw reservation, seven miles south. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 3 December 1893: p. 17
I’ve previously reported on the horrible symptoms of snake-bite and how they linger. Here is a detailed, first-hand report with some 18th-century remedies, very different from the normal 19th-century advice to get dead-drunk on whiskey.
An Account, by Mr. J. Breintal, of what he felt after being bitten by a Rattlesnake. Dated Philadelphia, Feb. 10, 1740. N° 179, p. 147. Mr. B. walking up a stony hill, his foot slipped, and falling on his knees, he laid his hand on a broad stone to stay himself; and he supposes the snake lay on the opposite side, and might be offended by some motion of the stone, so bit his hand in an instant, without any warning or sight; then slid under the stones, and sounded his rattles. Mr. B. felt a sort of chilliness when he heard the sound; because he had a constant thought, that if ever he was bitten his life was at an end. Without stop he tore up the stones, resolving to slay his murderer; at last he found him, on which he crushed his head to pieces with a stone; then took him up in his left hand, and ran to his quarters, sucking the wound on his right hand as he went, and spitting out the poison. This kept it easy; but his tongue and lips became stiff and numb, as if they had been frozen. So getting quickly home, he exclaimed, “I am bitten by a rattle-snake, and there lies my murderer!” casting him down on the threshold.
The first thing applied was a fowl; its belly ripped up, and put on his hand alive, like a gantlet, and there tied fast. This drew out some of the poison; for immediately the fowl swelled, grew black, and stunk. He kept his elbow bent, and his fingers up, to keep the poison from his arm. Thus he walked about, and set some of the company to make a fire on the green; which was done quickly, and there they burnt the snake. Another got some turmerick; this they bruised well, tops and roots; so made a plaster, and bound it round the arm, to keep the poison in the hand: but night came on, or else he believed it had never gone farther than the hand; for this kept the arm secure, till midnight, or past. Nor all this while had he much pain: his hand grew cold and numb, but did not swell very much; but now puffed up on a sudden, and he grew furious; so he slit his fingers with a razor, which gave some ease. He also slit his hand on the back, and cupped it, and drew out a quart or more of ugly poisonous slimy stuff. But his arm swelled for all they could do: then he got it tied so fast, that all communication might be stopped with the body, that it seemed almost void of feeling; yet would it work, jump, writhe and twist like a snake in the skin, and change colours, and be spotted; and they would move up and down on the arm, which grew painful in the bone. Thus was it tied 2 days, adn all things applied that could be got or thought on. At last, the ashes of white-ash bark, and vinegar, made into a plaster, and laid to the bite, drew out the poison apace.
His tongue and lips swelled that night, but were not very painful, occasioned only, he supposes, by sucking the wound. The swelling of his arm being sunk, till it was at least half gone, they then untied it; but in 2 hours all his right side was turned black, yet swelled but little; nor was Acre any pain went along with that change of colour. He bled at the mouth soon after, and so continued spitting blood and was feverish 4 days. The pain raged still in the arm, and the fever more violent; and by turns he was delirious for an hour or two. This happened 3 or 4 times; and 9 days being over, the fever abated, and he began to mend; but his hand and arm were spotted like a snake, and continued so all summer. In the autumn his arm swelled, gathered, and burst; so away went the poison, spots, and all.
But the most surprising and tormenting were his dreams; for in all sicknesses before, if he could but sleep and dream he was happy so long; being ever in some pleasing scenes of heaven, earth, or air: on the contrary, now, if he slept, so sure he dreamed of horrid places, on earth only; and very often rolling among old logs. Sometimes he was a white oak cut in pieces; and frequently his feet would be growing into 2 hickeries [sic]. This cast a sort of damp on his waking thoughts, to find his sleeping hours thus disturbed with the operation of that horrid poison. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1809
Not being a snake expert, I ask of this next tale, is there some kind of caustic mucus in a snake’s gullet?
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
One final ophidiophobic flourish: I was told this story by a doctor who had worked part of her residency in the gynaecological department of a free clinic in a large midwestern city. A young teenager came to the clinic complaining of a fever and abdominal pain. She was started on antibiotics, but when a scan was done of her abdomen, it revealed, not the expected PID or ectopic pregnancy, but a snake’s skeleton coiled in her uterus. The doctors couldn’t believe their eyes. Surgery had to be performed to clear out the infection. The uterus, complete with snake, was removed. When the doctor left the residency for her next post, the snake’s skeleton was on display in the doctors’ lounge. No explanation was ever given except whispers of some magical Caribbean ritual.
I really don’t want to know.
For a superlative story of snake-terror, see “The Cat of the Cane-Brake,” by Frederick Stuart Greene.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.