Snake Tales from 19th-Century America

A snake tail in use. Illustration by Peter Newell from <em>Mr. Munchausen</em> by John Kendrick Bangs, 1901.

A snake tail in use. Illustration by Peter Newell from Mr. Munchausen by John Kendrick Bangs, 1901.

In 1818, while living in New Jersey, Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte told his American friends: “It is sought now a days to frighten my wife and my children by stories of Serpents [snakes] and all sorts of things to prevent their coming over here. I have written them that never have I seen fewer serpents than since my arrival in America, that during a residence of almost two years I have seen but one.” (1)

Joseph was fortunate. Large parts of the United States were covered with snakes. Snakes both repelled and fascinated early Americans. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the American colonists should send rattlesnakes – which are found naturally only in the Americas – to England as payback for the convicts the British were shipping to the colonies. Three years later, Franklin used a snake as a symbol of America in a cartoon aimed at encouraging colonial unity. The snake was cut into eight pieces, each labeled with the initials of an American colony or region, above the motto “Join or Die.” In 1775, a coiled rattlesnake appeared above the words “Don’t Tread on Me” in a flag designed by American general and politician Christopher Gadsden.

As a threat to life and as a spectacle, the snake was a staple of stories about young America. Here are some examples from the early 1800s.

Strange encounters with snakes

The following singular occurrence was communicated to us by a gentleman in Greenwich [Massachusetts], which he says may be relied on as a fact: Eleanor Smith, of Hardwick, fifteen years of age, on the 10th inst. puked up a live green snake, nine or ten inches in length, which she had probably taken in three years since, while drinking at a brook. Our informant adds that during that time she had been confined to her bed, and had become much emaciated. To sit or stand put her in the greatest pain, as would the smell or taste of meat. The snake was perfectly lively, running about the house, up on to chairs, tables, &c. She is now free from pain, and is apparently on the recovery. (2)

A strange circumstance is said to have taken place a few days since in the neighborhood of this city [Natchez, Mississippi]. A woman passing along a path through a rye field sat down on the side of the path when immediately she was seized round the waist by a huge black snake, which raised its frightful head in a threatening attitude, mouth open, on a level with her face, with its eyes fixed upon her countenance. The screams of the woman brought a black man to her assistance, who resolutely grasped the monster by the neck with one hand, and with the other seized its tail, and while unwinding its coils, the woman, by his directions, took a knife from his pocket and off went the reptile’s head. The relations we have heard of this wonder differ from each other, but in no considerable degree – from one source we are informed that the snake weighed upwards of 50 lbs. (3)

A young man while walking on the bank of the Brandywine creek [Delaware/Pennsylvania] had a black snake creep up his leg under his pantaloons and twist himself three or four times round his leg; this was done in an instant. He grasped it with both his hands and held it nearly an hour, till a young man came to his relief, who cut a hole in his pantaloons and cut the head off the snake. It is assured five feet long. If he had not got assistance, he declares he could not have survived much longer. (4)

Prince Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach noted this snake encounter when travelling on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis in 1826.

The country was…very monotonous, low banks, partly covered with water, covered thickly with trees, of which the fresh green leaves were very much hidden by the disagreeable Spanish moss: some inconsiderable plantations, where cotton and Indian corn were raised, and the dwelling-houses, miserable little log-cabins, which are built on a sort of grate, on account of the overflowing water. We stopped at one of these places for wood, on the left bank. The labourers discovered among the wood prepared for them, a snake two feet long, green and yellow striped, with a white belly. They considered it poisonous, and killed it; I believe, however, that it was not, for at a dinner in the habitation of Mr. Andry, the sons of our host brought a similar snake, which he had found in the garden, into the chamber, and I permitted it, (to the terror of the ladies,) to creep into my sleeve upon the naked skin. Although the head of this snake had been cut off, yet the body still had life, and wound itself so fast upon my finger with the tail that I could carry it a considerable distance. (5)

American political cartoon featuring a snake, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, 1754

American political cartoon featuring a snake, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, 1754

A snake tamer

The exhibition of Mr. Neal’s rattle snakes at the Eagle [in Richmond, Virginia] is too great a curiosity to be passed over. It is one of the most singular sights which we have ever witnessed.

Mr. Neal is a Frenchman; while in North Carolina he attempted to procure some rattle snakes for the purpose of making out a collection. But some of the observations and experiments he made induced him to believe the possibility of taming this poisonous reptile; he finally made the trial, and has succeeded in a manner which is calculated to astonish every beholder. What is the process he employed is unknown to us. He probably availed himself of the power which a control over the appetite of the animal gives him. He dwells very much, too, on the charms of music; while inflamed by hunger, and irritated by the application of hot iron, the creature is soothed and softened by a slow and plaintive strain.

Mr. N. has two rattle snakes – the male, which is four feet eight inches long, has eight rattles to his tail, thus proving him to be nine years old. He has had this snake four years. The female is much smaller and has five rattles. She has been with him 33 months. So great is their docility that he will take them up, after speaking a sort of jargon to them, and stroking down their backs, as if they were so many strings. He will make them crawl up his breast and face, caress and kiss him, coil round his neck, and while one of them is thus hanging around him, he will take up and exhibit the other. The perfect harmlessness of the reptile, and even attachment to his keeper, is astonishing. Meanwhile Mr. N. is himself thoroughly at his ease – completely self-possessed, diverting the spectator with the exhibition of his snakes, or instructing them by his explanations. He says he has no fears himself; for, independently of his command over the animal, he is satisfied he can cure the bite of it. Of the remedy he makes no secret. Wash your mouth first with warm sweet oil, and then suck the wound. Next drink most copiously of the decoction of the snake root, until it operates as a strong emetic. This is the regimen he recommends, and which he believes to be infallible. (6)

A snake eater

A man in Underhill, Vt. A few days since, for the sum of twenty-five cents, swallowed the head, and a considerable portion of the neck of a large striped snake. Having disposed of the head, for a more liberal compensation, he offered to swallow the remaining part of the serpent; but the spectators were already satisfied with his performance. The unsavory meal proved rather difficult of digestion, but the stomach of this snake eater was less affected that those of the astonished spectators. The man afterwards stated that the snake’s head operated as a powerful cathartic, and did him two dollars service. (7)

A cat playing with a garter snake, by Karl Bodmer, 1860. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

A cat playing with a garter snake, by Karl Bodmer, 1860. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959

The cock and the snake

A few days since, a farmer in the town of Jefferson [Ohio] observed his dung-hill cock, who is a great pugilist, and in the enjoyment of all his physical strength, engaged in mortal combat with a striped snake of about eighteen or twenty inches in length – the cock, to all appearance, having the decided advantage over his more willy, though less nervous adversary, dealing his blows in quick succession, employing alternately his bill and spurs, with true pugilistic skill and science. But the cunning serpent, well aware that victory must declare against him by fair combat, seizing his antagonist by the thigh, in the rear, completed secured himself from any further damage by him. Thus situated, the cock very naturally thought his only ‘safety was in flight,’ he accordingly ‘cleaved the air majestically with his wing,’ the snake keeping fast hold, and dangling like a tag-lock underneath, alighted on a neighboring apple tree. The snake immediately coiled his tail round a branch of the tree; the cock again attempted flight, but he could scarcely clear the limb, from which he hung with his head downwards, making every effort to escape, but all in vain, until the farmer came to his assistance, killed the snake, and set him at liberty. (8)

A snake hunt

The following extraordinary circumstance is said to have occurred at or near Hillsborough, in Fountain County, in the State of Indiana. For some years past this place has been infested with snakes so numerous that people were not safe even in their beds at night. So great was the terror of the citizens that few dared to venture out after dark for fear of them. Last fall, a person living in the neighborhood discovered a cave in the bank of a creek, where it was supposed they had taken up their abode for the winter. Upon the information obtaining circulation, the citizens turned out en masse to destroy them. They commenced by digging and removing the earth and rocks from the mouth of the den, until they came to them. They lay in coils in crevices of the rocks. Wooden hooks were thrust in, and frequently three or four were drawn out. The two first days they caught one hundred and forty-two – about one hundred were Rattle Snakes; and the remainder were Copper-headed Snakes. They were, in general, of the largest size.

Digging and killing have since continued, but to what extent we are not informed. (9)

Snakes and children

While Americans were killing snakes whenever they felt threatened, venomous snakes were killing or seriously injuring people and their animals. Children in rural areas were particularly vulnerable, as these sad tales indicate.

A gentleman of great respectability informs us of a very singular event which happened a few days since in Hanover county [Virginia] – on the plantation of Mrs. Hawes, within a few miles of this city. A negro woman left her sucking child asleep in her cabin to bring water from a spring. On returning to the door of her humble dwelling, what was her astonishment and horror at seeing a black snake coiled around the neck of her infant, with its mouth applied to and apparently introduced into the mouth of the child! Words are too faint to give an adequate idea of the feelings of the mother. With the wild shriek of horror, she rushed from the cabin, crying aloud for assistance, and flew into the presence of her mistress. There was not a man near them. They returned with the utmost precipitation to the cabin, whence they saw the snake departing, who gliding through the weeds effected his escape. On examining the poor infant, it was found dead. It is known that black snakes are fond of milk, and that to satiate their appetite, they will sometimes twine themselves around the legs of the cow, or order to suck its teats. It is supposed that allured by the smell of milk in the mouth of the child, the snake coiled around its neck, and applied its own mouth to that of the infant. Its grip is known to be very strong – and by this as well as by introducing its head into the mouth, completely strangled the baby. It had no marks of a bit about it. Few modes of death can be conceived more horrible than this. (10)

About three weeks since, a son of Jonathan Carpenter, Esq. of North-Moreland [Pennsylvania], aged about six years, strayed a short distance from his father’s residence into the woods, in company with another boy, and was most shockingly bitten by a Rattlesnake. It is thought that the child did not observe the reptile, and he supposed that there were briars about his feet, as he did not move from the place until it had bitten him several times. The snake was discovered by his little companion, who warned the unfortunate child of his danger. He attempted to escape, but so furious had the snake become, that it continued to thrust its fangs into him until he fell. Being unable to walk, the child crawled on his hands and knees to the road, a few yards distant, when the snake let go his hold (by which he had been dragged through the brush) and retreated. By the time assistance was offered him, the child was senseless, and so badly swollen that he could not open his eyes. Medical aid was immediately called, and every exertion made to relieve him – but of no avail. He lived about thirty-six hours, senseless, when the vital spark fled. (11)

Remedies for snake bites

It was not until 1901, when Brazilian physician Vital Brazil developed an antivenom for snakes native to the Americas, that a reliable remedy for snakebite became available to Americans. In the meantime, various folk cures were recommended.

As the public in the western country are much interested in knowing whatever may be a good remedy for the poison injected into the human flesh by the bite of a snake, I think it my duty to state a fact within my own knowledge. About the year 1815 or 1816, one of my children was bitten by a copperhead, on the inside of both ankles, nearly at the same instant. I instantly produced pulverized charcoal and mixed it with as much hog’s lard as made it adhere. I then made a plaster of it, and applied it to the wounds, renewing the plaster every twenty or thirty minutes, for ten or twelve hours, at the same time giving the child fresh milk to drink. This remedy had the desired effect, and very little pain was endured after the first application. Not more than five minutes elapsed from the time the child was bitten till the cure was applied, and in this short time, so violent was the action of the poison, being near a blood vessel, that its tongue was much swollen, and green matter was vomited by the child, but the effect of the antidote was nearly as instantaneous as the poison. Several of my neighbors, in the vicinity of Newport [Indiana], can attest to the above facts. – James M’Cormick. (12)

Dr. Barry, in England, has discovered an excellent and immediate cure for the bite of a snake or mad dog, viz. by applying a cupping glass over the wounded part. (13)

Poke root, boiled soft, and applied as a poultice to the wound, is said to be a certain remedy for the bite of a snake. (14)

Give to a grown person a teaspoonful of the volatile spirit of sal ammoniac, or what is commonly called spirits of hartshorn, in half a wine glass of water every half hour until the symptoms disappear, binding at the same time a linen cloth of three or four thicknesses, wet with the spirits unmixed with water, to the wound; the cloth to be wetted in the spirits every five minutes. If the wound has been given some hours before the application can be applied, it should be scarified freely round the bite with a sharp knife or lancet, before the wet cloth is laid on. The most severe and obstinate cases have been known to yield to this remedy in a few hours. (15)

The Bonaparte connection

Though Joseph Bonaparte’s wife, Julie, never joined him in America, “stories of serpents” did not prevent Joseph’s children from visiting him in the United States. Charlotte – who appears in Napoleon in America – arrived in 1821. Zénaïde arrived in 1823 with her husband, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, the son of Napoleon’s brother Lucien. Charles was an ornithologist. In addition to birds, Charles studied amphibians and reptiles. In 1835, he was the first person to identify and name the Vipera ursinii, otherwise known as Orsini’s meadow viper. Charles was also – in 1843 – the first person to establish that snake venom consists largely of proteins.

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  1. Nicholas and Edward Biddle, “Joseph Bonaparte as Recorded in the Private Journal of Nicholas Biddle,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 55, No. 3 (1931), p. 215.
  2. “A Snake!” Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore), August 3, 1822.
  3. “Another Big Snake!” Natchez Gazette, August 14, 1819.
  4. New York Spectator, October 2, 1826.
  5. Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach, Travels Through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1828), Vol. I, pp. 88-89.
  6. “Tame Rattle Snakes,” Niles’ Weekly Register, September 14, 1822.
  7. “A Snake Eater,” New York Spectator, June 27, 1826.
  8. “The Cock and the Snake,” Ohio Observer, August 10, 1827.
  9. “Remarkable Snake Hunt,” National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), April 25, 1829.
  10. “Strange Incident,” Niles’ Weekly Register, August 8, 1818.
  11. “Bite of a Rattle Snake,” Ohio Observer, July 26, 1828.
  12. Boston Medical Intelligencer, April 3, 1827.
  13. Maryland Gazette, June 28, 1827.
  14. “Cure for a Snake Bite,” Arkansas Gazette, September 2, 1829.
  15. “Snake Bites,” Louisville Public Advertiser, June 10, 1829.

6 commments on “Snake Tales from 19th-Century America”

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    Reading your blog, i am really happy that in my country, France, there are almost no snakes, or at least, dangerous snakes (only vipers in some areas)!

  • Shannon Selin says:

    I was wondering if Napoleon ever came across any venomous snakes. I read that on Corsica, at least, there are only “small, inoffensive” grass snakes. I haven’t read of any encounters between him and vipers (at least the reptilian kind!) in France.

  • Marie-Noëlle says:

    As far as i know, vipers are the most dangerous snakes in metropolitan France (in fact deaths are very rare) but there are no vipers in Corsica, only couleuvres (garter snakes in English?) which are not venomous.
    I don’t know if Napoléon came across a viper in France but he certainly met some venomous animals in Egypt: snakes, scorpios…
    As for Saint-Helena, it seems there are no venomous animals in the island, but i am not sure.
    Speaking of Napoléon, Joséphine was certainly more used to the danger of the snakes because in Martinique there are snakes called ‘Fer de lance”; they can be lethal if you don’t take an anti venom in the six hours after the bite.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks for these details, Marie-Noëlle. I read somewhere that Napoleon was fascinated by the snake charmers in Egypt.

  • Irene HARTLMAYR says:

    Bourrienne writes in his memoirs that there was an incident with a snake charmer, while in Egypt.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Thanks, Irene. That must be where I read it. I’ll have to look at that again.

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It is sought now a days to frighten my wife and my children by stories of Serpents [snakes] and all sorts of things to prevent their coming over here. I have written them that never have I seen fewer serpents than since my arrival in America, that during a residence of almost two years I have seen but one.

Joseph Bonaparte