Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Snakes in America




I can hardly imagine a less eligible kind of neighbour than one addicted to snakes, or a more uncomfortable assurance than the news that a reptile is missing from the private collection next door. At any moment the absconding and concealed serpent may be detected in your wardrobe; or, what is worse, and more likely, in your bed; for snakes have a great instinct for blankets, as is well known to most men who have camped out much in the American woods. Not long ago there used to be a dealer in birds, squirrels, aquarial fishes, and other such live stock, who occupied a small basement, or cellar, in Broadway, in this city of New York where I am now writing. He likewise drove a pretty brisk business in snakes, as I gathered from the “bulletins” frequently posted up outside his door, informing those whom it might concern that “A large, lively, Black Snake” had just arrived from New Jersey, and was now on view and for sale; or inviting the passers by to “step down and see a pair of fine rattlesnakes, just received per Express from Lake George.” One morning in August, 1859, I saw a paragraph in one of the city papers, headed, “Snake killed in Broome Street.” The paragraph stated that one of the inmates of a hotel in Broome Street, near Broadway, while looking out of a back window, saw a large black snake lurking about the yard. He tried to capture it alive, but was obliged to kill it, as it “showed fight.” The snake was described as being five feet in length, and about as large in circumference as a hen’s egg; and as the snake-dealer’s den was but a very short distance from the premises on which it was found, its presence was easily accounted for.

This circumstance reminded me of a long intended visit to the snake-fancier, and I immediately walked down Broadway to his shop, for the purpose of stocking my mind from his with an extensive assortment of snake fancies. But the basement was no longer cheerful with the song of mocking-birds. It was shut up: “basement to let” was conspicuously posted upon the door, and, upon inquiry, I learned that the reptilist had been peremptorily ejected that morning, on account of the little snake business in Broome Street before alluded to. Thus I lost a fine opportunity of improving my mind upon ophidian subjects: and yet I have something to say about serpents in this western hemisphere, and will say it as briefly as I can.

There are only a few varieties of venomous serpents in North America, but the whole tribe, whether innocuous or otherwise, is looked upon with suspicion and horror, even by the hard-handed backwoodsmen most accustomed to meet with them. It is a singular fact that persons suffering from delirium tremens in America (where, either from the poisonous adulteration of liquors, or from some other cause not fully established, that form of insanity is much more common than among the tipplers of Europe) invariably imagine themselves beset by snakes. From this has arisen an expression in general use here. If it happens to be remarked that So-and-So is drinking very hard, some one will probably say—“O yes, he takes more than is good for him, I guess: but he hasn’t had snakes in his boots yet.” Marvellous tales are told, and apparently well authenticated, of the effect produced upon the mind by contact with serpents, and thence conveyed by some mysterious process to the body. We hear frequently of persons bitten by snakes having a perfect fac simile of the reptile instantaneously imprinted upon some portion of their bodies. The following instance of something like this is taken from the “New York Tribune,” of 27th August, 1859:—

Singular Death from Skinning a Rattlesnake.—Some weeks since, Mr. Staffer, of Sloatsburg, Rockland County, killed a large rattlesnake, which he carefully skinned. Some time afterward he accidentally cut his thumb with the knife he had used for this purpose, when his hand and arm began to swell. The family sent for a physician, who, not being informed of the facts of the case, prescribed for the swelling, and left. Mr. Staffer daily became worse, when the physician was again sent for, but found the unfortunate man beyond all medical aid. Before he died his body was covered with livid spots, resembling those on the snake he had killed.

In another paper, the name and date of which I forgot to note, I read of a man upon whose arm, after his death from the bite of a rattlesnake, a perfect representation of the reptile was found, winding spirally from the shoulder to the wrist. Daudin gives seven varieties of the rattlesnake, all furnished with the deadly venom which causes this serpent to be dreaded more than any other upon the continent of America. These snakes are distributed, locally, over most of the States of America and throughout Western Canada. I say locally, because they are found only in particular districts. In many parts of Canada, for instance, the rattlesnake is unknown, while in others it is so common as to be a nuisance to the inhabitants of new settlements.

Some thirty or forty years ago the country lying along the Niagara River used to be very much haunted by these forbidding reptiles, but the progress of civilisation, including the arrival of the omnivorous pig, has nearly rid the district of them. The pig is the great snake annihilator, devouring serpents of every manageable size with avidity, and seeming to enjoy immunity from the poison so fatal to other animals. A French gentleman, who has a large property in a newly settled district of Western Canada, told me some years ago, that he had just purchased a large herd of lean swine to send to his saw-mills there, for the purpose of exterminating the rattlesnakes, which were very numerous, and much dreaded by his workmen. Turpentine, externally applied, has been successfully used in this country for the treatment of snake bites; but it has been asserted, lately, that alcohol, taken inwardly, in doses large enough to produce total intoxication, is the only sure remedy. There can be no doubt, however, of the existence of an antidote in a plant known to woodsmen as the rattlesnake weed, which is always to be found growing in districts inhabited by these serpents. I had frequently been assured by Indians and other coureurs des bois, of the invariable success attending the application of this herb; and, about three years ago there was a letter published in a New York city paper from one John Andrews, residing somewhere in the north of the State, I think, fully corroborating such testimony. This authority states that the men who capture snakes for sale on the islands of Lake George, have such confidence in the remedy referred to, that they feel no concern at being bitten, but will even clamber about among the rocks in their stocking feet, so as to avoid slipping; and he gives three instances within his own knowledge, of men whose lives had been saved by it.

Rattlesnakes occasionally grow to a great size, although the varieties found in the more Northern States rarely attain a length of more than five feet. A singular and horrible encounter with a very large one took place in May, 1859, near the city of Peoria, in the State of Illinois. About six miles from Peoria, at a place called Prospect Hill, there stood at that time the ruins of a country hotel, near which were two brick cisterns, which had been partially covered over with boards for some time, while out of use. The proprietor of the place drove out there one day with his wife, for the purpose of putting the flower garden in summer trim, and, while engaged upon his work, he found that he wanted some bricks for edging the walks. He uncovered one of the cisterns, which was dry, and about six feet deep, jumped into it, and began to pick out some loose bricks from the wall and throw them to the top. While so employed, finding his work somewhat impeded by a piece of plank partially imbedded in the clay at the bottom of the cistern, he tore it up with some difficulty, and threw it out. At the same time he heard the spring of the rattle, and saw, to his horror, a large serpent coiled up in the hollow where the plank had lain. He had no weapon; the cistern was not more than five feet in diameter, and it would have been impossible for him to have scrambled out of it without exposing himself to be struck by the snake, the springs made at him by which he managed to parry with his heavy boots. Hearing his cries, his wife ran to the edge of the cistern, but was so overcome with fright as to be unable to render him any assistance. At last the man, seizing his opportunity between the lunges of the enraged reptile, made an effort to leap out of the cistern, in doing which a loose brick came away in his hand, with which missile he struck his assailant on the head and killed, or at least stunned it. Then, with the assistance of his wife, he climbed to the surface, when he fainted away from the excitement caused by the terrible conflict. The snake, which was taken dead from the cistern, proved to be seven feet long and had thirteen rattles.

Some of the locust and grasshopper tribes emit sounds so nearly resembling the rattle of the snake, that the unpractised wayfarer is fain to tread cautiously on hearing their whirr in the briars and dead grass. This was rather unpleasantly experienced in September, 1860, by John Falk, a resident of Guyan, in the state of Ohio, who, one hot night, was aroused by his wife and asked to kill a locust, which annoyed her with its droning whirr. On procuring a light, no locust, but a rattlesnake, three feet long, was discovered in the bed, and despatched immediately.

A friend of mine, who lived for ten years in California, where the largest and most formidable kind of rattlesnake—the crotalus horridus of the herpetologist—is rather common, told me the following story. He was about leaving a spot where he had been encamped for some weeks, when, in getting his traps together, he missed some small article, for which he instituted a search by tossing up and removing the twigs of hemlock pine which had for some time formed his couch. This process revealed to him the horrible fact of two huge rattlesnakes coiled up under the thick, matted twigs, where they had probably been for weeks!

I saw exhibited here, not long since, a pair of those singular burrowing owls, said to dwell in amity with the rattlesnake and the marmot, called the prairie dog, in the holes excavated by the latter. The association in question has been doubted; but many recent investigators have ascertained it to be a fact, though it is difficult to conceive why such a strange partnership should be entered into, or to imagine the terms of it.

The rattlesnake of the prairie is a small variety, certainly; and yet we have seen instances of the power of glutition in snakes, from which it might be inferred that either a prairie dog or a burrowing owl would only make a reasonable meal for one of these undesirable lodgers. I find in an American paper a paragraph stating that on the 26th of August, 1860, one Frederick Collins killed, at Lime Rock, a rattlesnake forty-two inches long, which had a red squirrel in its stomach. The next day, at the same place, Albert Thorp killed one forty-four inches long, which was found to contain a rabbit. Bosc, the traveller, mentions that he took an American hare from the stomach of one killed by him. The burrowing owls referred to are quaint-looking little fellows, with naked and rather long legs, which makes them look as if they had gone into the stork business for a while, but were coming gradually back to owling it again.

In many parts of the United States and Canada there is a swift, bold snake to be met with, commonly called the black snake. It often attains the length of seven feet, and I heard of one killed in Western Canada that measured nine. It is of a blueish-black colour on the back; and slate blue beneath, with a white ring upon the neck, and some white about the muzzle. This serpent, coluber constrictor, is not furnished with venom, but disposes of its prey by pressure, like the rest of the constrictor tribe. Some writers state that the black snake, or racer, as it is called in some of the Western States, will not attack a man; but there are numerous well authenticated instances to the contrary. Daudin records that cases have occurred of its coiling itself around a man’s legs with such strength as to prevent him from walking, whence it was called le lien by the early French explorers. Here is a specimen of what this serpent can do in the constrictor line, as related by the “Traveller,” of the 12th of June, 1861, a journal published at St. Joseph, in the state of Michigan. The kind of snake referred to is, I have reason to believe, either identical with, or very similar to, the one commonly called the black snake.

“While crossing a piece of marshy ground bordering on the northern bayou near this village, in company with a small boy, the sheriff discovered two large blue racer snakes just ahead of him, and although armed with nothing but an insignificant stick, he resolved at once to endeavour to despatch the monsters. Therefore, by describing a circle, he headed them off, and hemmed them in next to the water, which this species of reptile dislikes exceedingly; but as he approached nearer and nearer, the largest one, head erect, turned upon him, and in an instant coiled its strong sinewy body about his legs with such tenacity that it was impossible for him to move from his tracks, without falling over. But, in spite of this predicament, the sheriff was not so much alarmed until he saw the other snake, which had meantime been running from side to side, suddenly start towards him, and, with the quickness of lightning, leap upon him, catching his arm in its embrace, and binding it to his body as firmly as if it had been secured with chains of steel, and, of course, notwithstanding he strained every nerve in the effort, he could not release it. With his left hand he drew a sheath knife from the breast pocket of his coat, and made short work of severing the coils of his disagreeable foes. The largest of these monsters measured seven feet four and a-half inches, and the other five feet eight inches in length. The sheriff says that it seemed to him that the terrible embrace of the large reptile was equal to the strength which two men could bring to bear on a rope about a person’s limbs, and was extremely painful; while the quickness of their movements was indeed astonishing. He brought away their heads as trophies of his victory.”

In the “New York Tribune,” of the 29th of July, 1859, I find a paragraph stating that, as Lieutenant Garrabrant, of the Newark police, was walking in Elm Street, Newark, a few days previously, he was attacked by a large black snake, which he succeeded in shaking off and killing with some difficulty. Newark is a city of about 80,000 inhabitants, nine miles from New York, and the encounter referred to took place, probably, outside the city bounds. Another paper stated, about a year since, that a good deal of excitement was caused near Rochester, in the State of New York, by the fact of cattle being found dead near a swamp haunted by large black snakes with yellow rings about their necks. Marks upon the cattle led to the suspicion that they had been fastened upon and strangled by these snakes, the description of which nearly coincides with that of the coluber constrictor, already mentioned, although the latter does not usually frequent swamps. I have often killed them, however, when woodcock shooting along the dry ridges intersecting marshy tracts.

This variety of snake appears to be very common in certain districts. I read, for instance, in the “Gazette,” published at Taunton, in the State of Massachusetts, that while Mr. Allen Burt, of that town, was examining an old well near his premises, in August, 1859, he came upon a den of serpents, from which he took fifty black snakes, measuring in aggregate length more than two hundred feet; also eight house snakes, and a few others of different varieties. Old, dry wells, deserted cellars, and such like places, appear to be favourite resorts for the serpent tribe in general when driven by the changing season to seek for winter quarters. A singular instance of this is related by another Massachusetts paper, which, in October, 1860, stated that fifteen snakes of various kinds had been killed within a few days near the site of a dry well, formerly belonging to Colonel Jaques, of Woburn. The well had been for many years partially covered with a large, flat stone; but, in the course of the foregoing summer, it had been filled up; and there can be little doubt that the snakes killed near the spot in October were old tenants of it, puzzling about in search of their former winter lodgings.

The house snake, of which mention has been made above, is the coluber eximius of naturalists, and resembles, in form and movements, its fellow constrictor, the black snake. Its colours are beautifully arranged, and have a brilliant effect, the upper part of the body being clouded with brown and white, while the belly is marked with black and white lozenges, like a chess-board. This serpent, called in some parts of the States and Canada the milk snake, and sometimes the chicken snake, is often found in cellars and out-houses. It grows, not unfrequently, to the length of six, and even seven feet, and, although generally sluggish in its movements, will sometimes dart away with great rapidity when surprised. A gentleman, long a resident of Canada, told me that one summer, while on a visit to a friend near Niagara, and engaged in conversation with the lady of the house, happening to be looking in the direction of the empty fire-place, he saw one of these snakes unwinding slowly out from the dilapidated masonry, and coiling itself to repose upon the hearth. Fearful that the lady, who was very nervous and delicate in health, might see the reptile, he induced her away on some pretext, and then despatched it. I do not think that these snakes climb trees, like the black snakes, but I have often seen them winding among the cucumber vines and tomato stalks in gardens. So far as being unprovided with poison apparatus, the house snake is a harmless reptile.

Innocuous, or otherwise, however, the members of the wily serpent tribe are anything but eligible bedfellows. It happened near Fredericksburg, in Virginia, some time in the year 1859, I think, that a Mr. John Elder employed a negro to fill with fresh straw a common mattress, which was afterwards placed under the featherbed slept on by a daughter of Mr. Elder’s. The young lady frequently remarked that she was disturbed in her sleep by a thumping sound, for which, however, she failed to discover any cause. About a fortnight after the new bed arrangement, as Miss Elder was seated in a room below, from which she could see the stairs leading to her chamber, she heard a singular noise, and, on looking up, saw a large moccasin snake descending the steps. This led to an examination of the freshly-filled mattress, in which a hole was discovered, and, upon ripping open the bed, the full-length skin of the venomous reptile was found, as just shed by it. It is well known that snakes, when getting rid of the old skin, assist the process by winding among straw or dried herbage, and the one killed upon this occasion was doubtless thus occupied when unconsciously packed in by the negro along with the bedding.

And, by an easy transition from the straw mattress to the feather bed, let me here give the following story, as related by a Louisiana paper two years ago:—

“About the year 1828, one, E. Baker, moved to Bayou Kisatchie, in the southern portion of Natchitoches parish. During his travel there had been a quantity of rain, which made it necessary that everything should be sunned. One of the feather-beds had, by accident, a hole torn in it about an inch square. This hole was patched while it lay on a brush-heap, sunning. Not long afterwards the sleepers on this bed were troubled with dreams of snakes, and often its occupants actually believed a snake was in bed with them, and would bounce out of bed in great alarm, but would return after a vigorous but unfruitful search. Two years after Baker came to Kisatchie the eldest daughter was married to J. W. Brown, and took the bed home with her; yet its sleepers continued to be troubled with visions of snakes, and an occasional search was instituted for the intruder. Four years after this marriage Baker visited his daughter, and was put upon this bed. About ten o’clock he was heard calling for his son-in-law, ‘John! John! come here quick, a snake is in my bed!’ Lights were had, and though every nook and corner was searched no snake was found. All retired again, but were soon startled by the old man’s cries for help and lights, as if he was holding something with all his strength. John went to him, thinking he had a nightmare, but to his surprise found him wide awake, and holding something under the covering with all his might. After searching under the cover, it was found to be a snake on the inside of the tick among the feathers. It was pulled out and found to be quite strong and active, and about seven feet in length. Now, the question is, how did this snake subsist among the feathers, as it must have been there for six years without food of any kind, or water? The ticking was new when the hole was torn, and there never had been but one hole in the bed until one was cut to pull the snake out.

“We give this as strictly true. John W. Brown and his wife are still living, and will assert the same, as above. Their post-office is Ouachita Chute, Louisiana.”

Six years is certainly a good while to live without food, even for a snake; but there does not appear to be any definite limit as to the length of fast which these reptiles are capable of enduring. Dr. Harlan, of Philadelphia, who contributed some valuable observations to the herpetology of America between thirty and forty years ago, mentions having seen on exhibition more than a hundred rattlesnakes, brought chiefly from the State of New York, which were lively and in good condition, although they had been without food for more than six months.

Yet one more story of a snake and a bed. The editor of the “Rappahannock Southerner,” a Virginia paper, writing in September, 1860, says that he was aroused a night or two before by something moving in the bed, apparently between the sheet and the ticking. Supposing it to be a mouse, he arose, procured a light, and made an examination of the bed, when, to his horror, a hooded adder glided from it and disappeared somewhere among the furniture. That editor must have been a trusting man, for he went back to bed, instead of rushing from the house at once and for ever, as most persons, including the writer of this article, would certainly have done. Next day, while sitting in the office adjoining his bed-room, he heard something moving in a waste-paper basket, which, upon examination, turned out to be his unwelcome visitor of the night before. The snake, which was quickly despatched, measured three feet eight inches in length, and four inches in diameter; and the editor, who says that death must have ensued within a few hours had he been bitten by it, vouches for the truth of his story by inviting the curious to come and see the reptile, which was then hanging up in his office.

What the hooded adder mentioned by the Virginia editor is, I do not know. The only snake displaying anything like a “hood” with which I have ever met, is the one known here as the blowing adder, which is not venomous, however, but has a way of inflating its head and neck when irritated, which gives it an extremely vicious and dangerous aspect.

The mystery and dread attaching to the snake family has, in all ages, been a source of apocryphal exaggeration. Most of the American woodsmen with whom I have met in my wanderings have a vague faith in a reptile called by them the hoop snake, which, according to obscure authorities quoted by them—for they never have seen one themselves—resolves itself into a circle when about to attack, and, holding its tail in its mouth, trundles itself like a hoop upon the intruder. They will tell you, even, how the bold hunter will sometimes pass his deer-knife quickly within the circumference of the hoop as it wheels past, so that the snake cuts itself in two upon the blade by its own rash act. It is needless to say that this variety of the serpent tribe is purely imaginary. None of the American naturalists make note of it; nor is the story of its wheel movement worthy of any more credence than the theory surmised by many ancient fishermen about the salmon, which, they tell us, achieves its wonderful acrobatic leaps by catching its tail in its mouth, and suddenly letting go for a spring.


Very like one of these woodsmen’s yarns is the following account of a serpent new to me, as it will probably be to most of my readers. It is taken from a Virginian paper of September, 1859:—

Mr. Samuel Hawkins, living at Mount Crawford, in this State, shot an enormous bull-snake, a fortnight ago, about a mile from Mount Crawford, on what is known as Cedar Ridge. The snake was eleven feet in length, and its body was over a foot in circumference. It was in pursuit of a younger brother of Mr. Hawkins, making a kind of bellowing noise peculiar to this snake, when it was shot. Its teeth were an inch in length.

Now the foregoing, unlike the hoop-snake fables, is entitled to consideration; for, on reference to several authorities, I find that the bull-snake, or, as it is sometimes called, the pine-snake, is no myth, but an “established fact.” It is a large black-and-white snake—the coluber melanoleucus of scientific nomenclature. Bartram, in his “Travels in the Southern States of North America,” describes it as a denizen of the pine-forests of Carolina and Florida; and Daudin states that when irritated it utters a very loud and even frightful sound.

In these latitudes, and in Canada, I know of but two varieties of water-snake, neither of which is venomous. One of these is marked with sooty patches on a somewhat lighter ground; the other striped longitudinally in black and yellow, with a spotted belly. They haunt the borders of sluggish streams and ponds, and live chiefly upon fish. I heard of one killed at Poultney, in the State of Vermont, which, upon being opened, was found to contain ten trout; and I found in the stomach of a large one of the brown variety, a pike, or jack, nearly a foot long.

These snakes may very often be seen sunning themselves upon logs by the margins of sedgy pools, and on being disturbed, they glide as quick as lightning into the water. A good many years ago, as I was fishing for trout along a Canadian river with a friend, he hooked a striped water snake with his fly, as it swam across the stream, landed it with some difficulty, and had a good deal of work in killing it without damaging his tackle, which became involved in a wonderful tangle with the coiling reptile. Once, as I was watching for wild ducks on the margin of a sluggish but clear stream, a small water snake crept close by my foot, and, disturbed by my movement, glided into the water, where it coiled itself upon the pebbly bottom. In a moment it was surrounded by a swarm of minnows, which hovered about it with insulting, fish-saucy gestures, until it was forced again to seek the land as a refuge from its tormentors. This, in the water, was an exact counterpart of what we so often see far up in the air, when a host of small birds harasses the rear of an obnoxious hawk. With regard to these two water snakes I have observed a curious physiological fact—that, upon the same rivers, they inhabit separate districts. And this appears to be in some way connected with the local vegetation. For instance, I have always found the brown water-snake only where the button-wood tree—platanus occidentalis—grows; while, upon the same stream, at localities where that tree disappears, the striped variety alone exists.

In this rambling talk about American reptiles I should not forget to mention the garter snake, which is the kind most common in these latitudes. This snake, which seldom exceeds three feet in length, is striped longitudinally with black and yellow, and is frequently to be seen lurking by the roadside or in the angles of the wooden fences. It is a harmless reptile, subsisting upon frogs, toads, and insects: at least, I can answer for the frogs, as I have often seen a garter snake gliding away from the wayside with one of these luckless batrachians protruding from out of its distended jaws.

These rough field-notes of mine may be useful pour servir: the herpetology of America has yet to be written. In what has hitherto been done, much confusion exists with regard to nomenclature, from the fact that the same species of snake is called by various names in different parts of the country. And there is yet another difficulty in running down ophidian facts here—that the lank hunter of the American forests is but little observant of the habits of creatures in which he is not directly interested as objects of pursuit. The English game-keeper is often a practical naturalist of no mean attainments, while the American deer hunter and trapper generally limits his observations to the wearers of antlers and “peltry.” It was bad encouragement for the enthusiastic investigator when, as he laid down much law on the subject of snakes, and especially of constrictors, the back woodsman to whom he addressed himself shouldered his rifle with a jerk, and cut off the lecture with the defiant words—“Let ’em constrict!”