Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Correspondence



Editor Popular Science Monthly:

SIR: In the January number of the "Monthly" one of your correspondents enters the list as a champion of the joint-snake tradition, and adds the details of a personal encounter with the problematic ophidian. He informs us that he has preserved the memory of the very spot where he saw the disjointed fragments of the much controverted reptile. It is a pity that he did not also preserve a few of those fragments. When the evidence of the controversy was sifted in the columns of "Home and Farm," a year ago, Professor C. H. Hunter, of Louisville, offered a liberal reward for a specimen joint-snake, or any two re-adjustable sections of that complex entity. Similar inducements have been repeatedly offered by Dr. Baird, by the editors of the "American Naturalist," by Professor McKnight, of St. Louis, Missouri, and by several patrons of the Smithsonian Institution. Yet the one visible link in the alleged chain of evidence is still missing. The museums of the civilized world do not yet boast a specimen of a joint-snake or any two reconstructible sections of its organism. One of the correspondents of "Home and Farm" suggested that people are naturally averse to handling reptiles, even of the more harmless varieties. They must be at least equally averse to handling the less harmless varieties, and such things as hairy, venomous spiders. Yet it would be no overestimate to say that the museums of the United States alone contain a thousand tarantulas, and at least twice as many rattlesnakes and "spreading adders." If we are to go by hearsay evidence, we would have to believe in vampires and fairies, as well as dragons and sea-serpents. The vampire-stories of the lower Danube have been confirmed by the testimony of a host of witnesses, many of them respectable persons of more than average intelligence. The same held doubtlessly good of the witchcraft-stories, accepted by the most enlightened jurists of the middle ages, on the detailed and positive testimony of eye-witnesses. A fair plurality of those witnesses may have intended nothing like willful misrepresentation. But the belief prevailed, and biased their faculties of observation, as well as their fancy. A direct refutation of hearsay evidence is, of course, impossible, and I hold that the burden of the proof rests exclusively with its defenders. Direct proofs we hive none; the indirect proofs, i. e., the entire and persistent absence of all positive evidence, as well as the glaring anomaly of the alleged portent, point all the one way. In the present stage of the controversy an infinite preponderance of probability is therefore clearly against the exponents of the tradition.

Yours, very respectfully,

James T. Becker.

Ludlow, Kentucky, February 3, 1887.


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

Sir: Whatever some of your contributors may say to the contrary, there certainly is a reptile resembling a snake, inhabiting the western part of the United States, the tail of which flies to pieces on very slight provocation. It is not, however, a snake, as some of them suppose, but a limbless lizard of the genus Ophisaurus. I have seen hundreds of them in Kansas near Fort Riley and farther west, and have sent many specimens to the Academy of the Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. This lacertilian is a very beautiful animal, varying in length from ten to fourteen inches or more, and in diameter at its largest segment from three-fourths of an inch to an inch and a half. It is perfectly harmless, and when struck or captured sheds its tail sometimes in several pieces, each of which continues to wriggle for some time afterward. It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to say that these several segments do not start out on voyages of discovery for each other in order to reunite with their parent. The animal has, however, the power of reproducing the lost part, as have other lizards. The name of "glass-snake" is that by which this reptile is popularly known. Glass-snakes are common in other parts of the world. The Pseudopus Pallasii is found in Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and neighboring countries. In general appearance it resembles a snake. The fore-limbs are entirely absent, and the hind-limbs are rudimentary, as they are in certain true ophidia. Lizards without legs are also very abundant in Australia.

Other lizards, besides the glass-snakes, lose their tails with great ease, and some of them, like the geckos, throw off this appendage spontaneously as a means of protection, doubtless hoping thereby to create a diversion of the enemy toward the wriggling fragment, while the owner makes good its escape. The Ophisaurus ventralis of Kansas and other Western States has no external limbs; there arc, however, rudimentary hind-limbs under the skin, very similar in general appearance to chose found in the black-snake (Coluber constrictor). Stories of the quivering fragments of its tail coming together again after being detached from the body were common enough among the soldiers and settlers, but I am able to state of my own knowledge (though it seems to be a waste of words to do so) that they are not endowed with sufficient perceptive and volitional power to accomplish such an act. They die in a few hours, and are reproduced by the animal in a few months. The Ophisaurus is perfectly harmless, and is readily tamed so as to become a pet.

William A. Hammond.
New York, March 1, 1887.