Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/February 1887/Correspondence



Messrs. Editors:

IN "The Popular Science Monthly" for December, 1886, Dr. Felix L. Oswald, in discussing "Zoölogical Superstitions," speaks incidentally of the "joint-snake." He says:

"The joint-snake idiocy, on the other hand, though knocked to pieces a hundred times, persists in reviving with symbolic promptitude. In the Rocky Mountains, on the lower Mississippi, and all through the southern Alleghanies, farmers and hunters still believe in the self-reconstructive power of a reptile that survives dismemberment, with the facility of a New York tramway ring, and, after picking up a jaw-bone here and a couple of vertebræ there, pursues its way rejoicing, and ready to segregate again at a minute's notice."

This sneer is the "last straw" which prompts me to relate, for the first time in public, what I know of the joint-snake. I have seen three specimens, all in their native haunts, and all in the meadows of a farm on which I lived but two years of my life. Hence I know that it was within that period that I saw all three of them. It was during the last years of the war.

I saw them at different times and in different places, but no two of the places, I should say, were more than fifty rods apart. I could very nearly locate all three of the places now. I distinctly remember the direction each snake was going, the direction it was from me, the order in which I saw them, and what occurred at each observation. I shall briefly relate the circumstances of each case, and the observations made.

The first was in haying-time. In gathering up a forkful of hay to "top out" a wagon-load, which was just ready to start for the barn, I discovered a snake of a kind I had never before seen. It was not a large snake. I should say it was about the size of the average garter-snake—say, twenty inches long. It was also shaped very like a garter-snake. Its head was noticeably small, and inclined to be square built. It was the most innocent-looking serpent I had ever seen. It was longitudinally striped, of a dull-white and a pretty and decided gray.

It did not "fly to pieces" when I touched it. I did not strike it hard. The first hint I had that I had caught the far-famed joint-snake was when I saw it lying before me in several joints—I should say five, six, or seven. I then made no further effort to kill it. I bent over it, in the broad daylight of high noon, and carefully examined its parts, in spite of the repeated urgent appeals of my brother to hurry off to the barn with the load of hay, as it was nearly dinner-time.

The joints were quite regular in length, and three or four inches long, the head and tail joints being somewhat the shorter. Each joint had at its front end five fleshy processes, shaped very like a necked strawberry, and apparently fitting into five holes in the rear end of the next anterior joint. The processes were pointed in front, and reached their greatest thickness about a good tenth or an eighth of an inch from their attachment to the joint. I distinctly saw and counted the processes, and also the holes into which I supposed they had fitted. It was a neat piece of dove-tailing.

I put one of the pieces into my pocket, to carry home and save as a curiosity. Then it occurred to me that after all the main point was to see whether the joints would come together again and that the loss of one of its joints might defeat it. So I laid my selected joint down again with the rest, and, carefully marking the spot, went to dinner. That over, I returned to the field and to the marked spot; but no snake of any kind was there.

The second time was in another field, also at haying-time, probably a year later. This time I recognized an old acquaintance, and cut him in two about the middle with my scythe. This was also at noon on a bright day, and before going to dinner I laid down my scythe so as to mark the spot. And again, when I returned, there was no snake. I saw him divide into pieces, and saw that I had cut one of the joints in two about the middle. As in the first case, the joints were regular in length and shape, and the connections were the same. The proportion of length of joint to length of snake was also the same. I touched the snake in only one place. I let him crawl across my scythe-blade until his middle was on the edge, and then I set my shoe-sole on him and the sharp edge neatly and quickly cut him in two. Then he went to pieces all the way along, and I left him lying untouched.

The third time was in another field adjoining that one, and at a different time of the year, on a cloudy day. This time I was older, and quite interested. I could easily have killed him, had he been any kind of a serpent of his size. But this time I was at leisure, and determined to give my old friend a very thorough examination. So I looked about for a stick long enough to lay gently upon him without danger of being bitten. Meantime he looked about for a hole in the ground, which he was fortunate enough to find before I found a suitable stick. I saw him glide into the vertical hole, and I have seldom parted with a friend more sadly. I still hope some day to go back to that farm and find and keep a real joint-snake. I have never seen one elsewhere.

Ever since that day I have sought in books a fair description of my friend, but in vain. He is called a "glass snake," his breaking to pieces is ill-described, his coming together denied, and he is made the butt of ridicule, as in the above extract. In his behalf I can only testify that he goes to pieces, of regular lengths, by an easy motion, the cleavage occurring at points where he is not touched, and the joints having an admirable arrangement for re-construction. I always supposed it was a defensive provision, a "possuming" process, to deceive the enemy into the belief that his victim was dead, when in fact he was not. Before I had seen one, I used to reason with my school-fellows as to the possibility of joints in the intestines. I now see that the first joint would suffice for the intestines. The cutting off and reopening of channels for the circulation of the blood offer no difficulty.

I never based any positive conclusion on the disappearance of the two specimens which I saw dismembered. I always considered the easy possibility of their having been devoured by large birds. There were no domestic animals in either case to disturb them.

The puzzling question to me is, what possible object has Nature or Divinity in jointing that snake, if his going to pieces, which I know to be at least semi-voluntary, is the end of him? Pending an answer, I shall believe him capable of reconstruction. I was never in the slightest degree superstitious in such matters, and was always skeptical about the joint-snake until I saw it and examined it. I have been very careful not to relate anything more than I actually saw. I was between thirteen and sixteen years old at all these times. I am under the impression that I was fourteen years old when I saw the first specimen.

The farm was in Des Moines County, Iowa, about eight miles west of Burlington, and lay across the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

Henry J. Philpott.
Des Moines, Iowa, December 1, 1886.