The Facts and the Legends
To many people the mere mention of crawling live poisonous snakes sends shivers up their spines. Most snakes are of the nonpoisonous and harmless variety. Since mammals and reptilian snakes have coexisted, mammals have developed ways of surviving their venomous antagonists. For centuries, during the period of “dog days,” people have observed correlations between the location of the heaven’s brightest star and the behavior of the feared serpents.
On July 3 of each year, Sirius comes in conjunction with the Sun. Sirius, the primary star in the constellation Canis Major “The Great Dog,” is also known as the “dog star.” During the next 40 days, while the temperatures in Georgia and around the country swell to their greatest magnitude, this intense heat was thought to have been caused by the combined heat of the Sun and Sirius. The ancient people named this period “Dog Days.”
Over the years, various superstitions and beliefs have arisen concerning the activities of snakes during “dog days.” Some believe that snakes actually go blind during this time. Actually, many snakes shed their skins during “dog days.” When a snake begins to shed its skin, its body secretes a milky substance to aid in the skin’s removal. Some of this cloudy liquid covers the snake’s eyes and does contribute to its ability to see. Many people believed that without his skin the snake was more apt to bite people and was even more venomous. Others swore that dogs themselves were bitten more often and with more fatal results during “dog days.”
Now that “dog days” officially ended last Saturday, do all of us who suffer from Ophidiophobia feel safe? I don’t think so. Here are some of the stories and tales of snakes in our past which I know won’t make you feel any less afraid of these fearsome reptiles than you already are. If you have recently eaten, come back a few hours later and resume reading. Trust me.
In the category of getting the worst over with first, the most revolting snake story was published in 1885. It seems that Jake Moorman, a Negro school teacher, had been suffering from a severe and violent case of vomiting. Moorman threw up a six-inch snake and what was described as a “very large” bug. Any size of either would be very large. The bug ran into a fire and committed suicide. The snake, well, was dead on arrival. Moorman, who was being treated for consumption, believed that he had other “live things” in his stomach. Seems like I would have found a stomach pump somewhere.
Another case of a parasitic snake was published in1883. Mrs. Bryant Gay asked Cass Abbott to butcher a four-year-old cow. In the course of his operation, Captain Abbott found a coach whip snake in the cow’s large intestine. If that wasn’t enough, when the butcher opened the cow’s lungs, he found thirty-seven offspring “holding on to the walls of the lungs to secure their lives.” Next time maybe we should ask for a chicken sandwich instead of a burger.
It was in the early summer of 1891, when a young woman, who had being hoeing cotton in the blistering sun, found a shady spot to rest. The barefooted woman awoke to find a huge blacksnake attempting to swallow her toe. Apparently the snake thought the woman’s toe was a small reptile or was very ambitious one. Within an instant the woman was dashing at the rate of “a mile a minute” until the snake relinquished its grip. If you are outside and take a nap, maybe you should at least sleep with your shoes on.
Snake stories always made good “filler” material. The Dublin Post reported in 1887 that a five-foot four-inch thick snake with a dozen rattles had been killed at Blackshear’s Ferry. Good! As reported in The Dublin Gazette in 1883, Coroner James Wyatt killed a rattle snake measuring “about eighteen inches” in circumference and not length. Even better! Earlier that year in the dead of winter, a young boy was walking along Turkey Creek on the old Troup plantation looking for some hogs. He found a large rattlesnake atop a large pile of rocks. The young boy did what most boys would do. He threw a rock at it and then ran for his life. After securing reinforcements, the boy and his friends dismantled the rock pile to find seventeen rattles, several water moccasins and an assortment of chicken snakes. The lesson here is to stay away from a pile of rocks whether its “dog days” or not.
These old stories remind us to be careful when we are outdoors. John Jones was out his field nearly a month after “dog days” had ended in 1883 when he happened upon a very large snake, the dimensions of which were lost in the calamity of the moment. Inside he found sixteen infants, all measuring thirteen inches in length. T.B. Felder was taking off a load of fodder when he discovered seven two-foot long rattlers. Mrs. W.A. Brack laid a load of dirty clothes down in her smokehouse. Upon her return, she picked up the bundle only to discover a large snake coiled up inside. So it was no wonder that two days later her husband massacred a brood of nine little snakes which were aggravating his dog. Of all the reported snake killings I have read, Virgil Lewis’s killing of a seven-foot nine-long snake in 1885 seems to be the county’s longest rattler ever. In 1902, Nannie Ruston came in second place with the killing of a seven-foot long rattler, which sported eighteen rattles. When you are looking at the eyes of a rattler, all snakes are large. J.C. Jones seemed to have a passion for killing rattlers. In the year of 1884, he reportedly killed twenty-six rattle snakes.
One day in 1883, a little daughter of J.C. Williams was out playing. When she tired, she climbed atop a stump to rest. Her dog began to bark, alerting a male member of her family. Upon his arrival, the man found the dog engaged in a battle with a large female rattler. Attempting to divert the snake away from the little girl, the man prodded the snake with a long stick. The agitated snake unwound from her coiled position and prepared to strike back. At that instant, her brood of sixteen neonates darted down the snake’s mouth. Their attempt to find refuge was fruitless as the man killed the entire family.
Snakes haven’t been killed only to protect the safety of humans. In 1932, Millard Hall was plowing a field when he noticed his dog in a bout with a snake. He reached down and picked up the nearest rock. He quickly pulled out his slingshot, took careful aim and mortally wounded the six-foot-long snake with his first shot. He skinned his prey and transformed it into a belt as a trophy of his expert marksmanship. W.B. Smith found a snake attacking one of his goldfish in his garden pool. He quickly grasped the attacker by the tail, slung him into the road, and executed him on the spot. These folks and many others always believed the saying “the only good snake is a dead snake.”
Snakes, like all other animals, have a purpose of the Earth. Treat them with respect, remembering the old adage “that they are more afraid of you than you are of them.” Be aware of their potential presence when you are in the outdoors. When you encounter one, I recommend you back away slowly and run away until it hurts.