Cincinnati Snakes! And Thereby Hangs A Tale (Or Tail)

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Mrs. Vera Clark, of Pontius Road in Delhi, was perplexed. As she inquired of the Cincinnati Post [12 December 1930]:

“How can a snake crawl into a bird cage, swallow three canaries and then crawl out of the cage from which the birds could not escape?”

When Mrs. Clark discovered her birds missing, she at first thought she had been robbed, but the cage was still locked and three birds remained. Then her husband found a snake hiding under the rug in that room. When he killed the serpent, he found that it had swallowed three canaries and somehow squeezed through the bars with its newly ingested meal.

Cincinnati is not usually known as a big snake town, despite a prominently featured snake on our beloved Tyler-Davidson Fountain. Over the years, however, the Cincinnati area has generated a significant anthology of unusual snake stories.

Although most gamblers would bet on the reptile, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that a feisty squirrel killed a rattlesnake at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1881.

From “Our Own Picture Book” by Emma Marshall Page 171 Published 1888 by James Nesbit & Co., London Digitized by Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=e8MUAAAAQAAJ&dq Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand

For example, Riverside, just down the hill from Mrs. Clark’s canaries, was infested with copperheads in 1894. No one could explain the sudden appearance of the reptiles. Councilman William Kloppert (this was back when Riverside was an independent village) killed three large snakes on his lot that summer. The Enquirer [18 June 1894] reported residents were confounded:

“A theory has been advanced that the copperheads come down the river from the hill country in the drift wood and hollow logs and overrun the banks when the drift lodges. There is some talk of asking the Village Council to offer a bounty for every snake killed.”

Another local snake hunt took place in 1903 in the neighborhood around Thirteenth and Vine infested by dozens of water adders. The source of these snakes was well known. A young artist named Enno Meyer specialized in painting animals and maintained a small menagerie in his Over-the-Rhine house. One day, he discovered that his prize snake had birthed an unknown number of offspring.

Although “water adder” is a common name for the poisonous water moccasin, Enno’s snakes were probably the non-poisonous Nerodia sipedon or northern water snake. That distinction was lost on the neighbors, who soon found full-grown snakes everywhere. The Cincinnati Enquirer [20 July 1903] reported:

“The snakes have by this time, if they are alive, grown to quite a size, and, while their bite is not deadly, their presence is enough to give one the ‘creeps.’”

When the Cincinnati Zoo was new, Cincinnatians loved to watch live animals, kicking and squealing, fed to carnivorous beasts. A favorite was the rattlesnake cage. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer [4 December 1881] keepers dropped a squirrel into the rattlesnake cage but, as the snake crawled slowly toward its trembling meal, the wily squirrel leaped onto a perch above the snake’s head. As the snake rose up to follow, the squirrel jumped onto the snake’s back and nipped off one of its rattles. According to the Enquirer,

“The wounded reptile wheeled quickly round and struck the little hero a fearful blow, breaking the right hind leg. Brave little fellow, once more he leaped beyond the reach of his maddened foe. Another spring and the squirrel was triumphant. He caught the snake behind the head, and, with one firm thrust of his sharp white teeth, he decapitated the slimy monster, and fell exhausted by the wiggling mass; but the battle had been won, and the snake was dead.”

A seven-foot diamondback rattlesnake turned up outside the old Robinson’s Opera House on Ninth Street in 1935. Although the natural range of the diamondback rattlesnake does not include downtown Cincinnati, there was a logical explanation. The “Robinson” of Robinson’s Opera House was Old John Robinson of circus fame. He built the opera house and he wintered his animals in the basement of that structure for many years. It is believed that a sideshow actress who billed herself as “La Pearl” lost one of her snakes around 1923 and the beast had survived by dining upon theater rats ever since. With the building evacuated prior to its 1936 demolition, the poor reptile went looking for dinner elsewhere. After the snake was clubbed to death in a downtown alley by a man named Overton Clay, parts of its rattle were sold off as remedies, according to the Cincinnati Post [9 October 1935]:

“The snake’s rattle had four buttons. Mr. Clay sold them at $1 each to a neighbor who knows the value of snake buttons in warding off haunts, lumbago, cramps and other miseries.”

Cincinnati Police suspected suicide when a blue serge coat was found next to the Canal. In a pocket, this odd talisman – a pickled snake – was found. The owner’s body never turned up.

From Cincinnati Post 24 July 1903 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Another poisonous snake turned up at Spaeth & Bauer, grocers, on Eastern Avenue. According to the Cincinnati Post [26 March1921], William A. Bauer was unpacking a fresh shipment of bananas when he was startled by a large snake. He managed to kill it and pickle it in a jar of alcohol where experts identified it as a coral snake.

On Friday morning, 18 July 1903, a hat and coat were discovered lying on the banks of the Canal near Findlay Market. The owner was never located, although everyone assumed he had drowned – perhaps a suicide – in the Canal. The pockets of the blue serge coat contained an odd collection of items. Most unusual was a small, sealed, glass vial containing four ounces of alcohol and the preserved body of a snake, approximately one foot long. The Cincinnati Post published a photo of the clothes and the vial a week after their discovery, but no one ever appeared to claim the clothing, or the mysterious bottled snake.

No one seems to know where the giant serpent of Avondale came from. The Cincinnati Times [29 July 1874] reports that a servant of Robert Mitchell, on an errand to the nearby Blachley farm, startled a gigantic snake which began to attack him.

“The man shortly returned with a few others and commenced an attack on the intruder, and it took to flight. As it went along a fence they said it stretched more than the length of a panel and as near as they could tell it was some twelve feet long. If this be the case, the reptile probably escaped from some traveling caravan.”

If all this snake talk is inducing a bit of ophidiophobia or fear of snakes, you may relax. Snakes remain rare in the Queen City. In fact, in 1930, Sol A. Stephan, general manager, announced that the Cincinnati Zoo had to find alternate meals for the secretary birds because no one could find enough snakes in Cincinnati to provide provender.

Some years ago, the great Bob Brumfield waxed eloquently ophidiophobic in his 22 April 1981 Enquirer column:

“Now, I don’t know how you feel about snakes, but they are pretty high on my list of abominable things to encounter on the way to the bathroom, ranking favorably with large, hairy spiders and grizzly bears with sore paws.”

This prompted a response [3 May 1981] from Frank Platek of Erlanger, who assured the noted columnist that Cincinnati snakes are harmless, but asked:

“How could a grown man who shares his digs with a cat (Crazy Floyd) that vomits on the floor and a pencil-scribbling cockroach (Attila) be bothered by a harmless little snake?”

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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