Snakes in Kansas

(Frank) Well, here we are again. I’m Frank Chaffin. This is Deb Goodrich. And there’s something about snakes… (Deb) Oh man. (Frank) Oh man. (Deb) Much as I hated to do this, this segment is so fascinating because you know as a historian you read those old diaries and the letters from back home. What were people most concerned about? Especially New Englanders? Snakes. Cause they had not seen snakes of the size and magnitude and the… often occurring snakes that they found in Kansas territory. So, yea, as any native Kansan can tell you, there’s some snake stories here. (Frank) Yikes. (Deb) I know. I know! Stay tuned.When New Englanders came to the Kansas Territory in the 1850s, what did they write home about? What was the one thing they had not expected while making their homes in this wild country. The bushwhackers from Missouri took a back seat to the daily occurrence of snakes. For New Englanders, the size and proliferation of the serpents was shocking and very scary. People were scrambling to build homes, often crude cabins to start. The floors and walls were rarely secure from the elements, or from these beasts. Julia Lovejoy, whose family settled in Douglas County, spoke of copperheads hanging from the cupboards over her baby’s bed, and of her child’s being bitten in the garden. She also described the harrowing account of her neighbor. The woman turned over in the night to nurse her baby sleeping beside her, when she felt something sting her lip. She called for her husband to get a light, and when the lamp was lit, they were horrified to find a rattlesnake had crawled into the bed. The husband went to the trunk for medicine and found two more coiled behind it. The poor woman’s neck swelled so that it was feared she would suffocate. The woman survived, but how on earth could you ever have a peaceful night’s sleep again? Another man wrote to his mother that he had seen a snake on the Neosho River, with its head on one bank and its tail on the other. Really? Probably no other group of animals has had the variety and expanse of tall tales credited to them as have the snakes, writes Robert F. Clarke As the stories go, there are snakes that can put their tails in their mouths and roll downhill hoop-like; snakes that are capable of milking cows dry; snakes that fly into pieces when struck and later reassemble into whole snakes again; snakes that charm their prey, and others too numerous to mention here. Some of these tales deal specifically with the poisonous power of snakes or with snakes that are venomous. There is the Blow Viper, whose very breath is poisonous! The butt of this fable is the utterly harmless hognosed snake. Many persons think that the poisonous fang of a snake is the structure which is frequently flicked in and out of the snake’s mouth. This is really its tongue, and is present in all snakes. Four of the many untruths about poisonous snakes are (1) Rattlesnakes cannot cross a horsehair rope – they can! (2) Cottonmouth water moccasins cannot bite under water – they can! (3) Rattlesnakes always rattle before they strike – not always! (4) The rattles present on the tail of a rattlesnake indicate the snake’s age – no, a new segment is added each time that the skin is shed, which may occur several times during a year. We fear them but they fascinate us, as they fascinated our early pioneers.

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