Thompson on snakes and sickness

From the history book "Stories of Indiana" by James Maurice Thompson, published in 1898. The Fairfield-born author goes to some lengths to humanize the pioneer experience of Indiana. His history text goes back as far as the fossils and brings us forward to the present, or in his case -- about the end of the 19th century. The motor vehicle was about to emerge. Before that, life on the Indiana frontier was a story worth telling. And he tells it well:

A source of constant and serious trouble to frontier people was the existence of venomous reptiles of the deadliest kinds. In many places rattlesnakes and copperheads were so numerous that it was dangerous to step anywhere without first looking for a snake. Probably a majority of the younger generation now living in Indiana have never seen a poisonous reptile. Although the popular impression is that some of our common snakes are deadly, the fact is well settled that only the copperhead and the rattlesnake have genuine envenomed fangs, and fortunately these species have almost disappeared from our thickly settled and highly improved agricultural districts, so that now it is seldom we hear of death by snake-bite.

The time was, however, when cows, horses, and even dogs fell victims to the poison of a lurking and vicious enemy striking from a hiding place in canebrake, prairie grass, or woodland thicket. The rattlesnake usually sounded a peculiar warning noise before delivering its deadly blow, but the copperhead struck in silence. Neither was a respecter of persons, age, or sex. Babes crawling upon the cabin floor were sometimes bitten. A copperhead's fanged jaws would dart forth with arrowlike swiftness and precision between the loose puncheons, and death in most horrible form would nearly always swiftly follow. The mother, perhaps, busy with her household work, heard her child scream, but too late to save it.

Rattlesnakes were often found lurking in the smokehouses of the settlers, and under the floors of corncribs and other outbuildings. They were usually much larger than the copperheads; but the latter, in places where they were numerous, were even more dreaded, as they were supposed to be worse tempered, and their venom more deadly. The present writer, in his childhood, heard a story, vouched for as true by excellent people, of three children that were left at home while their parents went to attend to some business in a neighboring village.

Two of the children were twin girls, five years old; the third was a boy of nine. Only a year previous to that time a brother to these children had been killed by the bite of a rattlesnake. On this account the mother, at setting out, gave strict orders against going into the wood hard by during her absence, which would be not longer than three hours. But the weather was hot, and the trees looked inviting. Under their dense canopy was dark, cool shade. The little boy could not resist doing just what he had been told not to do, and so he slipped away from the twin sisters, and was soon running wild in the edge of the wood.

He had not long enjoyed his delicious freedom when he heard his sisters begin screaming at-the top of their voices. With his heart jumping almost out of his mouth, he ran to the house, and found the twins in a large empty box, or bin, under a lean-to shed at the back of the cabin. One of them was at one end of the bin, the other crouched against the opposite end; both were convulsed with terror, while coiled on the middle of the half-rotten and badly broken bin floor was a huge rattlesnake, its tail whizzing keenly, and its neck stiffly arched, ready to strike.

One glance was sufficient to curdle the poor boy's blood; but he was a brave little fellow, and had no thought of weakly giving up to fright and horror. He had the pioneer's bellicose spirit strongly developed in his small but sturdy body. After a moment's shivering hesitation, he turned courageously to the task of rescuing his little sisters before the monster should strike them.

The bin was about fifteen feet long, four feet wide, and three feet deep. Its puncheon bottom was decayed and had some holes in it. The snake had doubtless been lying under the floor when the children climbed over the side, and their movements on the loose slabs disturbed and irritated it, causing it to crawl up through one of the holes.

As it sluggishly wriggled its dappled body above the floor, the twins screamed and retreated to the extremities of the bin, but were too much frightened to think of trying to climb out. The snake being midway between them could strike neither of them without going nearer, and it seemed to be hesitating which one to approach. All the time its tail was buzzing, and its narrow eyes gleamed wickedly.

The little boy's mind worked like lightning. In a moment he thought of what to do and was doing it. He ran into the house, where a pot of hominy was slowly boiling in lye on the huge crane over the fire. One of his duties during his mother's absence was to put more lye and water into the pot as fast as it boiled low.

A half-gallon gourd lay on the hearth. With it he dipped from the pot all the lye it would hold, along with a considerable quantity of hominy, all of which was fiery hot, and ran forth again to the side of the bin. As he did this, the snake turned viciously toward him; but he did not shrink. With a quick movement he leaned over the tightly coiled body, and poured the whole of the seething hot lye and hominy full upon it. At the same time the deep hollow of the gourd, as he let it fall, caught the snake's head, so that its first wild stroke was harmless. The boiling lye instantly destroyed the monster's eyes, and while it writhed and tumbled the brave lad dragged his sisters out of the bin and saved them. A few minutes later the parents arrived, but the snake was dead and the children were poking at its body with a hoe handle.


Whiskey administered freely was considered the best possible remedy for the bite of a copperhead or a rattlesnake. The injured person was made to drink, as quickly as possible, large draughts of that fiery intoxicant. The following was told early in the century, not as a mere snake story, but as an event in a family's history.

A man and his neighbor were in a crib, shelling some corn. They were sitting on the floor, near an empty barrel which had been turned top end down close to the wall, one edge of its rim resting upon a corncob heap. While working away, one of the men put his hand close to the barrel, and at that instant out flashed a head from under the rim, once, twice, three times, in rapid succession, striking him on the fingers. The blows were light, giving little pain, mere stinging taps; but the awful words, "A copperhead!" told what they meant the doom of death.

Both men rushed to the house, and the wounded one drank a pint of whiskey, almost at a single gulp. At the same time a cord was tied tightly around his wrist, to prevent the poison from circulating with his blood. Then more whiskey was poured down him, and he was put in bed to await results, while a boy went for the neighborhood's doctor, five miles away. After all this had been done, and while the stricken man's wife and small children were crying at his bedside, the other man bethought him of the snake and of the propriety of going back to the crib and killing it; for a copperhead was never let escape in those days, if it was possible to destroy it. So, well armed with an iron poker, he hastened to do his work of vengeance.

When he arrived at the crib, he most cautiously tilted the barrel to one side and struck with all his might. The poker did not fail; but it killed, instead of a hideous copperhead, an old setting hen whose nest was under the barrel. It was she that had pecked the man's hand, and caused all the terrible fright. Upon being informed of the true state of the matter, the good wife ceased crying over her husband and began scolding about the death of her hen.