Children in a Den of Snakes
Hunters find a family living in a cave full of serpents; PLUS special guest Jack El-Hai on Damn History
In September 1889, the Pittsburgh Dispatch published the following curious story from a “truthful correspondent” in Texas, which must have given readers with ophidiophobia the shivers:
A party of sportsmen from Fort Stockton, Texas, while hunting antelopes in the Sierra Charrote [sic] a few days ago, made a most singular discovery. Riding up a narrow gorge they caught sight of a gigantic rattlesnake trailing his hideous length along the steep crag just above their heads. Several of the party, states the truthful correspondent, fired at the reptile, but none of the shots had any effect beyond causing his snakeship to accelerate his leisurely movement. The sound of their shots brought a man out of a cave in the rocks, and after some talk the hunters were Invited to enter.
They found a woman and children there. The woman lighted a torch, revealing the cave swarming with snakes of every description and size. They hung from rocky projections in the root and sides of the cavern, hissing at the unwonted light, and glided about from one corner to another. One great slimy black monster lay across the throat of a sleeping infant, gently waving its horrid head above the child's mouth. An older child was eating something from an earthenware vessel, and a large rattler leaning from his shoulder would swing over and eat from the dish, while the child would strike it with its bare hand whenever its strange messmate seemed [to be] getting more than its share.
A few days later, the New York Evening World published further details, citing a “Fort Stockton special” of 2 September. The expanded account described the man who was drawn from the cave by the hunters’ shots as a “most remarkable person”: “This strange being’s long, coarse hair hung about his face in straight, black plaited locks, giving him a most weird Medusa-like appearance.” The man wore a garment made from woven grasses and secured around the waist with a snakeskin belt.
After a brief conversation, the man invited the hunters into his home, “a small, gloomy cave” accessed via “a large hole in the mountainside”. Inside, the woman and two children were sitting on animal skins. In the woman’s lap was a huge snake, which the hunters said they recognised, to their “amazement and horror”, as the “hideous” rattlesnake they had earlier attempted to shoot. At this point, the correspondent apparently loses his mind:
The creature crawled up her body and finally settled itself on her bare breast, reaching up to her mouth as if to kiss her. This last exhibition of intimacy forbidden by the prejudices of all ages and people was more than the party could stand, so they beat a hasty retreat from that joint abode of serpents and human beings. The man accompanied them and offered to trade skins for powder and shot.
During the trade, the man revealed something about his background. He had been born to an Apache mother and Mexican father. (The newspaper used the derogatory and racist term “half-breed”.)
Up to the time he was grown, he had continued with his mother’s people, but committing some offense against their laws—he entered into no details as to what this was—he had to run away to escape their vengeance, and his wild, roving existence having unfitted him for a civilized life, he had taken up residence in this mountain cave.
His wife, an Indian girl, had fled with him, and here their children had been born. He lives by hunting and fishing, never venturing far from his underground dwelling. As to the snakes, he says they are gentle, affectionate creatures, which, if a man would cease to persecute them, would be his faithful friends.
It seems that this man would have got along well with a certain mysterious snake dancer featured in a previous edition of this newsletter.⧫
This edition’s Recommended guest is journalist Jack El-Hai:
Jack El-Hai is a journalist who writes about history for numerous publications. He’s the author of The Lost Brothers and the writer and host of Long Lost, a book and podcast that investigate the unsolved disappearance of three young brothers — Kenneth, David, and Danny Klein — in Minneapolis in 1951. It’s a haunting story that has stayed with me since I binge-listened to the podcast a couple of years ago. His other books include The Nazi and the Psychiatrist and The Lobotomist.
Jack also publishes Damn History, a free newsletter about popular history, which curates links to interesting reads, plus useful resources for readers and writers. The most recent edition, for example, includes links to a story on the horrors of Victorian baby farms and a video interview with author Hilary Mantel. It’s published on the first of each month, and anyone with an interest in history should certainly subscribe.
Jack answered a couple of questions via email:
Paul: The Damn History newsletter shares intriguing history writing. What key ingredients draw you to particular history stories, either as a reader or a writer?
Jack: As a reader, I’m drawn to stories that start quickly and have high stakes. Lives should change course or be on the line. As a writer, I seek stories that present me with intriguing questions. It’s the pursuit of the questions that leads me forward in my writing, not necessarily the discovery of the answers. I also love writing stories that reveal themselves through records or documents that have been previously overlooked or untapped.
Paul: Can you recommend something in particular that readers might enjoy and tell us why you enjoyed it?
Jack: More than 20 years after I first read it, I still think about Old Friends, a 1994 book by Tracy Kidder. It’s a nonfiction portrait of two elderly men who are roommates in a nursing home. Kidder weaves the personal histories of the men with their present situation, and he captures the essence of their friendship. It’s moving and amazing.
Next time: A Fiery Meteor at Loch Ness
Main sources: Pittsburgh Dispatch, 9 September 1889, New York Evening World, 18 September 1889.