Hal Roth - January 2007

Old News from Delmarva:
The Bosom Serpent

Hal Roth

   Going all the way back to Adam and Eve, snakes have had to suffer some pretty bad press. I guess it’s the slither factor; they don’t ambulate like other critters. Also that tongue-flicking business. And they’re just not warm and fuzzy.
    Most people will laugh at the story today, but when it was published under the headline “MONSTROUS SNAKE STORY” on March 24, 1837, Delmarvians were aghast.
   “Our readers will probably recollect that some weeks since, we gave an account of an extraordinary case of a living snake existing in the stomach of a man.
   “When about fifteen years of age, he stooped to drink at a spring in a field, and while drinking, felt a sensation resembling that produced by a solid substance gliding down his throat. It caused no pain or uneasiness at the time, and he supposed it to be a bit of grass or some other harmless substance.
   “About six weeks afterwards, he felt a singular sensation in the stomach, resembling the movements of a living animal, and sometimes attended with unpleasant irritation or titillation, especially just before meals and when he had been a long time without food. Immediately and for several hours after a full meal, all unpleasant sensations subsided.
   “These symptoms continued to increase till the thirty-fifth year of the patient, which he has recently completed. He suffered almost constant uneasiness and sometimes excruciating pain. His appetite was very irregular, being sometimes so small that he would not consume more than an ounce of solid food daily for a week, and at other times he was so voracious that he would eat five pounds of beef daily for a month.
   “One remarkable symptom was that during these periods of abstemiousness he gained flesh at the rate of ten pounds weekly, and during the periods of voracity he lost in a still greater degree and was sometimes exceedingly emaciated. While gaining flesh under this loss of appetite, his pulse was irregular, the digestive organs much deranged, his sleep disturbed and sometimes entirely suspended for forty-eight hours. He suffered severely from pain in the occipital region of the head and in the shoulder blades and the thumb of the left hand. He had cadaverous paleness and was subject, nightly, to profuse colliquative [sic] sweats.
   “But while losing flesh under a voracious appetite, all the functions were performed with regularity, his sleep sound, and his complexion was of a healthy hue, inclining to be florid. In the meantime, the abdomen increased greatly in size, and a motion like that of a cat in a bag was apparent to the hand when laid upon the region of his stomach.
   “But he was at all times subject to fainting fits of a peculiar kind. Sometimes he dropped down suddenly, without any sense or motion. At other times he nearly fell, but recovered immediately, though always with prostration of strength for some hours afterwards.
    The sensation, as he described it, was that of a violent blow within the stomach and very much like that produced by an electric shock, except being more local.
   “Such extraordinary symptoms denoted some extraordinary cause of disturbance. He had been for ten years under the care of his family physician and had been subjected to various treatments without any abatement of these symptoms. He had taken most active emetics and the most drastic cathartics without any good effect.
   “When arterial action was high, he was bled copiously, sometimes losing sixteen ounces daily for three days successively. When it was low, the most powerful stimulants were administered: opium, ether, brandy, bark, being sometimes administered each in sufficient quantities to kill a man of ordinary health and strength.
   “All the while he insisted that some living animal was in his stomach and related the incident at the spring and his subsequent sensations.
   “His physician was incredulous, saying that he had read such things but did not consider any case well authenticated or believe that any animal could resist the solvent power of the gastric fluids in the human stomach.
   “The patient, finding every unpleasant symptom increasing, resolved to seek additional aid, and a consultation was ordered. Five of our most eminent physicians attended, and after a minute examination came to the conclusion that the conjecture of the patient was probable, for though neither of them had ever witnessed a case of a living animal in the human stomach, yet several cases were recorded which they considered authentic.
“They also said that comparative anatomy furnished analogies, for living frogs, toads and fishes had been found in the stomachs of snakes, many hours after they had been swallowed, and that this proved the power of the vital principle in resisting, to some extent, the solvent power of the gastric fluids.
   “Having assumed this hypothesis as probable, they next proceeded to act upon it. They rejected all medicines, very properly concluding that if the vital principal could resist the power of the stomach, it would resist the action of the substances which the stomach was able to bear; and concluding also that as powerful medicines had already failed, it was not philosophical to repeat them.
   “They ordered entire abstinence from all food, and accordingly the patient took none for five days. During this period the pain in the stomach was excruciating and the motion violent, resembling that of a spiral revolution of a rope upon a cylinder.
   “The pain becoming too intense to bear, for the patient was in a raving delirium, the physicians suggested that opium might act upon the nerves of the stomach without affecting the animal, if it were one, and that in search of food it might force its way through the esophagus.
   “This was tried and with success––the patient being thrown into a disturbed sleep, while the motion in the stomach increased in violence. He was then held in a recumbent position with his face downward and the body inclined to an angle of 45 degrees, the head being the lowest.
   “In about ten minutes the cause of the difficulty was manifest. A snake of dark brown color and large size protruded full eight inches from the mouth, with its eyes bright and glaring with every manifestation of rage.
   “One of the physicians immediately seized it by the neck with the intention of drawing it out, but suddenly he fell flat on the floor without sense or motion, as if struck by lightning. Like the conger eel, the torpedo and several other species of marine animals, the reptile was ELECTRIC, and thus were the fainting fits of the patient explained.
   “But a measure was soon devised to meet this new difficulty. One of the physicians covered the handles of a large pair of forceps with silk and stood ready to seize the snake should it appear again.
   “This soon happened, and it was seized and drawn out about two feet, struggling most violently and emitting tremendous shocks of electricity. Two of the attending physicians who accidentally touched it in the struggle were knocked down.
   “It was now feared that the electric shocks would destroy the patient, and it was furthermore ascertained that from its size it could not be drawn out without imminent danger of rupturing the esophagus. But fertile in expedients, they suggested a new plan, which was to suffer the reptile to come out as far as possible, then sever the head with a sharp instrument and extract the body by an incision into the stomach.
   “In about an hour it again appeared, the patient all the while being insensible from the effects of opium, aided, perhaps, by the electric shocks of the reptile. It protruded about two feet, and with a sharp hatchet prepared for the purpose, it was suddenly divided about eighteen inches below the head.
   “The lower part suddenly disappeared within the stomach, exhibiting violent emotion for about two minutes. An incision was then made, and the fragment was extracted. It proved to be a conger eel of the electric species, 4 feet long and 3 inches in diameter.
   “All unpleasant symptoms have since disappeared. The wound in the stomach is healing rapidly and the patient is recovering his strength. We consider this the most remarkable case on record of living animals found in the human stomach. A full report of the case will soon be published in our medical journals under the sanction of the attending physicians.”
    Maryland papers copied the story from the Philadelphia Public Ledger.
    A newspaper published on April 9, 1822 reports on the victim of a bosom serpent who was blessed with a less complicated cure.
   “The following singular occurrence took place on the 10th inst. Eleanor Smith, 15 years of age, threw up from her stomach a live green snake, nine or ten inches in length, which she had probably taken in three years since while drinking at a brook. During that time she had been confined to her bed and had become much emaciated. The snake was perfectly lively, running about the house, up on chairs, tables &c. She is now free from pain and apparently on the recovery.”
    Another unfortunate girl was reported to have had a snake living in her stomach that constantly made her hungry. When the mother refused to allow her daughter to eat between meals, the story claimed, the snake plunged its fangs into the child’s heart and “sucked her to death.”
The superstition that a snake can live in a person’s stomach was widespread for centuries. Some legends asserted that if you swallow a snake egg, it will hatch, and the snake will survive in your stomach. One suggested remedy was to have the patient fast, then hold his head over boiling milk or savory food until the snake came out to feed.
    Other myths claimed that a hair swallowed by a person will mutate into a snake in the stomach––providing the hair retains its root, which becomes the snake’s head.
    Literature from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is peppered with tales of snakes, frogs and toads––and just about anything else that could fit the space––living in human stomachs. Such notable biologists as Carl Linnaeus, Georges Buffon and Johann Blumenbach believed that snakes and frogs were capable of living as parasites in the human gastrointestinal tract. Even the church broadly supported the myth. If an enlightened individual decried such claims as nonsense, clergymen would admonish the skeptic to remember Jonah. If he could survive in the stomach of a whale, the reverse would also be possible, they claimed.
    Not everyone, however, was taken in by such outrageous claims. Ambroise Pare, a celebrated French physician of the sixteenth century, relates the story of a woman who begged alms by churning her stomach muscles and having people feel the “snake” in her belly. After subjecting the enterprising lady to a variety of undignified examinations, he had the “fat wench from Normandy,” as he referred to her, run out of town.
    The first serious assault on the bosom serpent doctrine was made in 1834, not by any learned professor, but by a German general practitioner of medicine. After performing autopsies on frogs that had allegedly been vomited by Frau Henrietta Pfennig, and finding recently ingested beetles and other insects inside their stomachs, Dr. Sander (I failed to discover his first name) got the woman to admit to the fraud and declared that other such phenomena could be just as easily explained.
    Believers, however, quickly rallied around another case that was touted as the best authentication ever.
    In 1834, three years prior to the publication of our “Monstrous Snake Story,” a peasant who believed that a snake had slithered down his throat while he was sleeping consulted the highly respected Russian court physician Martin Wilhelm Mandt.
    Mandt reported that he could feel movements “in the epigastric area” and hear gargling sounds with his stethoscope, but the administration of an emetic resulted only in vomited slime. After waiting four days longer, the doctor administered a strong purgative consisting of calomel, jalapa root and castor oil. Two days later the man triumphantly appeared with a chamber pot that contained a twelve-inch adder, which he claimed to have passed in his stool. Newspaper editors went bonkers, and a photograph of the disheveled snake did much to reestablish the old fallacy.
    The Mandt case was followed by a series of exhaustive experiments by several noted pathologists and physiologists, all of which should have proved to any reasonable person that it is physically impossible for a snake to survive in a human stomach. But old myths die hard, and newspapers throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century continued to carry the stories, many of which were submitted in the form of letters to the editor.
    August, 1854––“A Snake in the Stomach of a Girl: A girl, who is now fourteen years old, was taken sick some eight years ago, when a physician was called, who treated her with no success. The girl grew worse and was also subject to fits, the cause arising from the snake crawling thro’ her esophagus to the throat, which result was from the cooking of meat. She became emaciated and confined to her bed. After the treatment of several physicians, the case was pronounced hopeless, when I accidentally heard of Doctor Barnett. I am happy to say that after his successful treatment, the snake was passed by stool. The girl is fast recovering. The measurement of the snake was almost eighteen inches long and one inch in diameter.”
    June, 1864––“Snake in a Woman’s Stomach: The Journal tells the following horrible story: The wife of Mr. William Evers has for four years past been afflicted with a singular difficulty in her stomach. Her complaint has, until within a short time past, baffled the skill of physicians. The complaint commenced about four years since, with a tickling and uneasy sensation about the pit of the stomach. The same sensation has continued to increase in severity from that time. A few months since, it became the incontrovertible opinion of the most skillful physicians that the increasing difficulty has been the growth of a snake in the stomach. It has grown so large now that it distends the stomach so as to produce a bunch upon the outside as large as a quart bowl. Upon presenting this bunch with the hand, the reptile recoils and produces great distress in the stomach. When fish or meat are being cooked in the room, if the snake is not satisfied with food, it rises up in the throat, producing strangulation. Physicians can see no way in which the snake can be removed without certain death to the woman. Mrs. Evers is about thirty-five years of age. She is, of course, feeble in health now but is around the house.”
    March, 1871––“The Snake-in-the-Stomach Girl: The snake in the stomach girl is making a sensation. A few years ago, our readers will recall, several physicians were after the snake. Persons declared they saw it as they now do. The young woman is at the infirmary. Dr. Firestone is after his snakeship.
   “More about the Snake––Editor Sir: Permit me to say a few words about snake, too, as I have seen the reptile myself. I would say, in behalf of the lady at the infirmary, who is said to have a snake in her stomach, and of the principals of that institution, that neither of them ever said it was a snake, but that it is a species of reptile much resembling a snake is undeniable. I was recently respectfully invited to come and spend a night at the infirmary, which I did on Thursday evening of February the 9th, and about 7 o’clock, while sitting in the parlor with the family, I was suddenly surprised by being called to go to the chamber occupied by the lady in question, while I, with others standing by her bedside, witnessed a scene I shall never forget. There, upon her couch she lay, strangling, convulsing and apparently dying, when suddenly her jaws parted and the thing, whatever it may be, made its appearance two or three inches beyond her lips. This was repeated a second time, and third, for as much as three seconds. ––F. DILE”
    May, 1877––“A Snake in the Stomach: On Wednesday of last week the wife of a prominent citizen discharged a snake that, for some time previous, had made its abode in her stomach. The reptile was ten inches long and as large around as the third finger of a man’s hand. It was in a decaying condition when expelled and appeared as if decomposition had been going on for some time. It was unquestionably a genuine snake, well defined as to head, eyes and mouth, in fact a sure-enough snake out and out.
   “The lady is 57 years old, and for nearly half that period has been the victim of dyspepsia, the disease fluctuating, at times, leaving her comparatively well, then again entirely prostrated. Since Christmas she has been confined to her room.
   “For six months previous to the expulsion of the reptile, she contended with her physician that there was a snake in her stomach. She could feel it crawling about, could detect a spiral motion at times, as if coiling and uncoiling itself. The reptile was always more lively a short time after food had passed into the stomach, at these times changing its position rapidly and causing the victim the most unpleasant sensations of both mind and body––producing nausea, heartburn and a slight distension of the stomach.”
    Even after the turn of the twentieth century and the invention of new medical diagnostic tools, the newspaper reports continued.
    February, 1902––“X-Ray Finds a Snake: The X-ray is doing all sorts of stunts, if current reports are to be believed. It is curing cancer, locating bullets, establishing the truth or falsity of doctors’ diagnoses, etc. Perhaps the most unique bit of work that is accredited to this electrical device is the discovery of a live snake in the stomach of a patient who for years has been suffering from an ailment that the doctors failed to diagnose.”
Not only didn’t the twentieth century bring an end to the tales; some of them became even more improbable. “Snake Removed from Stomach” was published in October 1923.
   “A few weeks ago we copied a story telling of the finding of a snake in the stomach of a lady. The story attracted considerable attention and more speculation as to the outcome. We now have the second chapter.
   “According to our reporter, special food was taken into the stomach to attract the snake, and when this was accomplished and the snake gotten in the right position, a fine wire was put down the throat of the young lady, to which was attached some raw meat. When the snake took the meat, the barb in the wire held him and he was removed. The surgeons dropped the snake and gave their attention to the patient, and it is said that the snake bit the assisting surgeon on the leg. We are glad to report that the young lady is feeling no bad effects from the operation, and we trust that she will now go ahead with her wedding plans.”
    Has the world finally come to accept the absurdity of the bosom serpent?
    On September 14, 1987 a newspaper columnist responded to a woman writer who heard in a beauty shop that: “A woman fed her small baby some milk and then took the child with her to a nearby field to pick strawberries. The child was asleep, so she pulled the car very close to the area in which she was picking. It was a fairly cool day, and she left the windows open, both for ventilation and in order to hear. A snake crawled into the car and down the child’s throat after the milk and strangled the child.
   “Snakes are known to do this,” the woman added.
    Hey, what was that gurgling I just felt in my stomach?

   You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com