Monday, July 17, 2017

Lucas County's snakebite toll ....

Prairie Rattlesnake/Nature Conservancy photo

The Nature Conservancy is reporting that two varieties of endangered rattlesnake, the Massasauga and the Prairie, have been found alive and well at opposite ends of Iowa and it's hard to decide whether to be pleased (conservation-minded) or appalled (not fond of snakes).

Neither has been sighted in Lucas County so no need to make up one's mind this morning.

The Massasauga (or Swamp Rattler) was located in the Lower Cedar Valley Preserve in Muscatine; the Prairie Rattlesnake, expecting a brood of little slitherers, in the Broken Kettle Grassland Preserve near Sioux City.

The third variety of rattler known to occupy territory in Iowa --- but like the others in very small numbers these days --- is the Timber, once found with some frequency in Lucas County.

Back in the good old days, however, rattlesnakes were common and back issues of Chariton newspapers contain dozens of reports about painful encounters between human and reptile, the most recent that I've located in 1941:

"Stepping over a coiled rattlesnake isn't healthy, but Ancil Whitlatch did it unknowingly a week ago and still lives though perhaps he hasn't gotten over it. With his brother, Clell, they went to see about cattle they have on ground rented south of Lucas. They parked by the gate and Ancil got out of the car, walked a short distance and stopped, saying, 'that sounded like a rattlesnake to me although I've never heard one.' Sure enough, they found the reptile, sporting five buttons, right behind him and killed it." (Herald-Patriot, June 5, 1941)


Rattlesnake bites have proved fatal to at least four --- all children --- and most likely a few more Lucas Countyans during historic times.

The earliest verifiable death was that of a young cousin of mine, Alonzo Miller, who according to family lore died during August of 1869 at age 7 of a rattlesnake bite on the farm in English Township where he lived with his parents, Sylvanus "Vene" and Adelia Miller, who had moved west from Monroe County during 1853. He is buried, reportedly, somewhere in Brownlee Cemetery. The mortality schedule attached to the 1870 federal census of Lucas County supports the family story in this case.


Twenty-six years later, on Sept. 20, 1895, The Chariton Democrat reported that, "Mr. Wm. Weller and family of Whitebreast township have been spending the past month with Mrs. Weller's parents near Lagrange. A week ago last Sunday their little four-year-old daughter, Hilda, was bitten on the foot by a huge rattlesnake while playing in the yard. Medical aid was summoned and everything possible was done for her relief, but all to no avail, and after several hours of intense suffering she died. The remains were interred near Lagrange. the grief stricken parents have the sympathy of many friends in their great sorrow."

Little Hilda's grave is located in Eldorado Cemetery, northwest Monroe County, where the inscription on her tombstone records that Hilda died Sept. 9, 1895, age 3 years, 5 months and 12 days. She's buried next to a sister, Vesta B., who died at the age of 2 a year later.


Victor Vawter was only 2 years old when he was bitten by a rattlesnake on the family farm in far northwest Lucas County 15 years later, during September of 1910. Here is part of his short obituary, published in The Chariton Leader of Sept. 8:

"Marion Victor Vawter, aged 2 years, 11 days, son of Virgil and Minnie Vawter, was born in Natoma, Kansas, August 22, 1908. In March 1910 he with his parents moved to a farm five miles southwest of Lacona, where he lived until the time of his death. After an illness of only four days from the effects of a snake bite, his spirit left the body at 7 p.m. Sept. 2, 1910, at the home of his great-grandparents, M. Davis, in Lacona, where he had been taken for medical treatment. Little Victor was a beautiful sweet spirited child, with a smile and kiss for everyone. To know him was to love him."

Victor is buried in the Arnold Cemetery southwest of Lacona.


An account of Lucas County's fourth snakebite-related death was published on the front page of The Herald-Patriot of July 27, 1922, under stacked headlines that read, "Snake bite proves fatal; Little son of Mr. and Mrs. Schaterick (Shadrick/Shadrach) Nelson, of near Olmitz, is the victim; Is bitten three times; Passes away after suffering several hours; Snake menace in southern Iowa becoming serious."

"One of the saddest events we have had to chronicle for some time is the sudden death of little Worth (Ellsworth) Eugene Nelson, four-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Schaterick Nelson, who reside a few miles east of Tipperary, near Olmitz, which resulted from being bitten by a large rattlesnake on his father's farm.

"On Tuesday afternoon the boy and his father were picking blackberries, and the little fellow, who was barefooted, stepped on the snake. The rattler struck him three times on the left leg, near the ankle, each bite going deep into the bare limb, and it was impossible to check the spread of the poison through his system. The boy's leg was soon swollen to three times its normal proportions. The accident occurred about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Dr. Fisher, of Tipperary, was hastily summoned, and later Dr. Hills of Russell, both of whom tried every method of relief possible, using whiskey, tourniquets, and other aids without any results, and in the evening it was decided to remove him to the Miners' Hospital in Albia. They arrived there in the evening at 9:30, but hospital officials were unable to give him any aid, and stated that the boy was so badly bitten that it is doubtful if he could have been saved if a physician had been right on the spot. He passed away on Wednesday morning at 2 o'clock. Right after being bitten, the lad said that the snake had gone into a hole in the ground. A large rattler was found about 30 feet away, however, and was promptly killed.

"The remains were brought to the family home on Wednesday and today will be taken to Centerville, where funeral services and interment will take place. The boy is survived by his parents and by two brothers and one sister. To them the deep sympathy of all good people will be extended.

"Reports from many sections of town state that there is an unusually large number of snakes this year, many of them of a dangerous nature, and people are advised to be cautious and keep a careful lookout. The greatest danger is to children, who seldom watch their steps closely, and who are unable to defend themselves if attacked. Snakes should be killed on sight."


Conservationists would remind us that snakes are our friends, most just want to be left alone and that kill-on-sight is not good advice. On the other hand ....

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