|An Iowa Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).|
There's little doubt that the summer of 1896 was a good one for rattlesnakes in Lucas County, providing you were a snake. Humans were more likely to describe it as a bad year, however.
Unfortunate encounters while berry picking began to appear in the Chariton newspapers during June and by July, country residents were being warned to be on the lookout.
On July 17, The Democrat reported that, "Mrs. Clark Whitten of Lincoln township was bitten by a rattlesnake last Monday afternoon. The snake was coiled up on the ground near a bench not far from the kitchen door, and when Mrs. Whitten went out to the bench to get a pan of water she did not see the snake and consequently stepped on it. The rattler struck her on the top of the foot with its fangs and being unable to release its hold itself she was compelled to take hold of it and thrust it from her. All known expedients were at once applied and a messenger came to town for Dr. T.P. Stanton who drove out there, a distance of five miles, in just 20 minutes. He cauterized the wound and administered antidotes and the patient is now on the road to recovery."
Later on that month, on July 30, The Herald reported another close encounter of a reptile kind in Lincoln Township involving teen-ager Millie Holmes, as follows:
"Millie, adopted daughter of John Holmes and wife, of Lincoln township, went to the field on the old Tom Long farm where her father was at work, Monday, to take his dinner to him, at a late hour. She then wandered into an orchard to pick apples. She was reaching down into the grass to get one, when a rattlesnake bit her on the back of the hand. She saw it run away, but had not heard it rattle.
"She ran to Mr. Holmes and he tied binding twine around her arm very tightly to prevent the return of the blood. She then ran to the house, three-quarters of a mile, and a neighbor tied a bandage on the hand after clapping on a poultice of tobacco out of his mouth. Mrs. Holmes gave her half a pint of whisky with some alcohol added, and brought her to town, reaching here about three p.m. with the girl, who is fourteen years old, entirely insensible and extremely sick from the whisky, and having held her as well as driven the horse, she really performed quite a heroic feat, making the six mile trip in less than an hour after the girl appeared, until A.F. Anderson's house here was reached.
"There, Dr. T.P. Stanton was summoned and applied remedies. He drew a large quantity of blood from her arm that was black, and said the tying of the twine had been a proper treatment. She recovered from the effects of the whisky and could talk later and is now in a fair way of recovery. She has suffered a great deal. Evidently rattlesnakes are increasing in this region and are to be guarded against in the country. The treatment of this girl may afford information to others if they are so unfortunate as to get bitten. Dr. Stanton, however, said it was possible to administer too much whisky and kill the patient. He thought this girl's dose quite sufficient."
By August, reports of rattlesnakes astray within Chariton's city limits began to circulate, although so far as I've been able to determine no one actually was bitten.
Mrs. Gus Thompson encountered a rattler in repose on her back porch when she stepped out of her back door, intending to go to the well, on Sunday morning, Aug. 19. Mr. Thompson grabbed a garden rake, intending to dispatch the critter, but was not quick enough to prevent it from crawling under the sidewalk leading from the porch.
The snake hunt continued into the evening, when neighbor Fred Yengel finally succeeded in killing the snake, as reported upon in The Herald of Aug. 13:
"The exciting adventures of engagements with wild beasts related in story books are now as nothing to the people who live in close proximity to the home of G.J. Thompson at the corner of Court Avenue and Seventh Street. A rattlesnake made its appearance on the porch last Sunday. Everybody wanted to see it but all seemed to be thoroughly impressed with the idea that it would bite if it had a chance. A neighbor, Fred Yengel, passed that way late in the day and with a steady nerve and true aim caused the reptile's lease on life suddenly to expire, much to the satisfaction and relief of the ladies. Seven rattles were possessed by the reptile and these were presented to Gus Thompson as a reminder of the hair straightening experience through which he had passed."
As these reports suggest, ideas about how to effectively treat snakebite varied --- no antivenins were yet available. The whisky cure certainly was among the folk remedies out there.
I first came across it in Chariton newspapers in a story headlined "A Half Pint of Whisky Saved Him," published in The Democrat of July 12, 1888:
"A few days ago Erick Erickson, a young Swede farmer living about 8 miles north of Chariton, when doing some work a short distance from his home, was bitten on the finger by a rattlesnake. He immediately went to the house holding his finger with his other hand, where the other members of his family tied the finger firmly, so the blood was forced to remain in the finger, and taking a full half pint of whisky at one drink, Erickson mounted a horse and rode to a neighboring town, some five miles distant, where medical aid was procured. He is now able to be out and medical men pronounce the case one of the strangest ever known, saying that the whisky was all that saved him."
Despite all the excitement about rattlesnakes, I've been able to confirm only four snakebite-related deaths in Lucas County, all of them children. The first was a young cousin of mine, Alonzo Miller, age 7, in the neighborhood of Brownlee Cemetery during August of 1869. The others were Hilda Weller, age 4, at LaGrange during September of 1895; Victor Vawter, age 2, in far northwest Lucas County during September of 1910; and, most recently, Worth Nelson, 4, bitten while picking blackberries with his father near Olmitz during July of 1922.
For the record, the Department of Natural Resources identifies four poisonous snakes as inhabitants of Iowa --- Timber Rattlesnakes, the most frequent but still rare, in southern and eastern counties; a few Prairie Rattlesnakes, primarily in the loess hills of western Iowa; even fewer Massasauga (or Swamp Rattlers); and the occasional Copperhead in far southeast Iowa.