Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why You Should Always Read the Label

Walter Ralston, a traveling acrobat and snake charmer, was delirious in a Chicago hospital. Earlier that morning, C. W. Clifford had received a wooden box shipped from Tampa, Florida, clearly labeled:


(Exerpts from story in the September 11, 1893, Chicago Daily newspaper)

"... Clifford made a deal with Ralston by which the latter was to receive half the snakes if he tamed them."

Ralston put the box of snakes in the basement so they would get cold, and later that day he lifted the lid.

"In the box were seven Florida rattlers and two adders."

According to Ralston, he had yet to pick them up when one of the diamondback rattlesnakes "fastened its fangs in his flesh. Facts are somewhat adverse to this statement, as Ralston was recovering from delirium when he made it." The building's furnace man said that Ralston had been playing with another snake, and left the lid open, allowing the rattler to escape.

"Ralston, when he saw the great reptile coiling on the floor, grabbed a blanket and tried to throw it over the animal's head. The enraged reptile sprung forwar as the blanket was thrown. Then in the dimly lit cellar ensued a strange combat."

"The Pinkerton watchman at the head of the stairs remarked to the Bohemian glass blower, who was passing at the time: 'Ralston is having a whole lot of fun with his new snakes. Don't you hear him waltzing around down there?'"

Pale and shaken, Ralston staggered up the stairs, as the audience for the noon performance let out. Horrified, people shrank away from him. Someone yelled "The snakes are loose!" and pandemonium ensued. Clifford rushed down to the basement, where he found all the snakes securely fastened in the box. "The inside of the cage was one hideous mass of angry contortions, in which the lesser reptiles were invisibly knotted. The Florida rattler which bit Ralston was 6 feet 4 inches in length and as hideous a specimen of that venomous tribe as was ever captured."

Ralston was "made unconscious with whisky" and taken to the hospital. Doctors found that only one of the snake fangs had caught Ralston, who was given an "even chance of recovery."

Afterwards, Clifford denied making a deal with Ralston: " 'The snakes were sent to me,' he said, 'by a colored man who lives at Tampa, Fla., and knew I was in the museum business. they were sent for exhibition purposes alone, and are not of the sort to be charmed or petted. The snake that bit Ralston was as venomous a reptile as I ever saw, and about the biggest, too. That snake has got a record now, and is worth money. I think Ralston will pull through. If he does I will give him the rattler that bit him.'"


  1. Anonymous5:55 PM

    I wonder if these snakes came from Rattlesnake, FL

    Have you done any research on the names in the article?

  2. The next day, the Chicago paper reported that Walter Ralston was "much improved." A few years later, he appeared at the same venue, billed as "The Rattlesnake King." But the real kicker is a story that appeared in the New York Times on March 7, 1897 ("Capture of a Big Python").

    People had seen a particularly large snake at Black Key, about 10 miles south of Rockledge on the east coast of Florida. "Some weeks ago, the story was told of this big serpent, the report being that a ship carrying a circus had been wrecked there, and that this big python had escaped." Ralston was working with the Smithsonian Institute at the time, and decided that he must have this snake. So he went down to Florida, hired some Seminole guides, and went looking for trouble.

    After a couple of days, they found the snake near a dead deer. Evidently Ralston hadn't learned anything from his earlier experience, because he tried to throw his coat over the snake, which got mad, and struck him. Then, the snake wrapped its coils around Ralston and dragged him up into a tree. The guides were able to peel enough of the snake loose to get Ralston free, and they eventually got the snake into a bag. "Then the fun began. For an hour the big python whipped around, the men hanging on to it like grim death. Finally the snake became exhausted...." Reportedly, the snake was 33 feet long, and 117 1/2 pounds: "Its head was like a bucket in size, and it had long, cruel-looking fangs."

    "Ralston thinks this is not the real original snake, but a smaller one, as he saw traces of a much larger one. The natives tell of a big one seen there over 75 feet in length, and big as a barrel."

    Perhaps this is where those alligator-eating snakes in the Everglades came from!

  3. Anonymous8:56 AM

    cool stuff...



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