The Rattler Strikes Back

One never knows what interesting little tidbits of local lore will appear in 19th-century newspapers, be they little blurbs of town gossip, full-length news stories, obituaries, articles of interest lifted and “localized” from faraway publications, and even advertisements.

To briefly digress, I can’t help but recall aspiring young reporters who joined the newsroom from fancy collegiate J-schools and were immediately confronted with the dreaded assignment of “localizing” a wire story that had been all over the TV news. The ploy was to bring the national story home by channeling it through local people and places.

I can still hear the instructions no one wanted directed their way – instructions that produced rolling eyes behind the assignment editors’ backs. “You know the drill,” the editor would say. “Put a local spin on it. Get quotes from this person or that.”

Pee-yew! It reeks of John Q. Average, lazy, unimaginative newspaper editor manufacturing “local” news for small dailies, a stench any cub reporters worth their salt immediately recognize. Idealistic and eager to roll up their reporting sleeves, they’d prefer probing a complicated investigative piece exposing crime, corruption, or professional misconduct, something new and exciting that creates a community buzz.

Of course, my experience is from late 20th and early 21st century newsrooms removed more than 170 years from the story we will examine here. Wire news came to us electronically, 24/7 through cyberspace, a far cry from the pre-radio and television era of newspaper publishing. Our oldest newspapers relied on post riders, stagecoaches, and railroads to deliver “wire” news from faraway cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, nearer still, Hartford, Albany and Worcester.

Back then, most of the local news came from community correspondents living within their paper’s circulation, be they full-time “stringers” trolling their towns for news on their daily travels or venerable guest contributors commenting on current events within their area of expertise. Plus, of course, editors that put the paper together would also consistently chime in on important issues.

The interesting front-page story I recently stumbled across in the weekly Greenfield Gazette and Courier dated Tuesday, January 25, 1848 touched on a familiar topic that immediately seized my attention. Written by guest contributor Dr. Stephen W. Williams (1790-1855) – a Deerfield physician from the same “royal” family that produced the so-called “Redeemed Captive,” Rev. John Williams – the understated headline read Rattlesnakes – Crotalus Horridus (which is Latin for timber rattlesnake). A lengthy newspaper story for its time and place, it was reprinted from the scholarly Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.

Williams’ narrative was written in reaction to a tragic snake-bite that had six weeks earlier (December 10, 1847) killed a New York City physician named Arnold Francis Wainwright. Because Williams identified the victim only as Dr. Wainwright with no hint of a first name, we can assume the writer knew that readers were well aware of a story that had gone viral. That likelihood is buttressed by the fact that Williams also failed to provide details about the crazy snakebite itself. His objective was obviously to give local readers a follow-up on the latest rattlesnake science, where they were found, the potency and medicinal value of their venom, and the newest medical treatment for those bitten by them.

Plus, of course, he wanted to present his narrative through a Franklin County lens. He accomplished that objective right up front by informing readers that rattlesnakes “were formerly found in great abundance in our sandstone and greenstone ranges of mountains in Deerfield and Greenfield, but few are found there now. Occasionally we hear of their being killed upon Mount Toby and the range of mountains east of the Connecticut River in this county.”

Then came the intriguing kicker that really sunk in its hooks – it an interesting bit of Deerfield folklore attributed to the December 8, 1835 Franklin Mercury and pulled by Williams from Massachusetts Historical Society archives. Below (in italics) is my lightly edited version of this local anecdote.

 

A Mr. Jonathan Hawks was ploughing not far from the mountain called Sugar Loaf that lies near the ferry leading to Sunderland, when he noticed a number of turkeys coming into the field and got his gun to kill them. Before he was ready the turkeys made off toward the mounting and, as he was advancing up the same, he was surrounded by a number of rattlesnakes. Being of a heroic spirit, and manlike, loathe to turn and run, though surrounded by such spiteful and malignant serpents (as those serpents are the most spiteful of any serpents that crawl upon the ground), he set down his gun, (as they had none,) and took a stick that lay handy. He stood his ground and fought them, killing 34 serpents on the spot. The rest were so frightened at the valor and activity of the man, that they were glad to quit the field of battle and hide themselves in the holes under the rocks and leave the hero in the possession of the field. He took 33 eggs out of the snakes he killed, thus destroying in all 67 serpents.

 

I find it interesting that Williams – himself the descendant of an iconic, early Deerfield family – did not attempt to further identify protagonist Hawks by connecting him to a Franklin County Hawks household of the day. Also, perhaps due to time limitations, he was willfully vague about when the incident unfolded, willing only to speculate that it “must have occurred nearly 100 years ago.” Obviously, the 1835 Herald story was published decades and perhaps even generations after the incident, thus the original correspondent didn’t know the date either.

Further research in George Sheldon’s History of Deerfield genealogies indicates that Williams’ knee-jerk prefaced estimate probably should have read “more than 50 (instead of 100) years ago.” The only Jonathan Hawks (1762-1792) I could find living in Deerfield in the late 18th century appears to have been the son of Asa (1732-1801) and Elizabeth Smead Hawks (1732-1816) of South Deerfield’s western farm village of Mill River. That Jonathan Hawks married Mary French of Greenfield and, according to Deerfield vital statistics, died as head of a town household.

As for the story itself, well, let’s just surmise that it had over time been “slightly” exaggerated, embellished, or in news-critic parlance “sensationalized.” Nonetheless, can there really be any question that rattlesnakes were once common in parts Franklin County, and especially along Mount Sugarloaf’s sunbaked talus slopes? After all, such rocky terrain is classic snake habitat. In fact, I believe it’s safe to assume that an expert snake-hunter or daring hiker could still today stir up a rattler there on a hot summer day. Rattlesnakes and copperheads are not uncommon a short distance south of Sugarloaf, in the Mount Tom Range between Interstate 91 and the Westfield River in Woronoco.

That’s quite enough about Mr. Hawks, though. Let’s move on to unfortunate Dr. Wainwright who, incidentally, probably got exactly what he deserved. And, no, this snakebite did not occur in the wild, but rather in an oil-lamp-lit city tavern.

Although Williams spared Gazette and Courier readers all the gory details of Wainwright’s tragic final hours, eyewitness D.B. Taylor – on the scene from snakebite to death – laid it all out in a New York Globe piece picked up by the upstate Albany Evening News on December 13, 1847. In italics below is my slightly edited version of the front-page story that shook New York, New England and eventually the nation.

 

Most Horrible Death from the Bite of a Rattlesnake

 

… On (the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1847), Dr. W. received from a brother-in-law in Alabama, through the mail, a number of rare plants, etc. from that state. Also, probably for the purpose of furnishing a subject for scientific experiments, a six-foot-long rattlesnake was included in the package.

The reptile was securely boxed, but it seems that Dr. W. for the purpose of exhibiting it to some friends in the evening, took the box to the Broadway House on the corner of Grand and Broadway. There, knocking off the top, the snake was let loose upon the barroom floor. Throwing itself into a coil, the dangerous creature immediately commenced that low hum, or species of ringing (not a rattle), that is peculiar to the species, and seemed inclined to remain quiet. Probably the change of climate produced a sort of torpor, and it was repeatedly teased with a stick. Without betraying much viciousness, indeed, one gentleman ventured so far as to raise it with the toe of his boot, no less, escaping unscathed.

After being exposed some twenty minutes to the gaze of those present, Dr. Wainwright attempted to return the snake to the box, and for that purpose, foolishly seized the venomous viper with his naked hand. In an instant, with only the slightest premonitory rattle, the reptile raised his head, threw back his upper jaw, and struck. The fangs entered Mr. W’s fingers, fastening on the inside of the ring-finger of the right hand!

 

The rest is dreadful history.

Although in the neighborhood of one of the nation’s best medical colleges and hospitals, with many top doctors available, Wainwright could not be saved. As his swelling and pain migrated, he begged for emergency amputation of his entire arm as a desperate life-saving measure. When sophisticated medical consultation deemed amputation inadvisable, the emergency measure was nixed and the victim was soon sinking into his death throes.

Wainwright, 36, a Brit, left a wife and two children. His careless behavior was likely buoyed by alcohol in a raucous tavern scene. He poked the proverbial hornets’ nest and got stung with a lethal dose of venom. Frankly, the astute professor of medicine and chemistry should have known better.

A moral to the story? Maybe to handle with care any and all packages from in-laws.

 

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