American culture has a long tradition of snake lore—everything from milk snakes feeding from the udders of cows to hoop snakes traveling by putting their tails in their mouths and rolling. Snakes also were believed to have the power to fascinate, usually to eat hypnotized prey. While the editor of Youth’s Companion was cautious about this story of a young girl in thrall to a black snake, he still used the story, perhaps hedging his bet, perhaps anxious to fill the pages of a (then) bi-weekly periodical with interesting and improving pieces. According to Vance Randolph, these stories weren’t uncommon even in the 20th century-Ozarks:

There are several old tales about an odd relationship between snakes and babies. According to one story, well known in many parts of the Ozark country, a small child is seen to carry his cup of bread and milk out into the shrubbery near the cabin. The mother hears the baby prattling but supposes that he is talking to himself. Finally she approaches the child and is horrified to see him playing with a large serpent—usually a rattlesnake or copperhead. The baby takes a little food but gives most of his bread and milk to the big reptile. The mother’s first impulse is to kill the snake, of course, but the old-timers say that this would be a mistake. They believe that the snake’s life is somehow linked with that of the child, and if the reptile is killed the baby will pine away and die a few weeks later. I have heard old men and women declare that they had such cases in their own families and knew that the baby did die shortly after the snake’s death. (Ozark Magic and Folklore [NY: Columbia University Press, 1947; repr. NY: Dover Publications, Inc., n.d.]; p. 257)

The Companion’s version has some interesting elements: the father’s paralyzing terror which makes him unable to save his child from a non-poisonous snake; the girl’s seizure which mimics the snake’s writhing; the Freudian image of the snake in the girl’s lap. The girl almost in her teens, wasting away because she cannot eat, has an echo in anorexic girls of that time and of today.
[Natural History] “Snake Fascination” (reprinted from the St. Louis Herald; from Youth’s Companion, August 24, 1854; pp. 71-72)

The St. Louis Herald of the 12th inst., relates a case of snake fascination which resulted fatally. The Herald vouches for the truth of the statement, the particulars of which are stated as follows:

“A man by the name of O’Mara had a small child, a little girl about thirteen years of age, who came to her death through the influence of a snake, one day last week, under the following circumstances: O’Mara resides on Copperas Creek, in Franklin county, and but a short distance from the Pacific Railroad depot.—Some nine months ago, early last fall, his family noticed the little girl to be pining away, and becoming very weak and pale, although she had been very fleshy and hearty, and apparently without any cause or complaint of sickness.

By the time winter had fairly set in, she was wasted away to a mere skeleton, but as soon as the weather became cold, she again seemed to revive. She never complained of being unwell, and in reply to all their inquiries in regard to her health, she invariably said she felt very well, only a little weak. As soon as spring arrived, she could not be prevailed upon to eat any victuals in her father’s house, but would take a piece of bread and butter, or a piece of meat, and go out to the edge of the creek to eat it. The family noticed her regularly, always going precisely to the same place, and invariably complaining of being hungry after her return, when if more victuals would be given her, she would again return to the creek, as they thought, to eat.

Finally, some of the neighbors having heard of the circumstances of the child’s extraordinary conduct, and also of her wasted appearance, suggested to her father to watch her movements, which he did last Friday. The child had been sitting on the bank of the creek, nearly all the forenoon, until near dinner time, when she got up and went to her father’s house, asked for a piece of bread and butter, and again returned to the same place she had been.—Her father kept behind her without making any noise. As soon as the child was seated, the father saw a huge black snake slowly raise its head into her lap and receive the bread and butter from her hand; and when she would attempt to take a bite of the bread, the snake would commence hissing and become apparently very angry, when the child, trembling like a leaf, would promptly return the bread to the monster.

The father was completely paralyzed, not being able to move hand or foot; entertaining, as most Irish persons do, a great dread for snakes, he felt alarmed for the safety of his child, not knowing the

p. 72

nature of the snake or the extent of the influence on his child. His blood became almost clogged in his veins, and he groaned in perfect agony, which caused the snake to become alarmed and glide away into the creek. The child then immediately sprang to her feet and ran home, apparently much frightened. Her father followed her, but she refused to answer any questions, and he then resolved to detain his child at home, but he was advised to permit her to go again next day to the creek, and follow her and kill the snake.

Next morning she took a piece of bread and again went out to the creek; her father followed her with his gun in hand, and as soon as the snake made his appearance shot him through the head. The child swooned; the snake squirmed and worked himself around awhile and then died; the child in the mean time recovered from her swoon, but was immediately seized with spasms, acting in a manner resembling the writhing of the snake, and finally died the same moment the snake did, apparently in the greatest agony.”

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