The Peninsula Python: An Absolutely True Story
by ROBERT BORDNER
FROM the time the Peninsula Python first crossed that Ohio field of sprouting corn before the astonished eyes of Clarence Mitchell in the summer of 1944, until it holed up for the winter, presumably under the overhanging banks of the Cuyahoga River, it left many a mark on the face of the earth.
There were tracks “like those of an auto tire” across the softness of freshly tilled fields. There were tracks in the mud at the river’s edge. There were branches broken and bark scuffed from tall trees when it fell, frightened, before still more frightened beholders. His deepest mark was upon the people of the wild, wooded valley between Cleveland and Akron; his longest was a trail that circled the earth.
Clarence Mitchell was hoeing his piece of corn ground between the Everett swamp and the abandoned bed of the old Ohio Canal on June 8. “Twothree days the dogs was nervous, and finally they wouldn’t go over there with me at all,” he said. “I thought they was acting kind of funny, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I don’t know what made me look up, but there, about fifteen paces away, was the biggest snake I ever see, sliding along easy and slow in plain sight on the bare ground.
“I just stood quiet, not aiming to attract attention. It seemed like ten minutes I watched. He slid into the river, swam across, and climbed out the other side, heading toward the yellow clay slip on the nose of that hogback up Steele’s Corners way.
“He was thick as my thigh, right here, and every bit of fifteen feet long — more like eighteen — sort of brownish spotted. I went over and looked at the track. It was like you’d rolled a spare tire across my field.”
Young Mike Bobacek, who had the mules hitched to the cultivator, working the field east of the river, said he saw Clarence light out for home, and that he too saw the snake come out of the river going east.
Nobody paid much attention to the tale except the womenfolk, who canceled plans for blackberrying thereabouts.
Ten days later, Paul and John Szalay fitted a field with disk and cultipacker in the morning. That was in Old Cassidy’s Bottom, maybe two miles north of Mitchell’s place, and only a couple of miles from Peninsula village. When they came back from lunch to seed the piece, there was a track “ like from an auto tire,” wavering from the overgrown, swampy canal bed to the river, across the virgin seedbed. They got word to Mayor John Ritch. With his police chief, Art Huey, and the two assistant chiefs, Dale Hall and Dud Watson, the mayor investigated.
“Nothing but a mighty big snake could have made that track,” he said, officially.
Two mornings later the fire siren uncoiled its terrifying scream. It was the Roy Vaughn place up the hill east of the river. When the volunteers got there, everybody was housed up tight. Mrs. Vaughn had seen the snake.
“I was up in the second floor of my hen house and looked out into the yard in back,” she said. She showed them. “Right there was a great big snake trying to get through the woven wire fence, but he had a lump in him, big as a basket, and the lump wouldn’t go through the fence. He reared up and climbed right over the top of that wire fence — three and a half feet high. The last few feet of him fell over, plop — a big plop — on the far side, and he went down the ravine.”
Mrs. Vaughn was no hysteric. There was earth on the wire. The weeds were broken flat where she pointed. A chicken was gone.
That settled it for those present; for them the Peninsula Python became a sobering fact. Chief Huey measured the distance Mrs. Vaughn said the snake had extended beside the fence. It was nineteen feet. Mayor Ritch, in a proclamation mobilizing the men of Peninsula, set Sunday for the hunt. The Cleveland Press and the Akron Beacon-Journal were impressed.
Theories flew. A circus had been in Akron the month before. If a snake had escaped, it was reasoned, the circus would have been anxious to hush it up, because it might have been liable for large damages, and a new snake would cost less than $200. Big snakes cost $10 a foot. The circus was traced, but admitted no escape.
Then it was remembered that two years before, a carnival caravan, lost, cut across the valley. One of the trucks went wild on the Hammond’s Corners hill and was wrecked among the tombstones of the Pleasant Valley Cemetery at the bottom. The driver was killed, the contents scattered. Maybe it came from there.
Only tropic constrictors were as long as the Peninsula Python, according to Arthur B. Williams, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Ohio’s biggest native, the blacksnake, never got longer than six feet.
Fletcher Reynolds, director of the Cleveland Zoo, begged for the life of the reptile. He is harmless unless frightened or cornered,” he said. “He can strike only about one-third his length; stay ten feet away from him and he cannot reach you.
“But don’t get too close. He has teeth like a dog’s and can cut a person up some. The teeth grab when he strikes; then he pulls the victim to him and throws a loop around it; it is only after he gets his tail in the loop that he can tighten enough to kill.”
Mr. Reynolds asked anyone finding the snake to be quiet. “Don’t scare him. Telephone the location to the Zoo and wait to show me. I will be there in less than thirty minutes. I can easily take him alive.”
By that time the radio newscasters were giving bulletins on the snake. United Press and Associated Press were carrying developments out of Akron. All over Ohio the newspapers were carrying the story on page one.
The Columbus Zoo bid $500 for the beast. Carnival men, concessionaires, hunters, “snakeologists,” and just plain screwballs began drifting in, snooping, making offers.
SCHEMES for capture were discussed at Scotty’s bar, Stebbins’s grocery, Sovacool’s store, Conger’s soda fountain, Earl Duffy Ganyard’s barbershop.
Dud Watson contrived a large box with an eightinch hole for entry. He baited it with a hen. “He’ll go in, gobble the hen, and be trapped by his breakfast.”
Pernel Andrews toted a clothesline prop. “I’ll let him strike at the pole, push it down his gullet so he can’t coil, and have him at my mercy.”
J. H. Bower, the station agent, depended on the charming effects of music. “Snakes love music. Couple of the boys and me used it on hundreds in West Virginia. We would go along the creek, one sawing the fiddle, t’other whanging the banjo, and me picking them off with my .22.”
Pierce Monroe Metcalf, the expert frog hunter, explained the sneak-snatch method. “Quick throw a leg over him and start steering. Like as not you can ride him right into town bareback,” he said.
Ray Hall, Civilian Defense safety chief, liked the stem-winder way. “All you got to do is keep a snake from coiling. I’ve used it plenty of times on big blacksnakes. You just grab them by the tail like they was an old Model T Ford and crank. It bewilders them.”
Dale, his brother, advocated self-service. “Grab his tail, and when he strikes, just shove his tail down his throat. He’ll swaller hisself.”
More people kept coming in for the hunt with other ideas. But Mayor Ritch, scared at the sight of the assorted weapons, let out another proclamation: the only firearms permitted would be those in the hands of his police and posse leaders; one gun to a posse. There was danger the hunters would shoot up themselves, especially in the excitement, if the snake were found.
On Sunday, June 25, the weather was beautiful. The church bells were ringing, worshipers were arriving, and Chief Huey was marshaling a crazy assortment of men, boys, weapons, and gadgets in front of the barbershop, assigning each to a posse, giving final instructions.
Just then, across the bridge into town, charged two companies of militia, bayonets fixed. Captain William E. Morris explained that they knew nothing of the snake hunt, but had camped up on Brewery Hill overnight and were “taking” the town for practice.
Newspaper, motion picture, and amateur photographers, together with reporters from the city newspapers, followed the posses deploying on the river bottoms, up ravines, through the woods. Women and children in cars tagged along, sticking to the roads.
It was nearly time for the churches to let out when the siren on the Town Hall howled the prearranged three long blasts. That meant the West Richfield telephone operator had a call the varmint had been located.
It was on the Hudson road, up east of Fred Kelly’s. The mayor wrote the directions on the firehouse blackboard and headed for the scene.
The front doors of the churches were pushed open with a rush; the devout had a good head start on the hunters. They piled into cars and, scattering gravel, streamed up the hill.
That siren drained all the loose population of the township down into the village and up Kelly Hill. The posses broke from the woods to the south, jumped on the running boards of cars, roared into town, and, brandishing knives and clubs, whirled up the Hudson road.
At the scene, drivers were so anxious to get in on the kill that they ditched their cars or abandoned them, doors open, in the middle of the road. Sunday pants were snagged on barbed wire and brush. City folk scrambled on hands and knees up banks of poison ivy. Girls muddied white dresses in ditches. Patches of hide were skinned off as men slipped in ravines or rolled into the creek.
In the bright June sunshine, through burrs and briars, tangled in thornbush, trampling acres of alfalfa and timothy, the hunters swirled. Meanwhile Mayor Ritch was tracing the call. It was obviously a hoax. But it took an hour to stop the hunt.
Reporters, editorial writers, cartoonists, and radio commentators were hilarious for days. The village split into angry camps. The doubters charged that the township had been made ridiculous and that the story had damaged property values. They twitted the taletellers. The believers, pride bruised, judgment impugned, veracity questioned, decided to go underground.
“It won’t be so funny if that snake gets a child next; the jokers would be first to holler,” Mayor Ritch warned.
The believers felt cheated by the hoax because Ganyard, the barber and world champion still-hunter of foxes, found evidence that convinced him his posse had been close to the reptile when called off.
The hunt was reorganized in the hands of the few; no more mass hunts, no more siren-blowing, no more information to the newspapers till the python was brought in dead. From then on, these men were out to kill; they wanted proof to fling at their detractors.
Art Huey, the police chief, took charge. Earl Ganyard, most expert as a woodsman, was put on constant alert. Dale and Ray Hall and Dud Watson were the reinforcements. They kept guns in their automobiles, and their automobiles in constant readiness.
The rural operators of all surrounding townships were organized for swift transmission of new reports to the West Richfield telephone exchange. Huey and Ganyard kept themselves constantly available to the exchange, day and night. The strategy was to get to the scene before the frightened reptile had traveled too far.
LESS than forty-eight hours after the Sunday fiasco, the new posse had its first test. It took place along the river two miles north of Peninsula, near Boston Mills.
Placid and practical Mrs. Pauline Hopko had taken her pail and started down the canal to milk her cows in the pasture Tuesday morning. “The cows were fidgety and I had to tie them to the fence while I milked,” she said. “Suddenly there was a crashing in the branches of a willow across the river. The cows jerked loose, breaking halters, and ran, bellowing, leaving me sitting with the pail. I looked over, and there was a snake with a head as big as a man’s coming down out of that dead willow. The dogs cowered under my skirts, almost upsetting me.”
Bobbie Pollard came along the towpath on his bicycle and she sent him to telephone while she rounded up the cows to finish the milking.
Bobbie neglected to phone, but came back with some more boys instead. Again they saw the snake in a nearer tree across the river. But it was hours before the official snake posse was on the scene. They found freshly broken branches on the two trees, loose bark newly scuffed off, tracks on the ground. But the ten-foot weeds, the rank vines, and the tangled flood-plain debris of the river bottoms defeated the hunt.
Two days later, four miles up Brandywine Creek, Ernest Raymond sharpened his scythe and went to mow the fence row. “I noticed a root sticking up in the timothy field. I wondered how that stump got there. Then I saw it move. The snake, coiled like a stump, had his head up looking around.
“I ran to the house for my shotgun and Ray Thompson, my son-in-law. When we came back it was still there, but he lowered his head before I could shoot. We could see the deep grass waving as he went off.”
They showed the posse a circle of matted grass in the field. Reporters found out about the incident, and next day Rayy Mitten of the Akron BeaconJournal was hunting Macedonia township in an airplane.
Two days later Mrs. Ralph Griffin went to her back door to call her boy George. “I saw something man-high where the path enters the woods at the back of the yard. It was like a man in a white shirt, till I looked good. It was the snake, reared up and looking around, his throat white and shiny.” The posse hunted, but again without luck.
Then the snake headed back down Brandywine to the Cuyahoga river bottoms. Mrs. Katherine Boroutick of Boston Mills saw him next. “I went out back of the house to throw some trash in the river, and just as I turned to come back, there was a crash in the butternut overhead. I turned just as the big snake fell with a thump not ten feet from me.”
The posse found limbs the size of your wrist, broken and dangling, their leaves still green, thirty feet from the ground on that butternut tree, and again a track to the river.
By this time the fame of the Peninsula Python had spread around the earth. Boys from the valley, away at war, read about it in Yank, in ships’ papers at sea, everywhere. Their letters asking about the snake poured in from Iceland, England, the Normandy beachhead, Italy, North Africa, India, Australia, New Guinea, the Pacific fleet, the Aleutians.
And from Idaho Falls, Idaho, Carl Scobie came 2000 miles to help hunt the varmint. A Peninsula boy, he had gone West upon discharge from the Marines after World War I. For twenty-five years ho had made snakes a hobby in the oil fields of Texas and Mexico and then in Los Angeles, where he was in real estate. For years he raised rattlers and sold them to a Michigan firm for use on horses in the making of anti-venom serum. He was the expert in that California trial of a man who had murdered his wife by sticking her foot into a box of rattlers. And when the carnival python escaped at Long Beach a few years ago, police called him and he captured the 28-foot reptile under a wharf.
Carl had not been home in a quarter century, but when he read about the Peninsula Python, he hopped a train. He no longer knew where his parents lived, but he found his Aunt Abbie Lee on the farm where she and his Uncle Park had lived for fifty-three years.
Aunt Abbie let the stranger in. She was in the midst of preparations for the Oak Hill picnic to which his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and former neighbors were coming on the morrow. In no time she had a plan, and bedded her nephew down for the night.
Next day as some sixty guests arrived, Aunt Abbie introduced the baldish, well-dressed stranger as Mr. Smith. None knew him. “I had a funny feeling,’ said Charles Scobie, his father, “but I couldn’t tell what was the matter. Then I was flabbergasted.”
So Carl Scobie took the field for two weeks armed with nothing but a blanket. “You catch a big snake by letting him strike at the blanket. Then you just wrap it around his head and he is harmless. This one will weigh about 250 pounds. A half-dozen men then can pick him up and carry him stretched out like a timber.”
But Carl went home to Idaho in September without the Peninsula Python.
The snake was reported a few more times as the leaves began to fall. The hunters never got word quick enough to see him and shoot, and he traveled too fast, when frightened, to trail. But with the first heavy frost, all trace of him was lost.
The posse watched the skies for the wheel of buzzards to lead them to his carcass, dead of cold. No buzzards circled. “He must have holed up under the overhanging roots of a big tree along the river banks,” they reasoned.
They are still waiting for the Peninsula Python to reappear.