Family Accounts - Descendants of Anna Rosine Fetterman & Heinrich Gernhardt

Hiram P. Dangle (6)
b. August 11, 1879

“It is rare that any one admires snakes and makes pets of them, as people admire birds and have bird-pets. Most people regard snakes with decided horror and aversion, as being only vicious, ugly, dangerous things. To some they are repulsively fascinating. That is, some agree that they are beautiful, yet also detest them, and always try to kill them if they can. The above named Hiram P. Dangle, son of Catharine Dangle, is an exception, the only one we believe of the numerous descendants of Heinrich and Rosine, and so far as we know the only one in a great section of the country. When a boy he seemed really to love snakes, thought they were beautiful creatures, would rather pick them up than kill them, had a passion for holding them in his hands, stroking them, carrying them about in his pockets, and for years had a lot of them for pets. At one time, when seventeen years old, he had a collection of twenty-three ‘tamed’ snakes, representing seven different indigenous species, namely, Viper, Milk, Garter, Water, Black, Rattle and Copperhead. They were at that time of more interest to him than birds, as we learned from him and his mother, and from persons who from time to time saw him play with the uncanny things. It appears to have been more to him than a mere barren freak, however, as in the inquisitive spirit of a naturalist he found great delight in the study of their habits and dispositions, and also had the curiosity to dissect some to learn something of their internal anatomy, and to make various experiments. He and his snakes for a time attracted a great deal of attention, many people visiting his home to see him handle the uncommon pets. He took delight in exhibiting them, and telling people what he knew about them. Williamsport Grit, the most extensively circulated newspaper published in Northern Pennsylvania, sent a reporter to interview him, and published a long article about him, which at once made him famous.

“Some people in his neighborhood insisted that he drugged his venomous snakes; others declared that he extracted their dangerous fangs before he trifled with them; and some even believed that he was a veritable Snake Charmer, possessed of some rare, inherent power; of which insinuations he did not want to hear, affirming that none of these things were true. He never but once removed a fang from a snake’s mouth, and then merely for experiment. He had read that if the fangs were removed, that new ones would develop in their place. To test the matter for himself he captured a small copperhead that he did not want in his collection and pulled out one of its deadly fangs, which was as sharp as the finest needle, and true enough, in less than three months a new weapon of defense had grown in its place. He says that his power over snakes was not a secret, nor a special function, but lay wholly in the study of their disposition, in his caution, the influence of kindness, and gentle handling, never exciting their fear or anger, and largely in not having any fear himself. Anybody can handle snakes with safety if as careful and fearless as he always was. The first impulse of all the wild snakes of this region of the country, he says, is to get away from you, or to lay perfectly still and let you get away from them, and if one attempts to bite it is from fear and in self-defense. A snake, especially when a captive, can soon be made sensible of kindness. And like a horse, or dog, or perhaps any known animal, a snake will soon instinctively understand when a person is afraid of it.

“Once while handling a copperhead, Hiram was bitten on his right hand, but he instantly and vigorously commenced sucking the wound and spitting the blood from his mouth, and did not suffer from the bite. This was the only time he was ever bitten by a venomous snake, and this he is sure would not have happened had not a bystander irritated or frightened it by imprudently poking a stick at it while he was handling it. Snakes, he contends, are not without some power of observation, some measure of intelligence, some understanding of their surrounds, though he does not rank them high in this respect. They are God’s creations, and proofs of His wisdom and power, the same as all other animals, and they have their rightful place among the innumerable creatures of which He said, ‘Let the earth bring forth.’ While Hiram can say they have, save in one instance, been to him as harmless as doves, he has never found one as wise as the one that it is said beguiled a certain woman to eat of prohibited fruit and made her believe that she, too, would become wonderfully wise.

“Hiram’s parents were greatly horrified by his anomalous affection for snakes, and for some time tried to dissuade him from bringing the (to them) loathsome things home and making playthings of them. But after seeing the impunity with which he constantly fondled them, and the pleasure his strange fancy afforded him, they finally ceased to object, and let the boy have his way unhampered—but they could never love snakes, and continued to keep out of the way whenever ‘the creeping things that creepeth upon the earth’ were in the way. By having unrestrained freedom to pursue his study of provincial ophiology, he probably made greater progress and was the sooner satisfied with his experiments. He always had an eye open for snakes, and even made excursions to the neighboring mountains to hunt for specimens. He liked big snakes. Whenever he found a snake that he wanted he closely observed its movements, and was soon able to determine by its behavior and motions whether it was in a dangerous mood for handling. When at all uncertain as to its temper he used a forked stick long enough so that the reptile could not reach him if it attempted to jump at him and bite, and pinned its head to the ground, then seized it by the neck with his hand and without further formality gently transferred it to his snake-box for transportation home. In some cases he would simply clutch Mr. Snake near the head with the thumb and forefinger, just as he would pick up a switch or cane, and with hardly any more fear. When in captivity for a few days, and frequently visited, the most vicious of his snakes would allow him to take it up in his hands without manifesting the slightest resentment or desire to escape. He would often carry the creepers about in his hands, on his arms, in his pockets, in his hat, and even would let them nestle under his shirt on his bosom. They appeared to like the touch and warmth of his body, and would at times cling to him almost like filaments of iron to a horse-shoe magnet. And he, too, liked the peculiar sensation of their smooth gliding along over his person, by the gentle motion of their ribs and muscles, and the alternate action of the overlapping scales on the under side of their bodies.

“Hiram’s pet snakes appeared to know him and like him. His mother remarked to me that she one day walked up almost against a couple of snake boxes that he had hung up side by side in the sun, on the garden fence, near the kitchen—the open sides of the boxes were covered with strong wire screens, so she mustered courage to go up close—when the Rattlers began to rattle, and the other occupants raised their heads in threatening attitudes, so that she was alarmed and did not consume much time in getting away. Hiram then walked up to them, and instantly every snake was pacified, and appeared glad that he came to them. He is sure that his pets knew him from the other members of the family, and therefore that they can learn to distinguish people. If strangers came near when he was handling them they would cling tighter to him than usual, and sometimes, when in his ordinary dress, would even push their heads under his clothing, as if they then thought they were safe.

“When his fame spread and people came in groups to see him handle his serpentine pets, he made himself a suit of tights, leaving his neck and arms bare, as more suitable for giving exhibitions of his much commented on but never claimed power as a Snake Charmer. After he had his snakes ‘tamed’ they never tried to escape from him. He gave them complete freedom, and had them lie on the ground all around him when performing with them out of doors. He never had a combat, or saw any signs of unfriendliness between his snakes when he had them together out of their dens. He kept the Rattlers, Copperheads and Blacksnakes each in separate dens, however, but the Vipers, Milksnakes and Garters always lived amicably together in one den. Before me, as I write these paragraphs, lies a photograph of our kinsman as he appeared in his improvised close-fitting costume, showing him seated on a cane-seated rocking chair, on a blanket spread on the lawn in front of his home, giving an exhibition to a group of visitors. In his right hand he holds up a fat Rattler, the reptile with its head hanging down and looking complacently into his face; a Milksnake more than a yard long lay gracefully stretched out, suspended over his uplifted left hand, and his largest and greatly prized Blowing Viper appears contentedly coiled around his bare neck. None of the bystanders stood up near enough to appear in the picture—having perhaps asked the photographer to excuse them. Vipers he regarded as the most knowing of all the snakes he handled, and after capturing them he could take hold of them sooner to fondle than any other species. The Rattlers he found the hardest to tame, and the most nervous and easily alarmed. Though the Milksnake is considered as a harmless reptile,—at least as not hurtful to man and other large animals,—it is about as vicious, Hiram says, and as ready to show fight as any snake found in Pennsylvania. But in his hands all were entirely tractable. A lady living several miles from the Dangle home informed me that at one of his exhibitions—always free—she saw him open his mouth wide and put the head of one of the ugliest of his pets in between his teeth, a sight she though even more thrilling than the spectacle of a man putting his head between the jaws of a lion.

“Late one autumn Hiram lay by his aggregation of snakes for the season, then fifteen in number, in a box, and buried box and all in the garden for the winter. On a mild day in March he unearthed the cage and had the satisfaction of finding all his pets in good condition, though naturally somewhat dormant, as he expected. Thinking that the hotbed would be an admirable depository for his esteemed hibernators, he concluded to give them quarters there until the return of warm weather, but the place proved too hot, or stifling, and when he went to see how they were prospering he had the mortification to find that every one was a lifeless corpse, and that he was no longer the owner of a living snake. The loss that grieved him most of all was that of his big and favorite Blowing Viper, for which he said he would not have taken ten dollars. His dens were once more replenished, however, when warm weather enticed the snakes to delight in outdoor life again. But there were plenty of others just as good.

“The snake has often been pronounced to be without an equal in the animal world for merciless destructiveness and cannibalism. Hiram does not entirely assent to this opinion. All carnivorous creatures, he urges, are by nature cruel and destructive to their prey. Even gentle Puss has no more tender feeling for a mouse or a bird than the despised snake. The Vulture does not pity the Lamb, nor has the Hawk the slightest compassion for its victims. Alligators, Crocodiles, Sharks, and many kinds of fish, are just as merciless and more destructive, and some are as cannibalistic—kind eating kind—as serpents. What commiseration has the hungry lion, ‘Man Eater,’ for his victim when he drags him from his hut to make a meal of him? Hiram makes no apology for snakes, but he claims they have their parallels, and many of them, and even their superiors as destructive gormandizers. One good square meal often satisfies a snake for one, two, and sometimes even three weeks, while the shark is always hungry and greedy, and is incessantly destructive. There is hardly a vertebrate creature known that can fast as long as a snake, and that so often refuses to eat when in captivity. Hiram sometimes compelled his pets to eat by taking them in hand, one by one, forcing open their mouths and pushing food down their throats. It was no rare thing for a mouse, toad, or sparrow to be in the den with the snakes for days and even weeks before it was seized and swallowed. When fed enough at a meal they would on average eat only once every fifteen or twenty days. And when they fished to eat, the Rattlers, Vipers and Garters would voluntarily take the food from his hands. The Blacksnakes would also drink milk when he held it to them in a saucer.

“But Hiram, after a few seasons of satisfying experience, went entirely out of the snake business. It was but a boy-day fad, and lasted only until his curiosity was satisfied. He is intelligent, modest, and agreeable. At school he was regarded as a bright scholar. In drawing and penmanship he so excelled that his work won him the first honors at the County Teachers’ Institute. He had taught school one term, and when I saw him at his home he had just made application for another school. He is now, at twenty-four, as fond of flowers as at seventeen he was partial to snakes, and has quite a botanical collection. He is also an expert amateur photographer, and has made an immense collection of beautiful and interesting pictures. He is always doing something, and appears to be handy at almost anything. When I visited his home I found him engaged laying a new floor on the veranda. His mother says he is as much of an adept in the kitchen and at cooking as anything. He is also a lover of music, and is a member of the Warrensville Cornet Band—first playing a horn, but of late a clarionet” (from Heinrich Gernhardt and His Descendants, pp. 206-212).

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