The Snake People – A Folktale

My new hobby is acquiring those little books of local folklore and ghost stories, and the other day I found a story of particular note, for a couple reasons.  This piece, collected by Don Bowman, is from the book Go Seek the Pow Wow on the Mountain, which tells tales from the Sacandagua River Valley in western New York.  The Sacandagua River was dammed in 1930, and Bowman was part of the crews of local men charged with demolishing local structures, cutting down trees, and clearing the area before the reservoir was formed.  That’s where he heard the following story, which I reproduce in its entirety for the purpose of commentary:

They told me that Anse Williams of Iron Skillet Hill was a great snake hunter. Every year in the valley and surrounding mountains he caught live or killed 300 to 400 snakes of all kinds. He kept the live ones in cages on his farm which folks called the Snake Farm. A buyer came through every now and then and bought the live critters and the salted skins.

Well, seems one year Anse found a snake den and got a whole passel of rattlers. And one must have been the grandaddy of all the valley rattlers. ‘Cause that there rattler was nigh big around as a stove pipe. Some lnjin feller from Rockwell’s Hill told Anse that he better turn the big rattler loose because the critter must be kin of The Great Snake of the Mountains. It was bad medicine to have anything to do with it and a curse came upon anyone that bothered it, according to an old lnjin belief.

Well, one day Anse was in the barn feeding his snakes, not minding the danger of keeping the Big Snake. He fed his snakes, mice, frogs, birds and suchlike. Somehow, the great big snake forced open the cage door and began crawling and slithering all round
the barn where all the cages were and headed for Anse with a mean look in its black eyes. Anse grabbed himself a long-handled scythe hanging on the wall and he managed to cut the head off the critter as it reared up, ready to attack him.

Anse skinned out the snake and nailed the spread-out snakeskin and head to the side of the barn. The skin was so long, it nearly reached all around the outside of the barn. Folks came from all around to Skillet Hill to see the wondrous sight of the big snakeskin.

Well, it seems that just then that Missus Williams was due to have a birthin’. She sent a neighbor child to fetch a Granny Woman to take charge of things. The lady came. When the baby was born the Granny Lady was horrified. The poor child was born with snake-like scales on the body, it was terrible. The Granny Lady claimed that it was the old Indian Snake Curse!

The baby lived about a month or so, then died. That was considered a blessing for mother and child. Anse still had the big snakeskin nailed on the barn door. He was so proud of it that he did not sell it to the dealer.  He also kept on hunting snakes.

Then, in less than a year, Missus Williams gave birth to another reptile-like child. This one was full of life, strong and active. The legs and arms began contorting like snakes. Instead of crying, the way normal babies do, the half-human, half-snake creature  would only go “Hiss! Hiss!” This one also had a snake skin. Missus Williams nearly went out of her mind.

Some neighbor went down river and up Hadley Hill and got an old Indian Pow Wow Man to come see the snakelike child. The Pow Wow Man examined the baby and said it was much like the tales of old, that he had heard in the lodges years ago. The old man said some of his Pow Wow Prayers from the Long Lost Friend, a collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts
and Remedies for Men as Well as Animals. (I had one once and sold it.)

Then the old Indian gave Anse some herb teas he brewed and told him that he had to get rid of the big snakeskin and head, but not to remove it from the side of the barn. Only fire would remove the curse. Anse must burn the barn, the tacked-on skin and head and all the captive snakes in the cages. Anse did so with the help of his brother.

The Pow Wow Man gave Missus Williams special herb teas to drink. He also gave different teas to the baby, which went to sleep and did not wake up. The Pow Wow Man was returned to Hadley Hill by horse and wagon. Anse Williams gave up snake hunting and got a job in a woodenware mill in Conklingville. A year later Missus Williams gave birth to a normal, healthy, beautiful baby girl. And there were no more rattlesnakes in the valley.

And that’s the story I heard about the Snake People of Skillet Hill!

Two elements of this story are particularly of interest to me.  The first is that it opens the possibility that The Long-Lost Friend was used even among primarily non-German populations in New York State in the early twentieth century, which is confirmed by other writings of Bowman.

The second, of course, is that the tale closely parallels the events in Lovecraft’s famous collaboration with Zealia Bishop, “The Curse of Yig.”  Given that the story of Yig was published in 1929, it’s likely that one of Bowman’s co-workers read it and incorporated it into the local area’s lore to make for a good yarn.  I have to say, though, that the tale gave me a start initially, as I’m not used to having vengeful snake-spirits just a few hours away from me.  Nonetheless, it was an interesting discovery I wanted to share with you.


Published in: on February 10, 2012 at 2:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. […] more info… This entry was posted in GENERAL POSTS. Bookmark the permalink. ← Using Bathroom Accessories to Update a Bathroom’s Style […]

  2. That’s a grim tale. So basically, the Pow Wow Man let them delete the traces and poisoned the malformed infant?

  3. Huh. I don’t know about a possible influence on “The Curse of Yig” but that’s a mighty fine tidbit of folklore, Dan. Good find!

    • I think, rather, that the point is the folkloric tale was a retelling of the Lovecraft/Bishop work. That is, the informant may have read “The Curse of Yig” in 1929, when it was published, and told it to Don Bowman in 1930.

      It’s an interesting piece of evidence for the people who theorize about oral traditions and their relation to literary ones.

  4. Perhaps the children suffered from Harlequin tyoe ichthyosis?

    Nifty find Dan. I recommend “Tales of the Old Eagles Nester”, also from your neck of the woods.

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