Mendyk, R. W. 2022. A Sure and Certain Cure for the Bite of a Rattlesnake: 18th Century Folk Medicine and an Early Case of Herpetological Satire. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 16(5):43–47. Published March 28, 2022.
It can be difficult to find humor or amusement in as grim and macabre a subject as venomous snakebite, especially when considering the innumerable loss of human lives to snakebite throughout history to the present day. But, if there is any particular aspect of venomous snakebite that is more likely to be considered amusing than others, it would probably be the long and storied history of snakebite treatments, antidotes and sure cures that have been proposed and attempted over the last several centuries. In stark contrast to modern therapies, many of the folklore remedies proposed for venomous snakebites in the United States during the 18th and 19th Centuries may seem comical today in relation to what is now known about snake venoms, snakebite, and emergency medicine. Long gone are the days of burying bitten extremities in mud or applying the anuses of live chickens to bite wounds, dubious poultices and topical treatments of salt and gunpowder, pulverized charcoal and hog’s lard, clay and urine and turpentine, and tinctures and decoctions of ammonia spirits, melted hog’s lard and strychnine. Still, reflecting back on archaic snakebite treatments of the past offers a valuable glimpse into an era deeply impacted by a paucity of reliable scientific and medical research, testing, and controls. Here, I recount one particularly outlandish folklore treatment from the late 18th Century that typified venomous snakebite cures of the era in what is today the United States, and call attention to a follow-up satirical account that parodied this treatment and the absurdity of folklore snakebite treatments more than a century later.