Dodd, C. K. Jr. 2023. Snakes in a Grave—or Not. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 17(1):1–7. Published February 26, 2023.
Chester Bedell was a successful farmer and well-known citizen of the Deerfield-North Benton region of northeastern Ohio. He was intensely interested in religion and a Biblical scholar, not as a practicing Christian, but as an atheist bent on disproving the existence of God and substituting rational thought for what he viewed as Christian dogmatic mythology. He was quite vocal about his beliefs in the community, even hosting public discussions with preachers and others where he cogently espoused his views. Naturally this was not popular among local believers, particularly the Presbyterian Church of North Benton, leading to intense opposition and outright hatred among the fundamentalist faithful. Bedell authored a book on his beliefs and battles with the local Presbyterian clergy, which further ostracized him as a heretic in the community.
Prior to his death, Bedell posed for a statue of himself to be erected on top of a 10-foot pedestal on his grave. The statue was in bronze and cast by the Mullins Company in Salem, Ohio, and depicts him holding a scroll in the air stating “Universal Mental Liberty” while standing on a scroll inscribed “Superstition.” Naturally, this did not endear him further to the Christian religious community, and through the years, the statue and grave were frequently vandalized. Eventually the statue was removed (with 19 bullet holes in it) for safekeeping and in 1993 was donated to the Berlin Center (Ohio) Historical Society where it is now located in the Weidenmier House (Berlin Center Historical Society 2000). But that is only part of the story surrounding Bedell’s grave.
At some point, a story was circulated that Bedell had stated “If there is a God, may snakes infest my grave.” No one seems to know where the story originated. It is doubtful that Bedell actually made this exact claim, but it seemed to suit the purpose of his enemies and may have been consistent with Bedell’s character. Legend had it that hundreds of snakes could be observed on his grave at its original location in Hartzell Cemetery. According to some accounts, hundreds of visitors might show up in a day to observe the anticipated spectacle well into the late 1930s. It is alleged that local boys or others actually salted the gravesite with garter and blacksnakes, and that a nearby restaurant owner paid them to do so to drum-up business.