Thursday, December 14, 2023

Herpetology in Catherine Cooper Hopley’s Non-Herpetological Books

Catherine Cooper Hopley (1817–1911) is best known herpetologically as the author of the first popular book in the English language on snakes (Snakes. Curiosities & Wonders of Serpent Life. 1882. Griffith and Farran, London) and for a summary of British amphibians and reptiles (British Reptiles and Batrachians, Swan Sonnenschein & Co. London. 3 editions-1888, 1893, 1911). Her herpetological contributions were reviewed by Adler (2007. Contributions to the History of Herpetology, Volume 2, SSAR, St. Louis, Missouri, pp. 110–111; 2014. Contributions to the History of Herpetology, Volume 1–revised and expanded, SSAR, Ithaca, New York, p. 165) and Anon (1893. “Snakes!” A chat with Miss Catherine C. Hopley. The Sketch, 20 September 1893, pp. 115–116; Fig. 1), which includes the only known illustration of her. In addition to these books, Hopley wrote several other books describing her travels in North America prior to and during the American Civil War. Hopley was a Southern sympathizer, and her books clearly reflect racist attitudes toward slaves (e.g., Life in the South by a Blockaded British Subject, 2 volumes, 1863. Chapman and Hall, London). Her book Stories of Red-Men (Undated [1872], Religious Tract Society, London) offers a cringe-worthy depiction of Indigenous Peoples and their culture and celebrated the alleged superiority of white, Christian, Europeans.

Fig. 1. An interview with Catherine Hopley, with an illustration of her at just shy of 76 years of age, appeared in The Sketch, 20 September 1893.

Herpetological observations in three of Hopley’s books are non-existent (“Stonewall” Jackson, Late General of the Confederate States Army, Chapman and Hall, London. 1863; Aunt Jenny’s American Pets, Griffith and Ferran, London. Undated [1872]) or trivial. In Stories of Red-Men, Hopley relates a story whereby Chief Powhatan of Tidewater Virginia wore snake skins on his arms and legs. Later, she recounts a story in which an unfriendly chief of a New England tribe sent a quiver made of rattlesnake skin full of arrows to New England colonists as a threat. The colonists returned the quiver filled with gunpowder and shot. The origin of the stories is not stated, although it seems likely that Indigenous peoples wore and made items of rattlesnake skin.

Fig. 2. Title page of Rambles and Adventures in the Wilds of the West, undated [1872]

. In Rambles and Adventures in the Wilds of the West (Religious Trace Society, London. Undated [1872]; Fig. 2), Hopley recounts incidents during her travels in Ohio and the Florida Panhandle. This book is much more natural history-oriented based on Hopley’s first-hand observations. Most of her remarks are focused on plants and birds, but several pages (32–44) are devoted to an incident featuring a rattlesnake. When her coach broke down in Ohio, Hopley and her friend Katie took the opportunity to examine the local vegetation. A young boy saw a track in the road and claimed that it was a rattlesnake track that he could follow. No rattlesnake was found initially. Still, this possibility elicited fear in the women, whereby Hopley claimed to be “in terror of rattlesnakes” as she scrambled back to her coach. Later, the boy shows Hopley and Katie the body of a large rattlesnake he dispatched near the log upon which they had sat, and Hopley relates that it was only by the good graces of the Heavenly Father that she and Katie had an “escape from death.” After the 4-foot snake was dispatched, the young boy picked it up so that “the forked tongue was just visible through the half-open mouth. Emblem of sin! We shrank away shuddering at it, and at thoughts of the death so near to us.” He threw it in a pond where “the venom could do no harm.” Hopley accurately described the rattle, but noted that it was “connected to the body by a skin, or membrane, which can be cut without causing pain to the reptile.” Sitting on a log later that night, she states that there was no worry of rattlesnakes then, since they had “retired to their nests for the night.” The story was accompanied by a figure of a rattlesnake head (Fig. 3). Clearly, her attitudes and interest had changed by the following decade.

Fig. 3. Rattlesnake head.

Rambles and Adventures in the Wilds of the West, page 43. Only two other mentions of reptiles are in this book. In the chapter entitled Ohitona, Hopley describes a prairie dog town, accompanied by an illustration containing two snakes (p. 70; Fig. 4). She never actually saw a prairie dog town (not in Ohio!). The account was based on a friend of her friend Harry’s visit to one (the friend had given Harry a pet prairie dog which he showed to Hopley). She describes a prairie dog’s town and habits, presumably based on Harry’s friend’s observations, but there is no reference as to the origin of the illustration. Later in the book (p. 121), Hopley noted an incident in Florida where a friend grabs a beautiful green lizard (likely Anolis carolinensis) that sheds its tail upon escape. She noted the ease at which these lizards regenerate their tails and limbs with, she claims, no adverse effects.

Fig. 4. Depiction of a prairie dog town featuring two snakes (far left, center) from Rambles and Adventures in the Wilds of the West, page 70.

In the decades following her American travels, Hopley became fascinated with reptiles and extended her interest to writing about them factually without the hyperbole shown in her earlier accounts. Whether she evolved in her attitudes towards non-white, non-European, non-Christians is another matter and offers an unfavorable glimpse into Anglo-American society of the mid to late 19th Century. A notice of Catherine Hopley’s death appeared in The Globe of 1 May 1911. She was hailed as “The Globe’s oldest contributor” (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Notice of the death of Catherine Hopley. The Globe of 1 May 1911, page 6.

Submitted by: C. Kenneth Dodd, Jr.

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