Thursday, May 16, 2024

Bibliotheca Herpetologica 18(6)

Dodd, C. K. Jr. 2024. The Hermit Naturalist, A Nearly Forgotten Snake Story. Bibliotheca Herpetologica 18(6):71–73.

In 1899, a writer named Fred. Alexander Lucas published a short book that told the tale of a lonely hermit living on an island in the Delaware River who had immigrated from Sicily. One frosty autumn morning in 1893, the story goes, the narrator, identified only as Fritz, was fishing on the river when he saw a man fall in. The narrator quickly rows to the man in the water and pulls him into his boat. They retire to the man’s cabin on the nearby island to dry off, whereupon the Old Hermit shows him around and begins to recount his tale. The Old Hermit, identified as “the Count,” was well off living in a fine home with a beautiful young daughter. He spent his days rambling in the countryside studying natural history. One day, returning from his nature hike, he found his daughter was missing, having been abducted by brigands. He discovered that one of the brigands had sailed for America with his young captive. Determined to find his daughter, he came to America in search of her, but without success. In quiet desperation, he had settled on this remote island in hopes of one day resuming his search. Then The Hermit Naturalist turns to snakes.

Chapter 2 is devoted entirely to describing the life histories of snakes: how they live, their senses, how they feed, shedding, defensive behavior, breeding, hibernation, and the myth of snake charming. Chapter 3 is devoted to the life history of local snakes. The life history of these species is described by the Count to Fritz, but with little direct connection to the Hermit’s life story; it is strictly snake biology. For 1899, the information is remarkably accurate and strictly within the realm of knowledge at that time. The source of the information is not provided. There were no summaries of snake biology available for New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the late 1890s, and an examination of DeKay (1842), Hopley (1882), Abbott (1888), and the observations of Harold C. Bumpus published in Natural History Notes (1884–1886) offer no clues as to the source of the Count’s stories.

Chapter 4 provides a happy ending to the Hermit’s quest. On a natural history ramble through the forest the following spring, Fritz stumbles across a beautiful young girl sitting on a bench on a bluff near the sanitorium where she worked. Fritz realizes who she is and reunites her with her long-lost father. In time, Fritz marries the girl, and presumably they all live happily ever after.

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