Rutherford County Medicine Meets the X-Files in the 1870s
Froe Chips, September/October, 2021, Dr. Steve Murphree
The history of American medicine is filled with accounts of unusual ailments and treatments, many of which can be found in the records of local and state medical associations and societies. Arguably, the most unusual case in the annals of Tennessee medicine is that of a young Rutherford County woman residing in the Christiana community named Thankful Taylor. The events leading up to the dramatic night of June 26, 1874, when a Murfreesboro physician is said to have extracted a 23-inch snake from the mouth of Miss Taylor, as well as the aftermath of this event provide an interesting look at how rural medicine was both practiced and scrutinized following the War Between the States.
Imagine the following scene: following a physician’s instructions a mother seizes the “black living substance” in her daughter’s mouth and sends for the physician on a hazy June evening. The physician hurries his horse to the home. Upon arrival, he observes that the mother has brought her daughter out in the yard. The physician quickly grasps the “black living substance” and pulls out a striped water snake (and held it up for all to see in the moonlight – at least, that is what this author likes to think he did!).
The first popular account of the Thankful Taylor story was written by journalist Ed Bell in 1949 for the Tennessee Magazine. Thankful Taylor’s strange ailment is still discussed by residents in rural areas of southern Rutherford County and northern Bedford County. Dick Poplin, author of the “Scraps of Poplin” column of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette, has written about the case.
Thankful Taylor lived and worked with her mother, Didama Carroll, on the farm of her step-father, William Carroll which was located east of Christiana. One summer afternoon in 1869, Thankful walked from her work in the cotton fields to a nearby spring to quench her thirst. Later, she would recall that something like a little string had passed down her throat when she drank from the spring but had paid this little attention. Weeks later, she became progressively ill and eventually bedridden with an unusual ailment. Thankful suffered from repeated convulsions which grew in their intensity, interrupting her sleep and shocking family members and sympathetic neighbors who sat with her. These symptoms reportedly continued for nearly five years, and she was confined in her room for five months before the extraction.
Dr. B.N. White, Sr., a long-time Rutherford County physician and great-grandfather of current RCHS president Walter White, saw Thankful Taylor and treated her for tapeworms for one year. On January 23, 1874, Dr. J.M. Burger, an itinerant physician, saw Thankful for the first time. On the next day Burger met for a consultation with White. Biographies of both physicians in a history of Rutherford County medicine detail their association with Thankful Taylor.
Doctor Burger believed that Thankful was afflicted with a species of reptile, a diagnosis he was convinced would call into question both his character and reputation as a physician. His diagnosis was confirmed during his dramatic evening visit of June 26, 1874. Following the extraction, Burger returned to town with the snake, placed it in a square glass jar with alcohol and sealed it with wax.
News of the case spread quickly across middle Tennessee. Committees of the Rutherford County Medical Association and the Tennessee Medical Association were formed to examine the physical evidence, signed affidavits and to conduct interviews. One committee reported that the patient was seen killing or catching snakes on the day before the extraction and that the patient still suffered from convulsive seizures. However, apparently no documentation of these last observations has survived.
There was one attempt to profit from the Thankful Taylor case. Doctor L.W. Knight at some point corresponded with Burger about what Knight called “our contemplated enterprise”. Doctor Knight encouraged him to secure certificates from people who had observed Thankful’s symptoms, indicated that he would pay for half the cost of a new pair of shoes for her, and anticipated a trip to exhibit Thankful to public audiences. Burger did not agree to Knight’s proposal, as there is no record of new shoes for Thankful Taylor or a traveling show. Unlike Knight, the honest, hard-working people of Christiana, like their ancestors, do not fit the stereotype of conspirators in a hoax and no evidence exists indicating that any of them ever accepted money for interviews or opportunities to see Thankful Taylor or the snake.
After Burger died in 1915, the snake and documents were passed down through his descendants. Burger’s granddaughter, Lena Burger Woodlee Rogers, took pride in her family’s unusual possessions and made at least two attempts for the Thankful Taylor story to receive national attention by writing to Life magazine and Family Home magazine. Until her death in 2019, the snake and documents were in the possession of Loyce Rogers, the daughter of Lena and Rece Rogers, who lived in the Barfield/Crescent community. In November of 2020, Loyce’s son Randall contacted this author about securing a place for the Thankful Taylor collection place in a Tennessee museum where it would be well maintained. RCHS Members can submit their thoughts concerning whether the new Rutherford County Courthouse Museum and the Rutherford County Archives should be those locations.
Surprisingly little is known about the life of Thankful Taylor following the extraction. In September a neighbor of the Carrolls wrote that she had visited in her home often since June 26 and stated that she “seems to be perfectly relieved.” To date no marriage, cemetery or other records of Thankful have been discovered. RCHS members are encouraged to use their considerable investigative abilities to determine just what became of this young woman who once had the attention of many Tennesseans. Whether it is considered fact or folklore, Thankful Taylor’s case is regarded by many as the most unusual in the annals of Tennessee medicine.