As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, January 31, 2010
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
The 140-year-old specimen bathed in preservative in an ancient apothecary jar is a quiet reminder of the media and professional furor caused by the 1874 case of a Rutherford County woman with a snake in her stomach.
This case, involving real people and a real snake, was documented in affidavits, medical reports and professional literature. In February 1949, Ed Bell, Murfreesboro correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean, revived and detailed the local story in the Tennessean Magazine.
More recently, Steve Murphree, a Rutherford resident and professor of biology at Belmont University in Nashville, has explored the local story, identified the folks involved and found the snake. His lead on the story came from the late Dick Poplin, the iconic storyteller from a prominent Midland family, who for many years wrote the “Scraps of Poplin” column for a Shelbyville newspaper.
Thankful Taylor was a young woman who lived with her mother, Didama Carroll, on the farm of her stepfather, William Carroll, east of Christiana in south Rutherford County in 1869. According to Bell’s account, Thankful was “a stringy girl in her teens who was not much in the way of looks but hard-working and of sturdy health.”
One day, taking a break from her field work, Thankful quenched her thirst at a nearby spring. (Murphree has determined that the large spring is still flowing near the Christiana community.) Several weeks later, Thankful began to suffer convulsions “interrupting her sleep … and shocking family members” by their increasing intensity. On recommendation from a sympathetic neighbor, Thankful drank a strong liquor or wine, which produced even more severe convulsions. Some witnesses to her suffering reported seeing movement in her abdomen even when the poor girl was still or sleeping.
Thankful’s curious malady persisted for many months. The Rev. Whit Ransom attended her spiritually, and later signed an affidavit that he had seen “a black living substance come up the throat into the mouth of the young lady.” Based on this observation, the reverend was the first to opine that Thankful was afflicted by a live snake in her belly.
Thankful was not, however, the first such case in medical history. Stories of various creatures living in human stomachs date back many centuries. In a sixth century German story, a snake was said to be in the stomach of a young lad. (This affliction came to be known as “bosom serpent.”) The lad was taken to a “holy woman” who said she could feel the snake moving in his abdomen. She prepared a cure that was applied to his stomach and caused “a volcanic like opening of his bowel with the snake expelled like a projectile.”
A number of “medical cases” from the 16th and 17th centuries tell of various reptiles and amphibians living in the human stomach. Reports of a strange epidemic that killed some 3,000 people in Theiss, Germany, reference snakes and newts crawling from the dead bodies. In one epidemic case, two snakes were reportedly found in the stomach of a “still warm” female victim.
A post mortem diagnosis of “snake in stomach” comes from a 17th century almanac. A cobbler had committed suicide by stabbing himself to death after having been tortured for 10 years by intractable stomach pain. After burial, he was disinterred for further examination. Witnesses (including the widow) were horrified to discover a snake “the length of a man’s arm lying beside the corpse…the serpent having exited the body through the stab wound.”
In 1561 a Parisian prostitute was arrested for “inviting men to feel the snake in her stomach.” Many Frenchmen turned out to see her and feel the reptile-like movement in her stomach. “Toad-vomiting” was popular in the 1600s. Perhaps the most famous was Catharina Geisslerin of Atenberg, Germany. Her spectacular toad-vomiting (with an occasional lizard or salamander) continued for 15 years and was quite celebrated (including a number of paid performances). When she died in 1662, men of science eagerly performed an autopsy. To their surprise and disappointment, they found nothing unusual (not a single creature).
A 12-year-old boy in Berolzheim, Germany, was taken seriously ill in 1694. The case record notes: “After several apoplectic fits and attacks of abdominal cramps, he vomited numerous insects, 21 newts, four frogs and some toads.” Once a snake was said to have thrust its head from the boy’s mouth, but retreated before it could be grasped. Those attending to the suffering boy tested the “time-honored cure for animals in the stomach.” They poured horse urine on several live frogs which promptly died. They then forced the boy to drink several bottles of this naturally-derived potion. Miraculously, he never vomited another creature.
In the late 18th century, many leading biologists, including Carolus Linnaeus and Sir Joseph Banks, favored the concept of snakes and frogs living as parasites in the human gastrointestinal tract. A well-documented “bosom serpent” case in the early 19th century rallied support for this concept. The case was reported by Martin Wilhelm Mandt, a respected Russian physician.
Mandt had been consulted by a peasant who was certain that a snake had slithered through his mouth while he was sleeping in the open. He had awakened with a jerk, feeling that something cold moved in his stomach. According to the physician, “movement could be felt in the epigastric area and a gargling sound was heard with the stethoscope.” Mandt administered a strong purgative and sent the man home to recuperate. The patient returned two days later “triumphantly carrying a chamber pot containing the body of a 12-inch adder.”
But in 1849, Arnold Berthold, a German scientist, dissected a number of snakes, frogs and newts that had been preserved in various pathological museum collections. Each of the specimens had allegedly been vomited or extracted after living for several years in a human stomach. They all contained partially digested insects, which strongly suggested that they had been deliberately swallowed shortly before being vomited. These findings prompted a number of experiments in which various creatures were placed in stomach-like conditions. None survived and “bosom snake” theories fell into disfavor.
Then came Thankful Taylor.
‘Snake in Stomach’ Diagnosed, Extracted
The removal of a snake from a Rutherford County woman in 1874 attracted national media attention and sparked a heated controversy in the Tennessee medical profession. Two area physicians were directly involved in the care and treatment of Thankful Taylor, the snake-afflicted Christiana woman.
Dr. Bartley Newton White Sr., a native of Bell Buckle, practiced at the time in the Bell Buckle, Deason, Christiana and Fosterville communities. He was a Confederate infantry veteran. After the war he studied medicine at the University of Nashville, graduating in 1867. He was identified as the “neighboring physician” in Christiana in the early 1870s, and was a member of the Rutherford County Medical Society.
According to White, Thankful had been afflicted with convulsions since she was 6 years old, and these convulsive spells worsened when she was 13. Several physicians had treated her over a period of years without a conclusive diagnosis or successful remedy. A severe attack had occurred in 1869.
White attended Thankful in February 1873 when the convulsions lasted for several days, but then “seemed to be relieved.” The attacks resumed in August 1873 and White noted the “dark brown” head of what he concluded was a tapeworm in Thankful’s mouth. When he attempted to “extract it by thrusting a pointed instrument through it…the patient jerked his hand and instrument away.” This attack of convulsions persisted for four days, and then ceased until Jan. 21, 1874.
When White saw his patient in January, the “tapeworm” was “in her mouth, lying on her tongue within half an inch of her teeth.” Thankful let White examine what was in her mouth “but would not permit him to remove it, for the reason that when it was touched it gave her great pain.” It was on this occasion that Whit Ransom, a Methodist minister and neighbor, looked into the mouth of the woman and stated that Thankful had a live snake in her belly. (According to White, Ransom changed his mind after reading some literature on tapeworms, and believed what he had seen was a tapeworm.)
White’s record further indicates that on Jan. 23, 1874, Thankful had another convulsive episode and the family sent for him, but he was “professionally absent.” As a result, another physician was contacted and Dr. Joshua Marion Coffee Burger became involved. Burger also studied medicine at the University of Nashville graduating in 1869. At the time he lived in McMinnville and had an itinerant practice, seeing patients in Bell Buckle, Wartrace, Jordans Valley, Deason, Christiana and Fosterville.
Burger described his first impression of Thankful as follows: “On my arrival, I saw that the young lady had very strange symptoms, peculiar kind of convulsions … and in a strangling condition. Also with a foreign living substance in her mouth of a Black appearance.”
The doctor noted that after the “substance…receded down the esophagus (the patient) seemed to be relieved to some extent.” Burger saw Thankful a second time on Jan. 24, and found her “in the same condition, if any difference the symptoms were more violent.”
Much significance was given to abdominal activity. “One of the most marked symptoms was the movements of the reptile in her stomach; it could plainly be seen across an ordinary room under a bed quilt.”
As of the second visit, Burger (in his own words) “took charge of the case.” According to White’s account, Burger “pronounced it to be a reptile, telling the mother that it was an interesting case, and that he wished to be retained.” The two physicians met on Jan. 25 “in consultation” with another Wartrace physician, Dr. Samuel K. Whitson. According to Burger’s account of the meeting, White explained his tapeworm diagnosis and stood by it despite his unsuccessful treatment regimen over the past twelve months. Burger detailed his “living reptile in the stomach” diagnosis and wrote in his notes that Whitson agreed. (In later written submissions to the Medical Societies, Burger never identifies Whitson and never mentions consultation with a third physician.)
Burger and White differed not only on diagnosis, but also on the appearance and condition of the patient. White said: “She has all the symptoms of tapeworm emaciation, ravenous appetite, when able to eat, bleeding at the eyes and ears … ” In contrast, in his Medical Society report, Burger stated: “The girl continued robust in a remarkable degree, instead of being emaciated, and the appetite instead of being ravenous was fickle … “
On Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 26 and 27, 1874, the story of the woman with a snake in her stomach appeared in the McMinnville and Nashville newspapers. (Physicians in the 1870’s were apparently not bound by patient confidentiality concerns.) Offended by the newspaper report that the “Neighboring Physician” had quit the case because “he considered it a hopeless one,” White published a letter defending the tapeworm diagnosis and explaining that Thankful’s mother transferred the case in response to Burger’s diagnosis and solicitation.
Recalling his diagnosis and ascendancy on the case, Burger later wrote: “I am free to confess that I was at a loss to know the best treatment to adopt, as our Authors give no special plans of treatment (for reptile in stomach).” Burger’s first treatment was to induce vomiting with salt water; next he tried starving the patient (and the snake). He then gave Thankful a “combination of coal oil, spirits of turpentine and carbolic acid-in very large doses.” Apparently, both Thankful and her affliction survived the treatment.
Burger theorized that the reptile would “go down into the intestine (and) remain there while the medicines were being given.”
“Satisfied that the above combination had more effect on the snake than the gastric juices,” Burger wrote: “I think they can come nearer living in the juices than they can in the above mentioned (medication).” Over the next five months, Burger visited his patient almost daily and came to believe that salt was the best remedy for stomach reptiles because it would cause the “substance” to make its way into the mouth of the host.
Finally, on June 26, 1874, Burger was summoned with a report that the thing was in Thankful’s mouth and that the mother had grabbed it. Upon arrival at bedside, Burger “at once took hold of the substance and extracted it. It proved to be a living snake, 23 inches long with light and dark brown stripes with white abdomen … (The patient) commenced vomiting profusely but expressed herself … that she felt relieved … like a great load had been removed from her stomach.”
In his handwritten documentation of the case, prepared in August 1874, Berger wrote: “She has been relieved of all symptoms that she had previous to the extraction of the snake, in fact she seems to have been restored to perfect health.”
Snake Study Coiled in Jealousies and Politics
Led by a conscientious professional, pressed by an offended practitioner, encouraged by a powerful entrepreneur and watched closely by a curious media and public, the Rutherford County Medical Society in March 1875 began an investigation like no other. Their focus: The case of a Christiana woman, Thankful Taylor, from whom a McMinnville-based physician, Dr. Joshua Burger, had extracted a snake from her stomach
The investigative committee was chaired by Dr. James B. Murfree, a grandson of Col. Hardy Murfree, for whom Murfreesboro was named. Murfree studied in the medical department at the University of Nashville, and graduated from the Jefferson Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1859. As a commissioned surgeon in the Confederate Army, he headed the hospital at Emory & Henry University in Virginia until the end of the Civil War.
A respected and distinguished professional with a large practice, Murfree was a member and officer of numerous medical groups, and in his career wrote and presented over 70 scholarly papers on medical cases and procedures. He also served for a time as Murfreesboro mayor and public schools director.
Dr. B.N. White, the “neighboring physician” in Christiana, was not a part of the investigative committee, but was an active member of the Society. Displaced as Taylor’s attending physician, and characterized in the media as having “given up the case as hopeless,” White was offended and continued to advocate his “tapeworm” diagnosis. He expected his colleagues on the committee to be sympathetic.
Behind the scenes, a powerful physician/businessman was promoting his special interest in the snake case. A former practice partner with Murfree, Dr. L.W. Knight was a member of the Tennessee Medical Society, a charter member of the Rutherford County Medical Society, was credited with building the Presbyterian Church in Murfreesboro and was an acknowledged “elder” in the local medical practice in the 1870s.
Knight was also a livestock broker (“Dealer in Jacks, Jennets, Berkshire Swine, Cotswold Sheep, &c.”), owner of Fairview Stock Farm, and a major land owner and landlord. Shortly after the snake story was reported, Knight approached Burger with a business proposal.
On March 5, 1875, as the investigation was beginning, he wrote to Burger: “I am writing to persons in different parts of the Country for the purpose of feeling of the public pulse relative to our contemplated enterprise. I hope you are doing likewise. I think you would do well to get a certificate from some person who was acquainted with Miss Thankful in her earlier symptoms.”
Knight advised Burger that Murfree had promised him a “cover” (letter of introduction) from the Medical Society. He encouraged Burger to get a “certificate” from Mrs. E.F. Lytle (“most reliable testimony”).
“I hope you will be most vigilant in making the preliminary arrangements for the anticipated trip. We should feel of the public pulse and then map out a route,” wrote Knight. “Please get Miss Thankful a pair of suitable shoes, and I will foot half of the bill. Continue to write to parties up north, for it will be among them that our success depends. They have curiosity and money.”
Burger received a number of letters from persons who believed that they were themselves afflicted with stomach reptiles. He also heard from several physicians both favoring and doubting his diagnosis. A Boston physician wrote that “frogs, lizards and snakes can and do exist in the human stomach.”
Prominent Nashville physician W. K. Bowling counseled: “It does not matter that physicians say it is impossible. They have often said that and been compelled to take it back.”
Documentation indicates that the local Medical Society read and heard statements from the attending physicians and witnesses, interviewed the patient, and examined the preserved snake. Murfree and his colleagues apparently read and consulted broadly on the subject and the investigation continued for over a year with assistance from and referral to the Nashville-based Tennessee Medical Society.
Finally, a formal report was published; Burger and his supporters were not pleased.
The report concluded: (1) the size of the snake was such that it would have suffocated a person if it remained in the throat for as long as claimed; (2) the general appearance of the snake shows that it matured and lived in its natural environment for most of its life; (3) a snake in a human stomach would suffocate for lack of oxygen; (4) a small animal would have been digested by the gastric processes in the human stomach; (5) a 23-inch snake in a human stomach would have caused much more suffering and distress than reported here; and (6) the mental condition of the patient — “not far removed from idiocy” —makes the story less believable.
The committee further noted that the observed movement of the abdomen could be “voluntary action of the abdominal muscles,” that the patient was seen killing or catching snakes on the day before the extraction, and that the patient “still has convulsive seizures.” The claim that the snake was held in the patient’s mouth until the doctor’s arrival (rather than being immediately withdrawn) was also cited by the committee as “seriously affecting the plausibility of the story.”
On June 9, 1876, shortly after release of the committee report, the McMinnville Monitor devoted more than half of its front page to a detailed and methodical rebuttal of the committee’s findings. Attributed to “Obscurus,” the rebuttal was obviously prepared by one or more physicians with intimate knowledge of the case and relevant medical science. Ponderously persuasive for the average reader of that period, the authors (most likely Burger and his enterprise partner) substantially diminished the credibility of the Murfree committee report.
Under pressure from the media and a number of influential individuals with a professional ego or financial stake in the case, the Tennessee Medical Society was compelled to initiate its own investigation. Serving on the state investigative committee were Nashville physicians R.D. Winsett, J.R. Buist, J. B. Lindsley, and Burger’s ally Dr. Bowling. Murfree tried to get a senior Rutherford physician on the new panel, but Dr. M.J. Ransom diplomatically declined.
On June 20, 1876, Winsett asked Burger to deliver to the state committee all pertinent documents and specimens. Burger did not reply. Ten months later, Bowling advised Burger not to appear before the committee, and observed: “I do not know if Buist will adopt my report. If he does not I will submit it as a Minority Report … My idea of what the report should be (would prevail) but for the chronic foolishness of one man … your enemies endeavor to convince the Society that your object is to get the endorsement of the Society that you might carry the woman and the snake about for exhibition for money.”
But eventually Bowling persuaded his colleagues to be vaguely supportive. The final Tennessee Medical Society report, released on April 5, 1877 (almost three years after the reptile was extracted), concluded: “(1) That according to the rules of sound logic it is not admissible to lay down the line of the possible in natural phenomena…; (2) That we know of no valid reason why a living reptile… could not exist a certain time in the human stomach; (3) That many instances are on record, apparently veracious, where such living animals have been occupants of the stomach of man…; (4) That we are bound to accept the statements of Dr. Burger regarding what he saw and believed until positive testimony to the contrary is adduced; and (5) That the reception of the report of this case by the society does not commit it to any new or erroneous theories in medicine, and that the whole subject belongs rather to the domain of the natural sciences than to the department of medicine proper.”
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.