Rattlesnakes are big business in Pennsylvania.
First off: they’re big, really big! In parts of the state timber rattlers have been found well over five feet in length, and I imagine that would startle anyone who encountered a creature that large out in the woods.
And thanks to their historical abundance in PA, snake catching and hunting has been a lucrative business opportunity for snake catchers and organized snake hunts alike. From the 19th century until the state Fish and Boat Commission finally put protective measures in place, rattlesnakes were killed in droves for sport and for their skins and oil rendered from their fat. And yes, that means there were genuine “snake oil” salesmen in the state!
I’ve previously written about rattlesnake hunting and the story of Irving “Daddy” George, a legendary snake hunter from Perry County, check that here out if you haven’t already. George may have been the champion, but he would had quite the match for himself in Pike County resident Jack MacConnell, who declared himself the “Rattlesnake King of Pennsylvania” to newspapers in 1913. I wonder if they ever met?
“Rattlesnake Jack,” as he was called, lived in a northeast PA region teeming with rattlesnakes in the early 20th century. In 1911, residents of Swamp Brook, PA lived near so many rattlesnakes it made the front page of The Citizen (Honesdale). Residents saw rattlers most frequently on the roads and “creeping through the bushes,” but the most noteworthy encounter was when a Jacob Smith reported a seven foot rattler “jumped from the side embankment onto the road” as he was out walking and “nearly took off his hat.” Frightened and without the means to kill the snake on his own, Smith “quickened his pace and gave the snake the right of way.” It was probably for the best; if the snake really was 7 feet it would have been the largest timber rattler ever seen!
In 1913, Rattlesnake Jack was profiled in The Citizen, and the account is worth reading in full:
Rattlesnake “Jack” in Town
Jack MacConnell, of Lord’s Valley, Pike county, better known as “Rattlesnake Jack,” was a business caller in Honesdale part of Tuesday and Wednesday. Mr. MacConnell is well known throughout this section, having spent his entire life getting rattlesnakes and game. Jack is much sought after by sportsmen from Honesdale and vicinity, for he knows just where the best game is found and where are the hiding places of the speckled beauties, bass and other gamey fish. He is a very interesting conversationalist, and he told a representative of The Citizen a number of good stories in the short interval the scribe had with him previous to his departure on an Erie train.
Jack said since 1877 he has taken out of Pike county 7,000 rattlesnakes. “It’s an easy matter to catch a rattlesnake. All you do is just catch him. I have been bitten several times by them but only once was given up by the doctors as being beyond homes of living. I was sick ten days but was not as sick perhaps as a person might have been had he taken no means of extracting the poison.
“I receive from $2.50 to $3.00 for skins that I tan. They are used in making purses and belts. I have made large quantities of rattlesnake oil but only sold one bottle, having given hundreds of bottles away. The oil is used for ear trouble.
“The largest rattlesnake I ever caught measured 6 feet, 3 inches. The average length is between two and a half and three feet.
“The snakes caught in swampy sections are larger than those found in the mountains. This is due to the fact that they get better living in the swamps. Rattlesnakes live on birds, squirrels and chipmunks. They do not touch fish or frogs. After a snake has struck its game and devoured it one can see a streak of green on the outer skin as if penetrating the snake.”
Though references to Rattlesnake Jack are hard to come by nowadays, I get the sense that he was well known in his day (among both snake and citizen). Just like Irving George, Jack was known for his brash personality, “picturesque character,” and unflinching fearlessness around snakes. In 1913 a Harrisburg paper quoted him as saying “there are a lot of things worse things than snake bites. I’d rather take a chance with a rattler than an ugly dog.”
Flashy snake hunters like Rattlesnake Jack MacConnell and Irving George didn’t kill all the snakes in Pennsylvania, but they certainly tried. And stories of their exploits no doubt encouraged their neighbors to wipe out as many as they could. These stories, coupled with folk takes and myths about the extreme danger of rattlesnakes hardly gave the species a chance for survival.
Up until fairly recently, timber rattlesnake populations were so low they were declared endangered in Pennsylvania and the states surrounding. Fortunately, in recent years its population has rebounded across the Keystone State.
Stories about the great snake hunters of old are fun to read, but I am glad that they remain in the past and rattlesnakes are thriving in the wilds of Pennsylvania without the dire risk of extinction like they did in MacConnell’s day.