Monday, April 15, 2013

Cabbage Snakes

[In 1903-4, the U.S. experienced a "cabbage snake" scare which began with reports of deaths caused by cooking cabbages concealing a strange worm or snake. After the panic ended, cabbage snakes were still occasionally found, but they came to be considered as a curiosity  -- albeit a deadly one -- to be collected and displayed. The first item below indicates that the panic may have been based on an older belief connecting poisonous snakes and cabbages. -- bc]

The St. John Daily Sun [New Brunswick], 8 August 1892, p. 1.


Louisville, Ky., Aug. 7. -- A family of four and the cook, near Buenavista, died today from eating cabbage with which a poisonous snake had been accidentally cooked.

The Atlanta Constitution [Georgia], 22 October 1903, p. 1.

Many Deaths Laid to Worm Now Killing Cabbages.
People of Northeast Georgia Greatly Excited Over Appearance of Pest -- State Chemist Says Worm Contains Deadly Poison

Gainesville, Ga. October 21 -- (Special) -- What kind of insect, reptile, or "varmint" is it that is ruining the cabbage of the farmers in northeast Georgia?

That is the question that is the all-absorbing topic through White, Townes, Union, Dawson, Forsythe and other counties in this section of the state where cabbage are grown extensively for the market. Gainesville is the principle distributing point for the people of the above named counties and since the news has reached this city of the serious consequences arising from the discovery of the insect or reptile found in some of the cabbage, the market has been glutted and there is no sale for this vegetable here.

Some days ago a farmer in White county while gathering cabbage discovered a small worm or what appeared to be a worm, in a head of cabbage. He inspected it closely and found it to be about two inches long and about the size of an ordinary needle.

He says it licked its tongue out like a snake when he touched the leaf it was on, and that it was shaped very much like a snake.

He became alarmed and to satisfy himself as to what it was he sent it to the state chemist for analysis to see whether or not it was poisonous. The state chemist analyzed it and reported that there was enough poison in the thing to kill fifteen persons.

Many Mysterious Deaths

When the news came back of the deadly poison in the reptile or insect, consternation spread throughout the cabbage belt. A general discussion of the affair brought to light the fact that a number of people have recently died in White and Forsyth counties from mysterious causes. And every death has occurred after cabbage has been eaten.

A man by the name of Dyer brought one of the [things] to Gainesville Saturday in [illegible] of alcohol in which it had been preserved and it was viewed by hundreds of people. It was not over two inches long and looked exactly like a small snake.

Mr. Dyer states that several deaths had occurred in White county where he lives from eating cabbage in which it was believed one of these little things had been cooked. They are so small that it is difficult for a housewife to wash them out of the vegetable when preparing them for cooking.

The discovery of the poisonous worms or reptiles in the cabbage has resulted in cutting this vegetable from the menu card in this section of northeast Georgia and the farmers are greatly agitated over the matter.

New York Times, 13 August 1904, p. 2.

Tennesseans Suffer from Singular Food -- Big Crop Goes Begging.

Special to the New York Times.

MEMPHIS, Tenn., Aug. 12. -- Cases of poisoning attributed to eating cabbage in which snakes had been boiled have attracted wide attention in various parts of Tennessee, and the latest is the Morilton family, at Tullahoma, where several people are ill.

The trouble has led to a careful search for snakes in vegetables, and from a dozen counties in middle Tennessee reports come of the discovery of reptiles. Many people have quit eating cabbages, and the result is that with the biggest crop ever produced in the State, they are selling at 20 cents a barrel, while in the small towns one cannot give them away, and they are being fed to live stock.

St. Joseph Gazette [Missouri], 26 August 1904, p. 1.


Residents of Wyatt Park are greatly agitated over finding in heads of cabbage delivered from local groceries, a peculiar worm, known as the cabbage snake, said to be poisonous.

Throughout many of the western and northern states the worm has been found in great numbers in the fields of cabbage, and is some instances is supposed to be responsible for the death of those eating the vegetable.

The bureau of agriculture has been notified and is making a thorough investigation of the matter. Some time ago it was reported from an Ohio town that two girls, after eating cooked cabbage, had died from the effects of what was supposed to be poison resulting from this source.

However, attending physicians[,] though finding traces of the worm, were of the opinion that death may have been due to the effects of Paris green or other poison used as a medium for the extermination of cabbage bugs.

Several persons in Wyatt Park have discovered the "snake" in heads of cabbage and as the result have banished the vegetable from their homes.

Unlike the common worm, the newly found species seeks admittance to the heart of the cabbage, forcing itself between the leaves.

Only on opening the cabbage can the worm be discovered. The specimens found by Wyatt Park residents are about six inches in length and almost the color of cabbage leaves.

In points throughout Iowa, where the cabbage industry is followed on an immense scale, farmers are plowing up their fields in order to rid the ground of the pest.

Dubuque Daily Telegraph [Iowa], 17 October 1904, p. 8.

Said to Have Come From Missouri and Are Pronounced Poisonous by Dr. Robinson.

The "cabbage snake" has invaded Iowa. It was found near the Missouri border, and probably came over. [...]

One Dr. Robinson, living at Grand River, secured a specimen of the cabbage snake and fed it to a cat on a piece of meat and the report is current that the cat died. [...]

Warsaw Daily Union [Indiana], 12 December 1904, p. 3.

Entire Family of Six, Living Near Siddell, Ill., Dead as a Result

Siddell, Ill., Dec. 12. -- James Rankin, aged 60; Mary Rankin, aged 56; and four children, living near here, are dead from the effects of eating poisoned cabbage. The entire family of six ate the cabbage at supper and died during the night. The cabbage was examined and nothing found. That in the garden was examined and found to contain worms about the size of a thread and eight or ten inches long about the color of the cabbage. The cabbage was cut up and fed to animals and all died. Farmers are destroying all their cabbage. Three persons in the neighborhood have recently died from the effects of the cabbage.

Springfield, Ill., Dec. 12. -- Dr. George Thomas Palmer left Sunday for Sidell, Vermillion county, to investigate the cause of deaths in the family of James Rankin. A report to the state board of health states that the six persons were found dead in their beds, poisoned from eating cabbage. Dr. Egan, secretary of the board, decided to make a searching investigation. A number of similar cases of poisoning by "cabbage snake" have been reported to the board during the past few days.

The Washington Post, 9 January 1905, p. 11.

Terror of Virginia Cabbage Patches Laid Low.

[...] Some one in the southwestern part of the State found the remains of a small snake in a dish of corn beef and cabbage, which had been partaken of by his mother-in-law. When the news was broken to the dear old lady she promptly threw a fit, and the intelligence spread that she had suffered poison through devouring food in which a cabbage snake had buried its deadly fangs.

The next development came with the hasty retreat from his field of a worthy farmer who declared that a cabbage snake had elevated itself on its rear extremity and with a devilish glare made at him with six-foot bounds, evidently interested upon a personal encounter. [...]

The sale of whisky [...] increased wonderfully, every well conducted family deeming it the part of wisdom to have a few quarts of antidote on hand for use in cases of emergency. The old axiom to the effect that a pint of prevention is worth a gallon of cure being one of the principles drilled into the minds of the population of these parts since the days of Nathaniel Bacon, most of the people consumed their whisky in advance of being bitten and then bought more. In consequence, the cause of temperance was threatened, and the small vote cast for the prohibition candidates at the last election is understood to have been due to the unwillingness of suffragists to subscribe to any creed which would deprive them of the blessed privilege of a free people to protect itself from an agonizing death through the venom of the merciless cabbage snake.

Many remedies were suggested, but appeared to avail nothing. One of these was to turn hogs loose to destroy the snakes, but the hogs ate all the cabbage without apparently diminishing the crop of serpents. [...]

The Ithaca Democrat [New York], 26 January 1905, p. 4.

Produce Merchant Declares it was Just $5,000,000.

"Five million dollars paid for a lie," is the way J. W. Brown, a Des Moines wholesale produce merchant, describes the sequel to the story concerning the cabbage snake. Some one started a yarn to the effect that a small worm, or snake, was concealed in many of the cabbages on the market, and as a result cabbages are rotting in the produce cellars. People are afraid to buy them. It is estimated that there are at least $10,000 worth of cabbage in Des Moines which no one will purchase, while it is claimed that the damage caused by the story throughout the nation will not be less than $5,000,000. Trade papers are discussing the matter in a furious vein, and regular cabbage raisers declare they would raise a big reward for the punishment of the cabbage snake liar if punishment were possible.

Iola Daily Register [Kansas], 7 October 1905, p. 5.

The Theory That It Is a Horsehair Disposed of by Dr. Heylmun.

"A cabbage snake is a worm."

After a very patient and painstaking investigation into the matter at the undertaking rooms of Claude Culbertson this morning, Dr. Heylmun made this statement.

The particular cabbage snake which was the subject of the investigation was brought to Mr. Culbertson by Mrs. Harry Grubbs, a colored woman who lives in the north part of the city. Mrs. Grubbs found the snake in a head of cabbage.

The statement that a cabbage snake is a worm disposes of the theory that it is a  horse hair. Many skeptics have held to the belief that it is a horse hair. Dr. Heylmun himself was not sure that it was not a horse hair until he had subjected it to a microscopic examination this morning. He was inclined to the horse hair theory. He went into the matter prejudiced against the cabbage snake, and ready to announce that it was nothing more or less than an electrical phenomenon, possessed of no animal life, and incapable of working injury to any human being, but now that he has investigated the matter, his mind is clouded in doubt, and while he is not ready to say that the cabbage snake is poisonous, neither is he willing to go on record as saying that it is not poisonous.

"The cabbage snake is unknown to science," said the doctor. "It is a new thing under the sun."" [...]

But is the cabbage snake poisonous? Aye, there's the rub. Nobody knows, and so far nobody has come forward who is willing to prostrate himself upon the altar of science for the common good. Nobody will eat one. Nobody will eat one, and then calmly lie down and await results, while the whole city waits with bated breath  -- tense and expectant. [...]

West Lebanon Gazette [Indiana], 11 October 1906, p. 1.

Mrs. Clarence Haupt Discovers One in a Head Cabbage

Thursday morning while Mrs. Clarence Haupt was preparing a head of cabbage for the noonday meal she was startled by finding a cabbage snake rolled up in two balls in the interior of the vegetable. She carefully extracted the snake and uncoiling it found it to be 18 inches in length. She preserved the stranger and when her husband came in for dinner showed it to him. They placed it in a bottle of water and Saturday Clarence brought it into town, and it is now on exhibition at this office. The "snake" as stated above, is 18 inches in length, and about the size of a large thread, and almost pure white in color. It seemingly has no developed head and the tail is quite sharply pointed. It is very much alive and keeps coiling and uncoiling around itself.

The cabbage snake is still an unsolved riddle, but Wm. See of this place has given the most reasonable excuse for its existence that we have yet heard. It is a well known fact that a hair from the tail of a horse, when placed in water during the new moon will shortly exhibit all the signs of life and turn into a snake as long as it is kept immersed. Mr. See thinks that occasionally a horse hair will be blown into the folds of a head of cabbage, all the conditions being favorable for incubation and the hair developes  [sic] into a snake in the cabbage just the same as in water. Being inclosed in the vegetable it naturally partakes of the color of the same, and shut out from sunlight, naturally bleeches [sic] white. He proposes next year to experiment upon this theory and see if he can not develop the cabbage snake at pleasure." [...]

Lawrence Daily Journal [Kansas], 25 July 1906, p. 4.

Discussed Cabbage Snake on Exhibition at University

A cabbage snake captured at La Harpe has been sent to the University, where it is now on exhibition in the natural history building. [...] The specimen at the university resembles nothing so much as a corn silk. It is about 18 inches long and when first received at the University was very active.

The Weekly Advocate [Victoria County, Texas], 21 March 1908, p. 3.

Are About Six Inches in Length, the Color of the Vegetable and Deadly Poisonous

Yoakum Herald.

A few days ago a small green snake was found in cabbage that a lady of this city was preparing for dinner.

The snake was taken out and killed, and the cabbage cut into four quarters and put on to boil. The lady told a lady friend about the find and was advised not to use the cabbage. Both went to look at that which was in the pot and found the second snake. The Herald is informed that these little fellows are most dangerous, being very poisonous, and if cooked with cabbage will produce death within a short time. If this is true, then the lady in question had a very narrow escape because she did not know that death is said to follow almost instantly after eating cabbage that has been cooked with one of those innocent looking snakes. They are not over six inches in length and are almost the color of the cabbage, so that one has look closely to find them.

The Weekly Advocate [Victoria County, Texas], 11 April 1908, p. 2

Their General Disposition Milder Than Slugs Occasionally Found in Lettuce.

Texas Stockman Journal.

Now comes the season of the year when the good house-wife begins to discover cabbage snakes and the fertile correspondent increases his monthly earnings by marvelous stories of the "venomous reptiles" found in one of the commonest garden vegetables.

Occasionally the correspondent goes so far as to have the snakes cooked and eaten so that whole families are made deathly sick. The result, aside from what the correspondent gets out of it, is that many sensible people are frightened and even prejudiced against using cabbage at all. [...]

Warsaw Daily Times [Indiana], 26 March 1908, p. 1.

One Is Found by a Farmer's Wife in the Center of a Head She Cut.

Greenburg, Ind., March 26. -- A daughter of Will Magee, farmer, near this city, while cutting a cabbage head, found a cabbage snake in the center of the solid head, and Magee has placed in on exhibition here, confined in a bottle filled with water. Under a powerful microscope the snake shows a small black head and a skin similar to the ordinary reptile.

It is about twelve inches in length, in circumference resembling a small wire, and in color so nearly like the cabbage leaf that it is hard to distinguish. It is the first one ever exhibited in this county. Magee says that the specimen has grown in length since being placed in the bottle.

Waterloo Daily Courier [Iowa], 9 October 1908, p. 5.

Wriggling Thing Discovered by Waterloo Housewife
"Worm" One Foot in Length and Color of Vegetable Leaf

A specimen of the so-called reptile, the cabbage snake, has been discovered in Waterloo and his snakeship, or wormship, or some crawling thing, is safely housed in a bottle and on exhibition in the editorial rooms of the Courier office. [...]

Lawrence Daily Journal [Kansas], 9 August 1910, p. 1.

Perfect Specimen of the Dreaded Reptile Recently Discovered in Towanda
Merely Appeared to be A Spot on Cabbage Leaf

Towanda, Kan., Aug. 9. -- A perfect specimen of the dreaded "cabbage snake" was discovered by Mrs. Lida Morris last Monday morning when she was preparing a head of cabbage for dinner. It is one of the first specimen of the rare and strange reptile ever seen in Sedgwick county, although two years ago several members of a family are said to have died after eating cabbage containing the snake.

The specimen caught by Mrs. Morris was more than a foot in length, although its body was scarcely the thickness of a thread. Its head was flat like that of all reptiles, and now and then it would shoot forth a tiny, forked tongue. [...]

Had not Mrs. Morris discovered the snake and had she cooked it in the cabbage all those who partook of the dish probably would have died, as few persons have been known to recover were caused by the cabbage snake several years ago, when it was strangely plentiful. At that time newspapers and magazines contained copious warnings against it and cabbage was tabooed on many tables. But it, like the "kissing bug" dropped into comparative obscurity and few specimens have been seen in the past two years. [...]

The Champaign Democrat [Urbana, Ohio], 8 October 1912, p. 3.

Snake Is Found In Cabbage Head

Had it not been for the keen sight of Mrs. John VanCulin and Mrs. A. L. Barley, of St. Paris, numerous individuals residing in the immediate vicinity of that place might have enjoyed or rather suffered the experience of not only seeing, but actually eating snake. And worst of all, the reptile which had inadvertently been neatly sliced and mixed in with six gallons of sumptuous sauer kraut, was of a dangerous and poisonous species. [...]

The Champaign Democrat [Urbana, Ohio], 3 December 1912, p. 2.

New Menace Has Been Found

[...] It is told by a Spanish-American war veteran that when stationed at Chickamauga Park three soldiers met their death by eating particles of the cabbage snake. [...]

Spartanburg Herald [South Carolina], 2 September 1922, p. 2.


(Special to the Herald.)

Greenwood, Aug. 31. -- After several years of obscurity, the fearsome cabbage snake has returned. A specimen of the uncanny serpent, believed by some to cause instant death if eaten, had been captured and caged in a peanut butter jar here, where it is being watched with fearful interest by cabbage consumers. Some insist that to eat the thing means death by poisoning. A few years ago, the cabbage snake caused considerable commotion among vegetarians of certain districts of this state.

The newly discovered pest is a long, sallow, thread of a worm that appears to be weary of life. Some think it is merely an attenuated earthworm that got into to cabbage in its youth and ended. Others insist that it is a true cabbage snake and they issue solemn warning against eating cabbage. So consternation reigns among cabbage consumers and even kraut is tabooed in places.

Sarasota Herald [Florida], 26 April 1935, p. 1.


A pint-size milk bottle brought into the Herald office today contained a less than an inch long "cabbage snake" said by the possessor to be more poisonous than a rattlesnake.

With its inch long body coiled at the bottom of the bottle, the reptile, if such it was, looked hardly more dangerous than a worm. A negro woman in Newtown came across it first, while washing a head of cabbage. She had washed it twice and during the third washing found the miniature reptile. The possessor, said "If she cut that up with the cabbage, it would have killed somebody sure."

Circular No. 62, Revised Edition
Issued July 28, 1908

United States Department of Agriculture
Bureau of Entomology
L. O. Howard, Entomologist and Chief of Bureau

The Cabbage Hair-Worm

By F. H. Chittenden,
Entomologist in Charge of Breeding Experiments

Not since the "kissing-bug" craze which originated in Washington, D. C, in June, 1899, and spread generally throughout the country, has there been anything like such a furore as was created by the discovery of the so-called "cabbage snake," a species of hair-worm, in the heads of cabbage in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Louisiana, in the fall of 1903. That year the cabbage-snake scare was practically confined to Tennessee and neighboring States southward. The first specimen of Mermis albicans Diesing, which is the cause of the trouble, was identified from McCays, Tenn. This creature and its still somewhat mysterious occurrence in cabbage have become a matter of much perplexity and annoyance to many of our correspondents, to economic entomologists, and to chemists and physicians of the States where the Mermis most abounds. Many reports have been received from reliable correspondents of rumors of persons being poisoned by eating Cabbage affected by this hair-worm. Some of these were gleaned from the daily press, and many clippings of the "yellow journalism" order were received. Among them were alleged reports from a physician who stated that when cabbage affected by hair-worms was eaten it produced instant death, and from a "State chemist" who made an examination of the worm and reported that it contained enough poison "to kill eight persons." In Raleigh County, W. Va., the cabbage crop was reported a complete failure, and "there was enough poison contained in one worm to poison 25 men." It should be unnecessary to add that none of these reports had any foundation in fact. Nevertheless the known presence of the hair-worm in an affected district seriously injured the demand for cabbage there, causing very considerable loss to truckers and grocers. The exaggerated reports of 1903 were not seriously considered; and it was a matter of surprise when they were reiterated the following year, and what was in reality a hoax assumed most serious proportions, not alone because of widespread alarm caused by erroneous reports of loss of life, but also because of the very material loss to cabbage growers and others who handled this commodity, and the decided extension of the area in which the hair-worm was detected. Encouraged by erroneous reports, evidently incited in many cases by unscrupulous persons, the scare soon became widespread, causing general fear of poisoning from Virginia and West Virginia southward through the same States as were affected in 1903, and into Florida, and in addition westward to Kentucky. Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado. [...]


The presence of this hair-worm in cabbage and the unfortunate notoriety which has been given it, including the circulation of the merest rumors, mostly vague and uncertain, of so many persons being poisoned by eating affected cabbage, has seriously injured the money value of this vegetable very generally throughout the affected States. Although the cabbage hair-worm is not in the slightest degree deleterious to health, the credence given to the most absurd rumors which were circulated has injured cabbage for consumption and hence for sale. In parts of Illinois the fears of growers and purchasers were such that farmers were letting their cabbage go to waste. At Quinter, Kans., quantities of cabbage shipped from Colorado were reported burned because of the presence of the hair-worm. In Tennessee it was estimated that in 1904 fully 85 per cent of the cabbage crop of the State was lost — in fact, a sudden and complete suspension of the industry was actually caused. Similar reports were received from various portions of Missouri, Iowa, West Virginia, and Virginia. ''In Cheatham, Smith, Franklin, Coffee, Bedford, and other counties [in Missouri] hundreds of barrels of sauerkraut were destroyed through fear that the dreaded snake might be a part of the ingredients." At Columbia, Mo., hundreds of dollars' worth of cabbage was lost. Many gardeners claimed that they could not sell a single head on account of the "snake scare."


The general impression in regard to the poisonous nature of the cabbage hair-worm has been mentioned, yet considerable differences of opinion prevail. To repeat alleged deaths and poisonings in detail might have the opposite effect from that for which this circular was prepared. Stories were circulated of whole families being poisoned by eating cabbage affected with the hair-worm, sometimes with the reservation that do one knew personally of their truth, and that many cases were traced to their source and found to be utterly without foundation. From Tennessee came a report of the death in one town of a man. woman, and six children. In portions of the same and in other States persons were stated to have been taken ill with pain and vomiting after having eaten cabbage on which the worms were subsequently found. Possibly the consumers had been seized with temporary hysteria, imagining that they had unconsciously eaten many individuals, hence the symptoms. Others were reported severely poisoned or dead. In most cases exact localities were furnished, but names were wanting. In some cases domestic animals were said to have been poisoned; in others cabbage was fed to them without any ill results.

The death of a man and wife and their four children in an Illinois town after eating snake-worm infested cabbage was reported in several newspapers and the family name mentioned:

The entire family of six ate the cabbage at supper and died during
the night. A cabbage in the garden was examined and found to
contain worms the size of a thread, 8 or 10 inches long and about
the color of the cabbage. The cabbage was cut up and fed to animals,
and all died. Farmers are destroying all their cabbage. Three persons
in the neighborhood have recently died after eating cabbage.

In response to inquiry from this office the postmaster of this town, the name of which is omitted for obvious reasons, wrote December 17, 1904, that efforts were made to locate the origin of the account, but without success. [...]