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posted July 2006

An Account of the Rattlesnake. By the Honourable Paul Dudley, Esq; F. R. S.
Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 32:
292-295. (1722 - 1723) The Royal Society.


IV. An Account of the Rattlesnake. By the Honourable Paul Dudley, Esq; F.R.S.

    THE Rattlesnake is reckoned by the Ab-origines, to be the most terrible of all Snakes, and the Master of the Serpent-kind ; that which causes their Terror, without doubt, is their mortal Venom, and the Ensign of it is their Rattle ; and it is most certain, that both Men and Beasts are more afraid of them, than of other Snakes ; and while the common Snake avoids a Man, this will never turn out of the Way.

    There are three Sorts, or Kinds, of this Snake, and distinguished by their Colour, viz. a yellowish Green, a deep Ash Colour, and a black Sattin.

    The Eye of this Creature has something so singular and terrible, that there is no looking stedfastly on him; one is apt, almost, to think they are possest by some Demon.

    A Rattlesnake creeps with his Head close to the Ground, and is very slow in moving, so that a Man may as easily get out of his Way: This ought to be remarked as an Instance of the Goodness of God, who preserves Man and Beast; His leaping and jumping to do Mischief, is no more than extending, or uncoiling himself ; for they don't remove their whole Body, as other Creatures do, when they leap ; so that a Man is in no Danger of them, if his Distance be more than their Length ; neither can they do any Harm when they are in their ordinary Motion, until they first coil


and then extend, or uncoil themselves, but they both are done in a Moment's Time,

    When a Rattlesnake rests, or sleeps, he is coiled, and they are observed to be exceeding sleepy.

    Our People at first took the Noise this Creature makes, to be owing to some little Bones, or hard loose Kernels lodged in their Tails ; but soon discovered their Mistake, and found the Tail to be composed of Joints, that lap over one another, somewhat like a Lobster's Tail ; and the striking them one upon another, forms that Noise, which is so terrible to Man and Beast. The fiercest Noise is observ'd to be in clear fair Weather, for when 'tis rainy, they make none at all ; for which Reason, the Indians don't care to travel in the Woods, in a Time of Rain, for fear of being among these Snakes before they are aware. One other Circumstance of their rattling has been observ'd, to wit, that if a single Snake be surprized and rattles, and there happen to be others near him, they all take the Alarm, and rattle in like manner.

    I dare not answer for the Truth of every Story I have heard, of their charming, or Power of Fascination ; but yet I am abundantly satisfied from many Witnesses, both English and Indian, that a Rattlesnake will charm both Squirrels and Birds from a Tree into his Mouth. A Man of undoubted Probity sometime since told me, that as he was in the Woods, he observ'd a Squirrel in great Distress, dancing from one Bough to another, and making a lamentable Noise, till at last he came down the Tree, and ran behind a Log: The Person going to see what was become of him, spied a great Snake, that had swallow'd him.

    And I am the rather confirmed in this Relation, because my own Brother, being in the Woods, opened one of these Snakes, and found two strip'd Squirrels in


his Belly, and both of them Head foremost. When they charm, they make a hoarse Noise with their Mouths, and a soft Rattle with their Tails, the Eye at the same time fixed on the Prey.

    Their general Food consists of Toads, Frogs, Crickets, Grasshoppers, and other Insects, but principally of Ground Mice ; and the Rattlesnake again serves for Food to Bears, and even our Hogs will eat them without Harm.

    They are viviparous, and bring forth generally about twelve, and in the Month of June. A Friend of mine in the Country, being desirous to discover the Nature and Manner of the Generation of the Rattlesnake, gave me the following Account, viz. About the middle of May, the Time when the Rattlesnakes first come abroad, he took and opened one of them, and in the Matrix found twelve small Globes, as big as a common Marble, in Colour like the Yolk of an Egg, in three or four Days more, he took and opened another, and then plainly perceived a white Speck in the Centre of the yellow Globe ; in three or four Days more, he dissected a third, and discovered the Head of a Snake; and in a few Days after that, three Quarters of a Snake was formed, and lying round in a Coil. In the latter End of June, he killed an old one, and took out perfect live Snakes of six Inches long. In September, when the old ones take their Young in, and carry them to their Dens, they are not quite a Foot long. They couple in August, and are then most dangerous.

    I cannot say, what other Serpents, or poysonous Creatures, may do, but I am satisfied the Rattlesnake does not traject his Poyson; and that unless the Skin be first broke, or an Incision made with his Teeth, his Venom can do no Harm ; for my Friend assured me, that he had made an Experiment of it in this manner: He took


the Breech of his Gun, and set it upon four or five of them, and after they had bit it, and left several Drops of their Poyson, he with his Hand wiped it off without any Harm.

    Our People have several Remedies for the Sting of a Rattlesnake ; among others, that which is much made life of is a Root they call Blood-root, I suppose named, from the Colour of the Root, and the Juice, which is red like Blood. It grows in great Abundance in our Woods ; they bruise the Root, and bind it above the Place that is bit, to prevent the Poison's going farther, at the same Time scarifying the Place affected ; some of the Root is also boiled, and the Person poisoned drinks the Water.

    They are generally from three to five Feet long, and do not commonly exceed twenty Rattles ; and yet I have it attested by a Man of Credit, that he killed a Rattle-snake, some Years since, that had between seventy and eighty Rattles, with a sprinkling of grey Hairs, like Bridles, over his Body ; he was full five Foot and an half long, and as big as the Calf of a Man's Leg.

    They shed, or throw off their Skins every Year, sometime in the Month of June, and turn it inside out when they throw it off. It has also been observed, that the Skin covers not only the Body, but the Head and Eyes.

    They generally den among the Rocks in great Numbers together ; the Time of their retiring is about the middle of September, and they don't come abroad till the middle of May, when our Hunters watch them, as they come out a sunning, and kill them by hundreds.

Roxbury, New-England,

Octob. 22. 1722.                                 

Paul Dudley.