Dark Days and Nights of the Cobra
January 20, 2014
The Heat Wave of 1954 would set records in Springfield, Missouri and the surrounding areas of the Ozarks. The late summer of 1953 had been almost as hot and twice as exciting, an eerie prologue, maybe. As that summer rolled into early autumn, the heat-induced coma of the early afternoon was broken by a noisy sound-truck weaving up and down a few city blocks near St. Louis Street. Doo- doo- doo- doo- doo, doo- doo- doo- doo- doo- doo- doo! Snake charmer music! The sound truck was playing that snake charmer music, like the song we sang as kids that starts, “There’s a place in France…” What on earth could be the reason?
“This is so embarrassing!” A local news reporter, Hank, said to another newsman, Mike, standing close-by.
“Agreed!” His fellow newsman, Mike, replied.
Hank continued. “Our town is being put on the map by this wild display of hillbilly ingenuity, or whatever you want to call it. Life Magazine is back here again, recording it all for a follow-up story to the one that appeared in their September 28th issue.” He pointed to the technical set-up on the corner for the benefit of his fellow newsman. His friend nodded in recognition, as Life Magazine coming to town was impossible to ignore.
“It worked! They got one! They got one!” A tall and bony boy, Floyd Lee, emulating a town crier, came hollering and running down the street. He had brownish freckles and hair, a cowlick to match them. His summer attire, like that of many others, was a white tank top undershirt, dungarees and high tops. There was a sunburn line where his tee shirt had been.
Would Life Magazine be quoting his hearkenings? It appeared that one of the Life Magazine crew was poised and taking notes.
A nearby radio reporter that had traveled from Lincoln, Nebraska was trying for a dramatic report. “Here, in this spot of Middle America, there is a matter-of-factness about it all. These no-nonsense Missourians are going on with the business of living. It is like they are saying, ‘yes, since several deadly Indian cobras, some hooded, some spotted, have been accidently let loose in our fair town, and we don’t know exactly who or what or where or how many, life must go on.’ Anti-venom has been flown in and is on standby.”
Doo- doo- doo- doo- doo, doo- doo- doo- doo- doo- doo- doo. “It’s a’workin’!” squealed Lloyd, as he ran down the street, again. Although, it is argued that snakes don’t really have ears and can’t really hear at all, the sound truck seemed to work on two occasions, after all: Springfield cobra event number nine, as recorded by Springfield police dispatch, occurred on North Prospect Avenue. A cobra crawled out from under a house and was dealt with. Forty-five minutes later, with the sound truck still blaring, a cobra was spotted and killed near the Reynolds Manufacturing Company.
These two cobra events, nine and ten, had happened two full months after the first event, and happened pretty close in time to the sound-truck-snake-charmer-music-event. The man who had decided to use the sound truck, the City Health Commissioner was grinning like a possum, convinced it was cause and effect, even if cobras can’t hear.
All of the cobra events seemed to point to the Mowrer Animal Company Pet Store located at 1421 St. Louis Street. Reo Mowrer, the owner, denied any knowledge of cobras or cobra accidents.
In early August of 1953, someone in the vicinity of the store killed the first snake. It was strange-looking, could not be identified, so, a science teacher was called in to identify the snake that had been found and killed between National and Glenstone on St. Louis Street. “My God! That’s a cobra!” A week later, cobra event number two occurred across the street. Wesley Rose saw his bulldog wrestling with a snake in the shrubbery. He pulled his dog off the snake. The snake reared up and started to fight but it was paralyzed so Wesley finished if off with a hoe and took it to police headquarters. When analyzed, it was determined to be a Naja Naja, a type of deadly, speckled Asian cobra.
With this event, people became even more suspicious of the Mowrer Animal Company Pet Store. The owner continued to deny involvement. He said he had kept some cobras, but that none had escaped. Two blocks away from the pet store, on August 30, 1953, the third cobra event happened. Ralph Moore spotted an unusual snake in his back yard and killed it with a hoe.
That same night, another cobra event, number four if you are counting, occurred. Willis Murdaugh was driving through his neighborhood when a large snake was crossing the road in front of his car. Willis backed up and stared as the snake rose up, spread its hood and swayed back and forth in the headlights. Willis got out and went after the snake with a jack handle. When that didn’t work, he drove over it several times until it was dead.
In early September, Mrs. Howard McCoy was warned by her daughter that a snake had just slithered into the garage. Mrs. McCoy grabbed a hoe and dispatched the snake when she found it coiled up in a corner.
On September 9, a cobra was spotted and captured near the Mowrer Pet Store. On September 9, a second cobra event for the day happened. L. H. Stockton spied a snake crawling out of his garden. He threw a huge rock at it but it was able to crawl under his house, into the crawl space. Mr. Stockton asked police to release tear gas under his house. The cobra came out and an Officer Swope tried to shoot it with a shotgun—the gun jammed. Swope then shot it five times with a pistol—it reared up in a threatening manner, swaying its head. Police Chief Frank Pike then used a snake-catcher loop to grab the snake and it was killed, for good, with a hoe.
The town of Springfield was starting to get a wee bit aggravated. What had been fun for awhile, with cobra haircuts, cobra cocktails (guaranteed to make you to see snakes, event if their aren’t any) and even a song called, the Snake ‘Em Out Blues, was starting to grate on nerves. Police officers started burning off empty lots. Tensions were rising and the City Health Director ordered Reo Mowrer to move all of his animal stock outside of the city. The location of his shop, and the location of the cobras, was just too big of a coincidence.
On October 1, Dan Funkhouser found a cobra outside his plumbing and heating business and killed it with the help of Hardy Teague, his employee.
With cobras nine and ten flushed out by the sound truck playing snake charmer tunes, what is presumed to be the final and eleventh cobra event occurred on East Olive Street. In this confrontation, the cobra was caught alive and put on display at the local zoo. It died two months later.
Mowrer continued to deny any involvement clear into the 1970s. Then, he died himself, leaving a huge mystery. Life Magazine had called it The Big Ozark Cobra Hunt, in its September 28, 1953 story. No one knows how many snakes actually went slithering loose.
Mike O’Brien, another local newsman found what seems to be the solution. In 1988, a grown man who had been a young teenager at the time of the cobra events admitted that he had bought an exotic fish from The Mowrer Animal Company Pet Store in that year, 1953. A short time after he got it home, it died. Reo Mowrer would not refund the money or replace the fish. This is understandable. He did not have a guarantee as to how customers would care for their pet purchases—he could not be responsible for the conditions of animals after they left his shop.
The teenager was so angry, however, that….and there are two stories: he let loose a bag of snakes that was sitting on the porch of the pet store, thinking they were harmless, as revenge for the dead fish—or he got into the store and released a crate of reptiles without the knowledge of Mowrer. This angry young man did not stop to count the reptiles as they fled. And, what a bout Mowrer? Did he not notice a bag or a crate of snakes that had been tampered with? Why didn’t he report it immediately? No one knows how many there were, to this very day. Eleven reported incidents and no one was bitten. There could have been even more that were never identified or reported.
In 1953, I was four years old. I am sure I must have visited my grandparents in Springfield at least once between August and October. I was never allowed to play outside by myself, there. Springfield was a big city compared to our own small town. I usually played with pots and pans, inside, or stared out the window at entertaining squirrels. Occasionally, I did go into the luxuriant vegetable gardens tended by my ancient grandfathers or down into the dark, mysterious coal-smelling basements with my not-quite-as-ancient grandmothers for a jar of put-up fruit. They all lived within just a very few blocks of The Mowrer Animal Company Pet Store on St. Louis Street.
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