Just across the Connecticut River and directly opposite Brattleboro village towers old Wantastiquet mountain 1000 feet or more above the river's bank. Near its base, and not far from where the zigzag path that leads to the summit begins, may be seen a slide of dirt and broken rock from which stones for building purposes have been taken for a dozen years or so.
This ragged place is known by those living on the New Hampshire side as the "rattle-snake den," and wonderful tales are told of its peculiar inhabitants. Fourteen years ago Andrew D Thomas, then 20 years old, while strolling on the mountain with a friend, accidentally discovered the haunts of these venomous serpents and he thus describes his experience:
It was Sunday, the next day we had mowed out six rattlers from our hayfield which were stiff and dormant from the effects of the early morning cold. Thinking perhaps we might possibly run upon more we armed ourselves with heavy canes and sauntered out. After walking about the mountain we came across a hole in the ground a trifle smaller than that of a woodchuck.
By thrusting our sticks down into it we soon discovered that it was inhabited by snakes, and immediately after we were startled by seeing them all about us, hundreds of them seemingly, coiled on the ground, on stumps, and in fact, up in the bushes. I immediately went to the house, got my gun, and shot 12, which were from two to four feet long. This was the first time they had been discovered in quantities.
Since they have been found there every year by parties who out of curiosity, or with expectations of profit, have searched for them. Mr Thomas has undoubtedly had the most experience in capturing them, he having caught and sold as many as 100 within the past two years.
One day he brought in eight alive, securing them by a slip-noose made of strong cord and attached to a four-foot stick; these he mostly sold to the local cigar-makers for from $3.50 to $4.50 and as high as $10, who generally put them in fruit or candy jars filled with alcohol and sent them to New York, but for what purpose he was not appraised.
It is the habit of these snakes to come out of their dens on the approach of warm weather and crawl about the mountain and toward the river until the first cold night, when they gradually work back to their winter quarters. The removing of the stones for the purposes named has served to drive the snakes from their old place of abode to other localities, and they have been found near "Mine mountain," in the rear of Wantastiquet, and elsewhere.
Mr Thomas tells of an occasion when himself and the late Uncle John Gore were bee-hunting near the "mines," when they suddenly came upon three sizeable serpents in the breaks. "Uncle John," being rather poor sighted, nearly stepped on them, but they were finally dispatched and 9 ounces of oil obtained, for which they received $1 an ounce, it being used for croup, rheumatism and other ailments.
Rattle-snakes have often been killed on the road leading from Brattleboro to Hinsdale and in the door-yards of the farmers, though, singularly enough, there have been no fatal snake bites reported within the memory of the present generation, though it is said that a boy was fatally bitten years ago in Chesterfield.
It was not an unusual thing even within a few years past for farmers living near the mountain to take a handful of salt with them whenever they went berrying, which if speedily applied to a bite was believed to be a sure remedy. An occasional rattle-snake has been killed on the Vermont side of the Connecticut, and these were thought to have swam the river. Royal Wood, who lives but a short distance below the village, killed one not many years ago which was found coiled up on a mat in front of his door.
Mr Thomas declares that the rattlesnakes can be heard from 15 to 20 rods away and that they seldom rattle unless frightened. He tells of an amusing occurrence which happened 6 years ago while he was summering at Rocky Point. At the request of friends there he wrote his father to send him a large snake which he had captured for Barber Green of Brattleboro. The reptile was accordingly boxed, through which was made numerous holes. By some misunderstanding this was taken to the depot baggage rooms for shipment, where in the absence of the depot-master it was left without any directions as to what should be done with it.
The depot-master returned to his duties and found the box, but being unmindful of its contents, sat it one side to await orders. The summer passed, however, with the box still unclaimed, and in the meantime the unsuspecting baggage-master had used the box with an old garment thrown across it for a pillow while flopping down awaiting the arrival of delayed trains. His astonishment on discovering its contents is described as truly genuine.
Maj. Frederick W. Childs
Correspondent for the Springfield Republican.
---We have no fancy for snakes, are not fond of the tribe, rather not meet one. Though not cowardly, we should shrink from encountering the race. Of the rattlesnake we have a special dislike, we are not pleased with his rattles, and we fear his fangs. The only snake we care to encounter is the copperhead; we do not fear that class of reptiles. In this region, especially, they are harmless. To be sure they hiss and show their fangs and wriggle their tails somewhat, and try to rattle, but its of no use, they can't hurt; and besides they are becoming more and more quiet every day, apparently losing somewhat their accustomed nimbleness of tongue. But our present theme is the rattlesnake, brought to our attention by the sight of a big fellow caught last Monday by our neighbor, Jacob Marsh, assisted by S. S. Field. Now our friend Marsh does not seem to stand in fear of the dreaded rattlesnake. On the other hand he seeks the haunts of this hated reptile and takes him captive at his will. Being an ingenious mechanic, he invented and made an instrument by which he is enabled to capture his snakeship, however pugnacious and rebellious, and subdue his stubborn nature. Within a year, assisted by competent aids, he has taken twelve of these pests and brought them to an ignominious end. We would not have our distant readers suppose that these snakes are reared in Brattleboro, or that even copperheads abound here, or in our goodly State. It is on the other side of the river, in our sister State, New Hampshire, that Jacob seeks and finds his prey. A certain locality on Chesterfield Mountain is the favorite breeding place of this race of reptiles, which are such a terror to those pedestrians who delight to climb the mountain to gain a view of the enchanting scenes below and around. The last fellow caught by Mr. Marsh is a little over three and a half feet in length, duly proportioned, and rejoices in eight rattles. It is due to our friend, the rattlesnake catcher, to say that in showing a taste for taking these ugly fellows, and directing his skill in this line, he is moved by the laudable desire of studying the history, nature, characteristics, and habits of this portion of the animal creation, and it is not unlikely that he will obtain and impart valuable information from his investigations. We hope at any rate he will lessen the tribe. Mr. Marsh keeps his last prisoner confined in a box, occasionally takes him out for healthy exercise, and shows him to a few select friends. The treatment of the captive seems more humane and kind than that shown to our brave men in rebel prisons, though we presume his snakeship would prefer his mountain home and the companionship of his snaky relatives. But his quarters are not uncomfortable, and his keeper is no rebel or sympathizer with rebels. If the captive is doomed to die, we are sure it will not be by long continued imprisonment, in a filthy enclosure, by starvation, but by some fatal instrument doing its work "in the twinkling of an eye."
Vermont Phoenix, September 25, 1868.
---Two more rattlesnakes have been killed the past week. The first was killed by Miss Mary Howe, as she was coming over the mountain. The other was killed by Andrew Horton, the veteran rattlesnake killer, who has already killed over 200 of them. Mr Horton says he frequently catches the snakes alive, and has sold some of them for over ten dollars apiece. As a result of one day's hunting a few years ago, he killed eight snakes which yielded over $15 worth of oil. He hasn't many rivals in this business, as there are few of our amateur hunters who care to hunt such deadly game.
Brattleboro Reformer, September 16, 1886.
"Observer" is possibly Henry Burnham, Brattleboro historian.
---It seems rather early in the season to commence telling snake stories, but here goes for number one: Seven rattlesnakes were caught or killed a few days since at Rattlesnake Ledge, Wantastiquet, the largest of which was 3½ feet in length, and had nine rattles. For the benefit of students of natural history it may be well to state that there are some beautiful specimens of the same sort left at the ledge.
Vermont Phoenix, May 15, 1868.
"Some Snaix."--Some of the employees of the Vermont Asylum while at work on Wantastiquett mountain, last week, killed two rattlesnakes and captured three others, one of which had six rattles, one five and another three. These are now safely ensconced in a case and are in possession of Mr Green, the barber, where they seem contented enough. They look keen, and would be charmingly pretty if--they were not rattlesnakes; but ugh! A rattlesnake was killed on the mountain during the summer that was about five feet in length. During the skirmish several of his rattles were broken off so his age could not be ascertained.
Vermont Phoenix, October 13, 1860.
But Fated to Die in Battle at Bull Run.
In speaking of Wantastiquet rattlesnakes in a local paragraph, two or three weeks ago, we mentioned it as "a curious fact" that even from the earliest times, when they were much more common than now, "there is no authentic record of any person having been bitten by one." Mr. Wm. S. Newton has since told us that Russell H. Benjamin, who was killed in the first battle of Bull Run, used to show the mark on his leg where he claimed to have been bitten by a rattler which he had encountered on the mountain. The wound, he said, was very painful and threatening at first, and the leg never fully recovered from its local effects. If the fact is as thus stated it goes to prove the truth of the theory that the venom of the northern species of these reptiles is not so deadly and active as in those found further south, and not necessarily fatal.
In this connection it is of interest to note that Benjamin was the first Vermont soldier who was killed in battle in the war of the rebellion. He was a corporal of Co. C, Second Vermont, recruited hereabouts by Capt. Todd, and was killed July 21, 1861, by a fragment of a rebel shell, while charging over a low ridge after the battle had turned disastrously against the Union troops. Mr. Benedict says in a footnote in "Vermont in the Civil War" that---
"Russell H. Benjamin was a young man of 30, and a resident of Brattleboro. He was in the employ of the Vermont and Massachusetts railroad company, when the war broke out, and enlisted when the first company of three years' troops was organized in that town. He was a member of the color guard, and gave promise of being a good soldier. He was struck by a fragment of a shell, and instantly killed. His body was borne to one side by his comrades and laid under a tree, and was subsequently buried on the field by the enemy. He left a widow."
A fragment of the same shell tore away the right arm of Sergeant [now Lieut.-Gov.] U. A. Woodbury. "This was the first life lost in action, and the first sleeve emptied by a rebel shot, among the Vermont troops."
Vermont Phoenix, September 20, 1889.