Here in the South, we certainly don’t suffer from a shortage of tall tales. Like a good itch you can’t help but scratch, we have an insatiable inclination towards the artful expression of hyperbole. You’ll find that some of these stories can be traced back to an original kernel of truth, a few are outright fabrications, and some—well, some are so outlandish that they simply must be true. Such is the case for one stranger-than-fiction tale from Springfield, Missouri, which kicks off with murder, revenge, and a whole lot of snakes.
As with many a good yarn, this one begins with a man innocently minding his own business. In the dog days of summer, August, 1953, Mr. Roland Parish was tinkering in his yard when, out of the bushes, a long black snake emerged, reared, and lunged violently at his wellingtons. Fortunately for Mr. Parish, he had a garden hoe—the perennial favorite of garden weaponry—close at hand, and used it to whack the unexpected serpentine intruder senseless until it collapsed in an inky coil at his feet.
Now the appearance of a single, unidentifiable snake alone wasn’t enough to arouse much in the way of suspicion. Springfield was planted on the doorstep of the Ozarks, home to tangled miles of untamed country and a slew of wild beasts who came with disturbingly descriptive appellations like Hellbenders, Cavefish, and Big Eared Bats, and so, the incident came and went with little fanfare. When another of the hooded snakes made an appearance across the street, however (also expertly dispatched with the business end of a garden hoe), and another was discovered unabashedly crossing the street (this time run over by a car), the town of Springfield began to grow alarmed.
Eventually, the snakes—identified as Naha Naha, a deadly brand of Indian Cobra, by the local eighth-grade science teacher—were traced back to their only conceivable source: the town’s pet shop. The shop’s owner, Mr. Mower, had been known to keep such exotic creatures on hand in case any carnivals passing through town should be in the market, but when the sheriff and a dutiful band of outraged citizens arrived on his doorstep, he claimed to not have, nor have had, any such snakes.
Despite evidence to the contrary (Mr. Mower was later reported to have been seen frantically searching the city armed with something that looked suspiciously like a snake-catching stick and a large bag), the good people of Springfield could do little to prove his involvement, and, concluding that the origin of the snakes had little to do with their dispatch anyhow, hunkered down to put up a fight.
Antivenin for the deadly snakes was flown in and dispersed to local hospitals, vigilante bands of snake-catching posses roamed the city streets, and every manner of Southern ingenuity was employed in refashioning on-hand supplies—ice picks, rocks, car jacks, tear-gas, and revolvers—into provisional cobra-exterminating equipment.
After three months and countless mangled garden hoes had passed, the people of Springfield were at a breaking point, but relief was on its way. A snake charmer, all the way from sunny Florida, had arrived, and was ready to do business. Undeterred by tales of the snakes’ wiles, the mercenary herpetologist took to the streets of Springfield, playing his “Cobra Blues”—prerecorded pungi snake-charming tunes—through the open windows of his truck. Whether charmed by the improvised pied-pipery or simply inclined to come out for an ill-fated stroll, two of the final cobras emerged from their home beneath the Springfield Pickle Works to meet their end.
Things, as they are often wont to do, went on. As days, weeks, and months crept between the last cobra sighting and the good folks of Springfield, the unsolved mystery of the snakes’ origin faded alongside other puzzles of history. It wasn’t until 1988, almost thirty-five years later, that the truth was finally brought to light.
Heavy-hearted with three decades of guilty silence, Mr. Carl Burnett confessed to a local newspaper that he had been the one responsible for the great cobra hunt. In a fit of passion, Burnett remembered, he had retaliated against the town’s pet store after receiving what he recalled as being a faulty exotic fish. When Mr. Mower refused to refund or replace the boy’s late investment, Burnett stormed out of the store, flipping the lid off of an unlabeled crate of snakes on his way out the door. It wasn’t until tales of the town’s newest, venomous inhabitants that the boy realized the gravity of his error, and at that point, in the way of fourteen-year-old boys, was too terrified of torture, imprisonment, or capital punishment to mutter a word of his guilt.
And so it was that thirty-five years, eleven snakes, and one heckuva good story later, Springfield, Missouri, was put on the map for one of the best stranger-than-fiction stories of the South.
SEE ALL “COBRA BLUES” PHOTOS HERE: