Of course, a great
deal of the attraction lies in the association of danger, but I am convinced
that in no small degree it may also be ascribed to the instinctive revulsion
of feeling which most people cannot repress at the sight of a reptile.
common prejudice in favor of using feet as a means of progression is not
to be dated from the "Trilby " craze. The mere fact that the Enemy of Mankind
is referred to as a serpent in the very earliest historical records sufficiently
indicates that in man there has always been a certain inherent loathing
of snakes and other go-by-grounds.
When therefore we see, in
public exhibitions, men, women, and even children winding snakes of many
varieties around them with a fearless familiarity, the first thought that
occurs to the spectator is one of astonishment that the performer can bring
himself to " touch" them.
repugnance which one not unnaturally feels towards snakes is, however,
insignificant: as compared with the danger which the performer runs in
placing himself at the mercy of a number of reptiles, the least of which
would be able to destroy him.
In the photographs which
accompany this article the dangerous experiments which constitute a snake-charmer's
performance are very accurately represented. Captain DeVoy and his little
daughter, Lottie, who is but eleven years of age, kindly consented to reproduce
the items of an entire performance, so that we might secure this series
of interesting photographs for the benefit of the readers of this magazine;
and they may be accepted as accurately depicting the exact performance
which the father and daughter are at present giving at various places of
public amusement throughout the country.
pictures acquire an added interest from the association of a child with
such an entertainment; and it is interesting to note that not only has
Captain De Voy's daughter no fear of her weird playmates, but she actually
enjoys the performance which enables her to fondle them.
Captain De Voy has been associated
with these entertainments for nearly sixteen years. His wife was a well-known
snake-charmer under the stage name Mlle. Onzalu, and for her he used to
tame and train the snakes before she performed with them. The particulars
given in this article have been furnished by Captain De Voy, who very frankly
and courteously consented to afford me every information in his power.
Many people have the impression
that snakes, before being used by a snake-charmer in performance, are drugged,
or by some other means rendered harmless. This, however, is quite a mistake.
The snake-charmer who wants to make a purchase for the purposes of his
performance goes to Jamrach's, or some other well-known emporium, and handles
the snake he fancies, there and then, exactly as it has arrived in its
wild untamed condition.
The "knack" of snake manipulation
is to catch the reptile by the head and the tail. By holding the head the
snake is unable to bite, and unless the tail is free, it is unable to exert
its powers of crushing. The snake-charmer in these earlier stages of acquaintanceship
also adopts the precaution of wearing stout leather gloves.
in captivity evince much intelligence, and their tameness is in no small
degree a lively sense of favors to come. They soon appear to realize that
from their trainer alone is to be expected not only food, but what is in
more constant request, the warmth which is essential to their existence.
They must be kept in a temperature of from 70° to 80°, and this
is effected by wrapping them in blankets surrounded by hot-water pipes.
Their feeding is a leisurely
process, as there is an interval of four weeks between each meal! In a
natural state the interval is a much lengthier one, but then the meal is
vulgarized into a veritable gorge.
The etiquette–or the exigencies–of
a professional career causes the snake to approximate to more civilized
habits. But the snake even in its tamed state is never civilized to the
point of appreciation of prepared food, and insists on a menu of live rabbits,
rats, mice, or fowl.
These it eyes with a critical
glitter, and then having bestowed on them a crushing embrace, he swallows
them whole; but he would lie beside the best efforts of a Parisian chef
Captain De Voy's collection
may be regarded as a fairly representative one, and it consists of an Indian
boa, 12ft. 9in. in length–an unusually large one to perform with, and possessed
of an immense power of crushing–an Indian python of 9ft.; an African python,
10ft. 4in.; an Indian carpet snake, 7ft.; and an Australian diamond snake
6ft. 4in. in length. The danger of performing with such snakes lies in
the fact that their bite is highly conducive to blood-poisoning, and while
almost any one of them has strength enough to smash a human limb, the larger
ones could easily crush the entire frame.
The taming process is commenced
by the gloved grasp of the head and tail. The snake seems to realize at
this stage that it is in the hands of a master, and when later it understands
that no harm is intended and that certain kindness may be looked for, it
speedily becomes tractable. Captain De Voy's snakes are all distinguished
by names, and most of them answer to them with readiness.
But it is not every snake
which responds to the requirements of the trainer. Some remain intractable,
and can never be depended on. It was only about three weeks before these
photographs were taken that Captain De Voy was obliged to kill a valuable
African harlequin snake, 11ft. in length.
He had spent a considerable
time in the endeavor to tame and train it, but without much success. The
harlequin was evidently not stage-struck, and resolutely refused to fall
in with its trainer's views. In the main, too, it had the best of the argument,
for a snake 11ft. in length has to be treated with diplomatic respect.
After a time it appeared to be sufficiently tractable to be trained for
use in his public performances, but while Captain De Voy was endeavoring
to wind it round his body one day in the course of a private practice the
harlequin suddenly became ferocious, and the trainer very narrowly escaped
losing his life. Fortunately he had managed to retain his hold on its head,
and before it could coil itself round his body to crush him he succeeded
in killing it by throwing himself down and letting the whole weight of
his body come on its head.
such as these have to be reckoned with in the business of snake-charming,
and as the price of snakes varies from 30s. to £20, or even £30,
the risk is not an inconsiderable one.
There is also the danger
of losing snakes through climatic disadvantages and diseases–such as canker
in the mouth–to which they are peculiarly liable. To expose them to the
cold, either by forgetting to renew the hot water, or by not providing
them with sufficient blankets, might very easily prove fatal to the entire
collection. But snakes, no matter how tame they may become, are always
treacherous, and have to be very carefully watched at every performance.
The performer, however, soon learns the temperament of each one, and can
tell its mood by its hiss, which varies as its humor is good or bad.
The snake which happens to
be in a bad humour is not excused its share in the night's performance–to
do this would be to invite a recurrence of its mutinous spirit–but the
performer generally exercises extreme prudence in dealing with a surly
Not the least important item
in the list of a snake-charmer's attainments is the ability to treat his
reptiles medicinally. Captain De Voy's medicines are composed of olive
oil, alum, blue-stone, copperas, borax, and honey. These ingredients he
declares to be adequate for the treatment of all the ills a snake is heir
His medicine chest for the
relief of a human being bitten by a snake contains but one antidote–Irish
whisky. This he always endeavors to keep in a state which would be viewed
with disfavor by the Excise, viz.; 25 to 30 degrees over-proof. To saturate
the wound externally, and the body internally with strong Irish whisky
is, according to Captain De Voy, the only reliable cure for snake-bite.
I give his statement for
whatever it may be worth.