The Last Great Snake Man



Canebrake Rattler

Canebrake ratter, known also as a timber rattler and banded rattlesnake


We Southerners and snakes make an interesting mix. We’re scared of them because we just know that someday our time to mix it up with a snake will come. They’re just such sneaky little creatures. Fangs! Headed toward your leg.

I’ve always wondered what I’d do when a big snake bites me. It seems guaranteed, but so far it hasn’t happened, and in a strange way I’m disappointed. What a test of my manhood that would be.

“Rattler got me yesterday …”

“No way. You’re still alive.”

“Yep, dry bite. Got lucky.”

Snakes. I know people who hate them, love them, avoid them, and collect them. Most people don’t like them, largely because of myths and a fear of the unknown. Ever since Adam and Eve and that infamous Apple, snakes get a bum rap. Many people believe the only good snake is a dead snake.

Whatever camp you fall into, be forewarned. Warmer weather breaks their dormancy and out from their hiding places they come. As sure as daffodils bloom, snakes slither through your yard and sooner or later, you’ll cross paths with Mr. Serpent, aka sneaky snake.

I’ve had a few snake encounters … back in the days when I was making natural history films I’d go to Woods Bay State Park, a swampy place between Sumter and Florence, South Carolina. I’d go alone and set up my camera and film whatever moved … ospreys, alligators, wood ducks, and other waterfowl of all kinds.

One day, alone as always, because two or more people invariably talk and scare off wild animals, I was panning across water lilies when a noise to my left distracted me. About 12 feet away a cottonmouth as thick as my arm slithered across the path. Before I could get my camera turned around it was gone, and soon so was I.

Another film experience brought me a gastronomic snake encounter. I was jouncing along a dusty road in Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge off the coast near Charleston at a place called Bull Island. The wildlife department had airlifted a jeep there and a biologist and I were riding along to film an alligator den when he slammed on the brakes. He jumped out with a stick with hook. Up ahead a thick rattlesnake slithered through the dust.

“What are you doing?”

“Gonna eat it,” he said, hooking the rattler, which began coiling, rattling, and fighting as best it could before he tightened a noose around its head. Into a cage in the back of the jeep it went to be killed, skinned, and grilled.

On another occasion I went to a big weekend event for sportsman at the state fairgrounds over here. One of the big exhibits was an indoor containment area filled with 300 rattlers. The moment you stepped into the building, a sickly sweet fragrance like burnt sugar hit you and then you heard this sound: 300 rattlers expressing their displeasure at being held captive. A man with snake boots walked among them as if he were strolling through a patch of daffodils.

A minor but jolting encounter … Last summer I was watering a new bed of St. Augustine with a bright green hose. Suddenly the hose began to coil around my wrist. It took my eyes a second to realize what was happening. A bright green garter snake had crawled up the hose and was wrapping itself around my right wrist … Slinging the hose away, I did something resembling the Mexican hat dance.

Yes, snake season is upon us and soon we’ll see them everywhere. A snake has never bitten me, but I read about a fellow who may have set a record for snakebites: the Last Great Snake Man, Tim McLaurin.

Tim grew up on a family farm near Fayetteville, North Carolina. An ex-Marine, he once ran a traveling snake show. He also became an assistant professor at North Carolina State University based on his love of books. The author of a memoir, Keeper of the Moon, he was a bona fide man of letters and alcoholic though he preferred the term “drunk.”

He died July 11, 2002, of esophageal cancer, a snake of another kind. Tim was 48. He asked a friend to build his coffin, a fellow who shoed horses. His friend made a pine box with steel rims inlaid vertically and horizontally. They said it looked like a whiskey barrel. Yes, Tim McLaurin is gone, this daring snake handler, (not the South Georgia type). Hear him speak now, though he’s gone.

“My sanity was questioned. But all I knew was that with a rattler or a copperhead in my hand, a path between people opened before me like the Red Sea rolling back.”

The great snake man was eight years old when he caught his first snake. He was walking home from the school bus stop when he saw a slender snake the color of wheat. “I stopped and stared. A voice as old as religion spoke to me. ‘Run, boy. Get your daddy. Get the hoe. Chop that thing into as may pieces as you can. Snakes can hypnotize you. They can sting you with their tongues. They are the incarnate of evil.’ ”

Tim did just the opposite. He grabbed the snake and put it in a mason jar. Two fine things happened. The next time the bookmobile came his way he checked out a book on snakes. That act began a lifelong love for reading. As he read, another great thing happened. He learned that not everything you are taught is true. He learned that snakes were incredible.

“Whenever I held a snake in my hand, I was defeating ignorance,” said Tim, wiser now, that he had learned some hard lessons. Tim got bitten so many times he developed blood cancer as a result of all the anti-venoms he had to take. One day a black snake bit him and died. Tim, you see, had had so much chemotherapy in his blood the snake died. They say Tim McLaurin went on record as the one time a snake bit a man and died. Tim, no doubt, felt sadness because he loved snakes. He was, after all, the last great snake man.

I hope we all learn from the last great snake man. The next time you see a snake, don’t get the hoe and chop it up. Just let it be.

We all have to survive in this world and live off it best we can. Why make it hard on one another just because somebody taught you the only good snake is a dead snake. I say live and let live.

3 thoughts on “The Last Great Snake Man

  1. Ughhhh, snakes. When I was 8 years old, my sister 9, we were running through the woods on a family outing when she got bit by a great big cotton mouth. My dad took out his pocket knife, sliced an x in her ankle, and begin to suck and spit, trying to get as much venom out as possible. They say now that that’s not the best thing to do, but the Dr. that treated my sister said it saved her life. She was in the hospital for four days, her leg swollen as big as the rest of her body. If I see them, I leave them alone, but mostly just because I’m too chicken to kill them.

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