Snakes on a Flood Plain: Python Hysteria in Ohio

Snakes on a Flood Plain: Python Hysteria in Ohio

It was 68 years ago this summer that a panic swept across the residents of Summit County in northeast Ohio. Women and children stayed indoors or kept to roads and sidewalks, while men were never more than an arm’s length from a rifle. Residents in the small town of Peninsula still debate to this very day whether it was a hoax or serious business. For those who do believe it was fact, most of those individuals point the blame at that day back around 1942 when the circus accidentally came to town.

Some time that year, a carnival truck found itself lost just south of Cleveland. As the vehicle approached a very big hill on Ira Road in the Cuyahoga Valley, the driver lost control and went careening down the steep grade and smashing into Ira Cemetery a few hundred feet away at the T-shaped intersection. The driver was killed, and the caravan’s cargo strewn across the graves. No one seems to know for sure what the truck was carrying, but some have speculated there might’ve been at least one animal on board.

A 19-foot-long python.

Let’s flash forward to June 8, 1944, when Clarence Mitchell was tending to his cornfield near Everett Swamp about three and a half miles south of Peninsula. He later told his story to Cleveland Press reporter Bob Bordner:

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“Two-three days the dogs was nervous, and finally they wouldn’t go over there with me at all. I thought they was acting kind of funny, but I didn’t pay it much mind. I don’t know what made me look up, but there, about fifteen paces away, was the biggest snake I ever see, sliding along easy and slow in plain sight on the bare ground. I just stood quiet, not aiming to attract attention. It seemed like ten minutes I watched. He slid into the river, swam across, and climbed out the other side… He was thick as my thigh, right here, and every bit of fifteen feet long—more like eighteen—sort of brownish spotted. I went over and looked at the track. It was like you’d rolled a spare tire across my field.”

On the opposite side of the Cuyahoga River, Mike Bobacek was driving his mules when he saw Clarence running for his house. The snake came out of the water on his side of the river and headed across his field too. A week and a half later, Paul and John Szalay found a similar tire-like track coming out of the abandoned canal and across their seedbed. Peninsula Mayor John Ritch was notified; after examining the marks, he said, “Nothing but a mighty big snake could’ve made that track.”

On June 20th, the giant snake turned up again not far away on a farm owned by Roy Vaughn. His wife was in the chicken coop when she saw the beast trying to crawl through a wire fence. It wouldn’t quite fit, since it had “a lump in him, big as a basket” so it scaled the three and a half foot fence, plopped down to the ground on the other side, and headed for a ravine. A chicken was missing and presumed to be the big “lump” inside the snake.

By this time, villagers were nearing panic. Mayor Ritch called for local men to meet in Peninsula on Sunday, June 25, to form a search party and hunt down the monster snake. Cleveland Zoo director Fletcher Reynolds pleaded with the people of Peninsula not to kill the animal, but instead to call him immediately and he would be there in 30 minutes to apprehend it alive and unharmed. Once the media broke the story, cash offers for the snake—dubbed “Sarah the Snake” and “That Thing” by journalists—came in by telephone. Hunters, self-proclaimed “snakeologists”, and every crackpot for miles around poured into the Cuyahoga Valley to track down the enormous python. In fear of public safety with so many madmen running around with weapons and firearms, Mayor Ritch proclaimed that only police officers and posse leaders could carry guns. Each permitted posse was limited to one rifle.

The posse gathered in downtown Peninsula on June 25, 1944. (Your Community News, February 2008, Vol. 25 No. 2)

That Sunday, Police Chief Art Huey corralled the motley crew of men of all ages gathered outside the barber shop and broke the mob into smaller snake-hunting posses. As if the media frenzy wasn’t enough to add to the chaos, two companies of militia led by Captian William E. Morris marched into town. They claimed to know nothing of the snake hunt, but were instead on a training mission to capture the town of Peninsula.

The alarm siren wailed; everyone jumped into vehicles and headed east on the main street to the property of Fred Kelly. Cars cluttered the road, abandoned by would-be snake charmers as they rushed into the woods were someone claimed the snake had been spotted. The call ended up being a hoax, but an hour would pass before the melee could be brought back under control.

The following Tuesday morning, Pauline Hopko went out to the pasture near her home a few miles north in Boston to milk her dairy cows. The animals seemed on edge; when they finally broke free in a frenzy, Pauline looked over to a dead willow tree by the river to see “a snake with a head as big as a man’s” slither out of the barren limbs and cross the river. By the time the Peninsula Python Posse arrived at the scene two hours later, the snake was long gone. Two days later, Ernest Raymond was sharpening his scythe when he saw what he thought was a stump in the nearby field. The stump moved; it was actually the coiled python staring right at him. He ran to the house for his gun, but before he could shoot, the snake slithered off, only noticeable by the slight movement of the tall grass as it parted beneath the creature.

The town quickly broke into two camps: believers and skeptics. Both sides battled it out in wars of words. Meanwhile, the snake seemed to disappear as quickly as it had appeared. Or maybe it was just hiding from the insanity and noise. After the first day of August, no more sightings of the Peninsula Python were reported. Villagers hoped that come winter, the snake would die from the freezing temperatures and its carcass would turn up somewhere, but that never happened. To this day, no one quite knows what became of the python… if it existed in the first place.

The snake is still a touchy subject for some folks living in Peninsula, but the town has embraced its strange tale in recent years. Each July, the annual Peninsula Python Day festival is held in remembrance of the wild summer of 1944. For 2012, the celebration falls on Saturday, July 21. The day will be filled with painted python sculptures and activities for visitors, including a “python parade”. Some lucky people will be arriving via the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for the festivities on a Cryptozoological Creatures Excursion where author Jeri Holland and I will be telling stories of the Peninsula Python and other local sightings, including Bigfoot, Mothman, mountain lions, and lake monsters.


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9 Comments

  1. Donna Anderson

    07/05/2012 at 3:49 PM

    So, if the circus tracked crashed in 1942, by 1944 that snake was probably bigger than 19 feet, right? Not sayin’ that if it was ONLY 19 feet you could catch it and set it up in the back bedroom and give it some squeaky toys to play with. But that thing must have been humongous! I wonder how fast a 20+ foot python can run.. or slither.. or whatever it is snakes do. And I wonder if it found any other pythons to reproduce with before it disappeared. It might have relatives living in the area, even as we speak. Another reason to avoid Cleveland!

    • Ken Summers

      07/07/2012 at 4:35 AM

      Since no one ever actually captured the snake, no one is sure exactly what size it was. But judging by the tracks, fence sizes, etc., people estimated it at being around 19 feet in 1944. It could’ve been anywhere between 15 and 20 feet, probably, and snakes of that length have been caught in different parts of the country since then. With Ohio’s extremely lax exotic animal laws, if it did survive for a while, it very well could’ve found a mate, but I wouldn’t count on it. That’s not to say another snake couldn’t be in the area today. After all, we get wild reports here all the time. If you only knew how many mountain lion reports there were in the area…

  2. Greg Newkirk

    07/05/2012 at 4:05 PM

    There’s just something about escaped circus animals that warms my heart.

  3. Silas Rogers

    07/06/2012 at 5:40 AM

    I’m quitting my job and becoming a snakeologist. I feel like I’d have less busy work and feel a greater sense of purpose in my new profession.

  4. Kaiser

    07/07/2012 at 2:27 PM

    Any modern day wannabe ‘snakeologists’ should come to Florida to follow their bliss. We’re living the hallucinations the folks in Peninsula imagined in ’44.
    On second thought, we’re way over limit on our mixed nuts quota what with face-eating zombies and such, so better ya’ll stay where ya’ll at.

    • Ken Summers

      07/08/2012 at 5:41 AM

      I’m not sure that what villagers in Peninsula suffered would be hallucinations. There’s still a strong divide in the town today over those who think it was a real snake and those who feel it was all one big hoax. If it was some kind of hoax, whoever pulled it off was a genius to convince that many people that they were seeing a giant snake in so many places.

      Still, it did bring out all the loons from miles around. When I read about the people coming to town, it sounded so much like Bigfoot nowadays. For as long as there’ve been people, there’ve been crazy people. Here in Ohio, we just have weird animals, Melonheads, Bigfoots, and undergound giants. Even zombies don’t like Ohio.

  5. Bob Jase

    07/08/2012 at 7:59 AM

    And thus began ‘Whacking Day’.

  6. EH

    07/09/2012 at 8:30 AM

    Reminds me of the summer of 1978 when I was six years old in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A 16-foot, 140 pound python named “Big Sid” escaped from a nearby circus and stayed loose for weeks. At the time it was said to be 20 feet long. This impressed me greatly. Any shadow or shrubbery might conceal a giant, kid-eating snake. Life became a little less exiting when Sid was finally captured. The Grand Rapids Press ran a story last year with a picture gallery of the capture.

  7. butch

    03/18/2013 at 5:31 AM

    i would be more concerned about militia members training to capture my town than a snake! a militia for what?LOL, ” No,we’re not snake hunters, just 2 companies of miltia training to capture your town”!
    That’s one hell of a mayor they had.

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