Sensationalism and Snakes
By: Hillary Delaney
Newspapers have always been a source for both information and entertainment. At times, hard facts may be compromised for the sake of entertainment. This is certainly true in modern news, with various media competing for the attention of the same audience, but what about historic reporting? Historic newspapers did not typically practice a high level of “accountability reporting.” It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that editors began to focus heavily on fact-checking and the consequences of sensational journalism. In early papers, the more exciting the story, the better the sales, facts be damned.
One such story ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer on September 2, 1900. This example, about highly venomous snakes appearing throughout Northern Kentucky must surely have terrified readers, and sold lots of papers. The unnamed reporter described snakes called “hissing vipers”, aggressively attacking people in Florence and Burlington, unprovoked. The headline was bold and exciting.
The claim was that the snakes would hiss so loudly that they could be heard from 200 feet away. They also could stand up on the tips of their tails! They were reported to be so dangerously venomous, that bare-skin contact with the venom could be deadly, even if a bite didn’t penetrate.
A first-hand account describes one such snake coiling up the handle of a tobacco worker’s hoe, hissing loudly. His fellow workers surrounded the snake and defended their lives with a handy shotgun, before the reptile could “shoot” venom at them through the air, from many feet away. Another describes a brave Burlington father defending his little ones from the snake, executing a “miraculous escape”, which really amounted to his removing the kids from the vicinity.
Upon closer inspection of the facts in this account, the “deadly” serpent described is most probably an Eastern Hognose snake, often referred to as the “hissing viper.” This indigenous snake, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, does have a venom, but simple hand washing will take care of a bite. When feeling threatened, the snake flattens its head and hisses loudly, or simply rolls over and plays dead.
Eastern Hognose snakes have rear-facing fangs, which allow them to pop the air out of puffed-up toads, their favorite prey. If such a snake were to bite a human, it’s likely that the fangs would not penetrate the skin. They can grow up to 36” in length, but are usually smaller. There is no evidence of their ability to “stand upright”, and they are likely to avoid people.
The importance of truth in journalism cannot be stressed enough, and is essential to good reporting. That being said, winning a battle with a venom-spitting terror who stands on its tail as it attacks the innocent is a lot more interesting than shooting a snake that rolls over when threatened. History’s papers may have been heavy on exaggeration, but a tall tale makes for good copy.