Hidden Histories

Serpents in the Stomach: A 19th-Century Medical Nightmare or Figment of the Imagination?

Monday, 8/24/09

In an 1818 publication, by famed Philadelphia physician & Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Benjamin Rush, entitled, Medical Inquiries & Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind, he included the account of a patient, who "believes he has a living animal in his body. A sea captain, formerly of this city, believed for many years that he had a wolf in his liver. Many persons have fancied they were gradually dying, from animals of other kinds preying upon different parts of their bodies," (p.80).

Such comments as those above, especially the latter sentence, aptly reminds one of such famed scenes as portrayed in 'Sci-fi' movies such as Aliens, of something derived solely from one's imagination, or products of a mental malady reserved exclusively for the insane. However, numerous accounts of such a phenomemon were extremely wide-spread, throughout 19th-century Pennsylvania, and across the nation.

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), a native of Maryland, accomplished artist and a collector of natural curiosities, founded the famed 'Philadelphia Museum,' later referred to simply as the 'Peale Museum,' a repository of diverse biological objects as well as archaeological artifacts from throughout the nation & the world.

As part of the manuscript collections at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, one may find Peale's accession book or 'Memoranda of the Philadelphia Museum.' Contained within its handwritten notations, is an account, dated for March 6, 1806, a portion of which is reproduced in the image below.


As related by her attending physician to Peale, a female resident of Somerset County, Maryland, had suffered for years from "chills, a sick stomach with vomiting, high fevers...with considerable pain in her stomach..." It appears that 'Mrs. P.R.,' had often vomited up, "a number of round worms..." as well as a "number of Black bugs...in likeness to what is called a black bess, but smaller, for eighteen months back."

The good doctor & an associate, gave the ailing lady "an emitic, afterwards a mercurial purge...with elixir of vitriol," which caused her to eject from her stomach, "one of the bugs...which upon examination was found to have wings...which, as soon as they could get their wings dry, would fly away.

I have sent you {referring to Peale} several for your inspection."

The Maryland physician queries Peale as to the possibility that the little denizens of the lady's stomach had "naturally formed in the stomach; or are they first taken in with the water and then generated in the stomach?" Perhaps Peale replied, but his entry in the Memoranda, dated for March 14, 1806, states: "The above insects are in the museum..."

This incident is neither unique nor an 'isolated case,' since the nation's newspapers literally were filled with such accounts by the hundreds for many years. Usually such reports concerned not insects as the contents of the gullet, but reptiles and other creatures, including everything from snakes, to lizards, toads, frogs and even crabs!

Philadelphia physician, Dr. Samuel Atkinson, in 1838, would not only publish an account, but also give an affidavit to the veracity of his investigation of a man named Thomas Ruth, a shoemaker, who for some five years had "complained of an oppression of the stomach and breast, and at times a violent cough," who had seen multiple doctors in an attempt to obtain relief, but with negative results. As Dr. Atkinson remarked: "He strenuously persisted in the belief that there was something alive in his stomach."

Dr. Atkinson gave the ailing patient "emetics," which caused the man to vomit and thus discharge "an animal about two inches long, about as large as the finger of a man; its head, eyes, etc., were like a dog, and the body like a large snail, of an ash color, and without legs. The animal was alive."

Representatives of the Public Ledger newspaper, remarked of the above, "Whether this is a wonderful story or not, we know that part of it is true, for the dog headed phenomenon was actually exhibited at this office. So we vouch for the existence of the entity, and leave Messrs. Atkinson and Ruth to vouch for its birth." The editors go on to state their belief that the creature was "probably a tadpole" or a "pollywog, which means a young frog." (see the Public Ledger, October 1, 1838).

The Lewistown (PA) Gazette, of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, quoting the Reading Times, published an account on December 5th, 1877, of a 'Mrs. Mitchell,' a resident of Gibralter below Reading, "who recently vomited a lizard from her stomach in Markley's drug store, this city, emitted two more on Friday afternoon last, making nine which have been ejected from her stomach during the past few years."

Mrs. Mitchell, having been given a "purgative medicine," purportedly "vomited up 2 lizards, some four inches in length. One is black and the other has a reddish stripe the whole length of its back. The lizards were brought to Reading on Saturday and given to druggist Markley, who placed them in a jar of water in which the reptiles were wriggling lively on Saturday evening."

Once again, numerous Pennsylvania and national newspapers of the 19th-century, relate many diverse but similar accounts such as those given above. Certainly individuals have swallowed many things through the centuries, as witnessed by the drawer-filled items at the famed 'Mutter Museum' in Philadelphia, everything from pins to jewelry. Nineteenth-century Pennsylvania papers like present-day accounts, speak frequently of foreign objects being found in patients during surgery or surgical tools having accidently been sewn into bodies, being found years later by x-rays.

Humans have served as 'hosts' for many parasitic infestations for centuries, as witnessed in the tropics or 'Third-World' countries, creatures which often burrow or lay their eggs in festering wounds, only to be found later by empirical evidence or acute observation, as well as through surgery and x-rays. Wasps and other insects as well, continue to act as predators, 'laying their eggs' in the head & thorax of various ant species, which soon hatch & mature, by literally feeding off the nutrients contained within the body of the host, eventually leaving its prey nothing more than an 'empty shell.'

Once again, as mentioned frequently in this 'blog,' The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, has numerous newspapers and also manuscript sources such as the one cited above, which reveal strange 'phenomena' as well as basic historical data and information.

There is something at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania to satiate everyone's interest, from the benign & often 'worn-out' traditional renditions of past events, to the unique, unexplained and even the bizarre!

(For further reading see: Daniel R. Barnes, "The Bosom Serpent: A Legend in American Literature & Culture," Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 85 {1972}: 111-122).