HEBRON — Bridgton Historical Society Assistant Director Michael Davis has been an avid local historian since the age of 13 and the latest Mainer to tell the story of menace and decline of rattlesnakes following the age of New England settlement.

Unsurprisingly, the history is intertwined with mythic lore, persistently fed by generations of hardy yet suspicious settlers and their descendants.

Rattlesnake rattles are displayed at the Hamlin Memorial Library & Museum in Paris. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Davis has begun presenting his findings to historical and other groups in the region about one of Maine’s many native species that has exited, seemingly for good.

Recently he spoke at the Hebron Historical Society about the mysteries and disappearance of Maine’s only known venomous snake.

While there are still pockets of timber rattlers in other parts of New England, Maine is the only state of the lower 48 with no reported population.

Davis started his research by documenting the most likely areas where rattlesnakes could be found, a process that required creativity as no official aggregated account exists. He created a geographic zone by name.


“In Maine, rattlesnakes were noted to exist in the towns of Porter, Baldwin, Buxton, Windham, Stoneham, Fryeburg, Waterford, south Oxford, Brownfield, Albany, Milton, Stowe, Lovell, Bridgton, Denmark, Raymond, Casco, Paris, Hebron, Greenwood and Norway,” Davis told those gathered at the Town Office on Sept. 26. “I found that their presence was limited to western and southern Maine.

Rattlesnakes were a threat, particularly in the early days, he said, along with mountain lions, wolves and bears. “They were found in rocky, southern facing mountains. Rocky hills full of crevices and ledges where they could retreat in winter and sun themselves up on the rocks in the summer,” he said.

Once he identified the purported domains, Davis set about combing through old local newspapers and the Maine Farmer’s Almanac and personal documents to find accounts provided by early residents of those towns. It is apparent that from Colonial settlement until the end of the 1800s Mainers were determined to rid themselves of the dangers and evils presented by the Crotalus horridus, the snake’s scientific name.

Mike Davis, assistant director of the Bridgton Historical Society, speaks Sept. 26 to the Hebron Historical Society at the Town office on findings from his most recent local history project on rattlesnakes in Maine. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“On the grounds of plain Yankee common sense, a creature as awful and dangerous to man just couldn’t be permitted to continue existing in good Christian company,” Davis said. “And so, rattlesnakes became a chief enemy of the public. Fit only to be eradicated for the good of society. The process was extirpation, the termination of a species in a chosen geographic area of study.

“And only in Maine did humanity fully prevail in the fight against rattlesnakes,” he said.

Often it was women who encountered them while foraging hillsides for blueberries or huckleberries.


Davis shared one contemporary retelling of such contact, provided by Ben Conant of Paris, curator of the Paris Cape Historical Society.

“Ben told me that his grandmother had come across one, with several other women, on Greenwood  Mountain here in Hebron while berry picking,” he said. “The group killed it. That would have been in the mid-1860s to about 1870 or so.”

Based on their entrenched beliefs – many of which are obviously untrue – settlers resolved to kill them on sight, preferably before the snake had a chance to strike with its poisonous bite.

One widely believed myth that contributed to its eventual demise was of the snake’s mystical powers to use its rattle and gaze to charm its opponent into a submissive state before attacking.

But, Davis said, human victims who succumbed to being so bitten did so because of instinctive fear that locked their muscles, a reaction that may occur in place of the urge to fight or flee.

Injury with possible death drove many a farmer to rely on his instinct to fight, records show.


Among the many reports Davis found included one from the late 1700s, where a father and son encountered a rattler in their hay field one morning.

“They stripped off their heavy overcoats, and pinned the snake against a fence rail and killed it with a scythe, after it lashed out and almost bit them both,” he said. “They celebrated their hard-won victory. They checked themselves for bites and believed they had escaped unscathed. That is until the father put on his overcoat and found he could not button it. He was sure he had been bitten and was instantly swelling with poison.

“The pair rushed home and set the whole household, and neighborhood, into alarm. The father collapsed, incoherent …. and languished until the minister could come to give him his last rites. But then it was discovered that the man and his son had accidentally switched coats. He had not been bitten at all. He had attempted to put on a coat several times too small. His symptoms, his fears, it was all in his head,” Davis said.

Another factor in the decimation of Maine’s rattlesnake population was old-fashioned entrepreneurship, exploiting natural resources to turn a profit.

“Even in those early settlement days, the irregular character of the wily snake oil salesman was already in full appearance, making dubious claims about the curative value of snake oil to sell his elixirs,” Davis explained. “As Enoch Perley of Bridgton wrote in 1775, ‘the serpent’s grease would cure a stubborn, chronic wound.’”

For every human illness, ailment or injury, it seemed that relief could be found from slewing a rattlesnake.


“It was a cure for consumption,” Davis said. “Taking a live one and biting through it would remove foot pain. Wearing the rattles as a talisman warded off nosebleeds. Cutting out the heart of the snake that bit you and eating it would prevent your death from its bite.”

Other antidotes for being bitten by rattlesnakes could be just as far-fetched. Some believed immersing a bite wound in cold mud would draw the venom out, while others claimed that binding raw chicken over it would have the same effect. Cutting an X over the wound and sucking out the poison, or sucking out the poison without maiming oneself with an X, were well-documented treatments.

Native American tradition held that the ash tree provided defense against rattlesnake attacks, simply by laying down leaves or boughs from which they would retreat rather than cross. Applying the sap of the ash leaf on a bite brought recovery. Beating a menacing snake to death using an ash club was the best way to kill it.

Of course, for the father-son team using a scythe was effective. Many people reported smashing rattlesnakes with rocks. Not everyone would be in close proximity to an ash club to pummel it with, and in such circumstances any piece of sturdy limb would be a welcome weapon.

One other method to treat snakebite, intoxication through whiskey, was a popular remedy.

“Provided you drank enough in the moments after being bitten, the theory was that the alcohol would dilute the blood sufficiently to break the power of the venom,” Davis said. “A good many people tried that throughout New England and other parts of the country. All I can say is that they at least died drunk, for it would certainly dull the senses to the pain of it all.”


Rattlesnake sightings in Maine in more modern times have continued. Davis has researched those as well.

He reported that in every case he has found where the snake could be observed or recovered, it is the non-venomous milk snake, with similar markings and a defense of vibrating its tail as a rattler would.

By combing through the historical record, Davis concludes that it was mostly misinformation, misunderstanding and exploitation that successfully terminated the timber rattlesnake from Maine.

Davis will present his research Thursday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m. at the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library in Lovell.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story