Springfield’s cobra scare of 1953

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This story was written in September 2015, around the time a King Cobra went missing in Orlando, Fla.

While trained professionals frantically search the nooks and crannies of Orlando, Fla. in an effort to locate a renegade King Cobra, Ozarkers can sit back and smile with a dose of deja vu. After all, the incident is strikingly similar to Springfield’s cobra scare of 1953 — except, of course, that Springfield’s search was a bit more vigilante-style in what was a horror-movie-come-to-life.

Where did they come from?

When one cobra was found in a Springfield yard on Aug. 15, it didn’t cause much concern. After all, even though cobras aren’t native to Missouri, “anything is possible in the Ozarks,” said Springfield’s health commissioner in an article from 1953.

Cobra 4

Springfield’s first report of a cobra didn’t even make the front page of the Springfield Leader and Press.

 It wasn’t until other cobras were killed nearby did the bizarre incident turn into a real nightmare. And in the end, at least 11 snakes were found during the three-month ordeal.

Despite Reo Mowrer’s vehement denials, popular belief tied the snakes’ escape to an exotic pet shop he owned on St. Louis Street. Suspicions were further solidified when people saw him, soon after the reptiles disappeared, frantically running about with a snake-catching stick and a large bag.

However, it was decades later before the “how” and “why” came to light. And as it turns out, the epic story was a crime of passion.

“I’m the one that done it,” confessed Carl Barnett to Springfield News-Leader reporter Mike O’Brien in 1988, nearly 35 years after the incident occurred. It was the first time Barnett had told anyone — other than a close friend — that he was the one behind it all.

That certainly wasn’t the plan. But somehow it came about after 14-year-old Barnett felt he’d been gypped by Mowrer after an exotic fish he purchased died shortly after he got home.

Barnett told Mowrer what happened, but the pet shop owner wouldn’t do anything to compensate the frustrated lad for the fish. Then, on his way out of the store, Barnett noticed a crate of snakes. He opened the lid, figured they were of a common variety and decided he’d get even with Mowrer by letting them loose. “I didn’t know what kind of snakes they were,” said Barnett, “or I never would have let them go.”

Their release didn’t give Barnett the gratification he’d hoped for. “I’d never been so scared in my life, once I realized what I’d caused,” said Barnett. “For years I was afraid they’d figure out it had been me, and off I’d go to jail. It definitely is the biggest thing I ever was involved in in my life.”

Armed for battle

For a while it seemed as though no well-dressed person would go out into the street here without carrying a hoe. This was not because of pride in agriculture, but because the city has had a bad case of the snakes.” — Hank Billings, Oct. 18, 1953

Deadly poisonous, cobras aren’t anything to play with. Of course, that makes one wonder why they’d been imported to sell — especially to Ozarkers, who were so unfamiliar with the snake that no anti-venom serum could be found hereabouts. But fear didn’t keep locals from waging war against the critters by any means possible.

Many opted for the traditional weapon of mass destruction — a garden hoe. This method, however, is perhaps an Ozarks thing. In 2012, longtime Springfield News-Leader columnist Hank Billings recalled a conversation he had with the New York stringer for the BBC in London about just that.

“I say, how have they killed the blighters?” (the stringer) asked.

“The killed most of them with a hoe.”

“With a WHAT?”

“A hoe is an agricultural implement used in the colonies to clear the land.”

Turn up the search

The armies of hoes weren’t the only method of offense. Justice also prevailed through nooses, ice picks, clubs, pistols, rocks, tear gas and Springfield’s secret weapon, a tune known as the “Cobra Blues.”

Springfield Leader and Press, Oct. 5, 1953

It might seem like music would be an odd way to catch a snake. But desperate times call for desperate measures. In this case, it meant that Del Caywood, Springfield’s acting city manager, was to became a modern-day pied piper when he rented a truck and traversed Springfield’s streets while blaring so-called snake-charming music.

He did manage to lure out one reptile. In retrospect, however, it was probably more coincidence than “Cobra Blues” that caused the appearance since snakes can’t hear. But they can feel vibrations with their tongues, so perhaps the music — albeit not for its catchiness — played a role.

Widespread attention

Billings’ conversation with the stringer wasn’t the only instance of national attention over the cobras. Life magazine published “The Big Ozark Cobra Hunt” on Sept. 28, 1953, proclaiming that the “citizens of Springfield, Mo. turn out in posse to track down a herd of hoods.”

And while Springfield’s citizens weren’t thrilled about their slithering guests, they didn’t waste the opportunity to capitalize on their presence. The “Cobra Cocktail” made the rounds at area bars and cobra-themed bumper stickers memorialized the critters’ presence. The serpent on Springfield’s official city seal was slightly modified to resemble a hooded cobra. And when one cobra was captured alive and housed at the Dickerson Park Zoo, 5,000 Ozarkers came out to say hello.

Waining worry

As the weather cooled, so did concern about the snakes’ whereabouts (except for those afeard that some had made it to the former quarry at St. Louis Street and National Avenue where they could survive the winter). Soon, only a few preserved specimens remained to illustrate the scare.

The location of only one of Springfield’s cobras is known today.

At least four of those snakes were pickled by Herbert Condray, a science teacher at Jarrett Junior High (now Middle) School. One of the snakes, encased in a glass jar, was given to Central High School. It later disappeared. Another eventually made its way to Drury University’s Trustee Science Center, where it now lies in state.

But what about the other two?

Truth to tell, no one really know for sure — or if they do, they’re not ‘fessing up. Over the years, the snakes have been thought to reside at the Dickerson Park Zoo, the Springfield Art Museum and back over at Jarrett. But queries in later years dispelled these theories.

At one point, a tipster suggested that the snakes had been stored in the attic of Condray’s former home. However, a thorough search of the space revealed no snakes — much to the relief of the frazzled homeowner, and the dismay of the reporter, accompanying photographer and next-door neighbor who’d come to aid in the hunt.

So while the folks in Orlando continue their search, three renegade snakes are still lost in Springfield. Maybe it’s time to play another round of “Cobra Blues”…

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