Every year, at about this time, handy dandy charts of how to identify venomous snakes make the rounds on the internet. And every year, I think, “My goal is to not get close enough to identify snake-friend from snake-foe!” Yeah, I’m not a fan of things that slither. Rest assured, if I encounter a venomous snake, I want it dead! The subject of today’s Campfire Chronicle story happens to share my views. Colorado homesteader “Rattlesnake Kate” had zero tolerance for rattlers. On one fateful day in 1925, she killed 140 of them . . . and what she did with their remains is legendary. Ah, I feel such a kinship!
Snakes in the Grass
Katherine McHale Slaughterback was a no-nonsense kind of gal. On an autumn day, in 1925, the 31-yr-old nurse was being her usual practical self when she decided to take a horseback ride out to a nearby pond. It wasn’t just a pleasure ride. Hunters had been shooting at ducks all day and Slaughterback hoped to snag some wounded ducks for dinner. Yes, she was practical that way. So, the Greeley, Colorado native snatched up her 3-yr-old son, Ernie, and her .22 Remington rifle and set off to find some victuals.
The woman in search of dinner found a lot more than some paltry poultry! The hunt for fowl turned foul! What started out as a primitive episode of “Duck Dynasty” turned into an adventure of a lifetime. Kate and Ernie were on their way home when Kate spotted a rattlesnake slithering in the tall grass. Now, we’ve already discussed how I feel about things that slither. If you ask me, Kate Slaughterback made the only decision she could. She turned into a pioneer superhero!
If It Had Been a Snake It Woulda Bit You
Rattlesnake Kate had surely heard the phrase, “If it had been a snake, it woulda bit you,” and, when she actually saw a snake, she had no desire to become a statistic of an overused hyperbole. And she wasn’t going to stand around and let little Ernie become one either. Kate pulled her gun. She shot a snake. But, folks, there wasn’t just one snake. It was like a snake in the grass convention out there!
Kate started shooting. She shot and she shot. She shot until she ran out of ammunition. Then, she did something extraordinary. She pulled a, “No Hunting,” sign out of the ground and started whacking snakes with the kind of fury only a true snake-hater could muster. She whacked and she whacked. She whacked until the dead snakes were piled up like kindling wood. All told, she shot and/or whacked 140 snakes. I can only imagine that little Ernie was in therapy for the rest of his days.
Pains in the Asp
A neighbor saw Kate and Ernie returning from their adventure. It’s safe to say that Kate probably looked like any woman who had been whacking snakes with a “No Hunting” sign for two hours. The neighbor, sensing that something wasn’t quite right, went out to inquire about her day. The neighbor and Kate rode out to the scene of the Reptile Revolution. Oh, the carnage! They collected the snakes in three washtubs and hung them out to dry.
When the people of Greeley, Colorado heard that their nurse neighbor was some sort of snake killing ninja, they hailed her as a hero. After all, they didn’t want to stumble across a passel of venomous snakes. She had done them all a tremendous favor by getting rid of those pains in the asp.
When Life Hands You Snakeskins…
Word of Kate’s exploits spread far and wide when newspapers began reporting on the sensational story. Rattlesnake Kate was more than happy to become the 1925 version of a reality television star. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life handed Rattlesnake Kate 140 snakeskins, she made a fashion statement.
Lady Gaga and her meat dress had nothing on Rattlesnake Kate and her snakeskin couture. Using around fifty skins, Kate stitched up a flapper dress that was the bee’s knees! It was the cat’s meow. It was the snake’s… skin. She wore it with snakeskin shoes and jewelry made from rattlesnake rattles. Her neckband alone was made up of thirty-seven rattles. Snazzy! Kate wore the dress to numerous functions, over the years.
Practical Kate also used her fame to make a buck. She went into the snake business and sold snakeskins for two dollars and rattles for one dollar. She even found a way to cash in on the rattlesnake venom by milking it from the snakes and sending it to scientists in California.
Other Rattlesnake Kate Tidbits
Although she is best known for two hours of mad-capped snake whacking, Kate’s life would have been interesting even if she had never walloped a single rattlesnake. She built her own house and worked her own farm. She even made her own moonshine in the goat pen. Kate was not above adding to her own mystique, however, so it’s unclear if some of the stories about her are fact or fiction. One such questionable story tells that she served as a nurse during WWII, at which time she broke her hip parachuting from a plane just before it crashed. Kate also was reportedly struck by lightening. Some sources say she was married six times and hint that she was involved in prostitution.
Kate died in October 1969, at the age of seventy-five. Three weeks before her death, she left her snakeskin dress and accessories to the Greeley Museum. In 2002, the museum purchased lumber believed to have been from Kate’s home. Using pictures of the house, they numbered the pieces of lumber and reassembled the home in the Prairie Section of Centennial Village. While at the museum, you can even see the gun Kate used to shoot the first snakes and a life-size cutout of Kate in the rattlesnake flapper dress.
I really wish they had the “No Hunting” sign on display, too, but you can’t have everything. The more I think about it, the more I think I may just have to get a sign to carry with me whenever I’m going into tall grass. Because, well, you can never be too careful!
Watch these rattlesnake wranglers as they safely remove angry snakes from residential areas and release them back into their natural habitat. . . . it will give you a good idea of what Kate faced on that fateful day!