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The Hoop Snake: America's oldest terrestrial cryptid

The first published illustration of a hoop snake,1896. Digitized by Christopher Packard.

The hoop snake is the most venomous snake in North America, it was once quite common, but it is quite rare these days. At first glance the hoop snake appears to be a rather ordinary stout black snake, but this reptile has some very remarkable adaptations which set it apart from our more familiar serpents. For instance, the American hoop snake is the only snake on the planet with a venomous stinger on its tail. In fact its original name is based on this, in colonial and early Americas called it the “horn snake” for the peculiar rigid spike on the end of its tail. Unlike other venomous snakes its venom glands are not attached to its fangs but rather to the sharp horn-like stinger on its tail which resembles that of a rooster’s spur. These snakes’ spurs are in fact a modified keratinous scale, and much like the rattlesnake’s rattles, these horns form when the snake sheds, getting larger with each molting.

This venomous horn would seem like a unique enough adaptation for most animals, but the hoop snake also has a unique form of movement, it can roll like a wheel. They do this by grasping their tail’s horn in their mouth which forms a hoop out of their body. This unique shape, singular among animals, is what gives them their name. They are called “hoop” after their resemblance to the metal hoops once used to hold the slats of wooden barrels together. Rolling hoop snakes can reach incredible speeds, according to Henry Tyron, the director of the New York State’s Black Rock Forest. Under optimal conditions they can reach nearly 60 mph. It is said that when undisturbed these snakes move around on their bellies like other snakes, but when angered they are fearless and always give chase in hoop form. The best way to escape a pursuing hoop snake is to climb over a fence and continue to run. This works it seems as they are forced to give up rolling and instead crawl through the fence. Thankfully they never seem to resume the chase after releasing their tail. Hoop snakes can be found in the woods, on flat ground, or in hills but their favorite habitat is tall grass around settled areas. This is where they are most deadly as people often can’t see them rolling along in the tall fields until the snakes are rolling right up on them. Reportedly people seeing the first bicycles, high wheeled penny farthings said they looked like people riding hoop snakes.

Penny Farthing Bicycle was nicknamed the hoop snake, photo from 1900.

Real hoop snakes always roll with their tails rising so that like a whip they are ready to strike anyone they catch. Death is assured for anyone stung by a hoop snake, even a dose as small as 0.003pmm is certain to cause a quick death. In New England those who have been stung by a hoop snake are said to have been “blasted”. The victim swells and dies a painful quick death. The venom is so toxic that if the stinging tail misses its target and strikes a tree then within a few hours the bark of the tree will swell, then burst, and within a few days it peels off leaving the plant dead and shattered as if it had been blasted by lightning. Even dead wood like a hoe handle, if struck will somehow also be swelled and burst into splinters.

In accounts, from the Ozarks and the Upper Midwest, when the hoop snake accidentally stings dead wood the wood itself swells to enormous size without breaking. In one account from Missouri, shortly after the Civil War, a hoop snake stung the wooden tongue of an ox cart, which caused it to swell so large that the oxen couldn’t pull the wagon due to the weight of the swollen tongue. The only remedy was that it to be chopped back down to size with axes. This carving produced a couple cords of firewood, and a pile of shavings the size of a haystack. In other cases small trees or single logs have been swollen up so large that they can be sawed into enough boards to build a house. But one should always be careful while working with hoop snake stung wood, as the venom penetrates every fiber over time and it retains its deadliness even after years. In one case, an Arkansas carpenter working with the stuff picked up a splinter and thoughtlessly used it as a toothpick - the poor fellow died before sundown. While there’s no cure for the deadly venom of the hoop snake’s sting, apparently you can take the swell out of wood efficiently by painting it with turpentine.

Paul Bunyan holding a Peavey

Similar growth has occurred in tool handles, gun stocks, and just about anything else you can imagine. In an astounding account near the Great Lakes a hoop snake once stung one of Paul Bunyan’s giant peavey handles (a spiked lumberjack tool for turning logs). This handle was a huge tree trunk to begin with but it was said to have swelled into a log that Paul cut up into 946 cords of firewood, which sadly they found out wouldn’t burn, but rather just lay in the fireplace and hissed.

But perhaps the most amazing account of the effect of hoop snake venom occurred near Roark Creek in Southern Missouri when an Ozark hill man narrowly dodged the sting of an angry hoop snake and the snake’s stinger broke off in a flint boulder. The rock swelled, cracked, and popped and in two days it had grown into a large rocky knob of a mountain that even today is known as Hoop-Snake Mountain.

R. Ditmars, Herpetologist

While some of the stories of the hoop snake have undoubtedly been exaggerated over the years, the sheer number of sightings and persistent and total belief in this creature across such a wide area do indicate that this legendary creature must be based on some sort of fact. There were so many sightings of this creature that in the 1930’s the United States’ leading herpetologist, Raymond Ditmars, placed a $10,000 reward in trust in a New York City bank for the first person who produced definitive proof of the Hoop Snake. Ditmars was an incredibly popular naturalist, author, and nature documentarian of his time. He wrote the definitive book Reptiles of North America in 1936, the Field Book of North American Snakes in 1939, and many other seminal works on reptiles of the world. No one ever claimed the reward, and the hoop snake is still classified as a cryptozoological animal whose scientific name is (Serpenscirculosus caudavenenifer).

The hoop (or horn) snake is the oldest terrestrial cryptid in the United States. Interestingly the animal seems unknown to the Native Americans. It is uniquely English colonial in nature and its existence has been common knowledge along the East Coast and beyond for centuries. The first record of the horn snake was in John Josselyn’s 1665 book, An Account of Two Voyages to New-England (p. 22). In it Josselyn, staying near modern day Scarborough, reports killing over 80 of these he found emerging from a den near his house in mid-May of 1639. He describes “some of them as big as the small of my leg, black of colour, and three yards long, with a sharp horn on the tip of their tail two inches in length.” Josselyn was an English citizen and author, his brother was the Governor of the District of Maine. He spent years traveling around Maine and recording the customs, stories, and natural history of the area. The first account of the hoop-like tendencies of the horn snake was recorded in Stoke County North Carolina by John Ferdinand Smyth in his 1784 book, A Tour of the United States of America, Volume 1 (pp. 263-265).

The ouroboros, in a14th Century Greek manuscript.

Hoop snakes occur nowhere else in the world. However, they do resemble the ouroboros which is an ancient symbol of a snake or dragon swallowing itself and thereby creating a circle. The ouroboros is a fertility symbol and is also symbolic of a birth-life-death-rebirth renewal cycle rather than a real animal to be found in the world. The ouroboros dates back to ancient Egypt and was widely used across Europe after being adopted by Greek sorcerers and medieval alchemists everywhere. The hoop snake is a snake with a horn-like stinger and was first known as the horn snake, but it should not be confused with the widespread and powerful Native American Horned Serpent. This horned snake is a giant freshwater serpent from detailed accounts, stories, spiritual traditions, and petroglyphs of many, many Native American cultures from across the continent. This horned serpent has deer-like antlers on its head rather than a single spike-like horn on its tail like the hoop snake. The hoop snake does not appear in Native American stories and only one historical account mentions Native American lore about the treatment of venomous hoop snakes. This is likely a second hand account.

Many modern scientists and folklorists have suggested that the hoop snake is a merely a legend based on a mistaken identity of more common snakes. One that is often suggested is the Eastern Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) who is a thick black snake and known for gliding quickly down hills when it pursues its prey. However this large snake is a shy constrictor and nonvenomous. Another widespread snake that is a likely candidate is the black racer (Coluber constrictor), another non-venomous snake but the racer is widely believed by the public to be venomous due to its tendency to hold its head up and aggressively chase after those who disturb it. In the Southwest where the snake appears in Pecos Bill and other cowboy tall tales it has been suggested that the hoop snake is merely a proxy for the sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes), an oddly moving venomous rattlesnake that even has small horn shaped spikes over its eyes. In the Southeast there is an aquatic snake called the mud snake (Farancia abacura) which is black with a red belly, often forms looks with its body and even has a small spike on its tail. However this snake is primarily nocturnal and almost completely aquatic, almost never coming on land, and never venturing far from water when it does. None of these scientifically accepted snakes is a great match for the description of a hoop snake. And with such a wide sincere belief over hundreds of years in the country with countless people claiming to have seen them or even been chased by one, it hardly seems reasonable that there is not some truth to the existence of the hoop snake.

Pictured 1. Black Rat Snake, 2. Sidewinder, 3. Mud Snake

If you enjoy reading about New England's cryptids and fearsome critters like the hoop snake you should check out my new book, Mythical Creatures of Maine, where you can learn about many other lumberjack and guide creatures as well as modern Maine cryptids and creatures from the folklore and legends of sailors, the Wabanaki Native Americans, and French Canadians. It's available where ever fine books are sold, and anywhere online.

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They are definitely real. I was chased by a snake as a young boy that rolled after me. I was returning from the chicken house back to my grandmother's house when I saw a snake move in the grass beside me. I watched as it grasped it's tail in it's mouth, and started rolling towards me. This petrified me, and I quickly sprinted the 10 to 15 yards to grandma's back door and went straight to her and told her what had happened. She said it had been a racer snake, and I was in no danger. My blood now runs cold after realizing just how lucky I am to be alive. I'd never heard of this Hoop Snake until…

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