The Journal Gazette
 
 
Thursday, May 30, 2019 1:00 am

June 1952: Hunting for a giant snake

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

A monster-sized reptile. A posse. People bolting their doors in terror.

The subject of today's column, suggested by a reader, has all the makings of a 1950s creature feature: “It Came From Beneath the St. Joseph: The Curse of the Slithering Serpent” or some such title.

But this story doesn't begin with a young couple breaking curfew to fumble through a swamp at midnight while eyes catch a spooky glint of moonlight as they peek out of the shadows. There are no alien saucers, no Godzilla, no body snatchers, no forbidden planet.

Cue the cliché “memory ripple” effect, and let me take you back to June 13, 1952.

Our setting is Fort Wayne. It is broad daylight as the D.A. Crance family drives down California Road.

Mrs. Crance, whose passengers include her two children, stops the car when she sees a log across the road ahead. As she ponders what to do, one end of the “log” rises three feet off the road!

“It had a head like a bulldog,” she later said of what she reported was a “sickly blue” snake that stretched all the way across the road, at least 18 feet long and 5 inches around.

The next day, about 100 hunters search the area on foot with the aid of trucks and airplanes. There are people from local conservation clubs, the parks department and even the Sheriff's Mounted Posse – yes, that was a thing – searching on horseback.

Coming only a few years after a hunt for a giant turtle in Churubusco, one wire service says “The Indiana monster season is on” as it shares the story nationwide for readers eager to learn more about the hunt for “Pete the Python” (probably not a blockbuster monster-movie moniker).

After a day of climbing through the knolls and swamps of northwest suburban Fort Wayne, the hunters believe they have tracked the snake's lair to a square mile bordered by U.S. 30 and California, Butler and Hillegas roads, so they prepare a trap. But so many spectators turn out, that Sheriff Harold S. Zeis delays it a day.

Not everyone is eager to watch the hunt.

The sheriff's office is being besieged by terrified callers including one woman who tells them she has barred all her doors and windows but is “smothering to death” in the hot, humid June weather.

The sheriff's department tries to reassure callers. The hunters are confident they will catch the snake.

But is Pete real?

Indiana State Police check, without success, to find out whether any traveling zoos or carnivals have lost any giant snakes.

Some farm workers and residents say they have seen large blue racer snakes in the area, sometimes spooking horses. One farm worker reports killing a 7-foot blue racer only a month earlier. Another resident, a sheriff's deputy, says there is a 12-foot racer out there.

A Chicago-area reptile expert says it could be a pilot black snake, which is native to Indiana but only grows to about 6 feet. A python grows longer and has a blue iridescence, “but they don't have heads the size of bulldogs,” he says.

The Crances stick to their story. On the night of June 16, another sighting is reported.

Three motorists traveling along Parnell Avenue near the 2-year-old Memorial Coliseum spotted something large along the side of the road.

“It looked like a fire hose,” says Eugene Le Favour, who considered himself a skeptic until he saw Pete with his own eyes. He and the Schnieders sisters he was driving say they only saw about 8 to 10 feet of the snake, and their descriptions are contradictory as to the color of the reptile.

But it gives the snake-hunters a new area to search, and they soon arrive with floodlights and head off into the night.

And this is where our story ends.

I know, I know – I hate a cliffhanger ending, too. But maybe you can help me with the sequel to this creature feature.

I've searched The Journal Gazette's archives several weeks after the June 16 sighting, and there is nothing more about the snake. A couple kids created a fake Pete out of canvas and tried to scare drivers, but that's it.

Do you remember what happened in the snake search? Let me know!

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or cmcmaken@jg.net.

 

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The following stories appeared in The Journal Gazette:

“Lair Of 'Pete The Python' Believed Found; Trap Set,” by Wesley D. Rashore, June 15, 1952

A bedraggled group of thorn-scratched, mosquito-bitten, mud-spattered snake hunters, some 100 strong, clambered over knolls and through swamps of northwest suburban Fort Wayne yesterday on one of the biggest, most elaborate hunts in the city's history.

They hope to snare their quarry today.

Called into action were foot-slogging volunteers from conservation clubs, the Izaak Walton League, the Sheriff's Emergency Reserves and the Sheriff's Deputies, the Sheriff's Mounted Posse, airplanes, trucks, and walkie-talkies – and five beagle hounds.

The hunt might seem strangely reminiscent of the 'Busco Turtle fiasco, but officials are confident of having proof today. “The Indiana monster season is on,” was the way one wire service put it.

Prey of the hunters was the reputed 18-foot snake reported seen Friday on the California Road by the D.A. Crance family.

A trap is being readied to be spring on the elusive reptile this afternoon – beginning at 1 p.m.

The hunters believe they have tracked the snake down to its probable lair in the square mile bounded by the California Road, U.S. Highway 30, the Butler Road and the Hillegas Road.

More specifically, Sheriff Harold S. Zeis said, the evidence uncovered yesterday appears to limit the snake's normal habitat to the Parker Whiting farm on the Butler Road.

This farm is almost due south of the spot where the Crances first encountered the reptile. At first, they thought a log had fallen across the road. They stopped their car. Then the “log” reared its head about the height of the radiator cap.

“It had a head like a bulldog,” Mrs. Crance said at the time. She added that it stretched across the complete width of the road, about 18-feet wide. She estimated its diameter to be about five inches.

After a quick glance the snake slithered off into the bushes. The Crances, whose two children were also in the car, said it was a “sickly blue” color.

“Apparently it has been living in the hollows in the area for years,” Sheriff Zeis said. “Probably living off the wildlife, chickens and pigs, and making its home in muskrat holes or haymows during the winter.

Earlier reports Friday night and Saturday morning had the reptile headed toward Franke Park. The park was strangely deserted of picknickers yesterday.

“Parents can breath easier today, though,” Zeis commented confidently. “The park has been searched thoroughly and no evidence of the snake was found.”

Besides, the sheriff, who commanded his forces from the air yesterday afternoon, said he could see the members of the 293rd Infantry Regiment of the National Guard in maneuvers in the park. “They were swarming over the whole park on the west,” he said. “They've got guns.”

“The only evidence found by hunters was pointed towards the Whiting farm. The crawling path was discernible by the way the weeds lay. Zeis said they found one spot where the snake had crawled through a fence.

The path led up tot he fence and the tall weeks had been pushed over the lower strand of wire where the reptile had slithered across the barricade. They also found a spot where it had coiled up for a while.

Charles Prange, who farms the Whiting farm, said the snake had been seen in the area, off and on, for years. He said he was driving a team of horses and a wagon through a field there about 10 years ago, when the snake reared up under the wagon. The horses, in turn, reared, and bolted. Other old-timers in the area relate similar stories.

The trap today will differ from yesterday's search, according to the sheriff's plans. The searchers, playing on the snake's psychology, will use a waiting game with human bait.

They'll be stationed at different spots over the farm and then wait for the reptile to show itself. How long they'll have to fight off mosquitoes was not estimated.

They're going to try to capture it alive, but just how this is to be done “depends on the circumstances,” according to the sheriff.

Yesterday's search was systematic, and began only after a “skull session” at the county jail. An outline map of the terrain was drawn. The eager safari was divided into five groups, each of which began at different points drawn on the map.

One group started out where the Crance family encountered the “python” and tracked it across the Harry Stolte farm on the Hillegas Road onto the Prange place on the Butler Road. They were the only successful searching party, as far as snake tracks were concerned.

Another group followed Spy Run Creek out from the city – one resident of which reported seeing it on Edgewater Avenue, which runs along the creek within the city. They wended their way out to Cambridge Boulevard where it joins U.S. 30.

One took off from Cambridge Boulevard and wallowed its way to the Butler Road and the Neuhaus Ditch. Another started at the Butler Road and Neuhaus Ditch and headed toward the Whiting farm.

The fifth group was the sheriff's mounted posse, which combed Franke Park, Spy Run Creek and the Neuhaus Ditch. The posse of nine to 12 horses, headed by Lt. Charles Morrow, suffered one casualty in the chase. That was Carl Gaby, whose horse stepped in a swampy hole north of the park and rolled over. Neither Gaby nor the horse was seriously hurt.

The Crances, who live on R.R. 3, also made up a party for the search. The Crances are the only ones with a description of the snake.

“The worst part of the hunt,” Lt. Morrow said, “was the mosquitoes. They were that long,” and he measured out two inches with his fingers to emphasize his point. The horses were glistening with sweat when called off the hunt at about 4:30 p.m.

Richard Price, Franke Park superintendent, had organized a group of park department workers and volunteers during the morning and had made a through search of the northwest section of the park. The mounted posse, when they joined the hunt at noon, took up where the other group left off.

Superintendent Price said he was taking few chances in letting nay of his famed wildlife charges fall prey to a snake's appetite. But he had so many gun-bearing volunteers – some carrying 410's – in his party that he dissolved it at noon.

“There were too many rifles and guns in that group to have them wandering around a public park,” he said. “We covered the grounds good. But the brush is so thick in the hollows that had the snake been there, we could easily have passed him by.”

Indiana State Police checked yesterday to see if any travelling zoos or carnivals had lost any reptilian exhibit, but without success. It was pointed out that some show could well have lost the reptile and conveniently neglected to report the loss because of liability in such cases.

The sheriff's office has been besieged by terrified ladies. They attempt to calm their fears, but admit it is sometimes difficult. Particularly in the case of the woman who called to tell them she had barred all her doors and windows but was “smothering to death.”

And the search has resulted in more traffic than those roads have seen in years.

“I hope they aren't slammed tomorrow,” Sheriff Zeis said last night.

Robert Sneidgar, curator of reptiles at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago, had some comment last night about seeing snakes.

He said the Crances may actually have seen a pilot black snake, which is blue-black in color, but grows only six-feet long. It is native to Indiana.

A python, he said, grows longer and has a blue iridescence, “but they don't have heads the size of bulldogs.”

Most people, he said, “always see snakes as longer and more frightful than they actually are.”

The Crances vehemently stick to their story.

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“Police Set Trap Today For Snake,” June 16, 1952

A trap for a giant snake, reportedly 18 feed in length with “a head like a bulldog,” will be set up today northwest of the city,” Sheriff Harold S. Zeis advised last night.

The sheriff said there were too many spectators in the area yesterday, so the hunt for the huge reptile was called off temporarily.

Sheriff's deputies at the jail said newspapers over the country and local residents called repeatedly to inquire if the reptile had been captured.

More than 100 volunteer snake hunters – members of the conservation clubs, Izaak Walton League, Sheriff's Emergency Reserves, Sheriff's Mounted Posse and Sheriff's deputies and five beagle dogs – joined in the widespread search Saturday.

Sheriff Zeis said a trap for the king-size reptile, which was reportedly first seen Friday morning on the California Road by the D.A. Crance family, would be set up today.

Saturday Sheriff Zeis said evidence of the snake's presence pointed to the area bounded by the California Road, U.S. Highway 30, the Butler Road and the Hillegas Road. The reptiles natural habitat – if there is such a reptile – appeared to be the Parker Whiting farm on the Butler Road.

“I've seen a lot of snakes around here, but none that big,” Charles Meyers, superintendent of the Whiting farm, said yesterday.

Meyers said blue racers are quite common in the area. He added that he killed one about seven feet long a month ago. Throngs of sight-seers in cars rode through the area northwest of the city yesterday but found little excitement in connection with the snake hunt.

The sheriff last night said the trap would consist of a number of details stationed at intervals over the Whiting farm to “sit and wait” for the mammoth snake to show itself. He said another swamp – a likely spot for the reptile to be found – is located on the Clarence James farm on the Butler Road.

Although a number of persons began to voice skepticism regarding the presence of an 18-foot snake in the community, Sheriff Zeis said he was convinced there is truth in the report. He said a deputy who lived in that section acknowledged that there have been previous reports of a giant reptile.

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“'Pete The Python' Comes Out of Hiding,” June 17, 1952

“Pete” the python, an illusive reptile of “fire hose” proportions, reportedly was sighted again at the northern edge of the city last night.

Three young persons said they spotted what appeared to be a huge snake in the glare of the headlights of their car on Parnell Avenue about 200 yards south of the California Road. That was at 9:15 p.m.

Eugene Le Favour, 21, of 2420 Cambridge Blvd., a shipping dispatcher with the General Electric Company here, said he stopped his car immediately.

“I was curious to see what it was,” Eugene said. “It looked like a fire hose.”

Violet Schneiders, 22, and Marguerite Schnieders, 17, sisters, both of 228 S. Seminold Circle, who were riding with Le Favour, confirmed seeing what at first looked like a “two-by-four half out of the road.”

“Nobody said anything until we saw it move,” Violet asserted. “Then somebody – it wasn't me – blurted, 'That must be the snake.'”

Le Favour and the two girls said they're convinced they saw only about half of the reptile as it slithered off the road in a westerly direction and into the underbush. They said the part they saw was about eight or 10 feet in length.

“When I first stopped the car I expected that someone was pulling a trick of some kind by pulling a large rope or something across the road,” La Favour related. “I got out of the car expecting to find a couple of children but there were none.”

Le Favour explained that before getting out of his car he parked it off the road with the headlights playing on the spot where the reptile disappeared.

All three occupants of the car described the snake's movement as “very slow.” Le Favour estimated that it took the reptile about 30 seconds to disappear into the underbrush.

Le Favour and the two girls immediately drove to a house near the Parnell Bridge and called the Sheriff's Department reporting what they had seen.

Sheriff Harold S. Zeis, who Saturday directed a widespread search northwest of the city for an 18-foot snake which was first reportedly sighted Friday morning on the California Road by the D. A. Crance family, R.R. 3, immediately headed for the scene and mounted floodlights for a search of the area near Parnell Avenue opposite the Coliseum.

“I thought it looked like a big firehose, too,” Marguerite Schnieders said in describing the object seen on the road. “I was convinced it was a snake. I wouldn't get out of the car.”

Le Favour explained that, before calling the Sheriff's Department, he got out of the car with his flashlight and examined the side of the road where the snake disappeared.

“There was grass and weeds by the edge of the road and some trees about 15 feet off the road,” he said. “You could see where the grass and weeds was sorta laid over and a path about the size of a tire in the loose gravel.”

Stories of the three young people differ slightly as to the color of the reported snake.

“I thought it looked toast-colored,” Violet Schnieders related.

Le Favour said “it looked whitish in color.” Crance's report last Friday described a reptile of “sickly blue color.”

Only one of the trio confirmed hearing any sound as the snake crawled into the underbrush at the side of the road.

“I thought I heard a rustling in the grass and a snapping of some twigs,” Marguerite Schnieders asserted.

Le Favour said that when he first read about the huge snake reported on the California Road he believed the story to be a hoax.

“But I'm convinced now there's something in it,” he said. “I've never been afraid of snakes. I used to catch some myself, but I don't want anything to do with snakes that size.”

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“Snake-Hunters Need Insect-Proof Uniforms To Stand An Even Chance,” June 17, 1952

Allen County's snake hunt took a new twist last night. If it continues much longer, the sheriff will have to provide his posse with insect-proof uniforms.

For the fresh posse which beat about the new Memorial Coliseum northeast of the city early today, Sheriff Harold S. Zeis provided heavy dungarees. But this was little facial protection against the mosquitoes and bugs attracted to the snake hunt by a battery of floodlights.

The sheriff reported early today that the track of a snake had been found on the berm of the highway. But the trail disappeared in a field. During the initial search, the sheriff and his deputies thought they heard a rustling in the boughs of a tree near the scene of the latest reported snake bivouac. The posse returned to the jail for the special uniforms and more floodlights.

“This thing is getting to be a problem,” the sheriff commented between searches. “For one thing, we'll have to have protective clothing if something doesn't develop soon. The insects are a serious handicap in making the search.”

Richard Opliger, 19, of the Milner Hotel, a fisherman, was mooring his boat in the St. Joseph River as the sheriff's posse moved across the rough ground with their lighting equipment. Opliger said he was deathly afraid of snakes. “I would have walked across that field to the road,” he confessed, “but now I won't, lights or not.”

As the sheriff stretched into his dungarees back at the jail while the new search was readied, a deputy handed him a letter. It was from Suzanne Shaffner, of Winston-Salem, N.C. Suzanne is interested in snakes, and she has all sorts of samples, according to the letter.

She thinks Pete the Python is just a big blue racer. But she wants the snake, dead or alive, if and when it is caught.

The sheriff's department also is aware that the granddaddy of all blue racers has been squirming about a farm area northwest of the city for many years. Deputy Sheriff Al Hitzeman, a resident of the neighborhood for 60 years, says the racer is 12 feet long, and has been scaring horses for the last 20 years that he remembers. It last made an appearance about five years ago, he said.

Sheriff Zeis said Miss Shaffner's request probably will be honored when he gets to it.

There is a postscript to her letter:

“I would just as soon have the snake dead.”

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“Big Snake Captured – On Canvas,” June 18, 1952

There was a lull in Allen County's snake hunt yesterday, but three youngsters with a 15-foot canvas replica of a serpent tried to promote a new safari last night.

The huge snake the youngsters rigged up was daubed realistically with green and brown paint. Red reflector beads were attached to the head for eyes. It was repeatedly dragged over the Johnny Appleseed Bridge and across North Anthony Boulevard Extended.

It caused a lot of passing motorists to chuckle, but no alarm.

The search for the real thing turned to a roadway past the new Memorial Coliseum late Monday night when three young motorists reported seeing a large reptile slither across the pavement into the ditch. A sheriff's posse, armed with mosquito oil, shotguns and floodlights turned up nothing after searching the area for several hours.

Some followers of the hunt still believe that the snake, if trapped, will prove to be a giant blue racer known to have been frequenting a rural area northwest of Fort Wayne for a number of years.

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