Missouri's Great Escaped Snake Scare of 1953 - Atlas Obscura
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Missouri’s Great Escaped Snake Scare of 1953

Between August and October, residents of Springfield fought off cobras with garden hoes.

A police office holding one of the cobras caught in Springfield, Missouri, in 1953. (Photo: Courtesy History Museum on the Square)

In 1953, Springfield, Missouri, was a city of about 65,000 people and at least 11 escaped Indian cobras slithering loose on the streets.

Between August and October, at least 11 of the snakes were either killed or captured in Springfield, much to the alarm of residents, many of whom fought back with a common gardening tool.

While a local pet shop was always suspected to be the source of the snakes, its owner denied any involvement. It would be 35 years until the person who set the reptiles free came forward.

The first cobra was spotted in a yard on August 15; the homeowner quickly killed it with his garden hoe. A week later, the same thing happened across the street. The police were called, and a local science teacher identified the species, native to a region thousands of miles away.

The police visited Mowrer Animal Company, the pet shop a block away. Reo Mowrer acknowledged he kept cobras, but said none had escaped.

As the weeks progressed, however, snakes kept appearing. The third, in a yard, was also dispatched with a hoe. The fourth, on a roadway, was run over repeatedly with a car. The fifth appeared in a woman’s garage, where she happened to keep her hoe. The sixth was captured by Mowrer himself near the shop.

Police officers searching for cobras in Springfield, as a crowd watches. (Photo: Courtesy History Museum on the Square)

The seventh cobra prompted the greatest response. A man saw it disappear beneath his house, and called the police. The chief arrived with a homemade “snake catcher,” a rope noose attached to a 10-foot pole. When it proved of little value, police threw a tear gas grenade under the house. The cobra came out, and was hit by five slugs from an officer’s pistol. But the reptile wasn’t quite dead. So the police got a garden hoe.

Mowrer was ordered to move his animals outside city limits. Antivenom was shipped in. The eighth cobra was crushed by a rock. The ninth, again, met a hoe. The city’s health director drove a truck around, blaring so-called “snake-charming” music. The tenth snake was killed that same day.

Mowrer denied involvement in the great snake escape up until his death in the 1970s, and locals assumed the chance of learning what really happened had passed with him. Then, in 1988, a man named Carl Barnett made a shocking statement in the Springfield News-Leader: “I’m the one that done it.”

Barnett had been 14 years old when the cobras appeared. After 35 years, he said, a friend had convinced him the community deserved an explanation. And an attorney had assured him he wouldn’t be charged.

An Indian Cobra up close. (Photo: Alina Sofia/saturated from original/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Barnett told the newspaper that Mowrer gave him an exotic fish in early August 1953, as part of a trade. But the fish died the first night Barnett brought it home, so he went back to complain. “He was just ugly about the deal and told me ‘That’s tough, kid’—get lost,’” Barnett recalled in the News-Leader.

Leaving the shop, Barnett saw a crate of snakes out back, and assumed they were harmless. He released them, and figured he and the shop were even. When the cobras began appearing, Barnett recalled, “I realized what I’d done, and I was scared to death. Every time someone mentioned the cobras, I just wilted.”

The 11th snake was captured on October 25, 1953, and taken to the local zoo. It died there two months later. For a while, residents feared more snakes would appear. But this was to be the last of the escaped snakes. The cobra scare was history.