This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
In a weird form of deja vu, it seemed like the last-known cobra from Springfield’s scare of 1953 had gone missing for a minute.
It resided for years in a glass display case in the lobby of Drury University’s Trustee Science Center, but the case — and the snake — are no longer there.
Preserved in a glass jar of eerie-looking green liquid, it alone remained to remind us of the time — now nearly 70 years ago — when the city was up in arms over a number of cobras that suddenly started slithering around town.
The story became big news. Reporters called the Queen City from overseas, and Life magazine even did a story. An image of a cobra was also temporarily added to Springfield’s city seal.
Several of the snakes, too, were preserved, which led to the last-known cobra from the scare making its way to Drury. (Where, spoiler alert, it still is. More on that in a moment.)
How the cobra scare began
Many in Springfield are aware of the cobra scare, which has become one of the city’s greatest real-life urban legends.
It all began in August 1953 when a snake was seen in Springfield. The four-and-a-half-foot-long creature was discovered in a neighborhood on east Olive Street and was killed with a hoe.
“Officers Raymond Sanders and Gabe Newman, summoned by a neighbor … took the body to headquarters, where other officers decided it looked like a cobra,” reported the Sunday News and Leader the next day. “A junior high science instructor said he believes the snake is a cobra or an asp.”
The discovery was puzzling and concerning, as both of those snake varieties are poisonous.
It was only the beginning: Over the course of three months, at least 10 snakes were killed in Springfield.
No one knew for sure at the time where they came from, although folks highly suspected a pet shop in town that specialized in exotic animals. Even though owner Reo Mowrer consistently denied that they could possibly be from his shop, the suspicions were confirmed around three decades later when a local man confessed to opening the crate of snakes. It was an act of passion for the then-young boy, who was mad at the shop owner over the sale of a fish that died.
But back in 1953, Springfield citizens’ concern and interest grew along with their creativity in capturing the creatures. Click here to learn more about these efforts, which Ozarks Alive wrote about in 2015.
As cold weather arrived, folks became a little more calm. There was some fear that snakes might make their way into the then-quarry at National Avenue and St. Louis Street, where it was warmer, and steam perpetually rose from the depths. But no other cobras were found, and Springfield seemed in the clear.
That month, a seven-foot-long boa constrictor was found underneath a house down the street from the same pet shop where the cobras got loose.
It’s also worth noting that the discovery apparently took place on the same day Springfield got a new police chief. Was it a remarkable coincidence or did fate have some help?
According to the Springfield Daily News, police were called to the scene. Officers shot it three times with a rifle and shotgun, hauled it to police headquarters, and people began pouring in from noon until midnight to see it.
“Visitors came in all shapes, sizes and ages,” noted the Daily News. “Some were babes in arms. One elderly man hobbled to the station on crutches. Finally, weary officers tacked cardboard signs throughout police headquarters, pointing the way to the snake and offering free admission.
“Two officers were specially detailed to guard the reptile and ordered to answer questions whether they knew the answers or not. Chief Pike and his successor, Troy Cleland, who took office at midnight, didn’t show up to view the prize, but several other city officials, including Councilman Ralph Thieme and City Attorney Gerald Gleason, did. The latter, who usually couches his every comment in careful legal terms, could only exclaim:
“‘Holy jumpin’ cats!’”
Where did the snakes go?
The dispatch of the captured snakes varied. But what was key: People wanted to see them, dead or alive. One — described as “stuffed” — made the rounds with Springfield students.
“All of the schools want it, but I don’t have time to take it around,” said Mayor W. L. English, through the Daily News, the day after his daughter spent three hours showing it to students at Rountree Elementary. “But I think all children should see it close up so they will be able to recognize one if they see it.”
Thousands, too, went to see one of the cobras, captured alive but with a neck injury, that was sent to Springfield’s Zoo Park. That’s where it lived the rest of its life, before dying in December 1953.
It became one of several preserved by Herbert Condray, a science teacher at then-Jarrett Junior High.
Joe Hill, now 82, doesn’t remember the process of pickling those cobras, but he does recall the day when one came to class. Hill was in junior high when one was delivered to Condray by the Springfield Police Department.
“They brought the snake and stretched it out there, and then we all lined up behind to have our picture taken,” he recalls.
And, despite a big hole in the snake, the group was in for a surprise.
“The snake raised its head,” Hill says. “Snakes are kind of funny creatures. I think they can be mortally wounded and still have reactions — you know, kind of like a chicken that’s killed. But, of course, that caused a commotion.”
Hill is unsure who or why the photo was taken, but Condray was a photographer himself, so it may have been the teacher who snapped the shot.
And he was the one who found himself the “snake handler” in the immediate aftermath of the scare. He pickled six of them and kept them at his home until the burden got to be too much.
“The family home on Belmont was plagued with sightseers,” noted the News and Leader. “At first, the snakes were kept on the back porch, but there were so many strangers stringing through the house that the collection had to be moved to the front porch.”
In February 1954, the six cobras — and the boa constrictor — were sent to new homes at local schools and the library.
What about that last one?
If they still exist, most of those snakes are now at large. However, somehow one of them came into the hands of former Greene County Sheriff Mickey Owen. In 1980, the sheriff donated it to Drury.
But where, now that the display case where it long lived, is gone?
It’s still there, Jasmine Cooper, Drury’s director of University Communications and Media Relations, tells me. It’s just in a different place.
“The cobra remains in the TSC,” writes Cooper in an email, referring to the Trustee Science Center. “We moved it to the natural history museum after we changed the display areas in the main atrium a few years ago to focus on student work.”
The natural history museum is a teaching museum for students, and not visible to the public, says Dr. Kevin Jansen, biology professor at Drury. However, there is a chance, he says, that the snake may be relocated back to a lobby display case in the future.
“The specimen is a good reminder of the (sometimes dangerous) interplay between humans and other species,” he says.
In the meantime, folks who wish to see what the snake looks like are directed to the Springfield-Greene County Library District, which created a 360-degree image of the reptile. To see the image, click here.
“Boa constrictor grabs limelight,” Joe Clayton, Springfield Daily News, Nov. 16, 1953
“Cobra captured here on Oct. 25 dies at Zoo Park,” Springfield Leader and Press, Dec. 26, 1953
“Cobra consultant sheds odd burden,” Jim Morrissey, Sunday News and Leader, Feb. 21, 1954
“‘Cobra’ killed in shrubbery,” Sunday News and Leader, Aug. 23, 1953
“Mums, cobra puzzle mayor,” Springfield Daily News, Nov. 6, 1953
“Springfield’s cobra scare of 1953,” Kaitlyn McConnell, Ozarks Alive, Sept. 8, 2015