Or, See Any Snakes Out There? by Randal Berry


(Originally published in the “Surratt Courier”. Oct. 2008)

Being a herpetologist by profession and a Lincoln assassination “buff” by hobby, I often wondered what reptiles and other animals John Wilkes Booth and David Herold might have encountered on the nights they stayed near the Zekiah Swamp.The Zekiah Swamp runs the length of Charles County in Southern Maryland and is part of the Wicomico River, which is one of Maryland’s designated “scenic” rivers (1). The word “Zekiah” is a derivative of “Sacaya,” which translates to “dense thicket.” The origin is from the Algonquin tribe.History has Booth and Herold leaving Dr. Mudd’s house in the early evening of April 15th, headed south towards the swamp. The evidence indicates that they stayed to the south/southeast of the swamp. It is possible that they were intending to go to the home of William Burtles, who was known to give shelter to Confederate agents and who could possibly guide them across the swamp (2). Lost and confused, they reached the home of Oswell [a.k.a. Oswald] Swann around 9 pm. Swann, a black tobacco farmer, owned fifty acres of land about two miles from Burtles’s place. The fugitives asked Swann to take them to Burtles, but on the way changed their minds and requested to be taken to the home of Samuel Cox, another underground character. Crossing a small section of Zekiah Swamp near the tiny community of Newtown, they arrived at Cox’s home, Rich Hill, very early in the morning on the 16th. Cox instructed his overseer, Franklin Robey, to hide Booth and Herold in a pine thicket on the west side of the swamp. There they would spend four days, with the nights being chilly and damp.I considered what animals they could have encountered while camping out. Could the creatures be potentially dangerous? Reptiles (such as snakes) are ectotherms, relying on warm, ambient temperatures for activity such as movement and seeking out prey to feed upon. When temperatures are as low as the mid-50s, snakes can’t digest food; thus they remain sluggish and seek warmth by taking cover in field debris such as fallen leaves, rotted and hollowed-out logs, etc. that litter the forest floor.The average temperature for Charles County in mid-April, 1865, was 57-degrees in the day and a chilly 44 at night (3). Most likely, they would not have encountered any snakes on such cold nights. However, the daytime temperatures were just about right for these snakes to be active!Maryland is home to twenty-seven species of snakes; however, only two of these are venomous. The Northern Copperhead and the Timber Rattlesnake are the bad guys. Zekiah Swamp is home to one potentially lethal snake, the Northern Copperhead. The Timber Rattlesnake inhabits northern Maryland. The Zekiah inherits “the good, the bad, and the ugly” as far as snakes are concerned (4).The snakes that are residents of the Zekiah, besides the venomous copperhead, are northern Water, King, Rat, Hognose, Green, and Milk snakes. All of these are harmless. However, they might appear menacing because a few of these species get rather large and mimic venomous snakes by flattening their heads and rattling their tails in dry leaves to simulate a rattlesnake’s behavior. I doubt that Booth and Herold knew the difference between a venomous and non-venomous snake. And, an attitude back in that day was, “That’s a snake! Kill it!” Booth and Herold were more likely camping right next to these well-camouflaged snakes and didn’t know it. Secretive and non-aggressive unless molested, the Northern Copperhead has a potentially fatal bite if envenomed. Remedies for snake bite back in the 1800s included excising the bite with a knife, carefully marking X marks at the fang penetration and squeezing the venom out. Another popular remedy was drinking whiskey – being careful not to pour too much on the wound to sanitize it, but saving most of it for “down the hatch.” I am reminded of a quote from comedian W.C. Fields, “I like to keep a bottle of stimulant handy in case I see a snake, which I also keep handy (5).”Booth and Herold would also have encountered mammals who do tolerate cooler climes, such as the Virginia Opossum, Striped Skunk, bats and beavers. Black Bears historically ranged in Charles County, Maryland, but were extirpated in the early 1800s, presumably for the fur trade (6).Some of these animals potentially carry rabies. A vaccine for rabies wasn’t available in the 1860s. In 1884, bacteriologist Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine for the disease. Prior to a vaccine, treatment consisted of washing the bite with soapy water and cauterizing it with a hot iron. However, most people died as a result of this virus, if not from an infection (7).I am reasonably certain that, while Booth and Herold were camping out, they heard things that go bump in the night and probably didn’t sleep very well with those noises going on. They also had to be alert for the sounds of hooves, as Union troops were searching for them.Imagine the scenarios if Booth or Herold were bitten by a copperhead or a rabid animal. One of them might never have made it out of the area, or one might have abandoned the other. If one did receive an injury, they probably would have changed their course and sought medical attention yet again. With his injured leg, Booth was already compromised health-wise. This would change history as we know it. The Garretts, Conger, Corbett, Baker, Doherty, etc. would possibly have never been heard of.Earlier this year, while on a Surratt Society’s John Wilkes Booth Escape Route Tour, I asked narrator Michael Kauffman if we could stop at the swamp and take a look around for a minute. Knowing what I wanted to do, he replied, “Not a chance!”

Sources:(1)Maryland Atlas of Greenways, Water Trails and Green Infrastructure. Maryland Greenways Commission. 2000 Edition.(2)Michael Kauffman, “Booth’s Escape Route, Lincoln’s Assassin on the Run,” Blue & Gray Magazine, Vol. VII, Issue 5, June 1990.(3)National Climatic Data Center, (Historical Temperatures)(4)Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Heritage Service(5)In Cory Fords, Time of Laughter, published by Marion Pitman’s Book, London, 1970.(6)Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife and Heritage Service(7)Rabies in Texas, A Historical Perspective, (pamphlet) Zoonosis Control Division of the Texas Department of Health, 100 West 49th street, Austin, Texas 78756.I would like to thank Laurie Verge, Director of Surratt House Museum, and eminent Lincoln assassination historian, Michael Kauffman, for their suggestions and encouragement

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