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The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley

Grace Olive Wiley was an unconventional herpetologist whose love affair with snakes—and resistance to safety standards—would end up costing her her life.

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Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library, used with permission.

For the first 30 years of her life, Grace Olive Wiley was deathly afraid of snakes—a strange trait for someone who would come to be known as the most celebrated snake woman of her time. As a child and young adult, she would blanch in horror at even the most harmless varieties. But the story goes that one day in the early 1920s, while working at the Minneapolis Museum of Natural History, a rattlesnake slithered across her hand as she was talking to a visitor. When the reptile didn't strike, she thought that perhaps all snakes could be tamed, and decided she wanted to know how.

It was the dawning moment in a career that would see Wiley amass a collection of over 300 snakes, open her own zoo, and make numerous herpetological breakthroughs—even as working with the creatures would end up costing Wiley her life.

From Bugs to Snakes

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Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library, used with permission.

Wiley started her career as an avid entomologist. Born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1883, she attended the University of Kansas to study insects. After she received her bachelor’s degree in entomology, she went on research trips in Texas, collecting insects, observing them, sending specimens back to the university, and cataloguing her findings. Based on these studies, she published two papers in The Kansas University Science Bulletin in 1922: “Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hempitera) Found in Kansas” and “Notes on the Biology of Curicta from Texas.”

Having shown herself to be a capable and an enthusiastic naturalist, in 1923 Wiley took a post as the curator of Minneapolis's Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Minneapolis Public Library, where she oversaw a collection of reptiles. After the encounter with the rattlesnake that opened her eyes to the potential of all scaly creatures, she built up a private collection—chiefly snakes, but also seemingly unlovable creatures such as the venomous Gila monster.

To tame her snakes, Wiley fashioned a petting stick padded with cloth that she used to stroke them. Gradually, as they became accustomed to touch, she found she could handle them with her fingers—even the venomous species. Wiley also cooed and spoke to her scaly charges, attempting to convey sympathy to them instead of fear. She later explained in a 1937 article called “Taming King Cobras” in Natural History Magazine that “[snakes] are not, as a rule, afraid to trust you first. They believe you are friendly, before you are convinced they have no desire to bite.”

Wiley published two papers in the Bulletin of the Antivenin Institute of America that detailed her success with taming rattlesnakes: the first in 1929 on western diamondbacks and the other in 1930 on a species of pit viper. She didn’t just tame the diamondbacks, however. She also bred two generations of them, becoming the first person to ever breed the species in captivity. Thanks to her work, herpetologists were able to learn the gestation period for diamondbacks and better understand when and under what conditions rattlesnakes lose the segments on their tails.

By 1933, Wiley had decided to make caring for reptiles her full-time job. She wrote a letter to Edward Bean, the director of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, with an unconventional pitch: She offered the zoo her private reptile collection of over 330 snakes (which included 115 species) in exchange for a job as curator of reptiles at the zoo. Bean accepted the offer, and the zoo set to work building a new reptile house to accommodate their large acquisition. It was rare for a woman to become a reptile curator—so rare that Wiley drew the attention of the national press, from the local Chicago Tribune to The Los Angeles Times, who praised the “lady herpetologist” for her new appointment.

Along with her snakes, Wiley also brought to the zoo her unorthodox methods. Against her superiors’ orders, she continued to handle the snakes without protection, and was generally lax with enclosure protocols. Her failure to close the snakes’ pens resulted in a series of 19 animals escaping, including a venomous Egyptian cobra and an Australian bandy-bandy. The latter escape reportedly disrupted the city, as mothers kept their children indoors and the police scoured the streets for the creature. The bandy-bandy was eventually found in a pile of dead leaves meant to be used as cage decorations.

Wiley had become a liability for the zoo, and the insurance payment resulting from the escape reportedly exceeded Wiley’s annual salary. Acting director Robert Bean fired Wiley in 1935—only two years after she had started.

Grace Olive Wiley's Last Photograph

Wiley left Chicago and moved with her mother to Long Beach, California, in 1937. There, she started her own roadside reptile zoo, which she named Grace Wiley — Reptiles, where visitors could pay to see her collection of cobras, Gila monsters, and monitor lizards. Without the rules and regulations of a formal zoo, Wiley allowed her reptiles—all 100 of them—to roam freely over the grounds. She earned extra money by loaning her tamed 15-foot king cobra, King, out to movie productions; the snake appeared in the Tarzan films, The Jungle Book, and Moon Over Burma.

In 1948, journalist Daniel Mannix visited the zoo to photograph Wiley’s collection. For dramatic effect, Mannix wanted a photograph of a cobra spreading its hood, but her tame cobras didn't spread their hoods—the gesture is usually only displayed out of intimidation or aggression. Instead of posing with one of her familiar cobras, Wiley decided to pose with an Indian cobra new to her collection. During the photo shoot, the Indian struck Wiley in the middle finger. According to a newspaper account of the event, Wiley calmly returned the cobra to its cage while she waited for an ambulance. She died 90 minutes after the bite at the age of 65.

Wiley’s dramatic death, along with her unconventional methods and eccentricities, have often eclipsed her contributions to science. Some scholars have written that it's tempting to see her as more of a showman than as a serious scientist concerned with facts and experiments. Wiley, however, did care about facts, and she contributed quite a few to the study of both insects and snakes. Her detailed notes and observations of the rattlesnakes she kept in captivity helped scientists better understand their breeding, psychology, and development. She also discovered a new species of water strider, and contributed insect specimens to the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions.

Yet sometimes, Wiley found that facts weren’t enough to explain something, and she embraced the unknown. “One may study and observe and know a great many facts,” she wrote in her 1937 article, “but when it comes to the how and the why, one finds one has little knowledge and a great deal of wonderment.”

Leila McNeill is a historian, freelance writer, and editor in chief for Lady Science Magazine. She writes about women, gender, and the history of science, medicine, and technology for Smithsonianmag.com.