New-York Historical Society

Snakes in the Mail

"General Surroundings at 'Potosina'", a mine Treadwell had an interest in, Durango, Mexico. MS 636, George A. Treadwell Papers.

Although he lived at the Waldorf-Astoria, died at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital and is interred at Green-Wood Cemetery, George A. Treadwell spent the bulk of his career as a mining engineer out west, much of it in the sweltering Arizona desert. Naturally, his papers document this mining work but they also contain some curious incoming letters regarding side interests in science and biology. The letters are proof that he came across some very interesting creatures while at work and that he had a propensity for sending many of those creatures on to James John Rivers, a curator at the University of California, Berkeley museum,  for study.

Just to clarify, yes, Treadwell sent live animals, though they didn’t always arrive in that state. All told, he sent quite a list of creepy crawlies too, including frogs, ants, beetles, numerous snakes, as well as a lizard or two and even a scorpion. Slightly less dramatically, he dabbled in botany as well, sending a specimen of the then newly discovered Arizona cypress.

From all appearances Treadwell was constantly on the lookout for something interesting, even while on business. He scribbled down his recollections of one occasion when riding with the cashier from the Santa Eulalia Mine to Chihuahua City, Mexico he spied “a beautiful silver gray snake slim + about 2 1/2 ft long.” He leapt from the buggy to corral the snake (that Rivers later identified as pityophis elegans) and stowed it in the barrel of his gun for safekeeping. Soon after, the cashier noted that “the ramrod is moving up” and sure enough, “quite limber like a snake [was] coming out the muzzel [sic].”

Now if you’re hung up on the logistics of sending live specimens in the mail, a 1902 biographical entry actually sheds some light. Predictably, it declares Treadwell’s mailings as “contrary to the postal laws” and while we could find no further discussion of the incident, it relates how one of his packages caused a stir after escaping at the post office in New York.

Letter from Sir John Lubbock to Treadwell, acknowledging receipt of the Gila Monster, July 13, 1882. MS 636, George A. Treadwell Papers

It seems he evaded arrest only because Arizona was an uninviting place for authorities to track him down. Instead, peace was restored after Treadwell agreed to cease his wriggly packages.When this happened isn’t entirely clear but based on a letter and the publication date of the bio, it would have been sometime between 1897 and 1902.

Treadwell’s letters from Rivers are complemented by several from Sir John Lubbock, an English banker, politician and scientist of some repute. They aren’t quite earth-shattering, but they do reference a rather intriguing episode of Treadwell’s hobby. On July 12, 1882, Lubbock wrote: “I have duly received your kind letter of the 3 June, + the ‘Monster’ which has duly come to hand + seems none the worse for the journey.” That “monster” Lubbock was referring to was a Heloderma suspectum, Helioderma horridum, or, a Gila Monster, that Treadwell had shipped all the way to London!

While the Gila Monster is not exceedingly dangerous, they are venomous; in 2008, a zoo keeper in New Mexico spent a week in the hospital after being bitten.  Not surprisingly, at the time the animal was still of great curiosity to scientists who were still undecided over the effects of its bite. Perhaps with that in mind, Lubbock subsequently passed the lizard onto the Zoological Society, and it didn’t take very long for a documented case. In the December 1882 issue of Nature, a keeper described the painful consequences of his negligence while handling the lizard. At least his misfortune proved that a Gila Monster bite was not necessarily fatal to humans.

"Helderma Horridum, or Gila Monster", a wood engraving in Scientific American Supplement of Sir John Lubbock's specimen taken from the London magazine The Field, 1882.

Curiosity aside, there is no indication that Treadwell and Rivers’ inquiries led to any major scientific breakthroughs, but neither were they un-practiced amateurs. Aspects of their correspondence reveal this; among them are Treadwell’s connection to Lubbock, a prominent man of science, and Rivers’ request that Treadwell provide Arizona cypress seeds to be sent to Sir Joseph Hooker, a leading botanist and director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Moreover, Rivers’ education at the University of London acquainted him with the likes of Huxley, Faraday and yes, Darwin.

Perhaps most indicative of the context in which the Treadwell-Rivers correspondence occurred is found in a letter by Rivers while he gushes over the giant whip scorpion in 1883. He writes “It[s] nature is just between a Scorpion and Tarantula and one of those things that would delight Mr. Darwin when he was living.”  The famed Charles Darwin had died the previous year but clearly his shadow lingered over these pursuits as it still often does today.

…And finally… Treadwell’s adventures with North American fauna is a nice segue into reminding everyone that Audubon’s watercolors will be making a return appearance in Aududon’s Aviary: Part I of the Complete Flock, opening on March 8th!

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