Fact Check

Rattlesnake Fang in Boot

Rattlesnake fang embedded in a pair of boots kills owner after owner.

Published Sep 8, 1999


Legend:   A rattlesnake fang embedded in a pair of boots kills generations of owners.


[Brunvand, 1989]

There is a rancher or cowboy who stomps the head of a rattlesnake after stunning it with a rope or quirt. The man sickens and dies within days.

The man's son or nephew inherits the boots, and he too soon sickens and dies. Then yet another male relative begins to wear the boots, then dies. And so it goes until someone takes a good look at the heels on the boots and discovers the rattlesnake's fangs broken off and still seeping venom!

[Benton, 1937]

There's a crazy, far-fetched tale of an old cattleman who bought a new pair of boots. On his way home
from town he got off his horse for some reason or other and was bitten by a rattlesnake. He died. Some time later his son, seeing the old man's boots in a corner, put them on and went to work. That night he got sick, swelled up, and died. There was a scratch on one of his legs. Nobody knew why he died. A little later another member of the family put on the boots, which were still new. He died also with a scratch on his leg. I've forgotten how many people died from wearing the boots, but the tale has it that the mystery was finally solved by discovering a couple of rattlesnake fangs in the boots. They had broken off there when the old man had been bitten and had continued to bite all those who wore the boots later!

Variations:   The apocryphal boots of lore are often said to have killed three generations of the same family, or to have done away with three brothers.

Origins:   This

Cartoon of the legend

legend is even older than the 1937 print sighting (quoted above) would lead one to believe. Another sighting surfaces in a 1782 book, making it easily the oldest intact urban legend in existence.

Snake experts dismiss this story as mere lore due to what's known about the structure of rattlesnake fangs and the potency of that varmint's venom. Although people have been poisoned by the broken or shed fang of a rattler, the tip of such an implement is highly unlikely to contain enough dried venom to do serious damage to the victim, let alone strike him dead. Cases on record have the scratched victim experiencing throbbing and sharp pain in the injured extremity, but only for a few hours. For the injury to be fatal, a much larger amount of venom would have to be injected into the victim — a surface scratch by the tip of a fang would introduce only whatever venom happened to be present on the part of the fang's surface that caused the scratch.

Although there's no truth to the legend about a fatal pair of boots killing one family member after another, its underlying message that it always pays to be careful around rattlesnakes is worth heeding. Though a fang left that long in a boot wouldn't do much harm, supposedly "dead" snakes have been known to bite, sending a number of victims to the hospital every year.

Never assume the head of a decapitated snake

is safe to handle. Bites from dead snakes are more common than you might think, said Dr. Jeffrey R. Suchard, a medical toxicologist at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix. Nearly 15% (5 of 34) snakebite victims admitted to that hospital between June 1997 and April 1998 were bitten by dead snakes.

Documented cases of deceased slitherers' delivering fatal bites can be traced back several hundred years to Spanish explorers. In 1956, rattlesnake researcher L.M. Klauber published a study showing that rattlesnake heads are dangerous for 20 minutes to an hour after decapitation.

Says Bill Sloan of the Arizona Herpetological Association: "As you go down the evolutionary scale, the functions of the brain and functions of the body become a little more separated. There's a reflex action involved when you touch a snake's mouth. The fang is like a hypodermic needle. It's going to continue to work if you put your hand near it."

Which it did in the case of Justin Cluff:

[Arizona Republic, 1999]

Justin Cluff isn't surprised. The 21-year-old Queen Creek man could have died after picking up the decapitated head of a Mojave rattler a friend had shot with a .22-caliber rifle.

The snake head rallied and sank a fang into Cluff's knuckle.

"I had been around snakes so much I felt comfortable with them," Cluff said. "I guess I loosened up on my grip. That's when it bit me. The pain was terrible."

Cluff ended up losing part of his right index finger.

Barbara "fangs for the memory" Mikkelson

Last updated:   29 June 2007

  Sources Sources:

    Benton, Thomas Hart.   An Artist in America.

    New York: Robert M. McBride, 1937   (pp. 210-211).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Curses! Broiled Again!

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.   ISBN 0-393-30711-5   (pp. 76-78).

    Buckland, Francis.   Curiosities of Natural History (First Series, 4th ed.)

    London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1883   (p. 200).

    Ropp, Thomas.   "Dead Snakes Still Bite."

    The Arizona Republic.   June 24 1999   (p. A1).

  Sources Also told in:

    Cohen, Daniel.   The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.

    New York: Avon Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-380-77020-2
  (pp. 101-102).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.

    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 56).

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