Dances with Snakes: Infamous Bites

More than 8,000 people are bit by venomous snakes a year in the United States and 99% of these bites are from the Crotalidae (pitviper) family. Rattlesnakes are the most common culprit. Despite the large number of bites, there are only about a dozen deaths resulting from venomous snake bites annually. People just do not die all that often from tangling with snakes in North America.

All the same, Americans seem to love to hear and tell stories about people who have died by poisoned fangs.  Henry Rollins explores this allure in the “Fatal Obsession” episode of Animal Underworld. Rollins introduces the audience to a few people who might just meet their demise through their obsession eventually. If they do, they will be in infamous company.

Here are three well-known deaths from people who have “danced with snakes.”


At 39 years-old, the Queen of the Nile, known for her beauty and romance with the Romans took her own life purportedly by snake bite. Her lover, Roman leader Marc Antony, committed suicide following his losses at the Battle of Actium. Ancient texts state that two of her handmaidens died along with her in a peaceful and quiet death. The story has long been that her poison of choice was the bite of an asp, a snake that is called an Egyptian cobra today. (This is the same species of snake which briefly escaped from a Bronx Zoo reptile house enclosure in March 2011, prompting a prankster to start a hilarious Twitter account detailing the snake’s imagined adventures out on the town.)

While the story of Cleopatra’s death has long been held as fact, not all scientists agree. According to Christoph Schäfer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, Cleopatra would never had risked leaving a less than beautiful corpse and an Egyptian cobra is likely to be a grotesque and painful death. Schäfer felt that she would have used a poison plant mixture. Others note that the mixing of plant-based poisons was uncommon in that time period. A heavy dose of opium in addition to the snake bite would have done her in quickly and peacefully. Thousands of years of art depicting her entanglement with the asp suggest that it is humanity’s favorite version of the story.

Ragnar Lodbrok

Another half-legendary character in history who met his end through venomous reptiles was the Viking marauder Ragnar Lodbrok. During the mid-ninth century, Lodbrok pillaged Britain and France, garnering many enemies. This was in the high times of Viking conquest and the Norse Raider Lodbrok was well-known and despised by Aella, the King of Northumbria. Lodbrok was attacked by the king’s army which was far larger than the contingent of men he had with him and he was captured, most of his men killed. Aella had a special death in mind for Lodbrok, however. He threw him in a pit full of snakes. When the snakes wouldn’t immediately bite the Viking, Aella had him striped of his clothing. Flesh bared, the snakes quickly attacked him and Lodbrok died with snakes hanging off him at all sides. At least, that’s that favorite way his story is told.

Karl Schmidt

One of the most famous, yet certainly true stories was the death of famed herpetologist Dr. Karl P. Schmidt in 1957. Schmidt was examining an African boomslang when he was unexpectedly bit on the thumb. At the time, scientists did not realize the high toxicity of boomslang venom. The snake was young, only one fang broke the skin and Schmidt, though 67 years-old, was in excellent health. So he considered himself a science project rather than in need of immediate treatment.

A first-hand report of an untreated bite was considered of great value to the scientific community. So Schmidt fastidiously made notes on his condition.  The following day Schmidt reported that he felt fine, but by that afternoon, he was dead from respiratory arrest and cerebral hemorrhaging. His notes were published in Copeia a journal of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists. Schmidt’s demise quickly changed the mindset on the dangers of rear-fanged snakes. Today the boomslang ranks as one of the most dangerous snakes in Africa.

Humans and snakes have long history of romance and death. Many people are terrified by the possibilities of a snake bite, while others have a dangerous attractions to deadly serpents. Viewers can meet some of these individuals on Animal Underworld: Fatal Obsession.

Tune in to the three-part series Animal Underworld Monday, May 28th starting at 8P et/pt.


  1. Steve Bodio
    New Mexico
    July 18, 2012, 9:53 pm

    It is said that most bites by the tiny and unaggressive but rather neurotoxic rock rattler (Crotalus lepidus) have been on amateur or professional herpetologists.