The Story of “Rattlesnake Pete”

April 15, 2013

Among the old-time snake hunters and peddlers of rattlesnake oil was Peter “Rattlesnake Pete” Gruber (1858–1932) (see first photo). As related in Arch Merrill’s Shadows on the Wall (1952), Pete was born in Oil City, Pennsylvania, the eldest of a pioneer oil refiner’s nine children. He would later claim, that, while a boy hiking in the local hills, he had come upon an old Indian woman from the Seneca reservation. Dragging behind her on a rope a big dead rattlesnake, she explained to Pete how she would extract the fatty oil, which was used to treat rheumatism, stiff joints, even earache—among other afflictions. Impressed by the boy’s interest, she even gave him the snake’s skin. Pete later learned from the Indians how to capture the rattlers, and from the medicine men how to use them for various folk remedies.

When his father left the oil business, “Rattlesnake Pete,” as he was now known, joined him in his new venture, operating a restaurant and saloon. Soon, Pete began to create a museum in the emporium. He displayed caged rattlers, then added a miniature oil well display—hand-whittled, painted, and assembled by Pete and his dentist friend “Doc” Reynolds. When a flood and fire struck Oil City in June 1892, Pete removed to Rochester where he established his own combined saloon and museum of curiosities (see second picture, a 1907 postcard).

In addition to rattlesnakes, copperheads, adders, and other serpents and reptiles, Pete exhibited alleged relics of notorious criminals like John Wilkes Booth and the James boys, including the ax used by a wife murderer. According to Mechanical Music Digest (http://www.mmdigest.com/), his collection also featured the “stony corpse of a petrified female,” the “first” electric chair, and the “first” nickelodeon piano (which Gruber claimed to have invented). Merrill mentions another device that promised to show “dancing girls,” but, after a man dropped a coin in the slot, a padded fist instead shot out to take a punch at him!

There are too many stories about Pete to tell here, but he devised his own method of extracting venom, once saved a circus clown from a rattlesnake bite, and treated his own numerous snake bites, 29 from rattlers and another 4 from copperheads. He was once bitten in an artery that left him unconscious for days and took nine months for him to fully recover. As well, writes Merrill, “Whenever any strange animals showed up in Rochester, Pete was sent for—to pick sinister looking lizards from banana shipments in the railroad yards, to capture monkeys escaped from a carnival, to kill snakes, invariably harmless ones, that householders found in their cellars.” He hunted snakes in the Bristol Hills and—for rattlers—returned to the mountains of his native Pennsylvania. Dressed head-to-toe in rattlesnake-skin clothes, Pete set off on his excursions in an open red Rambler which sported great brass-snake hood ornaments, accompanied by his big dogs (see last picture, another postcard, gift of Ken Andrews).

As far as I have learned, Pete never marketed a bottled snake-oil cure-all. However, he did sell both snake venom and snake oil—the latter to doctors, or perhaps “doctors.” He marketed snake skins, to be made into handbags and other items, while he himself used the tissue-like outer layer for poultices to treat boils and “blood poison.” He reportedly treated hundreds of goiter cases, wrapping a harmless variety of serpent about the sufferer’s neck, the massage from the writhings supposedly bringing relief.

When Prohibition came, Rattlesnake Pete “ignored it,” says Merrill. But on October 11, 1932, the old showman died. His collection of curios was sold at auction, and—as happens eventually to each of us—he became pure story.

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