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Cobras in Springfield, Missouri’s cobra scare of 1953

Rachel Kester

The summer of 1953 in Springfield, Missouri, was not one filled with the usual laid-back and fun summer activities. Instead, the atmosphere was one of fear.

Known as the Springfield Cobra Scare, the city turned terrified when the exotic snakes suddenly started showing up in people’s backyards.

The first cobra was found in a yard on August 15th and was originally believed to have been just some sort of strange occurrence. In fact, the Springfield Health Commissioner at the time even stated it wasn’t really a concern as “anything is possible in the Ozarks.”

At first, people weren’t aware that the snake was this venomous species; it was seen as a weird looking reptile no one in the area had laid eyes on before.

Satellite view of Springfield. Photo by Terraprints CC By 2.5

Satellite view of Springfield. Photo by Terraprints CC By 2.5

However, when the snake was brought to a local science teacher, he identified it as a cobra.

Because nobody was worried about it at first, the city had some fun with this.

The local newspaper ran a small article documenting the odd sight as interesting summer news. Local bars even created cobra cocktails.

Preserved cobra

Preserved cobra

However, things turned a bit more sinister as the summer went on. People kept finding these snakes in their yards, which caused concern for many families as they had kids and pets enjoying the season outdoors.

As cobras kept turning up in residential areas, police started to warn people to stay indoors to prevent possible tragedies.

People walking down the streets were seen carrying garden hoes to help protect them from possible attacks and some people even brought ice picks and guns with them to ward off any of these dangerous creatures that might suddenly spring out at them.

Springfield, Missouri

Springfield, Missouri

The Springfield city manager at the time, Del Caywood, even went as far as driving a truck around that blasted loud snake-charming music to encourage them to come slithering out of their hiding spots.

Eventually, the investigation into where these cobras originated took people to Reo Mowrer’s exotic pet shop.

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Police questioned him about the snakes and were skeptical of Mowrer’s denials, especially when people started to report seeing him frantically running around the area with a bag and stick, supposedly searching for 14 escaped reptiles.

Mowrer was ordered to move his animals out of the city. He was eventually run out of town when the public became very angry at him by his supposed carelessness. No one in the city was killed by a cobra, but there was still a great deal of resentment.

Antique illustration of Indian cobra (Naja naja)

Antique illustration of Indian cobra (Naja naja)

The cobras did start to disappear; by the end of the summer, eleven of them were killed and a few captured. One was caught and sent to a local zoo, while another one was preserved in a jar and sent to the nearby Drury University.

While the blame was laid with Mowrer, there were a few who were skeptical about his involvement in it due to his passionate denials.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the truth was finally uncovered about the great cobra scare. It turns out that Mowrer was telling the truth.

Close up of cobra. Photo by Dinesh Valke CC By 2.0

Close up of cobra. Photo by Dinesh Valke CC By 2.0

The pet store owner had nothing to do with it. Rather, he was the object of revenge by a 14-year-old at the time named Carl Barnett.

In an interview with the Springfield News-Leader in 1988, Barnett confessed to having opened the crate that held these cobras. He reportedly said he was feeling ripped off by Mowrer after his tropical fish died within a few days of his buying it.

Springfield, Missouri

Springfield, Missouri

He decided to let the snakes loose, thinking they were harmless ones, after Mowrer said he wouldn’t refund him for the dead fish.

During the interview, Barnett was extremely remorseful about his actions, saying how fearful he had become after realizing what he had done. Mowrer was dead by the time of his confession.

While the city eventually went back to its carefree ways later in the year, the great cobra escape of that summer left its mark on many who witnessed it.

Another story from us: In 19th century, Clark Stanley patented snake oil and advertised it as a painkiller, saying he had studied its wonders with the Hopi healers

Today, this event is still remembered in the city with various displays at its historical society about this strange and frightening summer and even some snake exhibits to help current residents learn more about it.

Rachel Kester is a freelance writer who has written for sites like 30A and Mystery Tribune and lives in the great state of Virginia.