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The Great Cottonmouth-Catching Get-Rich-Quick Scheme of 1956

As a reptile-obsessed teen, I ran away to hunt lizards in the Everglades, then hatched a plan to milk venom from deadly snakes. It went even more comically wrong than you're thinking.

The Great Cottonmouth-Catching Get-Rich-Quick Scheme of 1956

Like many adventures, it began with faulty research. Dried snake venom could bring upward of $400 an ounce, said a newspaper article.

For a 15-year-old in 1956, that was a princely sum, nearly $4,000 in today’s dollars.

In my tender teenage years, more than one get-rich-quick scheme shook their flashy lures and hooked me on their shiny, sharp barbs. Despite comic and cosmic serial failures, coupled with persistent pig-headedness, nothing kept me from seeking the next shortcut to wealth — least of all, learning from experiences. This one seemed a sure thing.

The mystique and power of serpents reared early for me — in grammar school. A classmate showed me where to catch harmless DeKay’s snakes underneath plywood, boards and other clutter in fields. Turning over a piece of debris, sometimes two to four of these docile brown guys lay tightly coiled side by side, rarely a foot long.

Gently, I would lift them from their hiding places with my fingers, and as they attempted to slither away I’d let them go from palm to palm, as if on a treadmill of endless steps made from hands. Deposited in a shirt pocket, they seemed content in darkness for hours, mammalian body warmth heating reptilian cold blood.

Even a worm-sized snake provokes instant, instinctual recoil in many people. I enjoyed the squeals and squeaks of terror when pretending to throw them on the girls I thought were pretty, or pretending to drop one down the backs of their blouses.

These little brown snakes were an introduction to the larger, fascinating serpentine kingdom. A close friend in my North Carolina high school, John, was a serious amateur herpetologist, meticulously studying and drawing the snakes he caught, including poisonous ones — copperheads, rattlesnakes and “cottonmouth” water moccasins. He showed me how to catch and handle them, and more importantly how to distinguish poisonous ones from those that weren’t.

I too began to collect them and “pickle” the specimens in jars of alcohol in a makeshift “snake lab” in the attic. My parents allowed the lab on one nonnegotiable condition — never, ever, ever bring a live snake into the house. Of course, I occasionally violated that rule under the ruse of scientific study. Once, a near record-size copperhead nearly got loose in the attic insulation.  Sheer panic and a quick barehanded grab of his tail kept him from disappearing into the rafters, and me from being thrown out of the house.

Ross Allen extracting snake venom during an exhibition at his Reptile Institute in Silver Springs. (Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

At age 14, Elizabeth City, North Carolina, seemed boring, without much promise. Myself and Richard L., a school friend and fellow newspaper carrier, hatched a bold plan for a wider and wilder adventure. Secretly, on the chosen day, we sold our bikes and emptied our small savings accounts accrued from paper routes. The total came to $74. Without telling our parents, we hitchhiked 750 miles south to central Florida. I had convinced my friend and fellow runaway that we could live in the Everglades and I would catch snakes and alligators and sell them to Ross Allen, the world-famous herpetologist whose science and research into antivenin (antivenom serum) was hailed with acclaim. During World War II, he’d helped develop a powder made of dried venom and antibodies for soldiers to carry and use against the menace of snakebites. His Florida reptile institute had become a major tourist attraction where visitors could gaze at the animal life through glass-bottom boats.

Richard was deathly afraid of snakes, but my over-the-top confidence somehow convinced him this was a viable plan. We caught a ride with a man who seemed probably on the lam from the law, judging from how paranoid he was. Fast driving, constantly watching the rearview. Caught in a speed trap at the Georgia line, he asked us to help him out with the fine. We gave him $20 of our dwindling cash. The next night, in Daytona Beach, we spent a boodle on bumper cars, riding hours without a thought to the morrow. Next we hitched to Ocala, about six miles from Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute at Silver Springs. I had read so much about Allen’s Reptile Institute, I could not wait to get there.

When we reached the gate, a deputy sheriff asked us a few questions, then called us both by name and grabbed us firmly by the arms. My father had figured out where we might go and called. Instead of sending us home, the deputy led us inside. He told us my father’s wishes were to leave us alone, to let us find reality on our own.

Inside, we were told Ross was off on an expedition but his son would see us. Tom Allen was a kind man whose eyes twinkled when I told my tale of going to live in the Everglades and subsist on the reptiles we would sell him. He agreed to buy all we could catch.

An excerpt from a film showing Ross Allen with some of the animals at his Reptile Institute. (Video courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

For three days, we had the run of the place, courtesy of Tom Allen. We saw all the shows free — the alligator wrestling and rattlesnake wrangling. Of special interest to me was the daily “milking” of snake venom. To show tourists nothing was fake, the snake wrangler blew up a balloon and dangled it in front of a coiled six-foot eastern diamondback rattler. In a heartbeat, that rattlesnake struck. Pop! went the balloon, making startled tourists jump. We enjoyed every minute of it.

One of my most vivid memories of our time there is of Old Moss, a 16-foot alligator kept in a small pen with a tiny pond surrounded by low chicken wire. I’d never seen Old Moss move, and I was beginning to think a taxidermist had stuffed him for display. When no one was looking, I picked up a discarded Dixie cup, tightly balled it up, and threw it lightly at Old Moss’s head. The paper cup hit right between the eyes and bounced about six inches off the monster gator’s head. Like lightning, Old Moss rose, and in an instant snapped his massive, powerful jaws shut on that cup in midair. And I had been thinking about stepping over the fence into his pen to poke him.

Just like my father had envisioned, we quickly realized the reality of being two teens without a clue, a real plan or any money. Richard and I were staying in a rundown Ocala rooming house for 50 cents a night (25 cents apiece). On our next-to-last day there, we were broke, had eaten nothing for more than 48 hours, and were behind on paying for the room. We went into the woods at dawn, after “borrowing” a pillowcase from the bed. I spent about 14 hours in the woods catching lizards. They were everywhere in those woods. Richard’s one job was to carry the pillowcase full of lizards. Although I didn’t count them, I’m guessing there were close to a hundred in that pillowcase by the end of the day. Ross Allen would pay us a nickel for each lizard. It felt like easy money and, our first priority, a decent meal.

At day’s end, with a full sack of lizards, tired, we lay down in the piney woods and batted around juicy entrées we were planning to eat that night. Steak for Richard and BBQ for me.

After resting a spell, I said to Richard, “let’s go turn all these lizards in to Ross Allen, get paid and head to a good restaurant.” Richard was all in. He picked up the pillowcase, but the cotton bag sagged limp and empty in his hand.

“Where’d they all go?” he asked. Every single one of the lizards had run out of the unsecured pillowcase and returned to the wild.

I had to restrain myself from whacking him. Restraint was aided by his size — much bigger than myself. The whack back would hurt.

It was getting dark, so in the fading light, I caught four more lizards and sold them to Ross Allen’s people. We took our 20 cents and set out to hitchhike back to Ocala.

Where the trail met the highway, an orange juice stand was open with a sign: “All You Can Drink! 10 Cents.” We paid our 20 cents and serially chugged down two full pitchers of OJ, over the continual growling noises of protest from the appalled operator.

We walked to the highway. About 20 feet from the stand, we both began to upchuck, in unison, projecting twin golden streams of barely digested juice.

After deciding to call it quits, we’d snuck out of the rooming house early, still owing a couple of bucks we didn’t have. There we were, hitchhiking in Ocala’s early morning sunlight. Richard stood on one side of the highway heading south, on his way to see his divorced mother in the Miami area, about 300 miles away. I was across the road hitchhiking, heading north, back home to North Carolina. Richard got a ride first. I didn’t knew what lonesome and vulnerable was until I watched Richard disappear in a stranger’s car, while I, at age 14, stood on the lonely highway with my thumb out, not a penny in my pocket, finally aware of just how tenuous my position was.

But I was lucky and caught rides pretty quickly. One family picked me up and took me as far as the Georgia line. Along the way, they stopped for dinner. I said I would wait outside the restaurant. The father said OK, but the mother asked if I was broke. I was so hungry I couldn’t lie to that kind woman, and I told the truth. They bought me a hamburger steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. If I could have, I would have given that restaurant Michelin’s five stars, and that mother something nice.

By 2 a.m., I was hitchhiking on a dark highway in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, just shy of 300 miles from home. A police cruiser drove up, and one of the officers asked if I had any identification. Summoning a fake swagger, I said, “Absolutely, Officer.” I pulled a card from my wallet that read:

“This certifies Ronnie Gollobin is a member of the Elizabeth City Teen Club.”

It had no picture, no state, no date, no official stamp or imprimatur. I had signed it in pencil.

“Come with us,” the officers said.

At the police station, the older officer of the two said, “Son, follow me.” He walked into a cell with me right behind. I thought he was giving me a tour of the place. As I was looking the cell over, he walked out, locked the steel door and disappeared without another word. I was in jail!

In the morning, they let me call my father, a dentist. He was not pleased to have to cancel all of his appointments for the day to make a round trip of nearly 600 miles to pick up his prodigal son, but he did.

Most of our ride home was in silence. He never asked one word about my adventures, and I didn’t volunteer any info. I was regretting the end of my too-short and most wonderful time being wild and free. I should have been ashamed, but wasn’t.

After we stopped for a burger — I ate three — my father said, “Son, you are a damned hellion. My poor mother wished one on me, just like me. Jesus, I was bad, but I never thought I would get one three times worse.”

I didn’t know if I was imagining it, but it seemed there was a slight sense of admiration in the way he said it.

Back home, at every juncture, my younger brother referred to me as “Jailbird” and taunted me with the question, “Ron, what kind of bird doesn’t fly?” The Florida adventure had not ended as I pictured. In fact, it fairly could’ve been labeled a failure, except for coming back alive.

After eating humble pie for a few days, I came across that newspaper article about the $400 price for an ounce of dried snake venom. That article lit the fuse on a brand-new adventure, this one certain to lead to glory and riches, selling snake venom.

My amateur herpetologist friend, John, showed me a group of freshwater ponds full of snakes on the Outer Banks, a stretch of barrier islands along North Carolina’s coast, between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and a series of sounds to the west. Once a haven for pirates, the ocean side has the ominous and apt name, “Graveyard of the Atlantic” where many a ship sailed to grief on its shifting sandy shoals, an estimated 6,000 of them.

The snake-hunting spots were not far from the highest active sand dune on the Atlantic Coast — “Jockey’s Ridge,” rising from 80 feet to more than 100, depending on the whims of the wind in the town of Nags Head. The unusual name is said to come from pirates tying a lantern around the neck of a hobbled horse on the big dune. Passing ships’ masters would think the lantern was a boat bobbing at safe harbor. The mariners would turn their vessels landward and wreck on the shoals. As legend has it, the waiting pirates would pillage the cargo.

On this historic slip of land, scrub pines and oaks grow, dwarfed by salt and wind amid a tangle of wax myrtle, briars, poison ivy, wild blueberries and vines. Hidden by dense vegetation, almost a dozen freshwater ponds teemed with bullfrogs, lizards, snapping turtles, red-bellied water snakes and those poisonous water moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus), commonly called “cottonmouths.” The older snakes of this species turn a darker color as they age, but when opening their mouths to strike, baring their fangs, the interior tissue flashes a startling white — hence the nickname.

Catching a ride roughly 50 miles to Nags Head, John and I visited the freshwater ponds. First time, as we stood near one pond’s edge, I gaped in amazement as he abruptly plunged waist deep into the algae-filled water, facing the shore while carrying a homemade snake hook, a nylon fishing leader snare on the other end of the stick. In short order, he captured two thick, fat cottonmouths and put them in a burlap bag.

“Be sure not to step on any submerged branches touching the shore,” he cautioned, “because the vibrations will instantly send the cottonmouths into and under water.” Just the thought of poisonous snakes swimming unseen near unprotected legs and vulnerable nether regions induced jittery shivers.

John’s utter lack of fear of these deadly creatures was both fascinating and frightening. Out of the pond and up on a sandy dune, he let the larger cottonmouth out of the bag. Using his snake hook, he pinned down the writhing serpent’s head and quickly picked it up, holding firmly just behind those deadly jaws containing the folded fangs.

He invited me to do the same with the other water moccasin, about four and a half feet long and as thick as my forearm. I was terrified I would bungle it and end up dying of snakebite far from civilization. Somehow fear was suppressed and I did as he did. At arm’s length, I held a squirming, angry cottonmouth, feeling his undulating, cool, rough, keeled scales against my skin. While I was scared witless, the snake was not afraid to display lethal weaponry — the two sharp fangs I knew were connected to two interior sacs behind and below the eyes, bulging with venom.

Me, as a teenager, pretending a dead snake is biting me. (Photo courtesy of author)

John applauded and coached me on technique — hardly complex. Simply pin the head down and grab it where the neck starts. “Make sure you don’t leave much neck or they will turn and bite your hand. You don’t want that.”

With practice, under John’s tutelage, I became adept at spotting and catching cottonmouths.

Now, into the picture comes the business of faulty research and the get-rich-quick scheme.

Always an avid reader, I looked for books and articles about snakes. That’s how I came across that short news story stating just how much dried snake venom would fetch. It set wheels turning in my head, dollar signs dancing in my mind.

John was already interested in researching venom. He milked cottonmouths, copperheads and rattlesnakes by hooking their fangs over the rim of a glass, massaging the poison glands so it flowed down through the hollow teeth into the tumbler. Back home, he would examine the glistening golden venom under a microscope. He drew what he saw. He was an excellent artist and later wrote and illustrated a book about snakes found in the Great Dismal Swamp region stretching across southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.

Home from snake-collecting trips, John emptied venom into a desiccator to dry it. When it was completely crystalline, he would use a single-edge razor blade to scrape it into a sterilized test tube. That sure looked easy enough. In my head, I was already counting ounces and dollars, fantasizing about the sleek convertible to be bought with loot from selling snake venom.

A cold, cautionary note crept into this warm fantasy. As careful and closely as he hued to scientific practices, there was a momentary lapse. John used the razor blade to scrape up the crystalized venom. As he scraped, a tiny, sharp golden sliver accidentally stuck into his thumb.

In less than an hour he began feeling the effects. Serious headache first. He knew the symptoms and went straight to the hospital and was given antivenom to counteract the spread of poison in his body. He showed me his resultant swollen thumb. One look at that enlarged and damaged digit — from a bitty sliver — renewed my already abundant caution.

Despite past failures, this time my future as a venom vendor seemed foolproof. On summer weekends, I lied to my parents, hitchhiked to the Outer Banks, caught cottonmouths, milked and released them to restock poison supply for a return visit.

Once, while traipsing down to one of the ponds through a thicket, I felt a tug on my right foot. Thinking it was a vine, I ignored it for a few steps until I came to a small clearing. Looking down, it was not a vine on my foot; it was an angry four-foot water moccasin. It had struck my boot at a sharp angle and one fang was hung in the leather just above the ankle. Hooked by that one large fang, I had been blithely dragging him along for a few yards. Had the strike been perpendicular, rather than at an oblique angle, it would have penetrated the boot and I would be experiencing the serious, painful, perhaps lethal effects of the damaging hemotoxins in the pit viper’s venom. Close call.

Grossly overconfident in my teen sense of invulnerability, the incident did create better awareness of where my hands and feet went. After carefully removing the snake from the boot, I reflected on how far I might have gone seeking help while a cottonmouth’s poison coursed through my veins. Not far. I was more than a mile into the woods, on foot.

A dead water snake that I caught in the freshwater ponds on the dunes in Nags Head. (Photo courtesy of author)

Almost every clear summer weekend of my 15th year, I hitchhiked to Nags Head and collected venom. Running a trap line of different ponds, chances were I caught and milked some snakes more than once. No shortage of raw material.

At home, I had a foot-square pane of glass I’d bought for less than a buck. Up in the attic snake lab, I would pour the stoppered vials of venom onto the glass to air dry. After a week I would scrape the crystallized, yellowish poison into a sterile bottle.

All summer, while weather held, I would catch a ride, do the collecting and come home to dry the treasure. In late September, when leaves began to turn, I had nearly a full mason jar of dried venom. On bad weather days, I looked at car advertisements, picturing myself behind the wheel of a flashy new convertible full of admiring females.

When winter came and the water moccasins hibernated, it was time to switch from venom collector to sales collector. Where to peddle that full bottle of beautiful pale yellow crystals? I had a swagger to my step, and my cockiness crossed the line into that obnoxious arrogance adolescents are so adept at exhibiting. I was one of the worst, thinking I was days away from joining the ranks of the nouveau riche.

All summer, I told no adults of my activities. The plan was to shock my parents by driving home in a beautiful two-tone Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner with a Continental Kit. To my teen eyes, no car ever made even approached the beauty of that model. I’d seen only one in my small town, owned by my father’s friend, a doctor with a thriving practice and a huge brick house on Riverside Avenue. The doctor’s two attractive daughters were classmates. They often sported around town, deeply tanned, top down, hair flying in the wind, riding in that magnificent and majestic piece of Detroit’s glory. When I saw that convertible, it was love and automotive lust at first sight.

After many cool afternoons and nights spent dreaming, it was time to turn venom into vehicle. I placed a long-distance call to Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute in Silver Springs, Florida.

While on hold, being pinged from person to person, I finally was connected to a lab supervisor in charge of antivenin. I told him I had quite a bit of dried water moccasin venom to sell to Mr. Allen’s institute.

The lab man asked one question. “Is it purified venom?”

“Well, I don’t know, sir. I milked the snakes, dried the venom and put it in a sterile bottle. What would I need to purify it?”

After a chuckle, the lab director said, “Son, you purify it before drying.  What you need is a whole room of expensive machines and people with advanced research degrees to run them.”

Deflated, I said, “Thank you, sir.” And hung up.

Thus, quietly, another dream died. One of many.

After recovering from that bitter disappointment for a few days, a new misadventure reared its head — one we later called “The Great Lumber Hustle.” Of course I bit on this one too and swallowed the sparkling lure of the next scheme right up to the bobber. A tale for another day, but one ending with similar results.

Ross Allen died in 1981. His Reptile Institute closed in 2013, after 84 years. God bless him for all he did for research, for helping maintain the supply of antivenom to save the lives and limbs of unfortunate snakebite victims. And God bless him for helping erase the stigma snakes have been cursed with since the serpent tempted Eve to give Adam a bite of the apple.

Silver Springs is now a state park and the glass-bottomed boats Ross Allen introduced still ferry tourists around the crystal-clear waters of the Silver River.

Boats cruising in Silver Springs. (Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

As crazy coincidence had it, while I was off at college, my father bought that exact same gorgeous black-and-yellow Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner Convertible with a Continental Kit his friend owned. Occasionally, he let me drive it, top down and all. To my great dismay, not a single girl ever asked for a ride. Maybe they craved newer cars, or maybe they remembered me teasing them with snakes.