Rattlesnake bluff, home of the legendary rattlesnake Big Jim is a heavily wooded bluff overlooking the Skillet Fork River, in White County, Illinois. I’d figured that much out by poring over Google Earth for some time, trying to match up the satellite images with the historical record. Or what little record I had, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was historical, and not just folklore.
So we decided to take a drive.
“Of snakes in this region, the most noted are the moccasin, the timber rattlesnake, black racer, which is plentiful, black and garter snakes, spreading viper or adder, milk or house snake, copperhead, American ring-snake and the grass snake. These reptiles, however, are all diminishing in numbers, as the county becomes more densely populated.” History of White County Illinois, 1883
The autumn colors were peaking and Lilly has been living here through her first midwestern summer. Summers here are hot and it’s a wet, humid heat. I thought it a good idea to take her out and show her something nice about the place. It was a cool October day, at least in the shade. I’d have preferred cooler.
As we drove I told her, “My mother’s fear of snakes was legendary and she passed it down to me. Mine isn’t as bad, but I avoid heavily wooded areas in warm weather around here. And it hasn’t gotten cool enough to make all things that slither go underground.”
Richard King, a dear friend of mine and host of Folklore, Legends, Tall Tales: An Interactive Casebook for Knox County, Indiana pointed me to an article on his site, which talked about the monster rattler that was said to have lived above Carmi on the Little Wabash River. Big Jim had roamed the area during the last part of the 19th century, and he asked if I’d ever heard of it.
I had lived in Carmi till I was thirty years old, then disappeared and came back, adding another decade to my residency in this forgotten place. But I’d never heard of Big Jim, and couldn’t find anyone who had. But I was intrigued and started asking around, with no luck. Some had heard of Rattlesnake Bluff but couldn’t point out exactly where it was. Most people had no idea that we had ever had rattlesnakes along our riverbanks.
Searching for the home of Big Jim in the Skillet Fork river bottoms
“It was in the early eighties that his rein of terror began, although for years before it had been known to farmers in the northern part of the county that a huge serpent inhabited that section of the Skillet Fork bottoms, which was thickly dotted with spurs of ragged, gnarled timber bluffs, When the high waters crowded rabbit and small game to the bluffs, they were noticed to disappear in a few days, and farmers began to wonder if the hawks and eagles that abounded in those days carried off the game. The river, however, told a different story. Hundreds of dead rabbits were found floating as the waters receded. It was observed that buzzards would not eat the carrion. Old frontiersmen claimed the meat is poisoned or the buzzards would eat it.” From the St. Louis Tribune, 1908,
Standing at 430 feet, Rattlesnake Bluff is officially recognized as a landmark, and the coordinates were readily available. Unfortunately it dropped a pin on the map right between the Little Wabash and Skillet Fork rivers, so I couldn’t be sure which river it was on. Richard’s article added to the confusion. It contained a summary given to him by a local historian, quoting the local newspaper in the early part of the twentieth century, and seemed to point to both the Little Wabash and Skillet Fork rivers being the location of Rattlesnake Bluff. There was even an allusion which seemed to paint it on the Big Wabash. Confusion is understandable, as the original article was written by a journalist in Cincinnati who likely never visited the area.
There aren’t a lot of houses in the Skillet Fork river bottoms, and Lilly asked if I knew where I was going. I assured her I had scoured the area before, even walking along the banks of the Little Wabash where the two rivers meet, looking for anything which looked like bluffs. There were steep drop-offs down to the river, but there was seemingly no place higher than the rest. And none close to 430 feet.
County Road 1200 East peters out once you pass the last house on the delta, and the road turned bumpy, with Lilly bouncing around the cab of the truck. She was more excited than I was about this trip. She has no fear of snakes, and I have no shame and don’t mind letting her take the lead. There’s nothing out here but fields and a few oil wells, and I pointed out the line of trees along each river. “There seems to be no rise in elevation at all” I said, till I spotted a section of the trees along the Skillet Fork which briefly rose into something like a peak, higher than all the others.
“Why don’t we just park here and walk across the field?” she offered. “It’s not like rush hour traffic is going to come along,” she said with a smirk.
“Well I don’t know the farmer in that house, I don’t know if he’s armed and it might very well be trespassing. It looks like the road is winding down anyway.”
The road gave out entirely at an abandoned – I hoped – fishing shack along the banks of the Skillet Fork. It smacked of Deliverance to me, and she must have thought the same thing as she started humming Dueling Banjos from the movie. I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t going to be met by someone in overalls wielding a double barreled shotgun. It’s happened before, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wasn’t trespassing. But I believe the river is fair game, and I believe in plausible deniability so I didn’t bother pursuing that inquiry further.
Being a city girl she had to take photos of the shack. I pulled her away in case some deranged fugitive was inside there, or a crew making meth for that matter. People who live along rivers in the middle of nowhere don’t typically want their photo taken.
She called me a wussy and I took the lead and headed down to the river bank.
The birth of the Big Jim legend
It turns out that there were enough rattlesnakes in the area that by 1859, there was a post office in White County by the name of Rattlesnake, which I presume covered the area where we were now traipsing along the river bank.
Sometime later I managed to find another article on Big Jim, from the St. Louis Post Dispatch on the 26th of July, 1908, when the creature burst onto the national stage.
Big Jim, Greatest Rattlesnake in the World, Terrorizes Neighborhood of Carmi – Believed to Be 50 Years Old, Has Been Notorious for a Quarter of a Century – Closed Schools and Destroyed Lumber Industry.
HOLDING his wooded throne on Rattlesnake Bluff, near Carmi, Ill., and defying the efforts of his enemies to destroy him. Big Jim, the monster snake of the Little Wabash has this summer had uninterrupted sway in his dominion. Never in all his reign, did King Charles rule with more cruel imperialism and arrogance than does the big king snake that basks in the summer sunlight 12 miles north of Carmi. For over twenty-five years Big Jim has been the terror of the Wabash. Every known method of extermination has been tried, but in vain.
The snake bears a life that Is seemingly charmed, for none of his enemies have been able to conquer him and none have caused him to retreat from his lair. Old legends of a quarter of a century ago tell of the snake, Mothers today have no trouble keeping their youngsters in at night when they tell them of the terrible raids of Big Jim and his special fondness for little children.
I knew from my Granny Bert that when she was younger, or perhaps a bit before, rattlesnakes had been a problem along the Little Wabash at Carmi. The river was just over the hill from her house, a couple of blocks from my parents, so the river was always close by. On hot summer days it wasn’t unusual to catch its fish tainted stank in the air. But she never mentioned Big Jim, nor did my mother. My mother certainly would have, because by the time of the Post Dispatch article, Big Jim had become a mommy lie – things a mother tells her kids to keep them out of trouble. She had already caught me on Centerville Road by the time I was old enough to disappear on my bike, and that was his territory.
As it turns out, though Big Jim is forgotten now, he was likely the most famous news story to have every come out of Carmi. Which isn’t surprising as nothing much really happens here. It was covered in the Chicago Tribune as well, along with The Washington Post, The Shreveport Times, Indianapolis Star and Cincinnati Enquirer and who knows how many others.
When the article said every known method of extermination had been tried, they weren’t kidding. The original Post Dispatch article spoke of using dynamite at Rattlesnake Bluff, but that appears to be a different Rattlesnake Bluff, along the Little Wabash near Fairfield, in the adjacent county. I found the following from a Mt. Carmel, Illinois newspaper of the time … “The famous rattlesnake bluff on the Little Wabash river near Fairfield has been dynamited and sixty-nine monster snakes killed. The snakes had been escaping from their nests recently and biting and killing livestock For years the bluff had been one of the showplaces of that part of the country. A big stone bluff almost beyond reach, has been the resort of hundreds of snakes and people could stand at a distance and see the reptiles move about on the bare stone. Many efforts have been made to break up the nest in the past. It is believed the use of dynamite will cause those not killed to leave the place.
According to the Saturday Blade, a newspaper aimed at rural readers and once boasting the largest circulation of any weekly newspaper in the country, “Farmers made a raid on Rattlesnake Bluff, on the Little Wabash River, a few miles northeast of Fairfield, and killed more than 100 poisonous reptiles. A charge of dynamite was placed under the bluff and exploded, and the river was filled with dead snakes. Those that escaped the blast were clubbed to death by the hunters. The place has been infested with rattlesnakes for years, and many cattle, horses and other live stock have been killed by them. Several hunters, who ventured too close to the bluff also have been bitten.”
And though death by rattlesnake bite is rare, in the nineteenth century it was much more common, particularly among children, who are noted for playing in woodsy areas.
Big Jim escaped the carnage, and moved with impunity up and down not only the Little Wabash, but the Big Wabash as well. Now I don’t like the thought of killing animals that way, even snakes. We have them in our garden, and when I find one I shriek till Lilly comes and carries it away. But I think we were both thankful that for whatever reason, rattlesnakes no longer regularly inhabit our county. At least I hoped not as we tramped through the grass, driftwood, garbage and brush of the riverbank.
While we don’t have rattlesnakes we do have water moccasins and copperheads, both of which are venomous. And we have a wide variety of both land based and aquatic serpents which what they lack in venom they make up for in size and anger when provoked. I once watched a black snake rise three feet or more off the ground and puff its head out like a cobra, before striking at my dad. He was yelling for a shovel but I was running for the truck at the time.
What you have to watch for when you’re hiking through snake country is stepping over logs. I’m religious in first sending my walking stick across so if any serpents might be lounging on the other side, it won’t be stepping on or near it. Though in fact I don’t think most fangs would penetrate my boots, which are extra thick leather with steel toes. A bit heavy for hiking but I bet if necessary I could run at a pretty good clip in them if I heard anything remotely sounding like a rattle.
I could tell from the GPS on my phone that we were almost at the proper coordinates for Rattlesnake Bluff, and sure enough, as we came around the bend of the river, the bank rose quickly. It isn’t a stone bluff, unless the rocks are buried under mud. Most of the height doesn’t come from the peak rising much above the level of the surrounding fields, but from the depth of the river. Rattlesnake Bluff is essentially nothing more than a slight hill chopped in two by the Skillet Fork over the centuries.
The testimony of Captain Edward Ballard and how Big Jim the rattlesnake got his name
Quoted in The Times , Shreveport, Louisiana, May 5 1907, Captain Edward Ballard related the story of how Big Jim got his name.
“In the early eighties, while saw-logging was good on the Skillet Fork, and when the Little Wabash was the mecca of river men in early spring, when high water facilitated their work of rafting: the long line of logs down to the Ohio, an incident occurred that established the significance of snakes. This is no snake yarn, but Is an actual occurrence. It can be vouched for by any of the old-time river men, and lots of the younger ones remember it. “I was rafting a drift of logs down the stream early in May. The river was not so high as it had been earlier the spring, and I had several men along to guard against jams. We had just got well into the stream when a blackened sky darkened our course. A heavy spring rain set in and we towed to shore. Tying our raft as securely as possible, we built a camp fire under a ledge of the rock on Rattlesnake Bluff.
It had long been known to river men as an exceedingly dangerous place to stop, as hundreds of thousands of rattlers were’ known’ to infest the locality. They wriggled there in force in the fall and found excellent quarters to hibernate in the dense clusters of rock that Jab the shore of the stream. “In my crew was a great hulking negro from Cincinnati. He was one of the largest men I ever saw, and as strong as a mule. He was of a superstitious type, and we deemed It prudent not to tell him of the slimy inhabitants of the bluff. It was his first trip, and he knew but little of the country. The boys called him ‘Big Jim,’ and he was not incorrectly named.
“Jim, go get some wood,’ one of the boys ordered as the fire began to grow dim.
Now it should be pointed out here that I’ve had to change some of the language of Captain Ballard. Blacks didn’t command a lot of respect around here in those days. Like the language of Huckleberry Finn, it can get pretty disturbing, and I’m no Mark Twain and I can’t make the claim that this is any kind of art or literature. Considering much of the U.S. is now ablaze with race riots, and I find the treatment of blacks both then and now as abhorrent, the rest of the tale has been edited without the most egregious racial epithets …
Big Jim (the man) refused, but eventually went up the bluff. “He had probably got half way up when we heard a startled cry. In the next instant there was a splash in the stream, as the frightened negro plunged in head first. He was praying for deliverance. We had but a few minutes to wait until we understood the cause of the commotion. Sounding his rattles to a martial time a big rattler was drumming for volunteers. In less than fifteen minutes the chorus was deafening, as the serpents rushed to the place of alarm. “We jumped into a boat that we had tied to the raft of logs and rowed to the west side of the stream. We felt safe on the other side of the river, as there were no rocks there, and, as far as river men knew, no rattlers had ever been seen on that side, Rattlers do not like water, and are the poorest kind of swimmers. In fact they will never take to the water unless forced to.”
“All night we could hear the din across the stream. There must have been hundreds of snakes, judging from the noise they made. When day broke we went across to our logs, and several of the reptiles had crawled on them. They were quickly killed, and In a few hours we were ready to continue our journey. The bank was still lined with snakes, and among the number was one of the largest rattlers I ever saw. It must have been seven or eight feet long, and was proportionately large. We shot at it as we pulled out, but the shots went wild.”
“We looked along the banks for ‘Big Jim’ as we went down, but found no trace of the missing man. We finally concluded that he had been so intensely frightened when he fell in the stream the previous night that he had made his way to the bank and left for Carmi, eight miles below.
“We agreed that we would search the saloons for him, and search them we did. Our quest was in vain. No one had seen him. Had he indeed lost his life? Next day came and still nothing of ‘Big Jim.’ Farmers who lived near the bluff had not seen anything of him, and the story of his disappearance was causing a panic among the blacks all over the town. The news leaked out in a hurry, and finally they got it that he had been devoured by the big rattler that was reputed to rule the bluff.”
“Just to ease matters we sent some of the boys up to look for the body. Nothing could be found of him and the men returned with the news. Consternation seized the ‘river rats’ and paralyzed the log business. Most of the laborers employed In skitting down the drifts had been of Ethiopian hue, but as the story of ‘Big Jim’s’ fate spread, the blacks grew restless when the name of Rattlesnake Bluff was mentioned. Thousands of logs lay in the stream all year, and lots of the white people, too, became apprehensive of the bluff.”
A Cincinnati paper, I remember, got hold of the story and made a big write-up over the affair. Big Jim was pictured in the mouth of the big snake, and that was enough to send spasms of fear thrilling through the people. “In the succeeding fall the big snake did do a stunt or two that forged his fame for art time to come. Scores of cattle and hogs died under circumstances indicating poisoning, and the blame was finally traced down to the rattler. Someone had called the snake in honor of the man it drove away and it began to be known as ‘Big Jim.’
Though most accounts, and those of a geographic bent put Rattlesnake Bluff on the Skillet Fork, Captain Ballard specifically states that they had just steered into the Little Wabash. As I clambered up the banks to the top of Rattlesnake Bluff, it did not matter in the least to me if this was his old lair. Knowing how well copperheads are disguised in leaves, I planned each step in advance.
When I reached the top of the bluff, I realized it really didn’t matter which river Rattlesnake Bluff lies on. The top of the bank, where Big Jim made his home, was the same narrow spit of land divided by both rivers, just a few hundreds yard across. And as I had already scoped out the banks where the rivers meet and found no rocks, I would likely put down many of the details to the writer of the story, which originated in that Cincinnati newspaper Ballard speaks of. It was the age when journalists wrote with flair.
Big Jim puts an end to the logging industry on the Little Wabash and terrorizes the area
Over the years, Big Jim seemed to grow in length as the legends grew in number. It’s written that the blacks refused to go above the dam on the Little Wabash at Carmi, and the logging industry was near disaster for wont of workers. A few were finally persuaded to return to the Skillet Fork bottoms, but that turned unfortunate.
“One of the men saw the big snake perched on the bluff and swore that he had Big Jim’s skull In his coils playing with it. The story had the effect we had worked so hard to dispel. Every black man as far down as Shawneetown heard of the affair and all of them steered clear of the place. It ruined the rafting business, which had just now got good again. That one fact saved the vast timber resources of the Skillet Fork from devastation long ago, and to this day none of the old-time blacks will venture as far up stream as the bluff.”
There is certainly a basis in fact to the following story, as indeed a man named Henry Ude owned the land adjacent to Rattlesnake Bluff, which I found on an old plat maps of the area. Which also confirmed the Skillet Fork as the site of the bluff.
According to the Washington Post, in 1908, “William Ude, near whose farm the retreat of Big Jim is located, has for over 20 years worn boots to guard against snake bites. Hundreds of rattlesnakes abound on the bluff, and last year Ude killed over 300 while breaking wheat ground.”
Ude also stated that Big Jim loved his blackberry patch, and once his bull tried to horn the critter and lost.
The following winter Farmer Ude made a large cage and placed It over the mouth of ”Big Jim’s lair, hoping to catch him as he came out In the spring. The Iron bars, however, were cracked and twisted past recognition and the monster serpent was again at large.
The story went on, “He is known to be over 25 years old and was fired upon by Leroy L. Staley, the sheriff of White county in 1883. Last fall James A. Welch, city treasurer of Carmi, was almost scared out of his wits by the rattler.
In 1885, Uncle Tom” Ary, one of the oldest living stage coach drivers in Illinois was driving a traveling man to Centerville, when the snake appeared In the road. The horses reared and plunged, breaking from the control of Uncle Tom and running away. The traveling man climbed a tree and would not get down until nearly night. The horse, ran back to town and would never go past the place where the snake was seen as long as they lived.
Uncle Tom well remembers the snake and can give a better description of him than anyone. While nearly everyone tells that “Big Jim” is much larger than he is really believed to be, most all agree that he lay over ten feet in length and proportionately large. Some claim he is nearly twice that large. But Uncle Tom says ten or twelve feet is large, even for “Big Jim.”
As an aside, Ary once took Abraham Lincoln from Carmi to Shawneetown, and he later related the experience … “I had never seen Mr. Lincoln and was greatly disappointed, for there in front of the building stood the tallest and ugliest man I had ever seen. When I stopped the team, he picked up his valise and came over to the wagon. To my surprise, he did not use the hub of the front wheel, as most people did, but due to his long legs, stepped directly into the wagon.”
According to Folklore, Legends, Tall Tales: An Interactive Casebook for Knox County, Indiana, “A country school four miles from Rattlesnake Bluff was the next site of a report. Big Jim was spotted nearby, and the frightened teacher gathered the students inside the school, shut the blinds and hid out until evening when parents came to see what the problem was. School was dismissed for the rest of the year.”
Back at the truck we drove the backroads of the area for a while. In the early twentieth century, this part of the country was dotted with one room schoolhouses. None survive in situ today, and within four miles of Rattlesnake Bluff are several schools, so knowing which one Big Jim terrorized is impossible to know. So we headed for Centerville, on the road where Big Jim had stopped the stagecoach.
Centerville had declined since the last time I was here in the daytime. There are a handful of houses, and a dilapidated old building set in the woods that looked like it might have been a hotel or stagecoach stop at one time. Even the road has begun to deteriorate here, and after taking a few photos we went up into the old graveyard.
The graveyard is large and very well kept, the grass short and it felt safe. She asked what became of Big Jim and I pulled out the phone and read once more from Richard King’s site … “Big Jim finally was put to rest, shortly after the latest account of his history had been told in the Commercial.
On the W.H. Thompson farm in southwestern Sullivan County, farm hand John Bascomb heard a commotion in the pigpen. A boar had a giant rattlesnake in his jaws, close enough to the head that the snake couldn’t get in a knock-out punch. By the time he had returned with a rifle the other hogs in the pen were in the fray, stomping and biting at the writhing snake. Bascomb finally got a clear shot, and the snake was finished.
Bascomb mounted the skin, which measured 12 feet five inches and had 29 rattles. Whether Big Jim or just a big rattler, the legend of the terror of the Wabash died in a Sullivan County pigpen.
Of course the snake wasn’t carrying identification, so it can’t be said for certain that it was Big Jim. Nor could it be said that Big Jim ever really existed. It could have been multiple snakes, as when you face down a venomous serpent, face to face, it’s damned huge. I used to work in the oil fields, and once I was climbing iron stairs to the top of some tanks and as my head topped one of the steps I was eye to eye with a copperhead. I came down those stairs as fast as the original Big Jim came down Rattlesnake Bluff.
And decided then I should go back to college.