Half man, half snake

Until the late nineteenth century, many people remained convinced that emotional experiences during pregnancy could have major psychological or even physical effects on the unborn child.  An 1839 edition of an American periodical, The Family Magazine, contains an extreme example, a young man called Robert H. Copeland who exhibited himself at freak-shows and county fairs:

This most singular being, perhaps, has not a parallel in medical history.  He is now about twenty-nine years old, of ordinary stature and intellect.  His deformities and physical peculiarities are owing to a fright his mother received from a large rattlesnake attempting to bite her, about the sixth month of her pregnancy.  For several minutes after the snake struck at her, she believed herself bitten just above the ankle, and so powerfully was her mind affected that, when she was delivered, the child’s will was found to have no control over his right arm and leg; which are smaller than his left extremities.

Despite his deformed leg he learned to walk, although he always hobbled.  But these were not his only peculiarities.

The wrist joint is looser than usual, and his hands stands at an angle with his arm.  His front teeth are somewhat pointed and inclined backward like the fangs of a snake.  The right side of his face is affected; his mouth is drawn considerably further on the right than on the left side; his right eye squints, has several deep groves radiating from it, and has a very singular appearance much resembling a snake.

The snake resemblance did not end there:

But perhaps the most extraordinary circumstance on record, is that his right arm when not restrained will draw the lower part to about a right angle with the upper, and sometimes two or three, but most commonly only the forefinger will project curved at the first joint, much resembling a snake’s head and neck, when in the attitude of striking; and the whole arm will strike at an object with all the venom of a snake, and precisely in the same manner, sometimes for two or three, and sometimes for four or five strokes, and then the arm assumes a vibratory motion, will coil up, and apply itself close against his body… His face is also excited; the angle of his mouth is drawn backward, and his eye snaps more or less, in unison with the strokes of his hand, while his lips are always separated, exposing his teeth, which being somewhat pointed like the fangs of a snake, causes his whole visage to assume a peculiar and snaky aspect.

I assume this was written by a journalist rather than a physician, although no doubt many doctors would love to have a chance to write ‘Appearance: snaky’ in their notes.  The conclusion of the article is almost a foreshadowing of Freud:

The sight of a snake fills him with horrour, and an instinctive feeling of revenge.

Etching of a rattlesnake
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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