The Story of the Great Cobra Scare of ’53

A true story . . .

In 2017, when your Mother’s first developed our kettle-soured wheat, we racked our brains for a name that not only stood out on the shelves but also represented our hometown. And while one could compile a list a mile long of our city’s attributes, we hit upon one thing that no other town could claim: the Cobra Scare of 1953. Here, then, was a piece of Springfield’s history that was every bit as weird as our brewery and as unique as the beer itself.

What you may not know is that the Cobra Scare of ‘53 – a town held for weeks in the grip of terror as an unknown number of deadly Indian cobras periodically surface – is historical reality. So for the benefit of those who may not be familiar, here is the astounding story that inspired us.

On August 15, 1953, an alert resident caught sight of an unfamiliar snake in his yard. As is not unheard of in these parts, the snake was dispatched with a garden hoe. It would have remained an unremarkable event had not another similar snake been killed one week later in the same neighborhood. Public safety authorities were summoned and duly flummoxed. It would fall to a local science teacher to discover the shocking truth: the snakes were Indian cobras, native to a continent across the globe and certainly more dangerous than the usual garter or black rat snakes of the Ozarks.

The first suspect in the invasion was a downtown pet store that specialized in exotic fare. The owner denied any involvement and the citizens of Springfield were left with a mystery that would only deepen. For in the ensuing weeks, several more of the venomous snakes were discovered and killed in the city. What began as an anomaly would grow into a veritable panic: children were denied their summer recreation as anxious parents kept them indoors, safe from the uncertain threat that seemed to be growing.

As the number of snakes killed or captured increased – now three! now five! Eight! – it fell to the city manager to address a crisis that certainly no mid-sized, midwest city plans for. Supplies of antivenom were delivered to local hospitals. Police patrolled with snake catching poles. Eventually, even a truck equipped with loudspeakers cruised the streets blasting ‘snake-charming’ music, attempting to lure the cobras from their lairs to meet a fatal slug from an officer’s sidearm.

The Cobra Scare would continue until October. In total, eleven cobras met their gruesome fates here in our fair city, with a few even being preserved in formaldehyde for posterity. But while the panic would eventually subside, the mystery would remain: no one claimed responsibility for the cobras and no rational explanation could be surmised. And thus did a mystery grow into legend.

For thirty-five years.

For in 1988, one man, having long shouldered the burden of the truth, stepped forward with an explanation. In an exclusive interview with the Springfield News-Leader, Carl Barnett revealed that he alone knew the truth behind the scare. In his words, “I’m the one that done it.” Barnett would elaborate: fourteen years old at the time, he had an arrangement with that downtown pet store. He would capture harmless, local snakes to trade for tropical fish. When a prized fish he acquired died the very night he brought it home, he returned to complain. The owner was unsympathetic and refused any recompense. As Barnett left the store, he noticed a crate of snakes around back. Assuming that they were the very snakes he had wrangled as trade, he set them loose, evening the score. The young man could not have known that the owner raised cobras!

And while there were, thankfully, no injuries from the cobras, Barnett would live the next three decades with the guilt of causing a citywide panic that would become national news, even being featured in Life magazine. From his 1988 confession to the paper: “I realized what I’d done, and I was scared to death. Every time someone mentioned the cobras, I just wilted.” But in the end, the strength of his character prevailed and he told his story. The mystery was solved. And the legend became lore; a part of the fabric of Springfield culture. Today, one preserved snake remains in a jar at Drury University. But one million memories, and perhaps a million more tall tales, were created from the youthful mistake of one boy. Eleven snakes. More than sixty years. And a sense of place and community that cannot be captured in numbers. That is the legacy of the Cobra Scare of ‘53. And that is the legacy we honor with our beer.

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