The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley

Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Hennepin County Library, used with permission

For the first 30 years of her life, Grace Olive Wiley was deathly afraid of snakes—a strange trait for someone who would come to be known as the most celebrated snake woman of her time. As a child and young adult, she would blanch in horror at even the most harmless varieties. But the story goes that one day in the early 1920s, while working at the Minneapolis Museum of Natural History, a rattlesnake slithered across her hand as she was talking to a visitor. When the reptile didn't strike, she thought that perhaps all snakes could be tamed, and decided she wanted to know how.

It was the dawning moment in a career that would see Wiley amass a collection of over 300 snakes, open her own zoo, and make numerous herpetological breakthroughs—even as working with the creatures would end up costing Wiley her life.

From Bugs to Snakes

Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Hennepin County Library, used by permission

Wiley started her career as an avid entomologist. Born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1883, she attended the University of Kansas to study insects. After she received her bachelor’s degree in entomology, she went on research trips in Texas, collecting insects, observing them, sending specimens back to the university, and cataloguing her findings. Based on these studies, she published two papers in The Kansas University Science Bulletin in 1922: “Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hempitera) Found in Kansas” and “Notes on the Biology of Curicta from Texas.”

Having shown herself to be a capable and an enthusiastic naturalist, in 1923 Wiley took a post as the curator of Minneapolis's Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Minneapolis Public Library, where she oversaw a collection of reptiles. After the encounter with the rattlesnake that opened her eyes to the potential of all scaly creatures, she built up a private collection—chiefly snakes, but also seemingly unlovable creatures such as the venomous Gila monster.

To tame her snakes, Wiley fashioned a petting stick padded with cloth that she used to stroke them. Gradually, as they became accustomed to touch, she found she could handle them with her fingers—even the venomous species. Wiley also cooed and spoke to her scaly charges, attempting to convey sympathy to them instead of fear. She later explained in a 1937 article called “Taming King Cobras” in Natural History Magazine that “[snakes] are not, as a rule, afraid to trust you first. They believe you are friendly, before you are convinced they have no desire to bite.”

Wiley published two papers in the Bulletin of the Antivenin Institute of America that detailed her success with taming rattlesnakes: the first in 1929 on western diamondbacks and the other in 1930 on a species of pit viper. She didn’t just tame the diamondbacks, however. She also bred two generations of them, becoming the first person to ever breed the species in captivity. Thanks to her work, herpetologists were able to learn the gestation period for diamondbacks and better understand when and under what conditions rattlesnakes lose the segments on their tails.

By 1933, Wiley had decided to make caring for reptiles her full-time job. She wrote a letter to Edward Bean, the director of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, with an unconventional pitch: She offered the zoo her private reptile collection of over 330 snakes (which included 115 species) in exchange for a job as curator of reptiles at the zoo. Bean accepted the offer, and the zoo set to work building a new reptile house to accommodate their large acquisition. It was rare for a woman to become a reptile curator—so rare that Wiley drew the attention of the national press, from the local Chicago Tribune to The Los Angeles Times, who praised the “lady herpetologist” for her new appointment.

Along with her snakes, Wiley also brought to the zoo her unorthodox methods. Against her superiors’ orders, she continued to handle the snakes without protection, and was generally lax with enclosure protocols. Her failure to close the snakes’ pens resulted in a series of 19 animals escaping, including a venomous Egyptian cobra and an Australian bandy-bandy. The latter escape reportedly disrupted the city, as mothers kept their children indoors and the police scoured the streets for the creature. The bandy-bandy was eventually found in a pile of dead leaves meant to be used as cage decorations.

Wiley had become a liability for the zoo, and the insurance payment resulting from the escape reportedly exceeded Wiley’s annual salary. Acting director Robert Bean fired Wiley in 1935—only two years after she had started.

Grace Olive Wiley's Last Photograph

Wiley left Chicago and moved with her mother to Long Beach, California, in 1937. There, she started her own roadside reptile zoo, which she named Grace Wiley — Reptiles, where visitors could pay to see her collection of cobras, Gila monsters, and monitor lizards. Without the rules and regulations of a formal zoo, Wiley allowed her reptiles—all 100 of them—to roam freely over the grounds. She earned extra money by loaning her tamed 15-foot king cobra, King, out to movie productions; the snake appeared in the Tarzan films, The Jungle Book, and Moon Over Burma.

In 1948, journalist Daniel Mannix visited the zoo to photograph Wiley’s collection. For dramatic effect, Mannix wanted a photograph of a cobra spreading its hood, but her tame cobras didn't spread their hoods—the gesture is usually only displayed out of intimidation or aggression. Instead of posing with one of her familiar cobras, Wiley decided to pose with an Indian cobra new to her collection. During the photo shoot, the Indian struck Wiley in the middle finger. According to a newspaper account of the event, Wiley calmly returned the cobra to its cage while she waited for an ambulance. She died 90 minutes after the bite at the age of 65.

Wiley’s dramatic death, along with her unconventional methods and eccentricities, have often eclipsed her contributions to science. Some scholars have written that it's tempting to see her as more of a showman than as a serious scientist concerned with facts and experiments. Wiley, however, did care about facts, and she contributed quite a few to the study of both insects and snakes. Her detailed notes and observations of the rattlesnakes she kept in captivity helped scientists better understand their breeding, psychology, and development. She also discovered a new species of water strider, and contributed insect specimens to the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions.

Yet sometimes, Wiley found that facts weren’t enough to explain something, and she embraced the unknown. “One may study and observe and know a great many facts,” she wrote in her 1937 article, “but when it comes to the how and the why, one finds one has little knowledge and a great deal of wonderment.”

Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

Ibn Battuta, One of the Greatest Travelers of All Time

iStock.com/abzee
iStock.com/abzee

We all know about Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark, but many people haven’t heard of Ibn Battuta, a medieval Muslim scholar who traveled more than 75,000 miles across the world. Born in 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta claimed to have journeyed through what we now call North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and China, visiting areas that today make up 44 countries. Because he dictated his experiences to a scribe, we can read about his globe-trotting in the Rihla (Travels).

Born into a family of Islamic judges, Ibn Battuta wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1325, at 21 years old (22 by the lunar calendar), he left his birthplace in Tangier, admitting in the Rihla that he felt sad to leave his parents: "I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join ... So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests."

On the way to Mecca, he passed through Egypt and Syria, making friends and marrying a young woman. He stopped in Alexandria, which he called a beautiful, well-built city—he would later say it was one of the five most magnificent places he ever visited. He also detailed his visits to the Christian holy places in Jerusalem: Bethlehem, Mary’s grave, and Jesus’s burial place. He was awed by Damascus, which he said "surpasses all other cities in beauty," and told of the magnificent Umayyad Mosque there, which he said was "the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it is matchless and unequalled."

Umayyad Mosque Courtyard in Damascus, Syria
Umayyad Mosque Courtyard in Damascus, Syria
american_rugbier, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

He visited Cairo and spent Ramadan in Damascus, then went to Medina, a sacred Islamic spot housing Muhammad’s tomb. He finally arrived in Mecca in 1326, and participated in the hajj. He could have ended his journeys then, but further adventures beckoned. He claimed to have had a dream in which he was soaring on the wings of a large bird, which flew in several directions before "landing in a dark and green country, where it left me." A holy man interpreted the dream to mean that Battuta would continue his travels throughout the Middle East and India—and indeed he did.

Traveling was dangerous thanks to bandits and pirates, and during his decades on the road, Ibn Battuta was robbed, attacked, and shipwrecked. He survived fevers, diarrhea, and loneliness, traveling on camels, in wagons, on foot, by ship, and with other pilgrims in caravans for safety. In the cities he visited, Ibn Battuta met local rulers who gave him silver coins, gold, wool, robes, food, candles, slaves, and places to sleep. Because he was a Muslim scholar and judge, Muslim rulers he encountered treated him as an esteemed guest. He visited mosques and bazaars, observing the locals’ rituals, clothing, and food. He also prayed, studied with theologians, and worked as a judge to settle disputes.

He sailed on the Red Sea, seeing Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Somalia in 1331. He made another pilgrimage to Mecca before going to Palestine. In Constantinople, he was impressed by the Hagia Sophia (but decided, as a non-Christian, not to go inside) and met the Byzantine emperor. He then went through Afghanistan, reaching India via the Hindu Kush, a snow-covered mountain range.

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina
Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina

Starting in 1333, he worked as a judge for several years in Delhi for the sultan. During a period of great unrest in India, the sultan sent Ibn Battuta to be the ambassador to the Mongols in China. During the journey, the ship carrying all his luggage sank, and he found himself penniless back in India. Instead of returning to Delhi (where he was sure the sultan would execute him for the failed mission), Ibn Battuta again left for China, stopping at the Maldive Islands, where he served as chief judge and married a daughter of the sultan (in all, he married 10 women during his travels). He continued on to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, arriving in China in 1345. He described the Great Wall of China, praised the wooden ships he saw in Hangzhou, visited the Yuan imperial court in Beijing, and spent time with Muslim merchants who lived in a segregated part of China.

After China, Ibn Battuta went to Sardinia and Fez, arriving back home in Tangier in 1349 just as the Black Death was wreaking havoc in Europe and North Africa. Not content to stay home, he then sailed toward Spain, seeing Gibraltar, Marbella, Valencia, and the orchards, vineyards, and gardens of Granada around 1350. He headed back through Morocco, describing the magnificent mosques in Marrakesh, and visited Mali and Timbuktu, making an arduous trip across the Sahara desert.

Sankore Madrasah in Mali
Sankore Madrasah in Mali
Baz Lecocq, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.5 NL

In 1354, he again returned home to Morocco. The sultan hired a poet, Ibn Juzayy, to work with Ibn Battuta while the great explorer described, from memory, the experiences he’d accumulated over almost 30 years. Together they created the Rihla, the lone account of Ibn Battuta’s travels. Ibn Battuta went on to work as a judge in Morocco until his death in the late 1360s.

Because the Rihla was in Arabic, it was known mostly to Muslims until a German scholar got his hands on a manuscript in the early 1800s, and a translation was published in 1818. Scholars believe that Ibn Battuta probably didn’t personally visit all the cities he claimed to, pointing to the relative vagueness of his descriptions of China, for example. He may have embellished some descriptions with anecdotes he had heard from people he met or with passages from previous travel texts, and he made a few geographical mistakes. For example, he thought the Niger River was a tributary of the Nile. However, these errors may have been a result of a hazy memory as Ibn Battuta recalled journeys undertaken decades before.

Ibn Battuta’s travel writing is important because it provides historians with descriptions of huge swaths of the 14th-century non-Western world. It also offers valuable accounts of Muslim attitudes to marriage, slavery, and other social practices. Today, Ibn Battuta has both a crater on the moon and the Tangier airport named after him—both fitting homages for one of history's greatest-ever travelers.

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