Catching Snakes

This article, by John Y. Dater, was first published in the “Old Station Timetable” in April, 1980.

Chet Billings was a lonesome dweller of the Ramapo Mountains. He lived in a cabin at the Bear Swamp, as I recall, and he made his living by catching rattlers and copperheads for the New York Zoological Club. The venom brought a good price because it was used for medicine in those days. He always claimed he was a Wampanoag Indian, which was a Connecticut tribe.

The snakes he caught he put in a white oilcloth bag, a material used in the old days to put on the kitchen table. Chet would come to Ramsey occasionally when he took his snakes into New York. I have seen him dump the bag on the Main Street sidewalk, and people . would gather fearfully to see them. He carried a four foot stick with a crotch in the end, and if he had trouble picking up a snake, he would pin its head to the walk arid then pick it up with his hands.

This story he told me. One day (about 1910) he saw a copperhead go into a cleft in the rocks and he reached in to catch it. As he did so, he saw another copperhead right near by and close enough to bite him. While watching this snake, the first one turned in the cleft and bit him. Copperhead venom can cause blood poisoning, while rattlesnake venom affects the nerves. Chet said he was kind of knocked out by the bite, but after a week, he felt all right. This bite probably caused his death, as the account states.

Chet had a great habit of going in swimming with all of his clothes on. He would empty his pockets of matches (wooden), lay his cigarettes on the bank and jump in.

One summer day, probably in 1910, he went through this routine at the old mill pond back of the Darlington School. I used to swim there myself and others from Ramsey. A little later, Chet was seen floating face down and no movement. His companions found he was dead. Someone managed to phone Charlie Rhoades, the undertaker and plumber in Ramsey. I was sitting on the lawn with my parents that afternoon when we saw Charlie’s wagon go by. I inquired and found out that it was Chet. Having no family, he was
buried in an unmarked plot in the Ramsey cemetery. They said there was money in his cabin, but I never heard what became of it.

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