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Pete the Python – Podcast #221

Note: The University of North Texas has digitized (10) WBAP-TV videos and their corresponding transcripts regarding this story. They can be viewed in the UNT Digital Library.

Here’s a question for you that I don’t have an answer for: If your plane sets down in some location and you never leave the airport, can you claim that you were there?

For example, years ago, I somehow ended up in Frankfurt, Germany while on my way to Barcelona. But I never left the airport, although I did get a German stamp on my passport. Then, after waiting a while, I boarded another plane and flew off to Barcelona.

So, have I ever been to Germany?

Well, today’s story kind of falls into that situation for me. I’ve only set foot in Texas twice and both times were due to layovers while traveling to and from Merida, Mexico, nearly twenty years ago.

Does that mean that I have been to Texas? I guess technically I was a tourist in Texas who never visited a single tourist attraction while there.

But if I had the chance to travel around the state, one of the attractions I would have liked to have visited was the Fort Worth Zoo, also known as the Forest Park Zoo. Located within the city’s Forest Park – hence the name – it sits along the southern bank of the Clear Fork branch of the Trinity River.

And the reason I would like to someday visit that zoo is because of the great story that I am about to tell you. I just want to visit the place where it all took place.

It was there, in late March 1951, that the operator of the zoo’s reptile exhibit —Harry “Snake Man” Jackson— eagerly awaited the arrival of some snakes from Thailand, although people were still referring to it as Siam at the time.

But these weren’t any ordinary snakes. This shipment included two deadly 6-foot (1.84 m) cobras and one giant 16-foot (4.88 m) long python. For days before their arrival, the Fort Worth Press reported on the snakes’ travel from Bangkok to their new homeland. They first traveled via KLM Airlines to Amsterdam, and then to Idlewild (JFK) Airport in New York. From there, the reptiles were trucked across the Hudson River to Newark Airport in New Jersey, where they were loaded on a plane headed toward Dallas. The last leg of their journey was by truck to Fort Worth’s Municipal Airport, aka Fort Worth Meacham International Airport.

So, on Wednesday, March 28, 1951, Harry and four of his assistants drove from the zoo to the airport to pick up the snakes. They had been in transit for eight days, so Harry opted to open the 4-foot (1.2 m) square wooden shipping box right there at the airport. While he did want to check on the health of these snakes, his main concern was that he wasn’t cheated on size. Here’s why: “I bought it with the understanding that it would be longer than 16 feet.”

In what can only be described as a tense moment, a crowd looked on as Harry slowly pried open the top of the crate, his noose ready to snare the monstrous beast. But it didn’t move.

That deadly cargo turned out to be, well, mostly dead.

“We’ve got a dead snake in there.” He added, “I don’t know what killed it, maybe the altitude, maybe the cold. But I’m not going to pay for it. I bought it on the deal it would be delivered alive.”

The Snake Man then proceeded to check on his two cobras. He removed a white cheesecloth sack from a small, circular wire mesh cage to make the examination. One of the cobras did not survive the trip. He prodded the other snake, but it barely responded. Jackson announced, “He’s alive, but not by much.”

Harry Jackson assured everyone that he would be cabling Bangkok to let them know that they needed to ship another python ASAP.

And that’s exactly what they did. A new python arrived 54 days later on Monday, May 21, 1951. The purchase price was $265 (about $3,160 today). This 17-foot (~5.2 m) python was far more lively than the last one.

After getting back to the zoo, Harry needed the assistance of six other men to transfer the python to its new glass enclosure. But before they did that, Harry pried open its mouth to check for signs of disease. As camera flashbulbs popped and the television cameras recorded the event, he announced that the snake was “a healthy specimen.”

Next, they turned their attention to a crate labeled, “Four Cobras—Bangkok.” Just as in the previous shipment, Harry carefully removed the wire crate from the box. He took a peek inside and declared that all of the snakes were dead. He then signaled to the reporters and told them to come over and take a look “at a bunch of dead cobras.”

And just as they began to take a peek inside, the head of one of the deadly cobras suddenly popped its head out. Harry swiftly grabbed the snake from behind its head and shoved raw eggs down its throat, remarking that the snake “looked a little puny.” The other three cobras did not survive the trip.

Pete the Python video. I believe the man being interviewed is Harry Jackson.

While this was happening, no one was paying attention to the python. He discovered that one end of his cage wasn’t tightly sealed and began to make his getaway. He had only managed to slither about 1/3 of his body out of the enclosure before being spotted and wrestled back inside.

Inviting the press to witness the arrival of these snakes, even if the bulk of them had died while in transit, proved to be an advertising bonanza for the zoo. More people came to get a glimpse of Pete the Python than any other animal that they had on display.

The zoo’s snake exhibit would be open during the warmer months, but after it closed in the fall, Pete and all of the other snakes would spend their winters inside of the monkey house. But Pete was never allowed to socialize. Even when he was on display in the snake pit, he was housed in a 6-foot-long (1.83 m) display box that sat about 3 feet (1 meter) off the ground.

That would all change during Pete’s third season with the zoo. On Sunday, June 28, 1953, Harry Jackson turned Pete loose to mingle among the other snakes. It was a publicity stunt designed to draw in big crowds and everything had gone well the first time they tried it.

But not the second time.

At first, everything seemed to be going smoothly. But as they attempted to remove Python Pete from the snake pit, he sank his teeth into Harry’s right hand. The packed crowd looked on in horror as six men fought to get the snake to release its grip. It took nearly ten minutes to get Pete to let go.

Ouch!

Afterward, Harry declared, “This second time out was the last time.” But he wasn’t upset with the snake. He was more concerned with its welfare, adding that “We’re liable to hurt him.”

Pete the Python made headlines again one year later. Normally, Pete would eat a whole chicken—feathers and all—every two weeks. However, he hadn’t eaten anything in over seven weeks. After careful observation, it was determined that Pete had a toothache. On Wednesday, August 18, 1954, a dentist was called in to remove one of his teeth. However, once six men managed to get the snake under control, they found that his tooth was fine, but his gums were infected. They treated his mouth with penicillin and returned him to his enclosure.

At 9:30 AM on Saturday, September 18, 1954, Harry Jackson checked on Pete’s cage and noticed something unusual. The live chicken placed inside at noon the previous day was still alive, and Pete the Python was long gone. The last sighting of Pete was at 2 PM on Friday.

A careful examination of his cage revealed that Pete had pushed aside a section of the tin door through which he was fed. After escaping, he made his way through the snake pit and scaled the 8-foot (~2.4m) high fence that surrounded the exhibit.

The zoo’s employees immediately sprang into action, launching a search for Pete. Authorities were called in for assistance. The police dispatched nine patrol cars and all available motorcycle officers. The fire department asked all of their off-duty officers to volunteer, plus word was sent out to all Civil Defense auxiliary policemen.

An estimated 4,000 people had been visiting the park at that time and they wondered what the heck was going on. They soon learned the reason. Loudspeakers mounted on a traffic car and a police radio truck moved through the zoo, repeatedly announcing, “A large reptile has escaped from the zoo. It is necessary to clear the park for your safety.”

Panic set in. People began running for the exits. Parents clutched their children tightly, urging them to run faster, while others stumbled and fell in the frenzy. It was a heart-pounding mix of terror, destruction, and desperate survival.

Oh, wait! That describes a scene from a Godzilla movie…

The reality was very different: There was no sense of alarm, and everyone left the zoo at a leisurely pace.

Zoo director Lawrence Curtis attempted to reassure the public that there was no need to fear if the snake ended up in someone’s home or backyard. He explained that Pete was unlikely to attack anyone. Curtis pointed out that there have only been two documented cases of a python crushing and eating a human, both involving infants. Pete’s diet primarily consists of chickens, and he had eaten three weeks prior, which would satisfy his appetite for a month.

He said, “If he were molested or hungry, he might. But he’s not hungry and he’s too excited with his newly found freedom to bother anyone.”

However, Curtis did not address what might happen if Pete saw your little dog Toto running through the woods. You know what Pete would be thinking: Dinner!

One would think that it would be easy to spot an 18-foot, 150 lb. (~5.5 m, 68 kg) snake, but it was not. By noon, no trace of the reptile had been found. It was theorized that Pete would have instinctively headed for the river, so horsemen were brought in to do a thorough search along its banks. And if he truly had made it to the river, he could have swum in just about any direction.

Python Pete T-Shirt. Snapshot is taken from the video "Spike finds Pete at Carter Field.
Python Pete T-Shirt. Snapshot is taken from the video “Spike finds Pete at Carter Field.”

The first clue emerged around 1:30 PM when Fort Worth resident Bud Land reported spotting Pete on the southern bank of the river, just west of the University Drive Bridge. While this location was just outside the zoo’s perimeter, by the time anyone arrived, Pete was long gone. But Land was certain that it was Pete. “I can’t help but be sure with a thing that size.”

By Sunday morning, the police reported having received a flood of phone calls from anxious citizens, all wondering if Pete had been caught yet. He had not.

Some speculated that Pete might have entered one of the numerous sewer openings in the area, prompting a thorough search down them. Again, there was no sign of him.

Amon Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and his son Amon, Jr, put up a reward of $500 (approximately $5,800 today) for the safe return of Pete the Python to the zoo. $250 went to whoever located the snake and called zoo officials. The other $250 went to the crew that safely captured him.

Should anyone see Pete, Zoo Director Hamilton (Ham) Hittson announced that three telephone tip lines had been set up. They were: FOrtune 8341, WIlson 5106, or CEdar 7-2103. Hittson warned that any attempt to capture Pete could result in severe injury. In other words, leave that to the experts.

Python Pete’s disappearance did little to scare off visitors to the zoo. The crowd on Monday, September 20, 1954, was of typical size for that day.

Meanwhile, zoo officials and police were kept busy hunting down all of the tips that had been received.

There was a report that Pete had been seen in the nearby Colonial Country Club, but that was a dead-end lead.

Some boys reported seeing the snake on the side of the road as they drove through Forest Park, claiming that he slithered off into the underbrush. The police and dozens of searchers scoured the area, but there was no sign of Pete.

A man named Cloy Holloway said that he saw a large snake swimming porpoise-style near the dam on Benbrook Lake, which is about a twenty-minute drive from the zoo. It seemed unlikely that Pete could have traveled that far, but Ham Hittson led a party that thoroughly searched the scene. It proved to be another wild goose chase.

But nothing tops the call that police received from a woman in Monroe, Louisiana. She said that her daughter had used her Ouija board to locate Pete. He could be found in the Forest Park area behind Jack’s Bar. An officer explained why this couldn’t be true: “There ain’t no such animal as Jack’s Bar.”

One woman suggested that there was a simple way to find the python: simply start at the snake’s home, head southward, and stop at the first railroad trestle. As she explained, “All snakes —when they escape—go in a southeasterly direction and stop at the first railroad trestle.”

A Bell helicopter was brought in and circled at a low altitude. The thinking was that the strong winds produced by its propeller would dislodge Pete from whatever tree he may be in, but no snakes were observed falling to the ground.

The headline news the next day was the arrival of eight carloads of Kappa Sigma fraternity members from Southern Methodist University, who stormed into town with their girlfriends to offer their assistance. Their first stop was the Hotel Texas, which is the Hilton Fort Worth today. Armed with butterfly nets and fencing foils, they hooted and hollered as they peaked into decorative urns and looked under the furniture for any sign of Pete.

He couldn’t be found at the hotel, so they moved on to the Worth Theater, which was a couple of blocks away. Again, no sign of Pete at the theater, so they sped off to Forest Park, where some news photographers snapped their pictures. That’s when Johnny Torbett, the frat member who put this misguided safari together, announced, “Naturally, we’re annoyed at not capturing the monster, but we want to say that we hold an open, standing bid for Pete in Sigma Kappa. We’ll give him a free ride—no dues, if you get what I mean, see?” He then glanced down at his watch and declared, “It’s time to go back to Dallas.”

Police with one of the stuffed snakes during the search for Pete the Python.
Police with one of the stuffed snakes found during the search for Pete the Python. Snapshot is taken from the video “Spike finds Pete at Carter Field.”

That evening, police responded to a snake sighting on West 7th Street. It was a big snake—a big stuffed one—that a used car dealer was using as a publicity stunt.

By Wednesday, the decision was made to reduce the intensity of the search. As Harry Jackson explained, “It’s physically impossible to be everywhere at once. We’re waiting for a new lead.” But part of the reason may have been fatigue. Harry hadn’t been to his home in Burleson since Pete escaped five days earlier.

A sound truck equipped with spotlights was added to the search effort. As the truck drove around the zoo and the surrounding park, it emitted a high-pitched signal that was inaudible to most human ears. Even Pete would be unable to hear it. But, as driver Clifford Herring explained, “It should make him awfully uncomfortable, and shake him up enough to get moving. Once he does, we’ll spot him with the lights.”

This effort to capture Pete failed, but it did have one unintended effect in that it drove the rats living near the river nuts. Clifford Herring again: “We’d turn on the sound and the rats would run around in circles, jumping up and down.”

Snake Man Harry didn’t seem too concerned. “Pete will show up. We’ll get him.”

That afternoon, James L. Waldon found a 10-foot (~3 m) fake snake behind his company’s building in nearby Trinity Park. It had been constructed of several lengths of inner tube and stuffed with old newspapers and magazines. Ham Hittson speculated that someone may have been pulling it through the underbrush as a prank.

That same evening, police apprehended a group of teenagers along University Drive, also in Trinity Park, as they attempted to tie a 15-foot (about 4.6 meters) long canvas snake to a tree. Officers suspected that the snake had been stolen from that used car dealership the previous night. The dealer reported that several carloads of teenagers had visited his lot under the pretense of buying a car, but instead, they stole his sawdust-filled snake when he wasn’t looking.

Thursday, September 23, 1954, was not a good day for the zoo. That’s because the City Council ordered Harry Jackson to make his reptile exhibit escape-proof. That decision required that Harry kill three water moccasins and a rattlesnake, which were the only poisonous snakes in his collection at the time.

Of course, with Pete the Python’s escape making the news worldwide, businesses attempted to cash in on his fame.

The Wally Williams clothing store ran an advertisement for designer stiletto shoes that were supposedly made from “pearlized Calcutta Lizards. But they added the note, “We guarantee the shoes are not made of Pete the Python.”

Or how about this one from Frank C. Bliss & Co. for two and three-bedroom homes: “Where – O – Where is Pete the Python? There is a rumor that he heard about the sensational home values in Eastwood Addition (almost everyone has) and busted out to try and make his way to one of these comfortable new FHA homes! We think Pete had a good idea… why don’t you come out today and inspect these fine homes — you probably won’t see Pete but you will see 2 and 3-bedroom homes that you will be proud to own! It’s open house all day.”

The Hatley Motor Co. in Bonham, Texas claimed, “I don’t know where Pete the Python is but he’s probably headed for Hatley’s!”

Add to that list Pete the Python t-shirts, Peteburgers… Well, you get the idea.

With each passing day, there were fewer and fewer leads coming in. Press coverage also decreased.

The next big sighting was on Friday, October 1, 1954, thirteen days after Pete had escaped. 59-year-old Dallas resident David W. Smith reported seeing the snake swimming in the Trinity River north of Arlington, Texas. “I was standing on the bridge when I spotted this big brown snake 15 or 20 feet long and as big as a stove pipe swimming toward a bend in the river. I watched him until he rounded the bend about 500 feet away.”

Harry Jackson, had just returned home for only the second time since Pete escaped (the first was by helicopter so that he could lock his door), was just about to hop into the bath when he got the call. “I had just turned the water on when Robert Bransome from Burleson drove up and told me about the hunt. I jumped in my car and cut across country to the bridge.”

A thorough search was conducted, but there was no sign of Pete.

We will probably never know if Harry returned home right after this to take that bath, but he was sleeping each night on a cot in the office of the Children’s Zoo.

Then, around 4 AM on Sunday, October 3, 1954, Harry was awoken by the screams of a chimpanzee named Al. His wailing alerted other animals and they all joined in with the screaming.

Ed Baker helped catch Pete the Python.
Ed Baker helped catch Pete the Python. Snapshot is taken from the video “Crowds Welcome Prodigal Pete.”

Harry and Night Watchman Ed Baker immediately jumped into action.

“I was too startled that I’d gotten halfway across the room before I knew why.”

They found Al keeping his eye focused toward the south, so the two men headed off in that direction.

And then, about 125 feet (38.1 m) from Al’s cage, the beam of Harry’s flashlight spotted the snake. He was in an area that had been cleared for the construction of a new ape house.

Ed Baker kept the beam of light focused on Pete as Harry slipped a loop around the snake’s head. Harry then asked Ed to go call for help.

It would be about twenty minutes before anyone arrived, and Pete managed to slip out of the loop once. Harry explained, “I was afraid I might break his neck. When I let up a little, he ducked out.”

Pete the Python was dragged to a temporary cage and his fifteen days on the lam had come to an end.

After an examination, Harry noticed that Pete’s mouth looked like it may once again be infected, so five hours after his capture, with the assistance of eight helpers, they pinned the snake down. Harry proceeded to clean out the snake’s mouth, but Pete was clearly not happy with the situation and bit his owner’s right thumb. A crowd of about fifty people quietly looked on as Jackson completed treating Pete, blood trickling down his hand the entire time. And, as a preventative, Harry was then taken to get a tetanus shot.

He overheard someone call Pete vicious, to which Harry replied, “How would you feel if six or eight guys grabbed you and threw you down? Wouldn’t you fight back? He’s not vicious.”

Needless to say, Pete the Python became the star attraction at the Forest Park Zoo. Throngs of people showed up to catch a glimpse of him, but the crowds prevented most from getting a good look. When one spectator questioned Harry as to where Pete had been all of that time, he responded, “Ask Pete. He’s the only one who knows.”

After wintering in the monkey house, Pete was still the most popular draw at the zoo the following year. But Harry received some bad news: the Dallas Zoo claimed that they now had a python longer than Pete. That could potentially steer the crowds away from the Fort Worth Zoo.

Harry Jackson and Pete outside of the Snake Pit at the Fort Worth Zoo.
Harry Jackson (right) and Pete outside of the Snake Pit at the Fort Worth Zoo. Snapshot is taken from the video “Pete comes up short; but how about Pat?

So, Harry came up with a stunt to get Pete’s name back in the papers. He bet the Dallas Zoo that Pete had grown to at least 20 feet (6.1 m) in length. And if he didn’t measure up, Harry promised to eat the snake. 350 people attended a public ceremony on Saturday, August 13, 1955, to determine Pete’s true length. He came up a bit short of 20 feet, measuring only 19 feet, 8-1/4” long. That’s 3-3/4” (9.53 cm) too short, so Harry was going to have to eat Pete. But he never did. Instead, he stated, “We didn’t get all the kinks out.”

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve of 1957, 3 years, 3 months, and 13 days after Pete’s escape. The big news was that Pete was no longer Pete. He had a new name: Patricia. That’s because Pete gave birth to 75 white eggs. And since only ladies can do that, it was clear that Pete was really a female.

Harry Jackson told the press, “I knew he was mean but I didn’t know he was a female. I just can’t get used to calling him a her.”

It was unknown if the eggs were fertile or not. There was a much smaller python in the cage with her. As Harry pointed out, “Besides I don’t know what sex it is either. After what’s happened to Pete, I wouldn’t guess. That little one doesn’t even have a name.”

But he just had to know if those eggs were fertile or not. So, on Friday, January 10, 1958, one of her eggs was opened up, and inside they found a well-developed snake embryo.

Sadly, Patricia would never get to see her eggs hatch. On Sunday morning, February 23, 1958, she passed away at an unknown age. But her death wasn’t a surprise. She hadn’t eaten anything in six months and died of starvation. They tried to force-feed her five days before her death, but it was too late.

Patricia’s eggs were placed in an incubator, but they began to rot away. It was announced on March 26, 1958, that all of the putrid eggs had been buried, meaning that there wouldn’t be any little Pats or Petes to continue on the family legacy.

Then came the question of what to do with the snake’s body. Harry called a taxidermist, who quoted him $10/foot. At a length of 21 feet, that would have been $210 in total. (Nearly $2,300 today.)

That was simply too much for Harry.  That’s when the Fort Worth Zoological Society stepped forward and offered to pick up the cost of having Pete mounted. (The name Patricia never caught on.) They gave the job to taxidermist Kelton Tilley after he agreed to do so at cost. The final product was then gifted to the city for display at the Fort Worth Zoo.

Pete’s internal organs and skeleton were donated to TCU – Texas Christian University – and an autopsy was performed. What they found was shocking: Pete had been infested with worms, which included a total of 150 ft (45.72 m) of tapeworm. No wonder the snake wouldn’t eat…

Pete the Python made one final appearance – well, sort of an appearance – on Friday, April 25, 1958, during a TCU Science Department’s open house. Among the 100 exhibits, the main attraction was a display case featuring Pete’s skeleton and several jars containing his preserved internal organs. While it might sound a bit gross, you can check out a video of the event here, to see that his remains were tastefully presented.

Personally, I would have preferred that Pete be laid to rest by the river, where he could have eternally basked in the sunshine.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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