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.”

Reconstructing History: Anna Coleman Ladd, the Mask Artist of World War I

National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)
National Archives (165-WW-266B-7)

Just before World War I, an artist and sculptor named Anna Coleman Ladd decided to focus her skills on another method of creative expression: She wrote a novel. The Candid Adventurer, published in 1913, tells the story of a portrait painter named Jerome Leigh who is obsessed with external beauty and unable to see beyond the superficial. The other main character in the book, Mary Osborne, struggles with a sense that she’s out of touch with the problems of the less fortunate. Her privileged social status keeps her “from the touch of life, from humanity in its grossness, its evil, its suffering,” even as her daughter, Muriel, tries to draw her out of her emotional isolation.

The Candid Adventurer offered a degree of foreshadowing for Ladd's own life. In just a few years, she would voluntarily remove herself from a comfortable existence as a celebrated artist in Boston and relocate to Paris, where a queue of soldiers severely injured in battle waited for her help in alleviating their suffering. Using all of the skills she’d acquired as an artist, Ladd crafted custom masks that restored their damaged eyes, missing noses, and shattered jaws. She invited them into her studio, made them feel at home, and allowed them to walk out with a facsimile of what the war had taken from them. What plastic surgery would one day do with a scalpel, Ladd did with little more than copper, plaster, and paint. She did so not only to please the Jerome Leighs of the world, who recoiled at damaged faces, but for the soldiers themselves, who feared they might never again be accepted into society.

 

Ladd was born Anna Coleman Watts in Pennsylvania in 1878. Thanks to her two wealthy parents, John and Mary Watts, she enjoyed an education rich in literature and the arts, both in America and abroad. She learned sculpting at the side of masters in Rome in 1900. When she returned to the States, women of prominence commissioned private works from her.

Watts’s social position, already gilded, was elevated further when she married physician Maynard Ladd in 1905. Since Maynard was from Boston, the now-Anna Coleman Ladd relocated to his hometown and attended the Boston Museum School for three years. There, she became a local celebrity for her paintings and busts.

Ladd stayed busy with her artwork and novel writing. In 1917, an art critic named C. Lewis Hind drew her attention to an article written by a man named Francis Derwent Wood. An artist by trade, Wood had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in his early forties. After seeing the brutally disfigured men who had been brought back from the trenches to be treated by his colleague, the London-based surgeon Harold Gillies, Wood opened the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department in the Third London General Hospital, which soon became known informally as the "Tin Noses Shop." Wood’s intent was to pick up where the surgeon left off, creating cosmetic improvements using fabricated facial appliances that filled in the empty space destroyed by war.

Ladd was convinced her skill set could achieve similar—perhaps even better—results. Through her physician husband's connections, she was able to get an audience with the American Red Cross, which agreed to help her open a studio on the Left Bank of Paris. She arrived in France in December of 1917 and had her space ready for patients by the spring of 1918. She named it the Studio for Portrait Masks.

A soldier before and after being fitted for a facial mask by Anna Coleman Ladd
A soldier is seen with part of his chin missing (L) and after being fitted with an appliance by Anna Coleman Ladd (R).
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To understand why Ladd and Wood’s expertise was needed, it helps to contextualize the state of both warfare and medicine in the early 20th century. Combatants in World War I were firing and receiving heavy artillery from automatic weapons; grenades sent shrapnel flying in all directions. Because so many men were embedded in trenches, sticking their heads out often meant receiving direct or ancillary fire. Helmets may have guarded against lethal injuries to the brain, but helmets could also be shattered, sending pieces flying into their face. Of the 6 million men from Britain and Ireland who fought in World War I, an estimated 60,500 suffered injuries to the head or to their eyes.

With parts of their faces now missing or severely damaged, these men would be carted off the field and directed toward medical stations and major hospitals. Their potentially lethal wounds would be treated, but surgical restoration of cosmetic damage was still in a relatively primitive state. Sometimes, a patient who would require several surgeries to achieve an improved appearance could only be afforded one due to a lack of time or a shortage of staff. Gillies was a smart and insightful surgeon who pioneered some of the techniques seen in modern plastic surgery, treating thousands of men at Queen's Hospital, but it was impossible to perform revolutionary procedures for every wounded patient coming through the doors.

After being treated and released, the men often found great difficulty returning to their normal lives. They were self-conscious about their appearance and sometimes spoke of what they called the Medusa effect: Walking down the street, a passerby would catch sight of their collapsed cheekbones or hollow eye socket and faint. In Sidcup, England, where Gillies practiced, blue park benches near the hospital were reserved for men with disfigured faces; the color also served as a signal that the occupant of the bench might have an alarming appearance. The French referred to these men as mutilés, for mutilated, or Gueules cassées, for broken faces. Some were so despondent over their appearance they committed suicide.

It was these men Ladd sympathized with and was desperate to assist.

 

Ladd corresponded with Wood to gather information on how such facial injuries could be addressed through facial appliances. Though masks had been worn for centuries by people with deformities, no one had ever tried making them on such a scale before. It's been estimated that 3000 French soldiers were in need of such attention. To visit Ladd, they required a letter of recommendation from the Red Cross.

Ladd eventually settled on a process that involved making a plaster cast of the patient. First, she would invite them into the studio, which she insisted be a warm and welcoming environment. Ladd and her four assistants made the soldiers feel as comfortable as possible; she trained her staff to make jokes and not fixate on the visitors' appearances. Next, Ladd applied plaster over their faces and allowed it to dry, creating a hardened cast from which she could make a copy of the face and craft an appliance in gutta-percha, a rubber-like substance, which was then electroplated in copper. Depending on the work required, Ladd would also sometimes use a silver mesh plate covered in plaster. The missing or disfigured features were designed using reference photographs of her subject from before the war. The copper was just 1/32 of an inch thick and weighed between four and nine ounces. The mask might encompass anything from a missing nose to an entirely destroyed portion of the face, depending on the extent of damage.

Next came the step requiring Ladd’s skills as a painter. She used an oil-based enamel resistant to water and attempted to match her recipient’s skin tone somewhere between how it would look under clouds or dim light and how it might look on a sunny day. (Leaning toward either extreme would only lessen the illusion.) If a mustache was required, she crafted one out of foil. Human hairs were used for eyebrows and eyelashes. The mask was typically attached to a pair of spectacles hooked over the ears to hold it in place, or a strip hooked behind the ear.

The Red Cross produced a film (above) illustrating the process. In 1918, Ladd explained her intentions to a very curious press: “Our work begins when the surgeon has finished,” she said. “We do not profess to heal. After the wounded man has been discharged from the hospital we begin our treatment. Of course, the chief difficulty in making these masks is to accurately match both sides of the face and restore the features so that there will be nothing of the grotesque in the appearance of the covering. A mask that did not look like the individual as he was known to his relatives would be almost as bad as the disfigurement.”

The process took roughly a month before Ladd was satisfied with the result. Though her patients were primarily French soldiers, she made a handful for Americans, who—per the wishes of the American Red Cross—got expedited treatment.

 

All told, Ladd spent 11 months in Paris. Some estimates put her studio’s production at over 200 masks, but the figure was likely closer to 97. Considering how much time each one took Ladd and her four-person staff, it was a staggering amount of productivity, with roughly nine masks churned out every month. When the war concluded, she returned to Boston to pick up her commercial sculpting career. She was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for her war service in 1932. She died in 1939 in California at the age of 60, just three years after retiring.

In the years following the war, Ladd gave lectures and spoke freely about her experiences fabricating these faces. She received letters from men thanking her for making them more comfortable with their appearance. No extensive study of these soldiers was ever pursued, however, and it’s difficult to say how the masks were incorporated into their day-to-day lives.

The items themselves were also not impervious to wear and wouldn't last more than a few years. Even if they did, the patient would eventually undergo a puzzling metamorphosis: They would age, but the mask would not. Eventually, the contrast between a flawless copper plate and wrinkled or pale skin would become too noticeable.

Some of Ladd’s subjects may have spent years in relative comfort. Others may have only had fleeting moments of normalcy, where favorable light and the company of close friends made them less self-conscious about what the war had taken from them. But in some measure, Anna Coleman Ladd had used her artistic ability to give them a respite from the misfortune that accompanied their bravery. Of those who were photographed wearing her masks, many were smiling.

Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
American writer, journalist, and feminist Dorothy Thompson in London in 1941
J. A. Hampton/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

Stumping for Suffrage

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson's father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had "an allergy to children." A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy's dish." She spent the next few years fighting for women's right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn't pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

Hitler: "A Man Whose Countenance Is a Caricature"

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband's many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis's many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler's rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. "When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler's salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany," she wrote. "In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

While Thompson misjudged Hitler's appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson's 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were "unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality." It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

"My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all," Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. "That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris."

A Woman on a Mission

Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Dorothy Thompson chats to an ambulance driver on a London bench in 1941.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, "On the Record," which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies' Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler's movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University's first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women's club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn's accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson's popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in "a million boys' lives in blood and pain." Other detractors dismissed Thompson's "perpetual emotion," a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

The Grimmest Party Game

In the years that followed, Thompson's life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson's busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis's most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can't Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis's work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson's articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper's story "Who Goes Nazi?" found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler's brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. "Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi," Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. "It's an amusing game," she concluded. "Try it at the next big party you go to."

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