The Golden Snake

  Wonders" of the Circus Sideshow, January 1922 Illustrated World

by Frank Braden


The most effective of all side-show fakes is "The Golden Snake, the Sacred Reptile of India," and the fact that it is not exhibited nowadays is the most convincing proof that, in spite of itself, the circus side show has moved ahead unmistakably since the reign of the Volpus. The golden snake was usually a bull snake painted gold and silver with a mixture of powder and banana oil used in coating ladies' gold and silver evening pumps. "The golden or sacred snake of India," explained the side-show lecturer, "is sometimes known as the thunder snake, because when shut off from the light of day it emits a roaring as of distant thunder."
The mechanics of this snake show were simple. It was arranged as a pit show that is, the spectators looked at the exhibition over a canvas rail, with the snake in a box on the floor of the enclosure. Underneath the canvas floor of the pit had been dug a hole just large enough to contain an upright keg, with a drum-head stretched over the upper end. A string led from this drumhead through a pipe to the rear of the pit show tent, where a boy, concealed behind curtains, rubbed a piece of resin along the cord. Of course, the drumhead gave off a moaning and roaring, which seemed to come from the interior of the box in which the snake was coiled. The man in charge of the box, generally a colored person dressed in Hindu garb, would now and then lift it clear of the canvas floor to show the onlookers that there was nothing underneath. To the spectators nothing but the smooth canvas floor of the pit show tent was visible. As soon as the box was placed in position again -- directly over the hole, of course -- the lad at the end of the resin string would resume operations, and the mystified spectators would gaze at the box with bulging eyes. The snake would then be exhibited. It was always beautiful with its artificial coat, that bull snake, and the crowds looked long before they missed the roaring. However, the cessation of sound was explained easily enough: So soon as the snake saw the light it naturally quit "thundering." The minute the lid was clamped down and darkness overwhelmed the reptile, the "thundering" for the light of day recommenced. It was all very simple.

Naturally, it was in the circus sideshow that most of the old-time faking went on, and it is there that the greatest change in white top methods has come since the days of Mr. Barnum. The big show has not changed, except in costuming, lighting and minor matters. It was always big, open and frank, the American three-ring circus performance, and there was little chance to fake with 10,000 people eying it all from the huge oval of seats. Because circus system was well-nigh perfect when P. T. Barnum and his followers mastered the railroad show, the circus proper has been reluctant to step along with the changing times. They were master showmen, but the side shows have of late years generally set aside the famous humbugging remark as a precept. Yet, it's a debatable question whether they are as interesting as they were when the Volpus and the dancing turkeys were presented for approval.

Taken from the article The "Wonders" of the Circus Sideshow by Frank Braden (author) January 1922 Illustrated World, Disability History Museum, (March 2, 2005)


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