The Snake-Charmer’s Peril: 1883


The Snake-Charmer in a Circus Nearly Crushed by a Huge Python.

A thrilling incident happened in Forepaugh’s circus, recently, while Nala Damajante, the Hindoo snake-charmer was going through her performance of handling half a dozen squirming pythons. It was all in the twinkling of an eye, and scarcely a dozen person in the great audience were aware that Damajante had for a moment been in deadly peril. She had finished the wonderful act of walking about the raised platform with six snakes coiled like a living head-dress over her forehead, and had taken the huge python, whose weight is nineteen pounds and length twelve feet from its box, and threw it across her shoulder. As she had done with the other snakes, Damajante grasped the powerful creature a few inches back of the head. Although the air was damp and chilly, the python appeared possessed of more than usual activity. It unwound its sinuous length from Damajante’s body and quickly coiled about the upper part of her chest and throat. To those nearest the performer, the muscles of the snake could be distinctly seen working beneath the spotted skin. Suddenly the reptile gave an angry hiss and darted its quivering tongue, and almost at the same moment the coil about the woman’s throat was tightened. Damajante’s agent, who was standing near the entrance to the elephant house, appeared to know that there was a possibility of something of the kind taking place, and was keeping a keen eye on the performance. He started forward, quietly, so as not to alarm the audience, and had got half way down the race track, when Damajante, who had already realized her great danger, succeeded in untwisting the tail end of the snake from her body. The middle and most powerful part of the python was still about her throat, and the pressure was increasing. She was very pale, but thoroughly calm. The head of the python, hissing horribly, was grasped in her right hand. Damajante, with remarkable nerve, managed to free her left arm, and in another instant had, with all the strength she possessed in both hands, unwrapped the writhing necklace from her throat. She placed her dangerous pet back in its box, bowed, and retired.

Speaking of her strange avocation a few moments later, Damajante said that it was only during very warm weather, when the snakes were viciously active, that she feared their strength. “They are very susceptible to cold,” said the snake charmer, after she had recovered her composure, “and have to be kept in boxes arranged with hot-water pans to the temperature up to at least 100 degrees. Besides that they are wrapped up in blankets. Did I ever have anything like that happen before? O yes. Once in Berlin, about two years ago, my largest snake nearly crushed me to death. It took the united strength of two men to remove him. Another time in Riga the large python got his tail around a pillar and threw me on my back. In Madrid my arm was almost twisted out of its socket. Sometimes they bite me—look,” and, extending her hands, Damajante showed them to be covered with small V-shaped scars. “The bite is not poisonous, but it is rather painful. I don’t mind my hands so much but am on the watch to keep them from striking at my eyes. You know the peculiar way in which the python’s teeth are set—curving backward in repose and standing erect when angry—well, it would be an easy matte rot lose an eye. Some years ago in Vienna, a snake-charmer had his eye plucked out of the socket in an instant. I think the snakes know me. I have possessed strange power over them that I cannot account for myself, since girlhood. Are they hardy? Well, sir, I give them as much attention as a mother does her child. Regularly every Saturday night they are washed in luke-warm water and wrapped in blankets. During warm weather I feet them every eight days. The smaller ones eat live rabbits and that big fellow is satisfied with a duck or two. I have another pet who is shedding his coat. Come, and I’ll show him to you. He’s only a baby;” and, leading the way to the menagerie tent, Damajante approached a red box, which she unlocked. From beneath the folds of double blanket she drew, with some difficulty, one of the most monstrous pythons ever seen in captivity. It measured eighteen feet from head to tail, and weighed certainly not less than 125 pounds. Its scaly coat was peeling off in patches, and its eyes were sightless. This blindness, the snake-charmer said, was always present while the reptile was going through the annual process of shedding its gaudy-hued coat. “This fellow,” continued Damajante, “is very strong, and I have to use the greatest care in handling him. He is almost through now, and I may possibly exhibit him in Philadelphia before the circus move.”

The snake-charmer does not speak English, and carried on the conversation partly in French. Her agent, who speaks the strange tongue of her mother country, helped to interpret when she stumbled across a too-difficult sentence.

Daily Globe [St. Paul, MN] 25 April 1883: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A thrilling escape, indeed! And yet Mrs Daffodil wonders how much danger there was, really, when it is known that Miss Damajante was born Emilie Poupon in France–scarcely proximate to India–and that the managers of the Forepaugh Circus were quite canny about planting dramatic news items in the papers to, as they say, “drum up business.”

Miss Poupon, of very prepossessing appearance, was a governess to a Russian family in St. Petersburg when she ran away with the circus and married a wall-walking acrobat.

She apparently was the inspiration for a series of French automata called La charmeuse de Serpent. You may enjoy the writhings and slitherings here.

A painful story about an amateur snake-charmer who allowed herself to be bitten by her snakes in the name of science, may be found here.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.




2 thoughts on “The Snake-Charmer’s Peril: 1883

  1. Pingback: The Snake Garter: 1897 | Mrs Daffodil Digresses

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