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Home Geelong and District Pot Luck MORRISEY, James - snake handler

MORRISEY, James - snake handler

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James MORRISEY was a stonemason and snake handler!

From: The Earlier Days of Newtown & Chilwell [1]

James Morrisey was an entertainer of quite a different character.  He was a stonemason by trade and lived on the East side of Pakington Street hill.  Preferring handling snakes to his trade, he became an expert in handling all kinds and perfected a certain cure for snake bits.  The cure consisted of a silk ligature cord 3 feet long with a tassel on one end.  Hidden in the tassel was a little piece of steel 3/8 inch wide, the end of which was sharpened to a fine cutting edge.  In the case of snake bite, the ligature could be used without help to tie a slip know between the cut and the heart of any part of the body.  The sharp edge of the piece of steel in the tassel would then be used to make an incision across the bite, a little liquid, which looked like ink, taken out of an essence-of-lemon bottle (this was a preparation of his own making) would then be rubbed on the cut over the bite and a teaspoonful of the same liquid taken inwardly.  The cure was a certainty.

Morrisey, with his sugar bag of snakes, gave exhibitions of snake handling on the stage, at race meetings and in the streets.  After an exhibition in Johnston Park one afternoon, he got full of liquor and returning home late at night in that state he proceeded to give the snakes a drink of milk, but forgot to secure the top of the bag.  The next morning twelve snakes were everywhere in the next door neighbor's house and out in the streets.  Parents of children at the Chilwell State School, when they got the news, promptly attended the school and took their children home.  The school was closed for fourteen days until all but one of the snakes was killed.

Morrisey was arrested one day in a hotel in Melbourne on some charge or another.  He demanded that he be allowed to take his bag with him, which he declared contained his tools of trade.  On being locked up, he was asked what he had in the bag.  He brought the bag over, close to the two policement in attendance, untied the cord round the top of the bag, put in his arm and brought out a tiger snake.  Within a few seconds he was alone and the way clear to get out, but he lay down beside his favorites and went to sleep.  A book full of incidents could be written about Morrisey.

Later he went to Queensland and gave exhibitions there.  Morrisey met his death after being bitten by a death adder.

From: Newtown & Chilwell rate books [2]  

James MORRISEY appeared as an occupant, mason, residing in a 4 roomed wooden cottage in Pakington Street between Noble and Clarke Streets 1903-1907.  He didn't appear in the 1902-03 rate book and was crossed out in the 1906-1907 book.  Whether he lived in a different house before and after the rate book entries or did not live in Geelong is not known at this stage.

From: the Argus, 20 September 1907 [3]  


James Morrisey's snakes, which have caused something approaching a mild sensation here, have come to an untimely end.  Morrisey got drunk again today and fell into the hands of the police, who promplty destroyed his pets.  Several, however, are still roaming at large in the city.

From: the [Adelaide] Advertiser, 5 October 1907 [3]

Last week a member asked in the Federal Senate if the Government would endeavour to get a sample of the antidote to snakebite from James Morrissey, who was locked up in Melbourne with snakes in his possession, and have it reported upon by a chemist, and if necessary included in the Pharmacopaeia.  No answer to the query was given.   Early last month Morrissey went to Melbourne from beyond Colac, and was charged with drunkenness.  Several bags he was carrying, were discovered to contain snakes, and while the constables were searching him another reptile wriggled out from behind his vest.  Morrissey said he applied his antidote by scarifying around the punctures, and while they were bleeding he poured some of his antidote on the wounded part.  He remarked when before the court that he would have made money out of his antidote "if it was not for taking too much tanglefoot."  Morrissey was in Port Adelaide on Thursday, and related how he had pursued and captured a snake.  "They were on the point of killing him," he said, referring evidently to some persons who were endeavouring, to dispatch the snake, "when I withdrew their attention and nabbed him by his tail."  Morrissey said he held up the reptile, and then put it in a hole.  "They say in Ballarat that I'm skane-proof," he declared.  "A lot they know.  I've only to omit taking my precautions, and its all up with Morrissey.  I have told the doctors all except on thing."  "What's that?" queried a friend, who was listening.  "Ah," he replied.  "The name of the herb - that's my secret.  I'm off up country now to get a few snakes.  Then I'll come back."

From: the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1908 [3]

There has long been a tradition - elusive, indefinite, and unsatisfactory, like most traditions - that the one creature which had practical knowledge of an absolute and unfailing antidote for snake bites in this country was the predatory iguana.  The legend has been passed on from father to son that when an iguana was bitten in a combat with a snake he would at once retire momentarily, eat some herb, and then resume the fight.  During many years people with some vague belief in the feasibility of the story have sought strenuously enough in various parts of the country for the means of testing the antidote.  The subject was, strenuously enough in various parts of the country for he means of testing the antidote.  The subject was, obviously, hedged around with difficulties.  In the first place a fight between a snake and an iguana is not the commonest of spectacles; one might live a whole lifetime in the bush under the most favourable conditions without an opportunity to witness such a struggle.  And those who have seen such sights, and have actually without an opportunity to witness such a struggle.  And those who have seen such sights, and have actually observed the iguana eat some plant on being bitten, have been unable to determine the question of its identity.  Curiously enough it remained for a Londoner, one James Morrissey, to turn the instinctive knowledge of the iguana to account, and to identify and utilise the herb which many people have come to regard as a myth, having its origin in aborigines folklore.

Morrissey whose performances with snakes have recently created something of a sensation in Victoria and in the Riverina district of New South Wales - appears to have been born without fear of reptiles.  It has been said that Dr Livingstone, on first coming into contact with an African lion, was utterly disillusioned that his story book suggested impressions of the majesty and might of the king of beasts.  He received the rudest of shocks, and that, with a feeling somewhat akin to contempt, he unhesitatingly approached the terrible monarch of the jungle unarmed.  Morrissey - a new arrival in Tasmania, at the time - had heard a great deal of the deadliness of Australian snakes, but had never seen one.  When he did see one he was, like Livingstone, disillusioned.  He was mining, and outside the hut saw something wriggline in the dusk.  "Look 'ere, matey," said Morrissey, "ere's abart one of the prettiest things I've seen in this country."  The "matey" looked and saw a tiger snake in all the gaiety of his new suit, and glistening beautifully in the unlight.  Morrissey made a move as if to pick up the reptile.  "Stop, you thundering ass," exclaimed his mate, "that's a deadly snake."  "Oh, that thing's a snake, is it?" coolly replied Morrissey; and with a bound he placed the Iron shod heel of his miner's boot on the back of the reptile and killed it.  That was the snake man's first introduction to the family in Australia, and afterwards he killed many of them in the same way.  With fuller experience, however, Morrissey began to realise that the method of attack lacked artistic skill and finish; and now he simply picks his snake up by the tail, gives it a sudden jerk - much in the manner of the clever dog which learns to kill them - and breaks its back.  I you have any doubt in the matter you may go out in the bush with this modern charmer and have ocular demonstration for yourself.  The deadliest and quickest of snakes known to this country he will capture and kill in the same way without apparent effort.  His favourite "pets", because the most formidable, are the tiger, copperhead, black, and brown snakes; the death adder he regards with contempt.  His prime favourite is the tiger.  In the course of his adventures with snakes, Morrissey claims to have been bitten 52 times, on every part of the body, including the nose.  On one occasion he nearly lost his life owing to being under the influence of drink when bitten, and failing to apply his remedy.

How did he discover the antidote which certainly appears to be infallible, and upon the efficacy of which this man has over and over again staked his life?  Thinking over the story he had heard of the immunity of the iguana, he concluded that there must be some means of testing the question.  With practical common sense Morrissey recognised that it would be futile to go into the bush and wait until he saw a snake and an Iguana fighting, and then try to discover the herb said by tradition to be the family medicine chest of the four-footed reptile. He therefore decided to go into "snake country," inferring that, in accordance with natural laws, of protection, the herb would be found there, and bring about combat by artificial means between a snake and an iguana.  First he made an enclosure of a well-grassed patch of land in its natural condition; then he captured a live snake and an iguana and threw them into it and awaited results.  Nothing happened, however.  Both creatures devoted themselves entirely to the effort to escape, and took no notice of each other.  Growing impatient Morrissey caught up the Iguana and threw it on top of the snake.  After this performance had been repeated a few times the creatures became enraged, and to the satisfaction of the experimentalist in natural history they commenced to fight.  Morrissey's satisfaction was emphasised when, after being manifestly struck in a vulnerable spot, the iguana discontinued the fight, and quickly hurled his head in the grass for a second or two.  Then he appeared to eject from his mouth some liquid substance on to the wound.  Even with the closest observation, however, Morrissey could not tell whether the iguana had eaten something, masticated it, and ejected the fluid resulting into the wound, or whether the animal merely brought into requisition some natural secretion from its own organs.  In applying the liquid the iguana seemed to rub it in with its tongue.  After a long search the investigator selected all the specimens of herbs which it seemed likely contained the one used by the Iguana and commenced to experiment with them.  Only one of them gave any result worth considering.  This was reduced to liquid form and used on rabbits.  A full-grown rabbit in a healthy state, has died under Morrissey's test in 30 seconds from the bite of a tiger snake, and 35 seconds from that of a copperhead and black snake.  A 15 lb dog has succumbed in three minutes.  By applying the first liquid he obtained from the herb he found that it prolonged the life of a rabbit for half an hour.  That, of course, was of little avail, and so he continued his experiments with the plant, and claims that by this means he has produced the antidote which renders him immune to snake poison.  There is enough of the plant from which it is extracted, he ways, between lbury and Wagga to provide a gallon of antidote for every person in the Commonwealth.  Although this man would seem to know more of snakes than anyone ever seen in this country he admits that there is still more to learn.  Like many other students in different phases of life, he finds that it is idle and misleading to generalise from particular cases or specific knowledge, and that the more one knows the more clearly the limitations of his grasp of the subject come home to him.

Morrissey cannot understand the normal human being's fear of snakes.  He believes, however, that one-hyalf, if not more, of those who die of snakebite dir of collapse from nervous shock rather than from the effects of the venom.  As indicating what the power of suggestion will do in this respect, he cites the case of a big, burly miner.  Morrissey (who carries snakes about in his shirt and his sleeves and handles the most vicious of them with unconcern) once slipped a tiger snake from the leg of his trousers behind the miner, and at the same time pricked him on the heel with a thorn.  The man turned suddenly, saw the snake, and at once concluded he had been bitten.  After tying a ligature on, and scarifying the wound, Morrissey applied some of his antidote, and got two others to walk the patient about to prevent drowsiness.  Within a quarter of an house the man was manifesting all the ordinary symptoms of snakebite, and his attendants found it practically impossible to keep him awake as they walked him about, and shook him, and violently poked him in the ribs with their bony elbows.  The "sufferer" recovered, but to this day nothing will convince him that he was not bitten.  In another case, illustrating the vital difference in the nerve power of different people, a girl of 12 quite calmly allowed herself to be bitten by one of Morrissey's snakes after witnessing the efficacy of his antidote upon himself.  A fowl bitten by his snake died in two minutes and afterwards the same reptile bit Morrissey on the hand without causing him any inconvenience beyond the necessity of applying a ligature and the antidote.  When the sceptics see him manipulating snakes they are always ready to jump to the conclusion that they are non-venomous kinds, or have been tampered with.  But it is a matter of indifference to Morrissey what the species is or by whom it has been captured; he is quite willing to handle a snake seen for the first time as one of his own.  The man is a store-house of information bearing upon the subject of snakes, their nature, habits, and distribution.  Different species of snakes favour different country.  The copperhead, for instance, while numerous in certain districts of Victoria, is never seen in some parts of this State.  A theory which used to find widespread acceptance was that snakes were most deadly in the spring - when the poison sacs wore fully charged after the winter's retirement.  Morrissey contends that they are most deadly in March, during the breeding season.  He has no patience with the notion that female snakes swallow their young if danger threatens.  He argues that if they did the process of digestion - which is singularly rapid and powerful - would take its natural course, and that that would be the end of the young ones.  In the course of experiment he finds that snakes secrete most poison when supplied with their natural food such as frogs, birds, lizards, etc.  He has fed them entirely on milk, and ascertained that the poison supply was reduced from 50 to 80 per cent.  Snakes, as if by some subtle instinct, seem to recognise their master in Morrissey; they never appear to care about striking at him, and commonly he has to goad them into a condition of ferocity before they will bit him.  At present Morrissey is travelling through Riverina on his way to Sydney, where he hopes to interest the Government in his discovery.

From: the [Adelaide] Advertiser, 4 May 1915 [3]  


James Morrissey, the Lal Lal snake charmer, has made application for an acre of land near Ballarat with a view to establishing a farm for breeding of Australian and Indian reptiles.  Morrissey, who claims to be a "Professor of reptilian creatures," said to-day that he had run short of snakes, owing to the Geelong police having destroyed his "beautiful collection" when he was on his way back from Melbourne.  He maintains that his antidote is infallible, and states that during the past four years it has been the means of saving the lives of no fewer than 35 persons in New South Wales.  He wishes to establish his snake farm in the Buninyong shire, but it is more than probable that the shire council will strongly oppose his application for land.


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Please seek proper medical aid if bitten by a snake!

Story identified and transcribed by Gwen Threlfall.


  1. Charles S Walker, The Earlier Days of Newtown & Chilwell, City of Newtown & Chilwell, 1958
  2. Rate books for City of Newtown & Chilwell
  3. Argus newspaper, National Library of Australia, Australian Newspapers web site
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