An 1839 bulletin from the prestigious Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (forerunner to the New England Journal of Medicine) tells the story of Robert H. Copeland, otherwise known as “The Snakeman.” Copeland was born in South Carolina in the early nineteenth century and moved to Georgia before the Civil War. His distinguishing feature and claim to fame was as a case of maternal impressions, a theory nearly every one credited well into the nineteenth century, including doctors, whose trust in it cemented popular belief. He is otherwise minor in historical records, renowned only for his staunch Methodism and his refusal to yield a bridge to Yankee soldiers.
One day Robert’s mother was walking outside and attacked by a large rattlesnake. The snake seems not actually to have bitten her, but “so powerfully was her mind affected” that the strike wrought injury not only temporarily, on the woman herself, but on the sixth-month-old fetus she carried.
Her son Robert grew up with a face resembling a snake.The boy was born with “no control over his right arm and right leg,” which were smaller than his left limbs. To nineteenth-century readers it was obvious that this appearance was traceable to Mrs. Copeland’s experience during pregnancy. He developed a strange habit of cocking his arm with fingers curved ahead like the head of a snake. The medical journal described his involuntary serpentine moves:
the whole arm will strike at an object with all the venom of a snake, and precisely in the same manner, for two or three or sometimes for or five strokes, and then the arm assumes a vibratory motion, will coil up and apply itself against close against his body. During this period the right foot and leg become excited, and if not restrained, will strike also. His face is also excited; the angle of his mouth is drawn backward, and his eye snaps more or less, in unison with the strokes of his hand, whilst his lips are always separated, exposing his teeth, which, being somewhat pointed like the fangs of a snake, causes his whole visage to assume a peculiar and snaky aspect.
Copeland seemed to have a mysterious bond with serpents. He showed marked resemblance, literally, to snakes, both in his facial features and in a birthmark of a snake “printed on the anterior of his leg.” But he also so loathed snakes that the very sight of them filled him with “horror” and vengefulness, a condition that moved with the rhythms of nature, since he was “more excitable during the season of snakes.” Unlike more familiar characters graced with powers of other species, Copeland’s peculiar abilities were not transmitted by venomous bite or wizard curse but by his mother.In the nineteenth century, as for centuries before, there was a perfectly reasonable medical explanation for what ailed Copeland: maternal impressions. A complex group of notions with ancient pedigree, maternal impressions implied belief that the mother somehow could mark the the fetus through her thoughts, shock, or desire. Theories of reproduction from ancient Greece into early modern Europe and the early United States gave some minor supporting roles to women, but mostly supposed that what made a baby was male “seed.” There is a kind of logic to that. But problems arise when something goes wrong. If male seed formed the new child, how were malformed or injured babies to be explained? Problems were less likely to be charged to the seed than to the childbearing woman.
The cause of Copeland’s affliction was easy enough for nineteenth century readers and doctors to understand. A shock to his mother caused markings in the fetus, which were borne out by a lifetime of reptilian tics. Not her body but her mind had hurt her child. The snake, after all, did not actually bite Mrs. Copeland. Readers of the medical journal might have felt for poor Mrs. Copeland who, at her son’s arrival, had to blame herself for his condition. This calculation might well appall us, the tight link between the child’s debility and maternal responsibility. In a kind of cruel paradox, women were not credited with much positive to do in making a baby but blamed for what went wrong, even when what went wrong (a snake attack) was hardly within their control.
We know better. We no longer warn mothers that looking at bears will make their babies hairy, or that a snake strike will turn a baby’s teeth into fangs. But our approach to the responsibilities of pregnancy remains caught, to some degree, in that old kind of calculation, laying on women duties to “optimize the fetal environment” and, often, laying blame first at their feet when something goes wrong. That something could be blameable or utterly outside of their control: poverty, Zika, toxoplasmosis. We may want to help women and babies when things go wrong, and there are some breathtaking medical helps, but humane, supportive ways of standing with families in those situations often go wanting.
About the rest of Copeland’s life not much is known, and that mostly from genealogists’ narratives. Despite his “snaky aspect,” Copeland seems to have lived productively and companionably, marrying twice and fathering many children. That is not insignificant. Copeland and his community presumably figured out how to live together without either treating his condition as debilitating or exploiting it for profit. As the journal article notes at end, devoid of the irony perhaps to be preferred “His physical peculiarities being considered only in the light of a common deformity, he never thought of exhibiting himself publicly, till it was suggested to him by a medical friend in 1837.”