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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2004 > College Row
College Row
Two-headed snake

Jeffery Amherst, naturalist

Among the many notable facts about the college’s namesake, there is one that, perhaps not surprisingly, has received scant attention: Lord Jeffery Amherst was the owner of the first two-headed snake found in the New World. The serpent in question was found and killed in 1767 by one Lieutenant Moses Park, as he and a drafter were surveying Lake Champlain. According to a 1769 description by naturalist Edward Bancroft, the snake was “about 15 inches in length…[the body] divided into two necks of equal size, to each of which was joined a perfect head.” Bancroft, who called it “a perfect monster,” thought it might be a kind of rattle­snake, but modern herpetologists have identified it as a milk snake.

Lt. Park, recognizing the unprecedented nature of his discovery (and perhaps hoping to become Captain Park), gave this noteworthy creature to Lord Jeffery, who had been named commander in chief of British forces in America. Apparently, Amherst was pleased by the gift, for he kept the animal in a jar of alcohol. What became of the snake after Lord Jeffrey's death is unknown.

An image of the animal survives, however, as the drafter who was with Moses Park when the snake was discovered made the drawing reproduced above. Like the snake itself, the drawing is intimately tied to a famous player in our country’s history, though on the other side of the political divide: In 1787 it came to Benjamin Franklin. At the time, Franklin was trying to convince the Constitutional Convention not to adopt bicameralism, and with his penchant for proverbs, he immediately saw the metaphorical potential in the dicephalous reptile. To make his argument, he told the delegates a story about just such a snake, which “was going to a brook to drink, and in her way was to pass through a hedge, a twig of which opposed her direct course; one head chose the right side of the twig, the other the left; so that time was spent in the contest, and before the decision was completed, the poor snake died with thirst.” Despite the aptness of the metaphor, the convention was of one mind and voted for two houses.

The snake also caused Franklin to make one of his few scientific missteps. Just a few weeks after receiving the drawing of Amherst’s serpent, he was presented with an actual two-headed snake found by a boy outside Philadelphia. Undoubtedly influenced by the near-simultaneous appearance of two such creatures, and seeing that both were symmetrical, healthy adults, he leapt to the conclusion that these snakes were not aberrations, but rather represented “a distinct genus.” (Two-headedness among snakes is an aberration, of course, but a fairly common one: 1 percent of the eggs in a given nest may produce dicephalous offspring if the temperature is too high.)

The final element of the story has to do with Moses Park, for while his serpent and its likeness went on to figure in history, the lowly lieutenant achieved his own bit of immortality: at the site of his discovery on the shore of Lake Champlain there is a small indentation called Double-Headed Snake Bay.

Next: Enigma deciphered >>

 
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