Saturday, April 5, 2014

Robert Hatten Copeland (aka The Snakeman)

(Family lineage: Robert Hatten Copeland  1, Charles Mabry Copeland  2
Charles Thomas Copeland Sr  3., Charles Copeland Jr  .4)

1803 - 1885

Portrait of Robert Hatten Copeland sometime before 1859

      Robert Hatten Copeland (or “Uncle Bobbie” – as he was called by those who knew him during his later years)  was the son of George and Betsey Jones Copeland and grandson of Revolutionary soldiers John Copeland and William Blakely featured earlier in this blog. 

   His story actually started before he was born in Laurens, South Carolina when his pregnant mother was convinced she had been bitten by a rattlesnake while walking near their house.  In that shocking moment, the family's lives were changed forever and the event was even recorded some time later in Georgia and New Hampshire newspapers. Robert's father died when he was ten years old and eventually his mother sold their property in South Carolina and migrated with her mother, half-sister, brother-in-law and other family members to Georgia.

      The following paraphrased article was discovered in “America's Genealogy Bank”.   The subject of the article was “Physiological Phenomenon” and it was originally published in 1837 in the "Washington City Statesman", a Georgia newspaper.  The story was  picked up a year later and printed in "The New Hampshire Gazette" on December 11, 1838.


“A correspondent has furnished us the following account of an individual by the name of Robert H. Copeland, who is exhibiting himself through the country. The facts are vouched for by a number of the most respectable physicians and other persons in Henry County, Georgia.

  This most singular being, perhaps, has not had a parallel in medical history. He is now about 29 years old, of ordinary stature and intellect. His deformities are owing to a fright his mother (Elizabeth Jones Copeland) received from a large rattlesnake which attempted to bite her just above the ankle during her pregnancy. 

As a result, she firmly believed herself bitten, and so powerfully was her mind affected that when the child was delivered, he had no control over his right arm or leg which are smaller than his left extremities. He can now use his right leg sufficiently to walk in a hobbling manner, but cannot keep it stationary without the aid of the weight of his body. His right hand has the usual number of fingers, but they are smaller than those of his left hand. The wrist joint is longer than usual and his hand stands at an angle with his arm. His front teeth are somewhat pointed and inclined backward like the fangs of a snake. His mouth is drawn considerably further on the right than on the left side; his eye squints and has several deep grooves radiating from it which very much resemble a snake.

     But perhaps the most extraordinary circumstance on record, is that his right arm, when not restrained, will bend at the elbow and the hand is drawn up to a right angle. Sometimes pointing two or three fingers, but most commonly, only the fore-finger will project, curved at the first joint, much resembling a snake's head and neck when ready to strike; and the whole arm will strike at an object with all the venom of a snake sometimes four or five times. Then the arm assumes a vibratory motion, coils up, and applies itself close against the body. During this period, his right foot and leg become excited and, if not restrained, will strike also. His face is 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 are somewhat pointed like the fangs of a snake, causing his whole visage to assume a peculiar and “snaky" but as he grew up, it became gradually obliterated, till now there is only a small depression where the snake's head was imprinted. The sight of a snake fills him with horror and an instinctive feeling of revenge; and he is more excitable during “the season of snakes” with even simple conversation concerning them exciting him.

     All of the above phenomena are perfectly independent of his will, as hundreds who were acquainted with him long before he had an idea of exhibiting himself publicly can testify. This singular being was born in Carolina, and moved to Georgia in the year 1829, where he has since remained, performing such labor as he could with one hand; and by unremitting exertions, has maintained his wife and increasing family. Since he considered his physical peculiarities only a common deformity, he never thought of exhibiting himself publicly till a medical friend suggested it to him in 1837.”

There was further documentation of this story in an article found in a medical book entitled   "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine"  in 1900:

“COPELAND: . . . mentioned a curious case in which a woman was attacked by a rattlesnake when in her sixth month of pregnancy and gave birth to a child whose arm exhibited the shape and involuntarily went through snake-like movements. The face and mouth also markedly resembled the head of a snake. The teeth were situated like a serpent's fangs. The mere mention of a snake filled the child (a man of twenty-nine) with great horror and rage, 'particularly in the snake season'.”

     Despite this crippling infirmity, history tells us that Robert and his first wife, Sarah, had 9 sons and one daughter. They owned a farm in Georgia which they farmed themselves.  It was reported that although they didn't believe in slavery and all labor was performed by the family members, the young Copeland men were among the first to enlist in the Army to defend the South. Two of them (Asberry and George) died during the war.  

  Because of his age and infirmity, Robert was given the duty of tending and/guarding a Flint River bridge. The story was told that a contingent of Union troops came across the bridge and harassed Robert, although they didn't hurt him. He was very strong in his religious convictions, and had his Bible with him. They tried to make him stand on his Bible and curse, but he wouldn't do it. All he would say was "Shovels and Tongs" in response to the harassment which was the closest Robert would ever come to cursing. The Yankees ended up burning the bridge and left the area. 

     After Sarah's death in 1859, Robert (age 57) married Ann Jane Ferris (age 25) with whom he had 2 sons and a daughter. His youngest son, Charles Mabry, was only 14 when his father died, at which time he took over the care of his mother and his father's bridge tending responsibilities.  This picture was taken of Charles Mabry Copeland, his wife Lula Jane, and three of their sons on the Flint River bridge.

From left: Elmer, Clifford, Tom, Lula Jane and Charles Mabry Copeland