Texas Tales: Snake-bit family’s striking story stretches credulity

The early day Wimberley-area Dickens family sure played the dickens when it came to rattlesnakes.

Noted Southwestern taleteller J. Frank Dobie wrote about the Dickens in one of his weekly newspaper columns and later included it in his book, “Rattlesnakes.” In the column he did not say where he heard the story but his book attributes it to former Hays County Judge J.R. Wilhelm. Dobie, and presumably Wilhelm, told it as truth. Be that as it may, the yarn stretches credulity tighter than water-shrunken rawhide. If it really happened, it’s one of the most “striking” Texas snake stories ever told.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, a man by the last name of Dickens owned 500 acres along the Blanco River upstream from Wimberley. He built a cabin and cleared enough brush to plant corn, a staple for humans, horses, mules and raiding raccoons. An avid hunter, Dickens also kept his family provided with fresh venison.

One day as Dickens inched toward an unsuspecting buck, a rattlesnake bit him on the wrist. Unperturbed, Dickens unsheathed his knife, slashed across the twin bite marks and started sucking blood. (A first aid procedure long since discredited.) Possibly the placebo effect made him think he was better, or maybe he didn’t receive that much venom. He continued his stalk and succeeded in taking the buck.

At some point after that, Mrs. Dickens was handling some bedding on a cold day when a rattlesnake that had concealed itself in a blanket for warmth became annoyed and bit the lady of the house. As Dobie put it, “She got all right.”

Unfortunately, in telling his tale Dobie did not provide Mr. and Mrs. Dicken’s given names. And of the five Dickens children, he used only the nicknames of three – Sambo, Cottonhead and Dolly. But he did provide two real first names for the other two kids, Maria and Reuben. Thanks to the Internet, that was enough evidence to identify the family.

Of all the Texas burials listed online, there’s only one Reuben Dickens. He was born in 1898 and died in 1968 a few months shy of his 70th birthday. His parents were George T. Dickens (1870-1953) and Matilda Dickens (1873-1947.) The community history “Wimberley Legacy” mentions a George Dickens as an early area resident, and there’s an infant Dickens who died in childbirth buried at Mount Sharp in Hays County. Eventually, the Dickens family ended up in Schleicher County where Reuben and his parents are buried in Eldorado Cemetery.

Back to the story:
That man and wife would be bitten by a rattlesnake in separate incidents is unusual enough. But then their oldest son, Sambo, got bit as he and his brother Cottonhead began to pull a rabbit from a hollow stump. The boys dispatched the rabbit, which would be dinner, and field-dressed it. That done, Sambo placed his bitten hand inside the carcass believing that would draw out the poison. That technique is no more viable than sucking blood, but he recovered.

Improbable as it seems, Dobie says Cottonhead soon became the fourth Dickens to survive a rattlesnake bite on the family’s Blanco River place, later followed by his brother Reuben and finally his sister Maria.

That left only Dolly Dickens as the only family member uninitiated to snakebite. You’d think she would have been grateful for her good fortune, and danged cautious to boot. But the opposite happened: She felt left out, less of a person.

“Rattlesnakes don’t think enough of Dolly to even bite her,” Mrs. Dickens teased her child in front of others.

Yearning to prove she was just as tough as the rest of her clan, young Dolly took to walking barefoot in high grass, hoping to attract a rattlesnake. Alas, nary a rattler cooperated.

As word of the Dickens’ remarkable bad luck with rattlesnakes spread, Dolly’s classmates began teasing her. Humiliated, Dolly was overjoyed when her father announced they were moving to Runnels County in West Texas.

On their new land, Dickens grew cotton. One day in July, while hoeing their first crop, Sambo got yet another rattlesnake bite.

“Well, the second round has started,” the senior Dickens declared. “Maybe Dolly will have her chance yet.”

Rattlesnakes strike on instinct in self-preservation. School kids can be gratuitously mean. Dolly had believed her embarrassment would end with the family’s relocation, but as soon as her fellow pupils heard the Dickens family’s story, they verbally bullied her as mercilessly as the Hays County kids had.

Sometimes what you want comes when least expected. One evening as Dolly walked through broom weed while following the family’s milk cows, a rattler sank its fangs into her ankle. Most girls would have screamed, but not Dolly. “No maiden was ever more invigorated by a first kiss,” Dobie wrote. Running to their house, Dolly yelled joyously, “One bit me, one bit me!”

Dickens sat his daughter down and dunked her foot into a bucket of kerosene. That might have sterilized the wound, but just like the other “treatments” the Dickens’ employed, it was medically useless. Even so, Dolly suffered no severe consequences, ever prideful that she had finally bonded in venom with the rest of her family. She later became a schoolteacher, married a rancher and, as Dobie put it, “lived happily ever afterward.”

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