Ozarks Life: The Great Cobra Scare of 1953

Eleven snakes terrorized Springfield from August 15th to October 25th of ‘53.
Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 7:49 AM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Mothers Brewing Company is keeping the ‘Mother of All Snake Stories’ alive with one of its beers.

“We all decided absolutely the most Springfield thing we could think of for this beer was the Cobra Scare,” Kyle Jeffries with Mother’s said.

Cobra Scare is a sour wheat ale with a bite named after an event where Springfieldians feared a bite.

“My family was invigorated,” John Sellars with the History Museum on the Square said. “They didn’t want these snakes coming to kill their children. And so a lot of people just locked up inside their houses.”

Drury’s campus has the only known artifact of the Great Cobra Scare of 1953. Sitting on a professor’s desk is a glass jar with one of the 11 cobras who were loose on the streets of Springfield.

“You didn’t know where these snakes were going to be and they were deadly,” Sellars said.

About two miles east of Mother’s on Route 66, sits an EMS lot. Seven decades ago, Reo Mowrer’s pet shop sat here but it was still an epicenter for calls.

An odd-looking snake was killed and taken to this nearby pet shop for identification.

“The pet shop owner said, ‘oh, that’s just a puff adder,’ and he said that’s nothing to be worried about. ‘It’s just got a funny-looking head on it,” Sellars said.

A couple of days later, on the street behind the pet shop, another odd-looking snake was killed.

“They took it to the science teacher over Jarrett Junior High,” Sellars said. “And he goes, ‘Oh, dear Lord, where did you get this? This is a deadly Cobra!”

Every couple of days, more cobras started slithering into sight around St. Louis and National which was just down the street from Reo’s shop.

“He dealt in some really curious animals,” Sellars said, “so they felt like he had some culpability in this, but they couldn’t prove it. He lost his business license and he left here and went somewhere else.”

Hoping to stop the panic, the city’s health department and police created a plan. A snake hunting militia.

“Policemen with their guns drawn,” Sellars said, “and all these people with rakes and hoes and shovels, just standing just rapt attention, waiting to see something comes slithering out. It was just, you can’t make it up. It was it was hilarious.”

The city even used a truck with large speakers on top in its crusade.

“They played Indian snake charmer music on the speakers,” Sellars said, “well, snakes cannot hear. They’re driving along slowly with this group of people, like a Mel Brooks movie, all they needed was flaming torches and it was just hilarious. And waiting for the snakes come crawling out so they could kill them.”

The Great Cobra Scare lasted from August 15th to October 25th. The cobra in the jar at Drury was the last cobra in the Scare. It was also the only cobra captured and not killed out of the 11 in 1953.

Reo Mowrer died in 1977, 11-years before the truth of his innocence would come out.

In 1988, Carl Barnett came forward. As he told KY3′s Dennis Graves, he had an arrangement with Mowrer that went wrong.

“(Mowrer) said he’d take all the snakes I can get my hands on to trade for tropical fish,” Barnett said in 1988. “One time I went over there and I got this fish I really had my eye on. So we’d done some training and I took it home and it was dead. (Mowrer) said, ‘well, that’s tuff.”

To get even, Carl told KY3 he went to the back of the pet store, saw a crate of snakes. Thinking they’re the ones he caught, he turned them loose to get back at Mowrer.

“I thought they were just black Indigo snakes,” Barnett said.

“I think it was justice,” Barnet said in 1988. “Where if he had been fair with me this wouldn’t happen.”

Barnett passed away in 2009 but his moment has been remembered and celebrated for years.

Springfield adopted a seal with the cobra. A local salon offered cobra haircuts in the ‘50s. And today, we have suds for the snakes.

“We weren’t certain how well it was going to be embraced,” Jeffries said. “Turns out we were pleasantly surprised.”

“In honoring the Cobra Scare here in Springfield,” Jeffries said, “we’re also extending that opportunity for people to reflect on their own quirks and their own history of their own communities.”

“It’s a great story,” Sellars said. “And one of those wonderful things that set us apart from a lot of people.”

Life Magazine even covered the Great Cobra Scare in 1953.

It’s believed other cobras, possibly a total of four, were preserved in jars back in 1953. Only the one at Drury is accounted for; the others have vanished.

Mother’s has a second cobra beer, the limited edition Wild Cobra.

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