Grace Wiley and her snakes

Here’s some materials from a lesson I taught on a short nonfiction piece called ‘A Running Brook of Horrors’ (based on a longer piece by Daniel Maddix called ‘Woman Without Fear’) about a herpetologist named Grace Wiley. Wiley was bitten during a photoshoot and as it was a new breed of snake that bit her, did not have antivenom and subsequently died.

On July 20, 1948 Grace Wiley had invited a writer/photographer named Daniel Mannix along with his wife to photograph her collection. Grace removed her eyeglasses, which she wore for nearsightedness, for the photoshoot. Mannix requested a pose of a cobra with a spread hood. Grace explained that her King Cobras were too tame to do a “spread hood” display. She had just received some “Indian Cobras from Siam. One of them has markings that form a complete “G” on the back of his hood.” The snake refused to hood and Grace teased it but it still wouldn’t hood although it did hiss angrily. The snake seized and chewed her middle finger. She calmly and gently forced its jaws open and replaced it in its cage. She had no antivenom. The photographer applied a handkerchief tourniquet to her wrist and injected some strychnine from a 20 year old snake-bite kit. She was placed in an Iron Lung and provided stimulants at a Long Beach hospital but her heart stopped 90 minutes after the bite.

1) Do you feel that the author, Daniel Mannix, played a role in Grace Wiley’s death? Was he more concerned about getting a picture taken than with the well-being of Grace and her snakes? Should he have stopped asking for a picture when the King Cobra refused to “pose?” Explain why you feel the way you do.

2) What role did Grace play in her own death? Was she so concerned about looking good for the picture that she got careless?

3) How did you feel after you finished reading the story? Were you sad, angry, mad, happy, ambivalent?

4) Why do you think the snake bit Grace this particular time, when it hadn’t bitten her before? Did it “chose” this time specifically to bite Grace for a reason? Explain your reasoning.

5) If you knew that you had only a few minutes to live, how do you think you would react? How did Grace react knowing that she would die from the bite? 

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