Looking through my stats, I have found that search terms for snakes top the list of views for this site.
Clearly, it is time for another serpentine-themed post!
I was going to do something about the cryptozoological giant snakes of Japan – I’d even found a folk story which fitted in nicely to my post about sweet flag and mugwort – when I found a site citing an old New York Times article from 1891.
New York Times 13 August 1891
Swallowed by a Snake A Japanese Story of a Woman-Eating Serpent San Francisco Aug 12, 1891 The steamship Oceanic, which arrived last night from Hong kong and Yokohama brings copies of a native Japanese paper called the Kokkai, which publishes a remarkable story of a monster serpent.
It says that on the 17th inst. a man called Neemura Tahichi, twenty-five years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was forty-eight, to pursue his usual avocation of tree cutting in Koshitamura Province of Lamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu Yama. Shortly afterward, while engaged felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being three feet in circumference had Otora’s head in its mouth and was engaged in swallowing her despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbors, who when they reached the scene of the catastrophe found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet and was slowly making its way to its home. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.
The Province of Lamba is one of the most desolate in Japan and monster reptiles and wild animals are frequently killed there.
OK, there is no place called Lamba in Japan… nor could I identify the newspaper Kokkai… Neemura seems an unlikely surname, unless they meant Niimura… and no luck with Japanese internet searches….
The lack of information was astonishing. This allegedly took place at a time when collector of Japanese stories Lafcadio Hearn was based in Japan. Yet none of his writings mention giant snakes.
And then I stumbled upon this one from the Brisbane Courier, dated September 9th, 1891:
The Japan Mail translates the following wonderful snake story from the Kokkai, a Tokio paper:-It says that on the 17th July a man called Nomura Tahichi, 50 years of age, went out with his wife Otora, who was 48, to pursue his usual vocation of tree-cutting in Koshitamura, province of Tamba. The husband and wife separated at a place called Matsu-yama. Shortly afterwards, while engaged in felling a tree, Tahichi thought he heard his wife cry out. Running to the place, he was horrified to find that a huge snake, described as being 3ft. in circumference, had Otora’s head in its mouth, and was engaged swallowing her, despite her struggles. Tahichi ran off to the hamlet and summoned seven or eight of his neighbours, who, when they reached the scene of the catastrophe, found that the snake had swallowed the woman as far as her feet, and was slowly making its way to its hole. They were too much terrified to touch it, and it finally effected its escape unmolested.
At least the age of the husband seemed more in line with that of the wife (50 and 25 aren’t that hard to differentiate, are they?), we have a real province (Tamba), a real surname (Nomura), and a citation of the secondary source. Not to mention no hyperbole at the end.
A search shows no results for a place called Koshitamura in Tamba, but there was a Kashitamura in the former province. I still have not been able to find any results in Japanese searches. My final hope is that the Japan Mail was later absorbed into the Japan Times. Perhaps this paper has the original locked away somewhere in its archives…
It is also worth noting that the old Tamba province is the setting of old stories about monsters. There are several legends and folk stories involving giant snakes in Tamba, and it seems likely that the hyperbole at the end of the New York Times article was referring to this.
I will continue my hunt, but the chances of anything turning up seem quite slim. Whch is a pity – the story is a little hard to swallow.