Angel the Snake Girl
I’ve always been attracted to the odd and the eccentric. Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in the South or maybe a youthful obsession with Saturday Night Live?
That peculiar predilection is what lured me into a tent one evening recently at the Delaware State Fair to see “Angel the Snake Girl,” advertised as having the head of a beautiful woman and the body of an ugly 200-pound snake.
I paid the dollar admission fee and approached a makeshift wooden cage covered by chicken wire, expecting to see some sort of sad medical oddity, or perhaps something very politically incorrect. What I saw instead was a woman’s head sticking up from a hole in the bottom of the cage and “attached” to the body of a large taxidermy snake.
Here eyes were blinking a mile a minute and her tongue was flicking in and out like a snake. She had an unconventional beauty, that’s for sure. And with her sly grin she looked a little mad.
“Hi there darlin,’ my name is Angel and I’m half woman half Burmese python. What’s your name?” she asked.
I introduced myself as a writer working on a story about the fair and asked if she might have some time to talk.
“I’ve got nothing but time seeing how I’m in this cage ten hours a day, seven days a week,” she replied. “But please, no pictures,” she implored. “They don’t like it.” She gestured with her head toward the skinny, mean-looking fella taking the tickets. And besides, I’m not feeling pretty today.”
She asked what I was drinking.
“Sweet tea,” I replied.
“I sure wish I could have me some sweet tea,” she said, licking her lips. “It gets awful hot in this cage.”
She declined my offer to go get her some. All the sugar and caffeine makes her jumpy and then she has to go to the bathroom. She only gets one break during her stint.
When a mother and two little boys approach the cage, Angel snapped back into character. With a rapt audience, she told the story of how her parents were missionaries in Borneo in the 1950s and that her pregnant mother was exposed to some experimental drugs left over from World War II. Her mother died giving birth and her father ran off after seeing the half human half Burmese Python child slither out of the womb.
The good nuns in Borneo named her Angel because she was a beautiful gift from God. They taught her to speak and to read. Of course, she can’t write because she has no arms. But she can do some math in her head. When she was nine, she came to America and has been traveling with the carnival ever since.
The kids were spellbound and then shrieked and ran off when she started flicking her tongue and telling them how she eats white mice and small children for dinner.
After they depart, she admitted to me that she actually preferred fried chicken and cold beer for her supper. I’m sure she likes cigarettes and whiskey too. She has that voice.
Angel the snake woman is what you call a classic carnival illusion show, in contrast to shows featuring human oddities like the world’s shortest man and bearded ladies or performers with special skills like fire eating and sword swallowing.
She sits, I learned, in a chair with her head through a hole in the cage and a decapitated shellacked body of a real snake arranged to look as though it is attached to the back of her head. In front, beside, and behind the cage are mirrors and wood chips. The mirrors hide the chair and make it look like the wood chips go all the way under the cage.
These kinds of sideshows have been around since the great English fairs of the early Renaissance. They became fixtures in America thanks to an enterprising showman named P.T. Barnum who began exhibiting albinos, contortionists, fat men, and magicians in the mid-nineteenth century. Barnum’s show and others like it became known as “dime show museums.”
In 1893, the Chicago World’s Fair had an area called the Midway that included rides, games of chance, burlesque shows, Wild West shows, and freak shows. Its popularity catalyzed what became known as the traveling carnival.
You don’t see many freak show exhibits anymore in today’s more culturally sensitive society. Angel told me there are only four here at the Delaware State Fair: a 29” woman, the world’s tiniest horse, the gorilla woman, and the museum of oddities (two-headed chickens, shrunken heads, space alien babies, etc.) The human spider woman isn’t traveling with them this year because she hurt her back and they weren’t able to find a replacement in time. They haven’t had a headless woman in several years. Attendees today are more interested in the food and the rides.
The sideshow performers all travel together in buses and campers around the country from carnival to carnival, eleven months out of the year, and then return to Florida for a short vacation before the circuit starts up again. It’s tough work. Angel has been performing as the snake lady for only two years. Before that she operated kiddie rides.
I asked her why she wanted to become the snake lady and without hesitation she told me how since she was a little girl the sideshows were always her favorite part of the fair. She likes being a performer and she’s proud to be part of a long carnival tradition.
Traffic picked up in the tent and Angel returned to snake girl character, flicking her tongue, and spinning her tale. Before I left, she told me she had enjoyed talking. She gave me a wink and blew me a kiss.
Angel the snake girl is a romantic.
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. See More Rich Barnett