Research Notes: Brownsville Snake Hunters, 1900s

“Lady Snake Hunters, Captured in One Day,” William Deming Hornaday Collection, Texas State Library and Archives.

This photo is so visually arresting! And, the more I researched and learned about it, the more compelling its story was. The image was found in the William Deming Hornaday collection on the Texas State Library and Archives Flickr page (a great resource that I use a lot!). This photo stood out to me, and I immediately knew that I wanted to learn more and create my own work inspired by it. But, without much to go on from the Flickr caption, where to start? This is where the process gets fun for me.

As I learned more about William Deming Hornaday, I discovered that he was a photojournalist and eventually the public relations director for UT Austin, and that most of his Texas work was in Central and South Texas. Moving beyond the TSLAC Flickr Page, I went into the Texas Digital Archive and started searching through his work, focusing in on geographic areas and using the “Search Within” function until I found a set that had a lot of snakes in it. I enlarged those files until I found this image, and the one below, which identifies the ladies as Mrs. W.A. King and her sister.

“Mrs. W.A. King and Sister. Expert snake hunters.,” William Deming Hornaday. Texas Digital Archive.

Here’s where it gets REALLY interesting! I took to Google with a simple keyword search, and pulled up this family’s story. These Lady Snake Hunters were part of a huge snake business in Brownsville, Texas, providing the reptiles for circuses and other traveling animal acts.

According to his biographer and other documents, William Abraham Leiberman was a Russian/Polish Jewish-American businessman in New York who saw unusual business opportunities along the Rio Grande and moved to the then rural border town of Brownsville, Texas to open “Snakeville”, a “roadside facility to breed, sell, and show off snakes for tourists and interested clientele around the world.” Leiberman eventually changed his legal name to William Abraham Snake King.

Texas-born Manuela Cortez King was the snake king’s wife, and evidently quite the talented snake handler, herself. I can’t find exact confirmation on the sister who is pictured here, but Mrs. King’s obituary names two sisters: Matiana Walker and Luisa Samaron. Perhaps it is one of them.

Please explore these links for citations and further reading:

This video shows W.A. and Manuela Cortez King in a “snake catching contest” in 1914, a contest which they won in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

“Rattlingly Yours…Snake King,” by W.A. King, Jr.

“The Snake King of Brownsville,” Valley Morning Star, Harlingen, Texas. (Gated content)

*As an animal lover, I acknowledge that this story contains some dated attitudes around animal welfare and exhibition that are not acceptable today. I found “Snakeville” to not be not just a fascinating tale of entrepreneurship that brought to life a unique time, place, and personalities in Texas history, but an exciting opportunity to find a name and deeper identities for this photo.