The year is 1954. As the sun rises on the morning of Saturday, September 18, it shines like a beatitude upon an America of peace and plenty. Dwight David (“I Like Ike”) Eisenhower is president; Hollywood bombshell Marilyn Monroe has married Bronx bomber Joe DiMaggio; Bill Haley and the Comets have recorded “Rock Around the Clock.”
But wait! Something has gone horribly wrong: One of our pythons is missing.
Yes, Pete the python has escaped from his cage at the Forest Park Zoo and has gone . . . AWOL (absent without legs). Pete the python, along with Queen Tut the elephant and Topper the giraffe, has been a favorite attraction among zoo visitors. Harry Jackson, the herpetologist who owns Pete and operates the zoo’s reptile show for the city, had bought Pete from a circus in Bangkok, Thailand, when Pete was four years old, barely knee high to a . . . knee.
Channel 5 archival footage:
The Fort Worth Press raises the alarm about the “man-killer” on the day of his escape.
Pete may be, in custom car terms, a lowrider of the animal kingdom, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in length and weight: Pete is now eighteen feet long and weighs 150 pounds. (Dallas Morning News photo shows Jackson holding Pete’s head.) A python that big can crush a human. After Pete’s escape is discovered, more than one hundred policemen rush to the zoo to clear out four thousand visitors. A sound truck warns people: “There’s a dangerous snake loose.” Zoo officials warn people not to search for the fugitive.
So, naturally people search for the fugitive.
Where might he be? Searchers logically begin their search in Forest Park, then in adjacent Trinity Park, even in the nearby Park Hill enclave. No snake in affluent Park Hill, not even a . . . well-heeled one.
Oh, he’s a crafty one, that Pete.
Pete indeed has several advantages: He can swim, he can climb. He can slither. He can quiver. He can crawl on his belly like a . . . snake. He can wedge himself into tight spaces. His coloration can make him difficult to see in foliage. And he doesn’t leave footprints.
As each day passes and Pete remains at large, the search parties grow more numerous, and the search area grows wider, in part because Cowtown has come down with an acute case of python fever. People sell Pete the python T-shirts and Peteburgers. Blue Bonnet Bakery on Camp Bowie Boulevard sells a Pete the python coffee cake with cherries for eyes. Pete fever is also fed by hope for a reward: Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter has offered $500 ($4,000 today) for Pete’s return: $250 to the person who finds Pete and reports his whereabouts and $250 to the person or persons who bring Pete back alive.
Searchers first scour the area around the zoo in cars, on foot, in boats. Searchers walk in a line, spaced ten feet apart, beating the bushes, looking in trees and gullies and storm drain tunnels. They search in and along the Trinity River. They search at night using floodlights and flashlights.
Bell Helicopter provides a chopper, the reasoning being that the downdraft from the rotor blades will blow Pete from the branches of any tree he is in.
Page 1 of the evening Star-Telegram on September 18. The banner story was written by George Dolan.
The search spreads to other parts of town. Morbidly fascinated children take up the hunt. An example: On Burton Street in Poly, a boy of five has somehow become convinced that Pete is holed up in the front yard juniper bush of a neighbor, Mr. Martin. Because Pete is cold-blooded, the mild September weather may make him sluggish and in need of warmth. Plenty of warmth in Mr. Martin’s juniper bush, I reason. While my parents think I am watching westerns on TV and nurturing my crush on Annie Oakley, I sneak out and up the street to Mr. Martin’s front yard. I poke a stick into the juniper bush, half afraid Pete isn’t in there, half afraid he is.
Dang. That snake is good.
A woman visiting from Louisiana says her daughter has consulted a Ouija board and reports that she has divined Pete’s hideout: behind Jack’s Bar in the Forest Park area near the zoo. Fort Worth police check out the tip from the psychic snake whisperer. Police find no Pete. Heck, they don’t even find a Jack’s Bar.
Dang. I told you that snake is good, didn’t I?
There are even abduction theories: Pete was kidnapped by a rival zoo, by a herpetologist, by a snake charmer, by a circus.
Another woman advises searchers to think like a snake: “All snakes—when they escape—go in a southeasterly direction,” she says, “and stop at the first railroad trestle.”
(“Southeasterly”? I know, I know: Where would a snake carry a compass?)
Pranksters predictably have a field day. They fashion ersatz snakes out of inner tubes and such and position them in parks and on porches. Twenty-five of SMU’s Kappa Sigma fraternity members and their dates join in the hunt, searching downtown Cowtown armed with BB guns, tennis rackets, potato sacks, and butterfly nets. They return to Big D empty-handed.
The search makes headlines from coast to coast.
And even Down Under.
Then the Fort Worth-Dallas intercity rivalry rears its head. What’s black and white and green all over? Envious Paul Crume’s Dallas Morning News column of day 4.
Pete, by his mere absence, makes local headlines each day. Here is a sampling from the Star-Telegram and Press.
Meanwhile, herpetologist Harry Jackson has begun sleeping on a cot in the Children’s Zoo during the search just in case Pete suffers reptile remorse and returns on his own.
Sure enough. Early on October 3, the fifteenth morning after the great escape, the zoo’s Al the chimpanzee squeals, waking Jackson and triggering a jungle cacophony from other zoo animals. Less than one hundred feet from the snake pit, Jackson sees Pete. Yes, the peripatetic python has returned. Again the Star-Telegram‘s banner story is written by George Dolan. (Later rumors will circulate that Pete’s great escape was, in fact, a hoax, a publicity stunt perpetrated by Jackson, abetted by Dolan. When Dolan is questioned, his response will be worthy of Alice in Wonderland: He will puff on his pipe like the Caterpillar on his hookah, smile like the Cheshire Cat, and say nothing.)
Pete is subdued. Calm once again reigns in the zoo, in Fort Worth, in my neighbor’s juniper bush.
But the Star-Telegram reports on October 4 that when Jackson treats Pete’s sore mouth, Pete resists. Jackson insists. Pete re-resists. Pete bites the hand that feeds him.
Jackson requires treatment of his own: a tetanus shot.
On October 4, after being placed briefly in reptilian time-out to reflect upon his behavior, Pete, ever the showman, is back on display for his admiring public. But wait! Say it ain’t so, Joe! That same front page notifies us that Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe have separated after less than nine months of marriage.
Also on October 4 the Press scoops the Star-Telegram, giving Pete his first byline as the newspaper publishes Pete’s “in his own words” account of his great adventure.
But Pete had one more surprise up his . . . sleeve. A case of hiss and hers: On New Year’s Eve 1957 Pete laid fifty big, white eggs. Pete was promptly renamed “Patricia.”
Alas, Patricia stopped eating and died February 23, 1958. She was about eight years old. I can find no news updates on the eggs after her death, so apparently they did not hatch. Pete/Patricia the python died without progeny. But, oh, the legend that snake left behind.
Ssssssssuggested reading: Retired Star-Telegram writer and editor Roger Summers has written a children’s book about Pete.