Complain about Memphis weather all you want. We'll take cats and dogs any time over what it "rained" during one legendary storm.
Benjamin Schott, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Memphis, sits at his desk looking at the data coming across his computer screen. He notices a weather event moving across the Great Plains toward the Great Lakes.
You might call this retro casting, because he’s in the archives, pulling up weather records that go back to the 1870s.
Which was perfect, because I wanted the weather for January 15, 1877.
A strong cold front approached the Memphis area that afternoon, producing thunderstorms and heavy rain across the area. It was so noteworthy that, while doing research, historian Wayne Dowdy uncovered accounts describing the storms ferocity.
“The city suffered particularly in the area of South Memphis,” Dowdy said.
But it's what happened at Vance Avenue between Lauderdale and Goslee that has had people scratching their heads for 138 years.
“Thousands of snakes suddenly appeared on the ground and it looked to many like it had rained snakes that day,” Dowdy said.
Yeah, you heard right: a nest of several thousand brown snakes interwoven like reptilian spaghetti, and moon-sliming their way down Vance Ave. Any God-fearing man or woman standing on their stoop that afternoon would not have been able to wrap their mind around what they might have done to so heartily offend the almighty.
“A resident of Vance took a jar and scooped up a bunch of brown snakes and took it to the Public Ledger newspaper office and said ‘Look at this! This is a great story!” Dowdy said.
No less a journalistic institution than the New York Times reported on the story, as did The Scientific American, devoting a respectable amount of space to the matter. Only problem was that the central premise of a wispy rain cloud carrying a ton a snakes just didn't pass the stink test.
As luck would have it, the Federal Government had a weather observer stationed here in 1877. He was sent out to investigate.
“So he talked to several residents and no one said that they saw snakes falling from the sky,” Dowdy said.
Turns out that everybody may have been looking in the wrong direction. Ben Schott at the weather service even began looking at data from the day before.
“On the 14th, we did receive close to a half-inch of rain here in the Memphis area, and we did receive rain a couple of days prior and therefore the ground was fairly saturated already,” Schott said.
138 years ago, that weather investigator began to see ground saturation as a possible culprit.
“This area of Vance and Causey had recently been developed,” Dowdy said. “The streets were in very poor shape and the snakes hiding places were upset and the storm upset it further and the snakes came out of their hiding places.”
And that seemed like the most rational explanation for the entire event, but there are some people who just weren't satisfied, like the Englishman Charles Hoy Fort, who claimed to be a scientist. He offered up this theory in The Philadelphia Public Ledger on July 27, 1924.
“My suggestion,” writes Fort, “is that between this earth and other worlds there may be definite currents to which living things in other worlds respond migratorily.”
Fort seems to be saying that the snakes flew through outer space and ended up on Vance.
Dowdy laughs at that notion. “… And, of course, I guess you can’t prove or disprove it, so if you want to believe it, you can.”