George K. End, who was born in Wisconsin and educated in New York in the craft of journalism, became instead Florida's king of the rattlesnakes.
He loved everything about those Eastern diamondbacks, from their beauty to their danger. But more than anything, he was fond of their potential to grab headlines and add money to his bank account.
Catching them by the thousands, he sold their venom, hides, rattles and even their meat in a neighborhood he founded on the Tampa side of the Gandy Bridge in 1937. He called it Rattlesnake, Fla.
Like P.T. Barnum, the charismatic End was a natural-born promoter. In Rattlesnake, Fla., his thrilled customers included soldier boys from a nearby military base, bored sailors from the port and wide-eyed tourists. Their applause washed over him as he transferred buzzing 6-foot rattlers from a pit to the milking table.
Afterward, trembling spectators who purchased a can of creamed rattlesnake for $1.25 went home with a prized membership card to the "Subtle Society of Snake Snackers."
To the world outside the Deep South, rattlesnakes were a dangerous novelty like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. And a daredevil like End was right up there with Frank Buck or Tarzan. End's name and handsome visage showed up in Time magazine. A local celebrity, he was frequently photographed in the Tampa Tribune with his son, Richard, stalking rattlesnakes among the pines and palmettos out back. His beautiful wife, Jennie, meanwhile, was pictured stirring sausagelike snakes in enormous pans.
He had tried to be a farmer once, in Central Florida before turning to rattlesnakes in 1931. "The rattlesnakes were more prolific than the crops I planted,'' he once told a reporter. Moving his snake operation to Tampa he took possession of a two-story building to house his famous "Rattlesnake Cannery and Reptilorium.''
It drew so many customers he eventually persuaded the federal government to let him open a post office. Folks all over the country soon learned to treasure the letters and mysterious packages that arrived on their frozen doorsteps bearing the coveted "Rattlesnake, FLA" postmark.
Now it's all gone, even the post office. Not a brick or even a plaque marks George K. End's old stomping grounds on the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. Automobiles hurry by on their way to Starbucks and CVS and Wendy's. As far as North America's largest venomous snake is concerned, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are in short supply, too.
Times change. But some things never do.
Folks who do dangerous things like jumping out of airplanes or exploring underwater caves often die in bed of old age.
Others, of course, die as they chose to live.
If he were alive, End might not recognize a 21st century Florida where strip malls and housing developments are more plentiful than reptile-friendly woods.
In his lifetime, Florida was a much snakier place — even in urban counties such as Hillsborough. He and a small army of snake hunters found them almost everywhere, especially in the pine-infested western section of town.
Across the bay in Pinellas, rattlesnakes were considered such a pest, such an impediment to progress and such a menace to society that somebody came up with the idea of establishing a bounty. In 1935, conscientious citizens began shooting, clubbing and decapitating rattlers for $2 apiece. Nineteen months later, the county's rattlesnake population was smaller by a whopping 7,571.
Snakes have needed a press agent since Adam and Eve ate from the apple. Rattlesnakes were routinely killed on sight wherever they slithered in Florida. In Pinellas, 45 bites, including four fatalities, were recorded between 1945 and 1955. In 1967, rattlesnakes bit 16 Pinellas County residents, though no one died.
You have to be unlucky in North America to die from a snake bite, according to the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. You have a 1 in 37,000 chance of a nip and a 1 in 50 million chance of needing the services of a mortician.
Still, the bite from an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is serious business, often producing excruciating pain that can be followed by coma and death. Most people recover completely, a few without medical help, depending on their age and health, the venom quantity and where it was injected.
In 1931, George K. End was among Florida's best-known rattlesnake experts. Today, it's Dr. Bruce Means at Florida State University. After four decades of study he can tell you where to look for them (pine and palmetto forests), what they eat (rabbits and quail) and how much they travel (miles during mating season).
"Almost nobody — nobody — is ever bitten walking randomly through the woods,'' he says. "A rattlesnake will do everything to get out of your way."
So how does a victim become a victim?
"You deliberately pick one up."
Means was last bitten in 1993 on a Florida Panhandle island. He had kayaked over to conduct a plant and animal survey. Still, he felt compelled to collect a 4-foot rattlesnake for study. He lacked his usual equipment that day, a pole with a hook at the end, so he chose a 2-foot branch to pin down the agitated snake.
A rattlesnake can strike faster than the eye can follow; Means looked down and saw a drop of blood on his right index finger. He was alone on a wilderness island, a half mile from his beached kayak.
His hand felt like it was on fire. As he began paddling, his throat, tongue and gums tingled. He worried about suffocating.
A half mile later, he tumbled out of his kayak and crawled — his legs no longer worked — to his vehicle. Hauling himself behind the wheel, he leaned on his right leg to make the foot press the gas pedal. At the nearest building about a mile away, he fell out of the truck, rolled to the office door and yelled for help.
In the hospital he received 26 vials of antivenin. He didn't go home for a month.
"I was lucky," he says."
George K. End saw Eastern diamondbacks every day in Rattlesnake. Most modern Floridians will never see one in the wild.
Only 2 percent of the South's original rattlesnake habitat is left, according to herpetologist Bruce Means. North America's other charismatic predators — bears, wolves, panthers, alligators and crocodiles — are protected by endangered species laws, but dwindling rattlesnakes can be shot, clubbed and run over, no questions asked.
"They should be protected," says Means, who petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to declare the Eastern diamondback "a threatened species.''
"It might happen," Means says. "You never know. But it's going to be hard. Rattlesnakes have a public relations problem."
But not everywhere. In eastern St. Petersburg, Lorraine Margeson is a zealous guardian. She lives in a wooded area that abuts Mangrove Bay Golf Course a few miles from Weedon Island. Rattlers sometimes hide in the palmettos near her bird feeders and ambush rats that show up to harvest fallen seed.
"When I'm working in the yard," Margeson says, "I keep my eyes open."
A ferocious environmentalist, Margeson wouldn't think of killing one and has tried to persuade neighbors to adopt her "conserve rattlesnakes" philosophy. They have — all but one, anyway. He killed a rattler after it fatally bit his corgi, Audrey.
Doug Bertrand is a history buff who moved from New York to Tampa in 1958 — long after Rattlesnake disappeared. He never saw a rattlesnake, but he loved to fish from the Gandy Bridge. He's 74 now. When he retired eight years ago he moved into Freedom Village, an assisted living facility on Bridge Street.
A guy at the bait store across Gandy one day said the words "Rattlesnake, Florida.'' Hooked like a trout, Bertrand began researching. On his computer he found a few George End references. Climbing into his motorized chair — he has bad lungs and bad joints — he wheeled across town to meet an 85-year-old mechanic with a sharp memory.
"So I finally found out where George End established Rattlesnake," Bertrand says.
He could see it from his window. The site is now occupied by a building hidden behind a sign for "New Port." It's the former headquarters of a proposed development that failed during the 2007 real estate crash. Now, bulldozed fields are being reclaimed by nature and perhaps one day somebody will see a rattlesnake.
Bertrand created a "Rattlesnake, FLA" website that eventually caught the attention of other people who knew George End.
Joan Allen, who lived next door to the cannery as a child, mined her memories.
"Mr. End sold everything,'' says Allen, now 80. "Live alligators, snakes, boots, purses and hides. And he milked the snakes on Sunday."
A rattlesnake supper might seem shocking today. During the Depression, protein-starved Floridians ate whatever they could kill or catch, devouring deer, turkey, hogs, rabbits, squirrel, possums, raccoons and alligators. They ate mullet, sea turtles, turtle eggs and even the occasional manatee. Gopher tortoises are a threatened species now; then they were known as Herbert "Hoover chickens.'' In the Everglades, the now-threatened white ibis wading birds were a delicacy called "Chokoloskee chickens'' by the shotgun-bearing locals.
Rattlesnake meat, for the record, tastes nothing like poultry. It's chewier, like the tail of an alligator or the legs of a frog, but perfectly mild. Still, it's a snake.
"In Rattlesnake," Joan Allen says now, "there wasn't much to do. So it was always exciting when tourists showed up and bought cans of Mr. End's rattlesnake.
"The men tourists, they were always kind of macho at first, and would open up the cans on the spot and start eating. There'd be a lot of laughing and joking at first. But then it would dawn on them what they were eating. If you were a kid like me, it was always fun to watch them throw up in the parking lot."
World War II posed a challenge to the snake business. Alarmed that the draft would decimate his own small army of dedicated snake catchers, George K. End summoned reporters. His business was in trouble — how would he keep up with the demand?
But taking a deep breath, he confided to a journalist that "Rattlesnake will go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler and high water."
And it did. Until July 27, 1944.
End was always careful — everybody knew that. But one day a hunter arrived with a $5 snake — a wriggling 6-footer, in fact. Surely, it would have lots of venom to contribute to the supply that End sold to local hospitals to treat snakebite.
We don't know what happened exactly: a moment's carelessness, perhaps.
Or possibly karma for the thousands of rattlesnakes he had killed over more than a decade.
End gazed with alarm at his right hand. Blood dripped from the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. For the only time in his life, he was snakebit.
It's considered more dangerous than helpful today, but back then he treated himself the traditional way. He sliced an "X" across each puncture wound with a sharp knife and began sucking and spitting.
He must have felt the hot poker pain, and perhaps a flutter of mortality. In his office he located a bottle of antivenin and administered it. But it was old and stale. He felt worse by the minute.
The nearest hospital was nearly 8 miles away.
The nurses removed his boots and put him to bed. The doctors administered some fresh antivenin.
Eight hours later he took his last breath.
The snake emporium soon went out of business.
A few years later, the post office closed.
Afternoon traffic hurries past the old site in the 21st century. Tall grass waves in the breeze.
Special thanks to Andrew Huse and University of South Florida's Special Collections.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.