The Biography of Rattlesnake Pete
by Charles B. Stilson, Gates Historical Society, 2007
Review by John Robortella
The Biography of Rattlesnake Pete, originally published in 1923, is being reissued in a second edition by the Gates (N.Y.) Historical Society. The new issue is being done at the suggestion of Laura Nolan, president of the Society, and follows upon the Society’s successful publication in 2006 of Frogleg George: The Legend No One Really Knew, a book about John Preissecker, the premier supplier of frog legs to the city of Rochester in upstate New York in the 1890’s and early 1900’s. Mr. Preissecker and Rattlesnake Pete remain to this day two of the city’s most colorful historical characters. The introduction to the book is printed below and is followed by a discussion of the new edition.
Rattlesnake Pete, whose real name was Peter P. Gruber, gained a worldwide reputation in the early years of the 20th century for his museum and saloon at 8–10 Mill Street in Rochester. “His musty curiosity shop became filled to the eaves with fantastic exhibits,” wrote Rochester author and newspaperman Arch Merrill in Rochester Sketchbook in 1946. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reporter and columnist Henry W. Clune, writing in Rochester History in 1993, somewhat disagreed: “All in all, it was a shabby collection of museum specimens, but it attracted a large patronage to the saloon, and men who came in from the rural areas thought it the city’s number one attraction.”
Nonetheless, it certainly was an eclectic collection. People from around the corner and throughout the nation came to see such curios and oddities including—but certainly not limited to—Pete’s Indian exhibit with 500 arrowheads, a two-headed calf, a 3,000-pound stuffed Percheron horse, tanks filled with writhing snakes, jars of pickled brains, Pete’s 100+-year-old harpsichord (believed to have been the first one in Rochester), a pipe said to have been smoked by John Wilkes Booth, the weight used in the last hanging in the city, the battle flag of Custer’s last stand, an Egyptian mummy, a shingle from the Johnstown flood, stuffed animals and snakes of all kinds, and even an ax used by a wife murderer. Then there was the skull of the horse of Civil War General Philip H. Sheridan and the electrical trick machine that shot out a padded fist when a coin was dropped in the slot.
But Pete was especially renowned for his handling of snakes of all kinds, particularly poisonous rattlesnakes and copperheads, and for his knowledge of the medicinal properties of snake venom, natural herbs and tonics, as well as for his claims that he could cure a goiter by wrapping a live snake around an afflicted person’s throat. Many of those who said that he cured them became his staunchest supporters. In their opinions, he did cure them with his snake treatments, untraditional as they were.
The local physicians and columnist Mr. Clune remained skeptical.
“Pete would wrap a black snake around the sufferer’s throat and the snake, constricting its length, would massage the goiter and bring some relief, but not a cure, to the patient,” wrote Mr. Clune.
But Pete maintained that he successfully treated about 85 percent of the goiter cases brought to him.
“He found by experience that if the patient were beyond middle age, it was doubtful if a cure could be effected,” the Democrat and Chronicle reported in 1932. “But if they were young, he had hopes, and if the patient were a child he could almost guarantee relief.”
Pete was born in 1857* to Joseph and Mary Gruber who had emigrated from Bavaria. Joseph ran a restaurant and saloon in Oil City, Pa. Eventually, the family grew to nine sons and daughters. Pete was the eldest of the siblings.
He learned about rattlesnakes, including the curative ability of their venom, the uses of their skin, and the nutrition of their meat, from the Native Americans who lived in the hills nearby. He was a good listener and a good student, and treated the Indians with respect. They, in turn, freely passed on their ways and lore about snakes and the natural world.
It was in his family’s restaurant that Pete first exhibited the rattlesnakes that he caught. He put them in a box with a screen on top so visitors could see inside. The snakes soon became an attraction that kept people coming in. Soon after, he and his best friend built a miniature display of an operating oil well and a gold mine, and set them up in the restaurant, too.
Pete’s teenage ambition had been to become a blacksmith and he had received an offer to move to Cleveland, Ohio, to learn the trade of railroad engine construction working for the Lake Shore Railroad. His father needed him in the restaurant, however, and it was Joseph’s desire that Pete learn the restaurant business and carry on its operation.
“I had always been in the habit of doing what my father told me,” Pete said later in his life when telling others of this turning point. “I wanted to go to Cleveland mighty bad, and I didn’t like the saloon business—I have never liked it, though I have made more money at it than I ever should have as a blacksmith. I did what the old folks wanted me to; and they were contented, if I wasn’t.”
He ultimately left home in 1893 after a flood and fire had devastated Oil City on June 5th of the previous year. He wanted to prove that he could succeed on his own. After his father retired from the restaurant business and found a buyer for the building, Pete received his parents’ blessings and left his hometown with his wife, Margaret, and two daughters, Inez and Edith. He was in his early 30’s and took away from Oil City his museum, his snakes, and the reputation that he had earned.
He went first to Pittsburgh, where his best friend had established a dental practice, but learned that city officials there would not permit him to operate a saloon in which he kept snakes. From there, he scouted for locations in Jamestown, N.Y., and Buffalo, N.Y., also with no luck.
Pete saw Rochester by chance, when he visited his sister. She had married a Rochesterian who worked for one of the city’s breweries. He found a location that suited him on West Avenue near the old Erie Canal and established his museum there. Eight months later, he had the opportunity to move the business closer to the city center and rented the building at 8–10 Mill Street, behind the Reynolds Arcade and almost opposite Corinthian Hall, in Rochester’s First Ward.
People told him that he wouldn’t last three months on Mill Street because of the gangs into whose territory he was moving. It was a rough area.
But Pete prevailed, having done so by his diplomacy in dealing with people and, when necessary, by the physical strength that he had gained in his early years as an athlete and aa blacksmiith's apprentice, and by his fearless reputation for handling poisonous snakes.
Pete’s brother, Joseph Jr., also moved to Rochester and worked in the museum as its manager in the early days.
By 1910, Pete, then 51, and his wife, Margaret, 44 (according to that year’s national census), were living in the 12th Ward with their daughters Edith, 24, and Inez, 20. They had also taken in five boarders.
In addition to the snakes and oddities in his museum, Pete continued his lifelong interest in mechanical contraptions and machines. In a letter he wrote to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company on March 14, 1912, he explained how about 18 years earlier he had made a nickel-in-the-slot device and installed in it a musical instrument he had at the time, creating America’s first coin-operated nickelodeon piano.
“It was a crude afair (sic) but worked well and it was—(I won’t hesitate to say)—the first nickel-in-the-slot played Piano in the country,” he wrote.
His letter went on to compliment Wurlitzer for its fine musical equipment. The E. W. Kelley company at 22 Elm Street in Rochester, a distributor of Wurlitzer automatic musical instruments, featured the “PianOrchestra” in Pete’s museum on its advertising circulars of the day.
Pete often went on snake hunts throughout western New York and invited friends to go along. These included at various times reporters Henry Clune and Charles Stilson, and noted newspaper photographer Albert W. Stone, who worked for the Rochester Herald and the Democrat and Chronicle during his career.
Pete’s career as a snake handler and museum operator spanned more than 40 years. He had survived the bites of rattlesnakes and copperheads. In his obituary printed in the Democrat and Chronicle on the day after he died, the newspaper reported that “his friends wondered that he had not long ago succumbed to such repeated assaults of the deadly venom. But he was a clean liver, and was endowed with a powerful body and a constitution that defied all assaults, until advancing age and a combination of ailments that many months ago would have been fatal to a weaker man, finally brought the end.”
Pete last worked in his museum in December 1931. The “combination of ailments,” to which the Democrat and Chronicle referred, forced him to retire from the museum’s day-to-day operations. His manager at the time, Frederick M. Smith, of 594 Genesee Park Boulevard, ran the business in his absence.
Pete died at the age of 75 on Tuesday, October 11, 1932, at his home at 687 Averill Avenue in Rochester’s present-day South Wedge.
At his death, he was survived by his wife, Margaret; two daughters, Inez Ryan of Los Angeles, Calif., and Edith Gruber of Rochester; and three sisters, Mary Bohrer of Rochester, and Mrs. Harry Marshall and Agnes Gruber of Franklin, Pa.
On Pete’s death certificate, Dr. James B. Woodruff listed the primary cause of death as cardio-renal syndrome. Contributory causes were chronic nephritis, chronic endocarditis with lesions of the mitral and aortic valves, and arteriosclerosis.
The Democrat and Chronicle reported that hundreds of friends from all walks of life joined the funeral procession on Friday morning, October 14, 1932, from Pete’s Averill Avenue home to St. Mary’s Church, where the Reverend Thomas Curley celebrated the Mass.
Pete was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery following a graveside blessing by the Reverend John Hogan, chaplain of St. Ann’s Home.
His will was filed in Monroe County Surrogate’s Court the day after the funeral. The Democrat and Chronicle reported that the future operation of the museum was then in the hands of the executors, Pete’s daughter, Inez Ryan, and his attorney, Earl F. Case of the city law firm of Warren, Shuster, Case & Halsey at 39 State Street.
“Mr. Case said yesterday he will confer next week with Mrs. Ryan as to the disposition of the museum which, although housing many curios, had as its principal attraction ‘Rattlesnake Pete’ himself, who was known throughout the world for his snake lore,” the newspaper reported on Sunday, October 16, 1932.
The executors were given full authority to keep the museum open, or sell any or all of it. The value of the estate was not given in the newspaper report.
Pete left $1,000 to his daughter, Inez; $500 to his sister, Agnes; two-thirds of the balance of the estate to his daughter, Edith; and the remaining third to his sister, Mary.
The will also provided that upon Edith’s death, whatever funds remained were to pass to Inez, with the exception of $500 which Pete bequeathed to his manager, Fred Smith.
The Democrat and Chronicle reported that “the will directs that no part of the estate go to Mr. Gruber’s wife, Mrs. Margaret Gruber.” Pete and Margaret may have separated. On the 1910 United States census, Margaret Gruber is listed as living with her husband. But her name does not appear with the household family members on the 1920 and 1930 census records.
The museum closed soon after Pete’s death. By January 1933, some of the smaller items such as the collection of firearms and historical Indian weapons were sold at auction. His coin collection was sold in a private sale. Rochester attorney William L. Clay told the local newspapers that the balance of the collection was sold to an “undisclosed client.” He later admitted that he bought what was left.
When Mr. Clay learned that the building at 8–10 Mill Street was to be razed, he called in eight moving vans to remove Pete’s collection to what the Democrat and Chronicle called a “dismal barn” on Adams Street.
“Without fanfare or ceremony, the contents of ‘Rattlesnake Pete’ Gruber’s far-famed museum in Mill Street have been removed to a dismal barn in Adams Street, marking another step in the disintegration of the collection to which the ‘Rattlesnake King’ devoted nearly half a century,” the newspaper reported in 1933. “The barn is locked and the museum is no more. Even Attorney William L. Clay, who with a yen for hobbies, acquired the unique specimens last January, doesn’t know what’s to be done with Cleopatra and the asp which bites her, the dying Indian who grunts at each expiration, the 3,300-pound stuffed Percheron horse once heralded as the largest in the world, the condemned dummy in the first electric chair used in Auburn Prison, the miniature coal mine and oil well, the electric train, the harp used in the time of Paul Revere, the balloon-headed sheep known as Rhinoskerckus from the mountain fastnesses of the Island of Luzon, and the many other relics piled helter skelter in the musty barn.”
• • •
As research began for the Gates Historical Society’s book about Rattlesnake Pete, it was learned that a very complimentary biography of him had been written in 1923 by Charles B. Stilson, a Rochester author and newspaper reporter who was a friend of Pete’s and who sometimes accompanied him on vacation trips and snake hunts.
Only one printing of an unknown quantity of the Stilson biography was produced at the press of John M. Stenger, a printer whose shop was also located at 8–10 Mill Street. In 2007, there are believed to be only two extant copies of the small book, one in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Rochester Library and the other at the Schuyler Townson Library at the Rochester Museum & Science Center.
Since the book has been out of print for 84 years and is not easily accessible to the general public, the members of the Gates Historical Society thought that those interested in local history might welcome a reprint, especially when the original book was written from personal interviews with the subject himself.
What follows will take the reader back to 1923. Writers then had different styles from today’s authors. But Mr. Stilson used his reporter’s skills for this tribute to his friend. Sentences and paragraphs are short, and thankfully he avoids at least some of the flowery language that other authors of his era often employed. Mr. Stilson was first a newspaper reporter and tells his story of Rattlesnake Pete just as though he was writing a feature about him in the Rochester Herald or the Democrat and Chronicle, two of the papers on which he worked. It is possible that Mr. Stilson wrote Pete’s lengthy but unsigned obituary that appeared in the newspaper on the day after his death. The obituary follows the narrative in the book closely.
For this second edition of the 1923 work, the type has been reset in a larger size for ease in reading. Typographical and other printer’s errors have been corrected. Old-fashioned spellings of some words have been updated; for example, where Mr. Stilson spells it “goitre,” this publication spells it “goiter;” changes like this are few. Other than these types of editorial refinements, the second edition remains a faithful and accurate presentation of Mr. Stilson’s original work. None of his words have been changed. Also, two instances of what today is considered insensitive language remain as Mr. Stilson wrote them in 1923.
The Gates Historical Society acknowledges with thanks and appreciation all those who freely gave of their time and expertise in the planning and production of this project: Rochester City Historian Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, for her immediate and enthusiastic acceptance of the Society's invitation to contribute the foreword to this second edition; George M. Tomczyk, for his meticulous review of the manuscript and page proofs, and his editorial contributions to the new material; Geri McCormick, for designing the cover and providing valuable graphic-design advice; Leatrice M. Kemp, librarian archivist, and Kathrryn Murano, collections department coordinator, of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, for their acquisition of the photographs from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection housed there and for granting permission for their use in this publication; and Marylee Wilk of the Rochester Public Library, for making available the photographs of Rattlesnake Pete from the library's Local History Division.
In Pete’s biography, Mr. Stilson writes in the foreword that in 1923, when the book was written, Pete had been bitten 24 times by rattlesnakes and six times by copperheads. But then later in the book, in Chapter VIII, Mr. Stilson makes it 26 rattlesnake bites and four copperheads, still a total of 30 but in a different arrangement. Between 1923 and 1932, Pete must have been bitten three more times, because on October 12, 1932, the Democrat and Chronicle reported in Pete’s obituary that he had been bitten 33 times in his life—29 times by rattlesnakes and four times by copperheads. Arch Merrill used these numbers in his 1946 essay about Pete in Rochester History.
This publication follows the society’s first book, Gates, a picture-book history of the town that was published in 2005, and Frogleg George: The Legend No One Really Knew, which came out last year.
The Biography of Rattlesnake Pete (Peter Gruber) is the second edition of this work, written by Rochester author and newspaper reporter Charles B. Stilson and originally published in 1923.
“Following our book on Frogleg George, we received suggestions to write a book about Rattlesnake Pete,” said Laura Nolan, president of the Gates Historical Society. “As we began our research, we found that a biography of him had been written in 1923 by Charles Stilson, a local newspaper reporter, author, and friend of Pete’s who sometimes went on vacations and snake hunts with him.
“Since the 1923 biography has been out of print for 84 years and is not easily accessible to the general public, we thought that those interested in local history might welcome a second edition of this interesting biography, especially when the original book was written from personal interviews with Pete himself,” said Mrs. Nolan.
The second edition is augmented with photographs of Pete from the collections at the Rochester Museum & Science Center and the Rochester Public Library.
In addition, Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck, Rochester’s former city historian, submitted a foreword to the 2007 edition. "This is a uniquely special contribution because Ms. Rosenberg-Naparsteck’s father knew Pete when they were young in Oil City, Pennsylvania, Pete’s hometown,” said Mrs. Nolan.
The book also includes an introduction by John Robortella, a member of the historical society. It was edited by George Tomczyk and designed by Geri McCormick.
“Everyone who worked on this project volunteered their time and talents,” said Mrs. Nolan. “This is especially appreciated and we thank them for their very successful efforts.”
Proceeds from the sale of the book will benefit the historical society’s educational membership meetings and operations, and the Hinchey Homestead renovation fund.
Biography of Rattlesnake Pete (Peter Gruber) is available for $19.95 plus tax from the Gates Historical Society office, located at the Hinchey Homestead, 634 Hinchey Road, Gates.
For more information and mail orders, call (585) 464-9740.
*Pete’s date of birth is given in Mr. Stilson’s text and in the Democrat and Chronicle obituary as June 29, 1858. However, his death certificate lists the year of his birth as 1857 and that at his death on October 11, 1932, he was 75 years, 3 months and 12 days old. For this publication, 1857 is considered to be the correct year of Pete’s birth.
**The historical record is inconsistent about the number of times Peter Gruber was bitten by poisonous snakes. Then again, for most people, one bite would be more than enough.