The Turnbo Manuscripts

by Silas Claiborne Turnbo

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By S. C. Turnbo

One reading this chapter need not think the Ozarks are infested with swarms of centipedes as large as alligators, for such is not the case. Of course, centipedes are here and have been since the country has been known to the whites, and no doubt will be here as long as our earth exists. Yet, as to number they are nothing in comparison here like they are in warmer climates. We make no pretention to give a scientific description of centipedes, but give only such accounts about them as gathered here and there from early residents.

Dave Coiner, who lives on Big Creek in Taney County, informed me that one day Jim Wood and a man by the name of Johnson, while in the hills salting cattle on the head of Little Creek that puts into Lick Creek below Gainesville, noticed a centipede eight inches long crawl out from under a rock. Having a large empty bottle with them they managed to induce it to crawl into the bottle, and corking it quickly carried the bottle to Gainesville, Mo., and presented it to Dr. Arnold, who placed the centipede in a glass jar filled with alcohol and kept it in his drug store.

A similar account is given by John Bias, who said on a certain time he had to attend a circuit court at Gainesville, Mo., and while on his way there from Dugginsville, he saw a centipede lying on a flat rock. He had an empty pint bottle with him and he wanted to capture the centipede alive and take it to Gainesville where he supposed he could sell it for something to help defray his expenses. Dismounting he took a stick and held it down on the centipede until he placed the mouth of the bottle before it, and kept at work until it started into the mouth of the bottle and raising the stick off of it, it ran in. "After corking the bottle," said John, "I put the bottle in the side pocket of my coat and rode on to Gainesville. I found that the market in town was too dull to sell centipedes for there was no demand for them and I gave the dangerous thing to an old settler, who managed to sell it to someone for a half pint of whiskey. I have often thought it was reckless of me—catching that centipede and carrying it in my coat pocket or anywhere about my person. Suppose the bottle should have happened to come uncorked. The centipede might have crawled out and stung me to death. It was between seven and eight inches in length."

Many years ago the writer was reliably informed that an early resident of Stone County, Mo., by the name of Tom May and who lived on Raileys Creek, a tributary of James River, came near losing one of his little boys, who was supposed to have been stung by a centipede. The child was barefooted, and while playing at the foot of a low hill near the house he screamed out in agony and ran toward the dwelling. Some of the family ran and met the child and saw that it had been stung on the foot. Going to the spot that the boy indicated, they discovered a centipede seven and one-half inches long and killed it. It is said the child lay a year before he recovered. All the flesh surrounding the wound sloughed off. When the sore healed the child remained a cripple.

Mr. G. W. Thurman tells about himself and Mose Lathrop dissecting a centipede one Sunday in 1859. They were in a glade on top of the river bluff on the north side of the river, three miles below Forsyth. The centipede was eight inches long. "And after killing it," said Mr. Thurman, "we proceeded to take it to pieces for the sake of curiosity, and to examine its stingers. It was a rough dissection, for the instruments used were sticks and sharp stones. We had no microscope but our eyes were good, and we were able to distinguish all its parts. I do not suppose our examination is of much importance to the scientific world, yet we learned something for ourselves. Its pincers or teeth resembled a hook-like form or tongs, and were of a dark brown color. Evidently there was a stinger in each leg. The greatest curiosity was found in three pointers at the end of the tail. Each pointer contained a large stinger. The middle one was much the largest and the stinger was flat shaped, resembling a disk knife, and about 1/16 of an inch in length. This was my first and only dissection of a centipede, and I don’t want anymore of it for my part."

R. M. Jones, of near Protem, Mo., tells of finding a centipede once imprisoned in a hollow tree. Mr. Jones said that after his father, John Jones, settled on the flat of land on the east side of Big Buck Creek in the southeast part of Taney County, his father told him one day in the autumn of 1861 to split some rails to build a hog pen. Going out across the Pond Hollow onto the flat of land he felled a post oak tree one and one-half feet in diameter. There was a small cavity at the butt of the tree. After chopping off one rail cut he found that the hollow extended only four or five feet into the rail cut, and was perfectly sound above it. After splitting the log open he was astonished at finding a centipede eight inches in length, coiled in a knot in the upper part of the cavity. At first there appeared to be no life about it. "I took two sticks," said he "and unrolled it and found that it was alive. It was wrapped around numerous young centipedes which were massed together in the shape of a little ball. The old centipede was almost white in color. After a thorough examination of the stump and the ground around it, I found no place where the centipede could have crawled in. Neither, in the log, was there any place where it could enter. How it got there I am not able to explain and how long it had been an inhabitant there is another mystery to me."

Mr. Jones also related that one day himself and the writer’s brother, James D. Turnbo who is dead now, were together at the foot of the bluff near a spring on the north side of the river just above Bradley’s Ferry. The spring rung out of the sloo bank. Jim was a lad of a boy, and had gone with Jones squirrel hunting. They had become separated a short distance when Jones heard Jim call out that something was trying to catch him. Jones thinking it was a panther or catamount, ran to him and was much surprised to see an enormous centipede pursuing the boy. When Jones reached the spot the centipede stopped and bowed its body up preparatory to jumping, and while it was in this position Jones shot it. He said it was 12 inches long and one inch wide.
Talking of centipedes of an unusual size, C. W. "Wilse" Griffin who lives on Mountain Creek in the northeast corner of Marion County, Ark., related to me that on a certain occasion he and Woodrow Owen were together on Mountain Creek and saw a large centipede run into a hollow stump. "Not knowing how else to rout it out with safety to ourselves we set the stump on fire," said Mr. Griffin, "and compelled the centipede to run out at another hole in the stump and we killed it. It measured just 12 inches in length."

William Patton, who settled on Clear Creek in Marion County, Ark., in 1854 and became totally blind and is dead now, says that one day while his eyesight was good he was in the woods on foot stock hunting. When about 1 ½ miles west of where the village of Powell now is, he noticed something a short distance from him crawl into a hollow tree at the ground. "On approaching the tree to identify the object remarked Mr. Patton, "I saw a monster centipede lying just on the inside of the hollow which was the object I had just observed crawl into the tree. I placed the muzzle of my rifle near the opening and shot it nearly in twain, and taking a long stick I pulled it out of the hollow and finished killing it with stones. I had no way of measuring it accurately, but a close estimation proved that it was not less than 14 inches long and over an inch wide."

The biggest centipede found in the Ozarks that I have a record of was captured alive by Bent Music on Jimmies Creek in Marion County in 1860. Henry Onstott an uncle of the writer and Harvey Laughlin who was a cousin of mine kept a drugstore in Yellville and collected rare specimens of lizards, serpents, spiders, horned frogs and centipedes and kept them in a large glass jar which sat on their counter. The jar was full of alcohol, and the collection was put in the jar for preservation as they were brought in. Amongst the collection was the monster centipede mentioned above. It was of such unusual size that it made on almost shudder to look at it. Brice Milum, who was a merchant at Yellville when Mr. Music brought the centipede to town, says that he assisted in the measuring of it, before it was put in the alcohol and its length was found to be 18 inches. It attracted a great deal of attention and was the largest centipede the writer ever saw. The jar with its contents was either destroyed or carried off during the heat of the war. Henry Onstott died in Yellville and is buried in the old cemetery one half a mile west of town.

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