It is many years now since the news was brought to me one day that a man whom I knew very well had been bitten by a deadly serpent and was dying. He was a fine, strongly built young fellow, a Mohammedan, in the employ of a Parsee liquor distiller, in whose godown he was arranging firewood when he was bitten in the foot. Without looking at the snake he rushed out and, falling on his face on the ground, implored the bystanders to take care of his wife and children as he was a dead man. The news spread and all the village ran together. The man was taken to an open room in his employer's premises and vigorous measures for his recovery were set on foot, in which his employer's family and servants, his own friends and as many of the general public as chose to look in, were allowed to take part.
First of all, some jungle men were called in, for the man of the jungle must naturally know more about snakes than other men. These were probably Katkurrees, an aboriginal race, who live by woodcutting, hunting and other sylvan occupations. They proved to be practical men and at once sucked the wound. An intelligent Havildar of the Customs Department, who chanced to be present, then lanced the wound slightly to let the blood flow, and tied the leg tightly in two places above it. This was admirable. If what the jungle men and the Havildar did were always and promptly done whenever a man is bitten by a snake, few such accidents would end fatally.
But this poor man's friends did not stop there. A supply of chickens had been procured with all haste, and these were scientifically applied. This is a remedy in which the natives have great faith, and I have known Europeans who were convinced of its efficacy. The manner of its application scarcely admits of description in these pages, but the effect is that the chickens absorb the poison and die, while the man lives. The number of chickens required is a gauge of the virulence of the serpent, for as soon as the venom is all extracted they cease to die. Nobody, however, could tell me how many chickens perished in this case. They were all too busy to stop and note the result of one remedy while another remained untried. And there were many yet.
Somebody suggested that the venom should be dislodged from the patient's stomach, so an emetic was administered in the form of a handful of common salt, with immediate and seismic effect. Then a decoction of neem leaves was poured down the man's throat. The neem tree is an enemy of all fevers and a friend of man generally, so much so that it is healthful to sleep under its shade. Therefore a decoction of the leaves could not fail to be beneficial in one way or another. The residue of the leaves was well rubbed into the crown of the man's head for more direct effect on the brains in case they might be affected. Something else was rubbed in under the root of the tongue.
In the meantime a man with some experience in exorcism had brought twigs of a tree of well-ascertained potency in expelling the devil, and advised that, in view of the known connection between serpents and Satan, it would be well to try beating the patient with these. The advice was taken, and many stripes were laid upon him. Massage was also tried, and other homely expedients, such as bandaging and thumping with the fists, were not neglected.
It was about noon when I was told of the accident, and I went down at once and found the poor man in a woeful state, as well he might be after such rough handling as he had suffered for four consecutive hours; but he was quite conscious and there was neither pain nor swelling in the bitten foot. I remonstrated most vigorously, pointing out that the snake, which nobody had seen, might not have been a venomous one at all, that there were no symptoms of poisoning, except such as might also be explained by the treatment the man had suffered at the hands of his friends, and that, in short, I could see no reason to think he was going to die unless they were determined to kill him.
My words appeared to produce a good effect on the Parsees at least, and they consented to stop curing the man and let him rest, giving him such stimulating refreshment as he would take, for he was a pious Mussulman and would not touch wine or spirits. I said what I could to cheer him up, and went away hoping that I had saved a human life. Alas! In an hour or so a friend came in with a root of rare virtue and persuaded the man to swallow some preparation of it. Post hoc, whether propter hoc I dare not say, he became unconscious and sank. Before night he was buried.
All this did not happen in some obscure village in a remote jungle. It happened within a mile and a half of a town controlled by a municipal corporation which enjoys the rights and privileges of "local self-government." In that town there was a dispensary, with a very capable assistant-surgeon in charge, and in that dispensary I doubt not you would have found a bottle of strong liquor ammoniæ and a printed copy of the directions issued by a paternal Government for the recovery of persons bitten by venomous serpents. But when the man was bitten the one thing which occurred to nobody was to take him there, and when I heard of the matter the assistant-surgeon had just left for a distant place, passing on his way the gate of the house in which the man lay. This was a bad case, but there is little reason to hope that it was altogether exceptional. I am afraid there can be no question at all that hundreds of the deaths put down to snake-bite by village punchayets every year might with more truth be registered as "cured to death."