Medical Journal Oddities: Snake Man 1881

Medical Record 1891UPDATE: Rachel aka Oupelai did some searching and it turns out this is indeed a known condition. Medical journal article here.


I read a lot of 19th century medical journals. This has mostly to do with the fact that a lot of the sequel to The Gilded Hour takes place in medical settings, and I put a great premium on getting the details right. 

Every once in a while I come across something truly surprising that I end up taking to a doctor I know to see if they can shed any light on what seems too odd to believe. Here’s the latest:

A Deciduous Man—At a recent meeting of the Chicago Medical Society Dr. J. Frank reported a case where a man every July shed his skin. He was taken with feverish tremors, increasing almost to paroxysms. He undressed, lay down, and within a few minutes the skin of the chest began to turn red. The redness rapidly extended over the entire skin, and the feverish tremors continued uninterrupted for about twelve hours. Then he arose, dressed, and walked about in perfect health. The skin now commenced to peel, and ten hours later it began to come off in great patches. From the arms and legs it could be pulled ofi exactly like gloves or stockings.

As the old skin came away a new epidermis, as soft and pink as a baby’s, was revealed. This new skin was very sensitive; the patient had to wear softened gloves and moccasins for about a week. After the old cuticle had been entirely removed, the finger and toe nails began to drop off—new nails literally crowding them out. Finally the change was complete—the man had a new skin and a new outfit of nails, and was ready to return to the mines.

The shedding began in his first year and recurred every July thereafter.

It’s the nail part that really gets to me for some reason. If I get any interesting notes from a physician that explains this, I’ll let you know.

11 Replies to “Medical Journal Oddities: Snake Man 1881”

  1. I’m not sure which emotion has the upper hand; I’m completely creeped out and totally fascinated.

  2. Wow, that is fascinating.Tthere are a lot of medical conditions out there but im sure this is something unique. Your right though. The nails is definitely something weird.

  3. Truly fascinating! Wonder if there’s any connection to the reptilian stage of human fetal development?

  4. Every time I visit some historical medical exhibit I shudder to think about living in the past.

    I am anxiously awaiting “Gilded Hour”.

  5. I so appreciate writers who take pride in getting their history correct.
    In our mystery discussion group one of the things one of our questions for historical mysteries is can we trust what we’ve learned about the time period. Sometimes we even do word etymologies to find out if a certain phrase was used in this particular time setting. I’d be happy to learn what you do about the shedding skin and nails phenomenon.

  6. All I want to say is ewww. But also, scary. It says it began in his first year… like when he was born?? How is that even possible? I’m real skeptical about this, but would love to know if you find a doc who could corroborate this.

  7. I am an ICU nurse and feel I have seen a bunch of weird things (though ER probably sees more). This shedding snake man is the craziest account I have ever heard of, and I cannot seem to figure out how to make it legitimate in my mind. If this is indeed a true and accurate account, I am astounded. It is so incredibly hard to believe! His nails, too? Really?! I love how the subject is timely, in that the shedding happens ever July! Great way to end the article.

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