Rattlesnake Pete lived his role as a oddity owner and snake charmer. He often wore a vest made of rattlesnake skins, and carried around a cane with a gold rattlesnake head. When people would call on him to hunt down poisonous snakes on their property, he would jump into his red Rambler automobile, which was ornamented in front with two large brass snakes.
The nickname Rattlesnake Pete can be found throughout the various lore of American frontier history. In Rochester we can claim to have not just our very own “Rattlesnake Pete”, but quite possibly the most colorful, exotic, absurd, and legendary one of them all. He was born Peter Gruber in 1857 to Joseph and Mary Gruber who had emigrated from Bavaria. As related in Arch Merrill’s Shadows on the Wall (1952), the town was Oil City, Pennsylvania, and Pete was the eldest of a pioneer oil refiner’s nine children. “He would later claim, that, while a boy hiking in the local hills, he had come upon an old Indian woman from the Seneca reservation. Dragging behind her on a rope a big dead rattlesnake, she explained to Pete how she would extract the fatty oil, which was used to treat rheumatism, stiff joints, even earache—among other afflictions. Impressed by the boy’s interest, she even gave him the snake’s skin. Pete later learned from Native Americans how to capture the rattlers, and from the medicine men how to use them for various folk remedies.
When his father left the oil business, “Rattlesnake Pete,” as he was now known, joined him in his new venture, operating a restaurant and saloon. Soon, Pete began to create a museum in the emporium. He displayed caged rattlers, then added a miniature oil well display—hand-whittled, painted, and assembled by Pete and his dentist friend “Doc” Reynolds. When a flood and fire struck Oil City in June 1892, Pete removed to Rochester where he established his own combined saloon and museum of curiosities (see picture above, a 1907 postcard).
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 allkinds, and even an ax used by a wife murderer.”
As one local newspaper put it, “His musty curiosity shop became filled to the eaves with fantastic exhibits.” 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.”
In any case, what was clear is that Pete was 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. Pete was also famous for devising his own method of extracting venom. Apparently he also once saved a circus clown from a rattlesnake bite, and treated his own numerous snake bites, 29 from rattlers and another 4 from copperheads. He was once bitten in an artery that left him unconscious for days and took nine months for him to fully recover. As well, writes Merrill, “Whenever any strange animals showed up in Rochester, Pete was sent for—to pick sinister looking lizards from banana shipments in the railroad yards, to capture monkeys escaped from a carnival, to kill snakes, invariably harmless ones, that householders found in their cellars.” He hunted snakes in the Bristol Hills and—for rattlers—returned to the mountains of his native Pennsylvania. Dressed head-to-toe in rattlesnake-skin clothes, Pete set off on his excursions in an open red Rambler which sported great brass-snake hood ornaments, accompanied by his big dogs.”
According to his biography, “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.
Their assertion was made on the basis of previous exploits of the “Arcade Push,” the “Hard Cider Gang,” and a number of other clubby associations of callous-fisted, turbulent individuals, who had long infested the precincts of the First Ward, waging guerilla warfare with the police, and delighted to put “out of business” any restauranteur (sic) who had the temerity to open his swinging doors in their territory.
—Charles B. Stilson, 1923
But, Stilson went on to record, 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 a blacksmith’s apprentice, and by his fearless reputation for handling poisonous snakes.
. . . he liked everybody and everybody liked him. He was always courteous, always a gentleman despite his forbidding nickname. There was never any rumpus in his place. Pete had been a boxer and a swimmer of repute in his youth and roisterers respected his physical strength and the steel-nerved courage of the man who hunted rattlers in the Bristol Hills and who had survived the bites of 29 rattlers and four copperheads**. And there was always at least one, sometimes four, of the giant St. Bernards around their master. In the days of the excursion trains, country folk always made a beeline for Rattlesnake Pete’s. They talked about its wonders for months.
—Arch Merrill, 1946
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.
…Some farmer in the nearby countryside would see a snake in his field and report to Peter that it was a rattler. It never was.
But Pete would put on a vest made of rattlesnake skins, and we would set out in his red Rambler automobile, which was ornamented in front with two large brass snakes. Occasionally, he captured a large harmless snake, but more often found no reptile of any kind. The occasion, however, made good news copy, and Pete delighted in the expansion of his reputation, and gained more goiter “patients” as the result of it. He was a friendly and likeable old fellow, and as his red Rambler with its brass symbols toured the country roads, he received welcoming shouts from all the country folk who saw him.
—Henry W. Clune, 1993
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.
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.
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.
. . . In his passing, Rochester loses one of its most colorful characters, a man whose unusual tastes and pursuits had given him a reputation that was actually world-wide and whose qualities of mind and sympathy of heart had endeared him to the friends whom he counted in thousands. Although he bore the name of “Rattlesnake Pete” for more than half a century, it was a foreign to the genial and humorous disposition and his unfailing kindness and courtesy as any nickname well could be.
—Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, October 12, 1932
Material above was taken primarily from The Biography of Rattlesnake Pete (Peter Gruber), written by Rochester author and newspaper reporter Charles B. Stilson and originally published in 1923. Further online references are cited below the photographic montage.
The trail leading to Rattlesnake Point on the east side of the Genesee River. (Photography by George Payne)
I do feel compelled to add that as an animal lover this piece was not easy to compile. I have been thinking about this one for some time. For me there is no satisfaction in the killing or exploitation of animals. I do not care if they are domesticated or wild. But I also realize that “Rattlesnake Pete” was a man of his time. It is not fair to judge him by my own moral standards. As a historian it is important to see him as a product of his own cultural milieu and to examine his life apart from my own feelings about animals. With that said, below are the directions to one of Rattlesnake Pete’s old stomping grounds. It is an area known as Rattlesnake Point along the Genesee River in Irondequoit, NY.
To access the trail leading to Rattlesnake Point, one must go down Seneca Parkway Ave in Irondequoit (off St. Paul). The road leads to a parking lot near the Seneca Park fence line. Take one of the paths to the right through the wooded area leading to an open gate in a chain link fence. Once on the other side of the fence you are technically outside of Seneca Park. Follow the ancient Seneca trail along the banks of the river’s edge. Rattlesnake Point is about a mile or so down the trail. You will know that you are there when you see a large clearing with red dirt. The overlook is one of the most incredible views of the Turning Point Basin. The trail concludes with a unique view of the 1975 built, 138 foot, steel vessel called the “Spirit of Rochester.” The trail is accessed on a daily basis by hikers, runners, fisherman, cyclists, and cross country skiers.
Online References about “Rattlesnake Pete”