Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » There was an old lady who swallowed a … lizard

There was an old lady who swallowed a … lizard

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 19, 2008

Four or five years ago, while I was working on a project involving the families of Brigham Young, a friend shared with me an item from his own research, an article published in the 31 August 1883 edition of the Deseret Evening News. If after reading this transcription you think I’m pulling your leg, you can read the article as reprinted in the 5 September 1883 edition of the Deseret News Weekly (see Utah Digital Newspapers and search; I wasn’t able to make a direct link).


A Living Creature in the Stomach of a Lady for 15 Years.

One of the rarest cases ever brought to the notice of the medical faculty, has transpired in this city. About fifteen years ago, Mrs. Jane Carrington Young, wife of Apostle Brigham Young, was suddenly awakened from sleep by a feeling caused by some living creature running into her mouth and down her throat. She was naturally alarmed at the incident and swallowed different things to cause vomiting.

No great subsequent inconvenience ensued until four years ago, when the lady was greatly alarmed by a sensation of a living thing moving about in her stomach. The feeling increased accompanied by a pain of something gnawing or biting at the left side, especially at times when there was not much food in the stomach. In addition to this sensation was the fact that she could plainly hear the sound caused by the creature when it was in the act of drinking.

Leading physicians in this city were consulted, but all, or nearly all, attributed the symptoms described by Sister Young to imagination, some going so far as to claim that no living creature could exist in the human stomach. The patient read medical works for satisfactory information and swallowed any amount of nostrums, but all to no avail until recently she took some preparations given by a couple of gentlemen of this city. The desired result was attained, as the creature ceased to live and was vomited by Mrs. Young on Monday last. Although somewhat disfigured and broken up by the action of the medicine its form is still traceable, being evidently of the lizard species. It was emitted in fragments, the main portion being several inches long. It is preserved in two bottles of alcohol, and a large number of people have called and examined it. The many friends of the esteemed lady will congratulate her on getting rid of such an unwelcome intruder. We are pleased to state that she feels remarkably well considering her terrible experience.

That’s all. No commentary, no names of leading physicians or examiners, no hint that the editor was joking or thought that Sister Young was out of her mind. Just a straightforward news item and good wishes for the recovering sufferer.

This fantastic item has stayed in memory, but I had no idea what to make of it, much less how to use it — until this weekend, when I ran across a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled “Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent.” Published in 1843, this is the tale of a man convinced a living serpent had entered his body and taken up residence in his chest. “It gnaws me! It gnaws me!” was the victim’s steady cry. He could feel it move; he could hear it hiss.

Sound familiar?

The notes to the edition I read indicated that belief in “bosom serpents” — or frogs or lizards or salamanders, residing in every imaginable body part — was a widespread phenomenon, found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Sometimes the reptiles entered the body through contaminated drinking water; sometimes they crawled through open mouths during sleep (the sensation Jane Carrington Young reported). The creatures lived in the body for years, their every move known to their hosts, despite frequent attempts to dislodge them through vomiting or purging or luring them out by first fasting (to starve them), then sleeping next to an open pan of milk (to tempt them toward food). If vomited, the pests often emerged in pieces; whether whole or in parts, a common element of the story was that the creatures were preserved in bottles of alcohol — although I have yet to locate a source that such a preserved creature is to be found in the collections of such-and-such a repository.

The phenomenon is so wide spread, apparently, that folklorists label it “bosom serpentry” after Hawthorne’s example. One author, it turns out, has even used the case of Jane Carrington Young in a scholarly article: Richard C. Poulsen, “Bosom Serpentry among the Puritans and Mormons,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 16:3 (1 Sept. 1979), 176-189. Although noting the many features this case has in common with other tales, Poulsen offers no explanation either for the origin of the phenomenon nor its presence among the Mormons.

I have no answers. I think I’m relieved that Sister Young wasn’t exactly crazy, that she channeled some unexplained but tangible experience into the framework of folklore with which she must have been familiar, but I do not pretend to understand what she experienced. Or why the editor reported it as he did.




  1. No ideas — just to say this is really cool. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Norbert — May 19, 2008 @ 6:22 am

  2. If you go to the Mütter Museum (part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia) you can see their collection of 2000 things removed from peoples’ stomachs. The whole museum is a kind of medical freak show. I’ve avoided it.

    Now I’ll go shudder for a while and try and think about something else.

    Actually a question. Why can’t Sister Young have been “crazy”? Mental illness strikes the best families. Nowadays they might put her on an anti-anxiety medication. Would they do an x-ray along with the meds? Probably depends on the doctor.

    Comment by Amy T — May 19, 2008 @ 6:53 am

  3. Uh, oh….that “salamander” thing ag’in, only this time in the Young family! Ardis, this may be your most over-the-top one yet, beating even the Bear Lake Monster for, er, vividness. I take it that the interpretation of WoW of the era made pickling the creature in situ inappropriate, no?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 19, 2008 @ 8:00 am

  4. “Really cool” — “shudder” — “over the top.” Couldn’t ask for more pleasing reactions, thank you very much!

    I suppose Sister Young *could* have been crazy in an independent, psychotic kind of way. That she interpreted her hallucination into a well established folklore tradition, though, makes me think that there must have been something objectively real at the base (say, unusually sharp gas pains, or some other real physical ailment) that she didn’t know how to describe or understand except in terms of folklore. As part of trying to understand her symptoms, she may very well have recalled a time years earlier when she woke up from the sensation of inhaling a fly, perhaps, and reinterpreted that as part of the same experience. In my inexpert way, I see her doing the same thing as someone today who sees unexplained lights in the heavens and interprets them as a UFO, or someone of our grandparents’ generation who had an unusual experience with a stranger and interpreted it as a visit from one of the Three Nephites.

    Bill, although I have no reason to suspect this of Sister Jane, I would agree that pickling in situ may have, on occasion, *preceded* the discovery of certain unexplained phenomena …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  5. What a jolly good way to kick off a Monday morning. Perhaps for Home Evening we could proof-text Matthew 15:11 to good effect?

    Comment by Edje — May 19, 2008 @ 9:26 am

  6. Awesome. Though I don’t know Bill, if she wasn’t married to a Stake President or Apostle, there very well could have been some pickling involved.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 19, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  7. Cool is the right word. I’ll share this with my daughters simply to freak them out.

    I like your possible explanation, Ardis. I wouldn’t have thought of that on my own.

    Comment by Ray — May 19, 2008 @ 11:14 am

  8. Sounds like a tapeworm, no?

    Comment by Steve Evans — May 19, 2008 @ 11:22 am

  9. “Jolly good” — “awesome” — “freak out” — more rewarding responses!

    Steve, I wondered about that, too, but I don’t think so. From all I can find, tapeworms grow only in the small intestine, beyond the point where they can be vomited from the stomach, and are almost always small in diameter (no matter what their length). Their size, plus the general familiarity with worms that virtually everybody would have been familiar with in the 19th century, makes me doubt that someone could have mistaken their remains for those of a lizard. The freaked-out vomiter of such a creature, maybe, but not a calmer witness, especially a doctor.

    But I’m still trying to figure the whole thing out.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 11:54 am

  10. Combining this passage from your post:

    The creatures lived in the body for years, their every move known to their hosts, despite frequent attempts to dislodge them through vomiting or purging or luring them out by first fasting (to starve them), then sleeping next to an open pan of milk (to tempt them toward food).

    With Steve’s comment:

    Sounds like a tapeworm, no?

    It is interesting to note that folkloric remedies for tapeworms exist to this day. My wife told me just last week that when she was young, her grandmother told her that the way to remove a tapeworm was to eat one specific food (and that food only) for three days, then fast for one or two days, then on the following day raise the specific food to your mouth and the tapeworm will crawl (or whatever tapeworms do) out your mouth in search of the food.

    Comment by Christopher — May 19, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

  11. Bah, humbug! Forgive me for not swallowing this story whole. It sounds to me as if the editor of the DNW was playing a role in the legend process. He picked up a piece of familiar American folklore, localized it using Sister Young’s stomach, threw in a few credibility building details (“leading physicians,” “several inches long”, the two bottles of alcohol, the preservation for “a large number of people” to see) and then passed it on to a gullible public. It likely sent a variety of new stories spiraling in new directions. Ardis found it and passed it on to us. We are now also a part of the legend process, spinning new tales as we pass this story from person to person.

    I don’t believe it for a second. You’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming to the DUP museum to see this well preserved creature of the “lizard species” in its two bottles of alcohol, before I’ll even think about believing it. Pure poppycock.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — May 19, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  12. Christopher – ick, ick, ick! I think I could take the treatment a whole lot easier asleep than I could holding the bait and waiting — hoping — that the worm would crawl out my mouth. Eeuuwww! (But a very relevant comment.)

    Paul, I just don’t know what to do with you. Poppycock? Next thing, you’ll cast doubt on the Bear Lake Monster, the Gadianton Robbers, and whatever it was we were talking about last year that Juanita Brooks was supposed to have confessed to that St. George tour guide.

    But really, what is going on here at the base of the legend-making process? I don’t believe for a moment that Jane had a lizard living in her stomach for all those years. But I don’t want to think it was nothing but a mental fantasy, either — that makes the Deseret News editor a very cruel man for setting her up for such public ridicule. But if there was something — anything — no matter how misunderstood or exaggerated — at the root of this, what was it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

  13. My pioneer great-great-grandmother thought she was dying of dropsy–pains in her stomach and such–and called all ten of her children to her bedside to say goodbye to them. And then she promptly gave birth to my (full-term, healthy) great-grandfather. Seems she wasn’t dying after all. But how she didn’t know she was pregnant after having had 10 previous pregnancies boggles my mind.

    But now I take comfort in knowing that at least she didn’t vomit up a (pickled) lizard!

    Comment by Keryn — May 19, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  14. Ardis,
    Yes, poppycock. Maybe the editor was in cahoots with Jane and they together pulled a joke on the readers? The Poulsen article you cite offers no interpretive framework? There must be some 19th century worry into which these bosom tales tap? The folklorists I’ve read have no shortage of potential explanations for urban legends and the like, most of them Freudian, but I don’t suppose we should go there in this case.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — May 19, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  15. Perhaps an extreme case of Munchausen Syndrome?

    Comment by Dane — May 19, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

  16. Keryn, you remind us that there *are* unexplained medical conditions — and think of the titles your great-grandfather could use for his autobiography: “I Am Not a Pickled Lizard” for starters.

    Dane, I hadn’t even thought of that. We’d probably have to find a pattern, even a short one, of odd physical incidents in Jane’s life before going there, but it’s something to throw in the pot of possibility.

    Paul, there’s really no helpful interpretive material in the Poulsen article. He points out a number of Puritan incidents where deliverance from bosom serpentry is a mark of God’s favor, and notes his surprise in Jane’s case that there is no mention of the laying on of hands and no attempt to draw a moral (which he contrasts with another, later case of a Mormon woman who reported all the classic facets of bosom serpentry in getting rid of the six-inch snake in her stomach; in that case, she got a priesthood blessing after medical science failed to cure her). But I don’t find anything in Paulsen’s article, in either the parts about Puritans or about Mormons, that attempts to explain where the phenomenon comes from or what it means, beyond the cure as coming from God.

    Do you sense any attempt at humor in the account? I can’t. That’s what makes it so weird to me — it’s reported with as straight a face as the frequent news reports of this-or-that doctor removing a kidney stone of such-and-such diameter. Either the editor believed it, or he knew that Jane believed it and he was being diplomatic, not mocking.

    I’m not averse to a diagnosis of poppycock if I can just understand the motive.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  17. “I am not a Pickled Lizard.” Wow, that has a catchy ring to it. Wasn’t that what Nixon said during Watergate? Heh, heh…

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 19, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

  18. Ardis–you gave me my first genuine laugh-out-loud moment of the day. (Yucky day, what can you do?) “I am not a Pickled Lizard”

    I still have a smile on my face. Thanks!!

    Comment by Keryn — May 19, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  19. How good of a biography exists of this woman? Is Jane Carrington Young a known character?

    Comment by Amy T — May 19, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  20. Who knows (about the origin)? But, then, who cares? Speculating about it is great fun!

    As to speculation, I think that even now a folk remedy, administered in shot sized doses, of, say, gin or bourbon, might get past a sympathetic bishop in a recommend interview. Especially if you could produce some pieces of the regurgitated beast.

    Comment by Mark B. — May 19, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  21. I just answered part of my own question. She’s the second wife of Brigham Young Jr. I didn’t get the “Jr” part the first time I read your article. Other than that I don’t have time to look into now…

    Comment by Amy T — May 19, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  22. Amy, we know as much about her as we do other 19th century women who didn’t leave diaries, but there’s no biography, to my knowledge.

    Her obituary:

    Deseret Evening News
    11 November 1905, 2/4

    Pioneer Woman Answers Summons

    Mrs. Jane M. Carrington Young Passes Away at Her Home in This City.

    Death Occurred This Morning

    Endured the Hardships of Early Days and Came to Utah by Handcart – Funeral Not Fixed.

    After a life of over half a century in Salt Lake, in which she participated in the problems incident to redeeming Utah from the sagebrush, Jane M. Carrington Young, wife of Brigham Young, Jr., passed suddenly away at her home, No. 30 west North Temple street, this morning. The cause of her death was general debility, following an operation performed last February, from the effects of which she had never fully recovered. While her health since February has not been good, she was not seriously ill until within a few hours of her death. Last night a number of her relatives called to se her, and left for home late in the evening, never expecting the sudden end which came a few hours later.

    Was Utah Pioneer.

    Mrs. Young was a Utah pioneer. Her father, Albert Carrington, was of the first party, and she followed across the plains a few months later, arriving here with her mother in October, 1847. Since then her life has been devoted to her religion, and to rearing her family, to whom she was always a most devoted mother. She was prominently connected with the Relief Society for many years, and at her demise was treasurer of the Seventeenth ward association. In Sunday school work she was also an active participant and for over fifty years was a constant attendant at the Seventeenth ward Sunday school.

    Endured Hardships.

    Mrs. Young was born at Hamilton, Wisconsin, Feb. 26, 1840, and is the descendant of an old New England family, her father having been born in Vermont in 1813. When the persecutions of the Church in Nauvoo began, Mrs. Young accompanied her parents as a child through the trying ordeals of the period, and in the western exodus rode to Utah in an ox cart, driven by her mother.

    Leaves Large Family.

    In 1857 she was married to Brigham Young, Jr., the oldest son of Brigham Young, in Salt Lake City. Eight children were born, seven of whom are living. They are Dr. A.C. Young, J. Wash Young, Willard H. Young, J. Emerson Young, Mrs. M.M. May, Mrs. Luna Y. Moore, and Mrs. Lutie Y. Brockbank. All of the children are now in Salt Lake except Mrs. Brockbank, who is in Portland, J. Wash Young, who is in Nebraska, and W.H. Young, who is in Canada.

    They have been notified of the death by telegram, and it is expected that they will arrive here in time to attend the funeral services.

    The funeral will occur Monday at 2 p.m. from the residence, 30 west North Temple street. Friends are invited.

    Unless I’m mixing her up with another member of the family, I have a clipping somewhere telling about cleaning out her house after her death. She had dutifully followed the Relief Society injunction to glean and save wheat, and her home was filled with bottles of all shapes and sizes filled with wheat. The way I recall the wording of that clipping, there seems to be a little whiff of eccentricity about her wheat savings. Or it could have been nothing more than the frugality of an aging person who has lived through hard times and is in the habit of saving too many rubber bands and pieces of string.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

  23. Mark B., I submit that if Keryn’s great-grandfather had followed your suggestion, his autobiography might have been entitled “I Am a Liquored Pizzard.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 19, 2008 @ 7:32 pm

  24. Ardis, I loved this post. What fun to speculate about what was going on. My chemist hubby would say that the acid in her stomach could not have allowed a lizard to live, but hey, weirder things have happened, maybe?

    As funny as the post was, this comment got an out-loud chuckle:

    “and think of the titles your great-grandfather could use for his autobiography: “I Am Not a Pickled Lizard” for starters.”

    Ha, and I just saw 23.

    I have told you before that I envy people who can do history and do it well. Thanks for sharing your work with us.

    Comment by m&m — May 20, 2008 @ 1:12 am

  25. Heh, heh, heh! Glad you enjoyed it, m&m. This one will haunt me for a long time because I can’t accept Jane’s interpretation of events. But what in heaven’s name was really going on?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 20, 2008 @ 5:51 am

  26. I found a lizard story on the New Mormon Studies CD.

    From J.D.T. McAllister’s diary:

    June 30, 1881.

    “[C]alled and administered to Casper Bryner. trouble with Something like a frog or Lizard in his stomach. had fasted four days. no food nor drink.”

    Comment by Justin — May 20, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  27. Holy cow! Great find, Justin. A week ago I wouldn’t have understood a word of that. Now at least we know what the fasting was about.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 20, 2008 @ 9:22 am

  28. An even more fantastic story reprinted in the Deseret News Weekly, Nov. 16, 1864:

    Lizards in a Man’s Stomach

    Gillian Bennett’s Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend (Univ. Press of Miss., 2005), which features a lengthy discussion of this genre of legend, suggests that Young may have been suffering from a gastric ulcer (pp. 32-33).

    Comment by Justin — May 20, 2008 @ 9:49 am

  29. Again, I owe you thanks, Justin. I’ve just read the first few pages of Bennett’s Bodies … on Amazon and will read the entire chapter. Finally, as impossible as the story is, Jane no longer seems as nutty as I’m afraid I’ve been thinking of her as being, because her story fits into such a well established, well studied framework. It can’t, just can’t be objectively true (I’m with Paul and his “poppycock”), but I’m now convinced that Jane had real symptoms of something and merely interpreted them the only way she knew how.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 20, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  30. So the obvious explanation is that Jane read the article in the Deseret News (1864) and filed it away in her mind until she thought she swallowed a lizard (c. 1868) and then remembered the incident when she started having gastrointestinal symptoms (c 1879).

    How to explain the “lizard”? Perhaps it was a stomach cancer and she “emitted” (Deseret News’ word) a growth of some sort?

    (Scraping the bottom of the [pickle] barrel here.)

    Comment by Amy T — May 20, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  31. I’m with Paul and his “poppycock”

    Ardis, I’ll deny knowing you if you ever say that in public.

    Great finds Justin! Now we are developing a scenario I can begin to swallow . . . with a vodka chaser of course.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — May 20, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  32. #31 deserves a reward of some sort, even if it just for the best subtlety in the Bloggernacle. I truly am impressed.

    Comment by Ray — May 20, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  33. Possibly the awesomest bloggernacle thread ever.

    The only possible suggestion that I can make, is that you link to this helpful website, , which provides an explanation of how Mormonism is controlled by shape-shifting lizards (probably from another planet).

    Comment by Kaimi — May 20, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  34. I located a newspaper article on Jane’s wheat supply here (“Wheat Hoarded Twenty Years,” Salt Lake Herald, Jan. 1, 1906, p. 12).

    Comment by Justin — May 21, 2008 @ 8:24 am

  35. That’s the one, Justin. The two stories seem to go together somehow, don’t they? I mean, she seems to me to be an unsophisticated woman, which I say without any pejorative intent, meaning that she is completely literal in her approach to life and the gospel. There is something different in the way she implemented the wheat policy than the way it was done by hundreds or thousands of women just as faithful, or else her remarkable “estate” wouldn’t have merited a news story. I can easily believe she would be just as literal about her interpretation of folklore.

    #31-33, we’re havin’ fun here, no?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 21, 2008 @ 8:51 am

  36. I can’t tell if the article says “30 west north temple” or “80 west north temple” but either way it’s in the same block.

    Layers of history…one day it’s native brush, then it’s the home of one of the matriarchs of the Young family with her lizards and wheat storage, next it’s the Deseret Gym with otherwise sedentary church workers getting a few laps in…finally it’s the Conference Center with native habitat plantings on the roof.

    Comment by Amy T — May 21, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  37. You have the same tendency I have, Amy T — I see an address like that and mentally try to pick it out on today’s ground. If people could read my mind as I walk through downtown Salt Lake (“that’s the corner where the GAR was organized … Dr. Bernhisel used to live there … John King was shot somewhere in this intersection … somewhere under the Salt Palace is where Porter and Christina Rockwell lived …”), I’d probably be locked up.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 21, 2008 @ 10:08 am

  38. Not to drag out an already long discussion, but when I read my husband this thread last night it reminded me of the following story about a relation of mine in the news business, c. 1910, the need to get the “news” out, and the use of sources…

    Harold got the news. He saw some Mineer lady pass by the window one day and she was just about to have a baby. He thought that by the time the paper came out that she’d have had that baby—so he put it in the paper that Mrs. Mineer had a big, bouncing, 9 pound boy. My land, I looked out the window the day after the paper was released and there walked Mrs. Mineer down the other side of the street still expecting her baby.

    Comment by Amy T — May 23, 2008 @ 6:51 am

  39. Say it WAS Munchausen syndrome: the doctor plays along, induces vomiting, and claims to see pieces of the upchucked creature in the spewl. Afterwards he can’t TELL he’s only humored her (towards helping her overcome these psychosomatic symptoms), nor confide details to the newspaper.

    Comment by Just me — May 26, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

  40. I just happened to finish reading Wayland Hand’s Magical Medicine, which is a collection of his previously published essays. It includes “Animal Intrusion into the Human Body: A Primitive Aetiology of Disease,” which was from a volume published in Argentina and thus otherwise inaccessible. It is typical of his work, relying on mostly later folklore; but it is a helpful article for this topic. First thing I thought of was this post.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 28, 2011 @ 10:57 am

  41. Heh, heh! Thanks for recalling this and taking the time to leave the citation. The wider world has a hard time coming up with a subject where Mormonism doesn’t have something to offer!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 28, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  42. Hmm. You’ve been getting follow-up comments at the rate of about one a year for the past . . . year. Here’s another one. I saw an ad for a remedy called “Mother’s Helper” in an old Deseret News and while looking to see what it was, found a blog called “The Quack Doctor.” One of the most recent posts featured an article from the 23 December 1910 Tacoma Times called “Live Lizzard Found in Girl’s Stomach, Declare Physicians.” Here’s a link:

    Comment by Amy T — July 19, 2012 @ 5:36 am