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 REMARKABLE CASE
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.
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.