The origin of "copperhead" (1861)

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Tue Jun 30 04:53:07 UTC 2009

      Barry Popik noted the origin of
"copperhead" with the mail incident of April 1861
(ADS-L archives, 16 June 2005; Subject same as
here).  But I don't know if anyone has observed
the following (extracted from America's
Historical Newspapers, but via another source I
will reveal in a later message):

      In its issue of April 8, 1861, the
Philadelphia Inquirer published a brief report of
the incident (1/2):  "Queer Mail Matter.  The
mail bag from Florida was opened at the post
office and two venomous copper-head snakes came out."

      (This was also reported just a day later in
the Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen & News, April 9,
1861, 2/2, where the item begins "The Washington
dispatch to the Herald says, ... two copper-head
snakes emerged, which were killed after an
exciting scramble."   I don't know what Herald;
Wikipedia says the Washington Herald dates from
1906.  There are a number of similar reports of
the two snakes in other newspapers in April.)

      Just two days after its report of the two
snakes in the mail bag, the Philadelphia Inquirer
was using the term "copper-head" metaphorically:
April 10, 1861, 4/2-3.  The article is titled
"Secession and Snakes", and begins "A marked
peculiarity of the present 'spread' in the Cotton
States is the revolution it has worked in the
zoological symbols of national glory."  After
mentioning the lion, cock, and eagle, the writer
proceeds to "But Jeff Davis and 'the fathers'
will have none of them, ... But, if the C.S.A
asked for a fish, Jeff Davis has given them a
serpent, in violation of Christian teachings,
and, therefore, the historian of the times, while
searching for material among the Cotton State
annals, finds snakes of every conceivable species
wriggling in every possible direction.
      "Three [sic] of them lately arrived in
Washington. We do not refer to Jeff Davis'
Commissioners but three veritable and deadly
copper-heads, who were sent from Florida in a
mail bag, and, to the horror of a group of
clerks, presented their fangs as credentials, on
last Saturday morning, in the Dead Letter office."

      [I suspect the number of snakes has been
altered here to allude, despite the denial, to
Davis's commissioners.  The few of the incident
reports I've looked at in other newspapers continue to refer to two snakes.]

      While the above could be taken literally,
the article goes on to cite various personal
names and compare them to other varieties of
snake -- Yancey is a moccasin snake, Twiggs a
black snake, Pryor and Rhett garter snakes, Wise
and Keit[s?] whip snakes, Floyd and Cobb vipers.  [See below for these men.]

Barry is surely right that "copper-head" arises
from the mail-bag incident of 1861, not (as the
OED 1989 says) in the autumn of 1862.  But I
suggest that the Philadelphia Inquirer article of
April 10, 1861, appearing just two days after the
incident, is its first use with the meaning of a political faction.


Wikipedia says the C.S.A. was formed Feb. 8,
1851; Davis was inaugurated Feb. 18; and the
battle of Ft. Sumter was April 12-13.

The various snakes (from Wikipedia):
      William Lowndes Yancey (August 10, 1814 –
July 27, 1863) was a journalist, politician,
orator, diplomat and an American leader of the Southern secession movement.
      David Emanuel Twiggs (1790 – July 15, 1862)
was ... a general of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War.
      Roger Atkinson Pryor (July 19, 1828 – March
14, 1919) was both a American politician and a
Confederate politician serving as a congressman on both sides.
      Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. (October 21,
1800 – September 14, 1876), was a United States
secessionist politician from South Carolina.
        Henry Alexander Wise (December 3, 1806 –
September 12, 1876) was an American statesman
from Virginia. ... served as the Governor of
Virginia from 1856 to 1860. ...One of his last
official acts as Governor was to sign the death warrant of John Brown.
      Keit[s?] = ?
      Floyd = ? George Rogers Clark Floyd
(September 13, 1810 – May 7, 1895)[1] was a West
Virginia politician and businessman.
      (Thomas) Howell Cobb (September 7, 1815 –
October 9, 1868) was an American political
figure. A Southern Democrat, Cobb was a five-term
member of the United States House of
Representatives and Speaker of the House from
1849 to 1851. He also served as a Secretary of
Treasury under President James Buchanan
(1857-1860) and Governor of Georgia (1851-1853).
... He is, however, probably best known as one of
the founders of the Confederate States of
America, having served as the Speaker of the Provisional Confederate Congress.

The American Dialect Society -

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