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May 19, 2021

The Story of Katherine McHale Slaughterback, Who Killed 140 Rattlesnakes Back in 1925 and Used Them to Make a Dress

Katherine McHale Slaughterback (July 25, 1893 – October 6, 1969), popularly called Rattlesnake Kate, was born to Wallace and Albina McHale in a log cabin near Longmont, Colorado. She would go on to attend nursing school at St. Joseph’s School of Nursing and move to Hudson, Colorado. She also had skill as a taxidermist. She frequently wore pants instead of dresses, which was unusual for a woman at the time.

Slaughterback married and divorced six times—one of her husbands was Jack Slaughterback—and had one son, Ernie Adamson. It is disputed if Ernie was an adopted child or born to her out of wedlock.

Katherine Slaughterback with two strings of rattlesnakes, 1925. (Photo: City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection)

On October 28, 1925, Slaughterback was out with her 3-year old adopted son Ernie. They were on horseback and headed toward a lake near her farm after hearing what sounded like hunters. Slaughterback hoped they would find ducks left by the hunters, but what they found instead were over a hundred live migrating rattlesnakes.

Surrounded by the snakes and worried about Ernie and her horse, Kate used the three bullets she had in her .22 rifle. With nothing left in the gun, she grabbed a nearby sign––ironically, it was a “No Hunting” sign—and began killing the rattlesnakes, one-by-one, until all were dead. All totaled, the ordeal took about 2 hours from start to finish. The number of snakes killed totaled 140.

Katherine Slaughterback posing with rattlesnakes.

Of her ordeal, Slaughterback later said: “I fought them with a club not more than 3 feet long, whirling constantly for over two hours before I could kill my way out of them and get back to my faithful horse and Ernie, who were staring at me during my terrible battle not more than 60 feet away.”

After she returned to her farm, a neighbor learned of what had happened, which eventually led to a reporter coming to photograph and interview her. She strung the dead snakes together on a rope for the photograph, which became infamous. She would later make herself a dress, shoes, and belt from the snakeskins. The dress, made from the skins of 53 rattlesnakes, was particularly famous. She claimed later that she received an offer from the Smithsonian Institution to buy it for US$2,000.

Katherine Slaughterback posing in her famous rattlesnake dress, 1926. (Photo: City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection)

Picture of Kate Slaughterback wearing her infamous rattlesnake dress many years after the event.

Her story became popular and was written about it the New York Evening Journal. News of her exploits was reported as far away as Germany, Belgium, Scotland, France, England, Mexico, and Canada.

Later in life, Slaughterback raised rattlesnakes, milking them for their venom and selling it to scientists in California. She would also make and sell snakeskin souvenirs.

Three weeks before her death, Kate donated the dress to the City of Greeley Museums. Today, her original snakeskin dress is exhibited in a climate and light controlled area in the Greeley History Museum, along with her story and rattlesnake shoes and accessories.

Dress made of rattlesnakes killed by Katherine McHale Slaughterback at the Greeley History Museum. (Photo: City of Greeley Museums, Permanent Collection)




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