History 301: ‘Snakescapade’ may top tales of refuge in Downtown Canal

By CONNIE ZEIGLER / Contributing editor

Once in a rare while a person might ask what sort of amusing things have been found in the Downtown canal over the years before it became an attractive enhancement to the cityscape.

The answer to the question is not quite as amusing as one might think; the most frequently mentioned thing found while searching in historic newspapers using the phrases “found in canal,” “floating in canal,” or “dumped in canal,” is:

Bodies. Human bodies; murdered bodies, bodies of suicides, accidental death bodies.

Not so fun.

Instead, let’s talk about snakes. But first a content warning for any serpentologists or members of the Hogwarts House of Slytherins – snakes do not fare well in this tale.

The portion of the Central Canal that remains was constructed as part of the Mammoth Internal Improvement Act of 1836. The canal quickly tanked as a means of transportation but afterwards was tapped by the Indianapolis Water Co. as a source for ice, drinking water and industrial use. In some places near and through Downtown, the water company maintained the canal at a depth of more than 11 feet.

Something or somebody was always turning up in the canal. Aside from human bodies, horses (dead and alive) and cars were the most often found items – but purses, wallets, hats, a box of bonds from a bank robbery, and naked swimmers were also pulled from it. 

In 1903, several local newspapers reported the finding of the weirdest of all the weird items ever found floating or dumped in the canal – a box of snakes. The Indianapolis Journal wrote on Aug. 6, that at a location near the canal aqueduct over Fall Creek (north of 21st St), “Patrolmen Crabtree and Lee, neither of them drinking men, had an experience … that nearly turned Crabtree’s hair gray and robbed Lee of his power of speech and it is still a question which one of them can take the longest steps in the shortest period of time.”

The patrolmen saw a “suspicious looking” box floating along on the current and pulled it up to shore with some long poles. It was heavy but they got it onto the bank and “tore the lid off with their fingers.”

Inside: Snakes. “Long snakes and short, striped, spotted, big and little.” With long sticks the officers poked and prodded enough to see that the slimy snakes were “in a comatose state, maybe dead.”

By this time a crowd had gathered and one of the men, who wasn’t afraid of snakes, began to pick them up out of the box and lay them on the ground one by one. The longest reptile “measured over 12 feet from head to tail and was fully four inches in diameter. The shortest one, a striped, venomous-looking viper, was fully five feet in length.” There were 10 snakes in that box, and they were not your everyday Indiana snakes; they were “the finest grade of imported snakes,” said the Journal.

This strange finding got stranger when the officers saw inside of the big wooden box a smaller box holding a sponge saturated in chloroform. After that, they weren’t sure if the snakes were just knocked out by the chemical or dead, and they did not want to find out by carrying a box of snakes to the police headquarters.  Andrew Reinhardt, the proprietor of the nearby Brighton Beach Roadhouse, agreed to keep the box of snakes on ice until they were needed as evidence in court.

The police speculated that the snakes were stolen from a circus or an amusement park and dumped when the unsuspecting thief opened the box and discovered what was inside and he “threw his booty into the canal.” But they were wrong.

By Aug. 8, The Indianapolis Star reported the name of the owner of the snakes was Horace Goodyear, the proprietor of the Ping-Pong Saloon at 738 Massachusetts Ave. (an address that no longer exists). Adding some more weirdness to the already strange story, The Star reported that he kept the snakes in the window of his saloon “until the public tired of them,” then he put them in the box with the chloroform and dumped them into the canal at Brighton Beach, an area along the canal with a reputation for its saloons, illegal gambling and other sketchy activities.

The police issued a warrant for Goodyear’s arrest.

It was not until a month later, on Sept. 7, 1903, the Indianapolis Journal reported, that a patrolman arrested Goodyear for the snakescapade. That same day, The Star reported that Goodyear had given himself up at the police station. Apparently Goodyear admitted that he had owned several snakes “meeting the description of those found in the canal,” but “he did not kill them or throw them into the stream. He sold them to a man who said he was in the show business.”

Goodyear also told police that he had planned to “go into the snake show business” himself. “I had a man up in the northern part of the state that was going to eat snakes for me, but I could not get all of the snakes I wanted. Those snakes cost me $67 and I sold ten of them for $45, he lamented. He had originally had a dozen snakes, but “I killed two of them because they were unmanageable,” he told the police.

Meanwhile, Andrew Reinhardt, the Brighton Beach Roadhouse owner who had kept the snakes on ice for nearly a month, eventually gave them to Hugh Raymond of Woodruff Place, who had skinned them for belt leather. Raymond helpfully offered the skins for evidence, but there is no evidence in newspapers that the police pursued the case in court.

However, Goodyear does reappear in The Star on March 4, 1904. He was again arrested after he got drunk and started a knife fight with his bartender at the Ping-Pong Saloon before going on to try to bust up the place when his wife locked him out of their apartment over the bar. Police took Goodyear and his bartender off to jail.

Three weeks later, on March 28, 1904, The News reported that a storm caused a huge flood in the city causing a sycamore tree to crash onto the canal aqueduct and destroy it. The Water Company was immediately at work cleaning up the mess and making the canal “a thing of beauty.” It was seven years later before the next body was reported dumped in the canal. n

Connie Zeigler holds a master’s degree in history. She enjoys digging up a surprising, forgotten story and sharing, in this case, her reptilian findings with Urban Times readers.

PHOTO ABOVE: This colorized photo shows the Fall Creek Aqueduct , built in 1909 to allow the Central Canal to cross under Fall Creek. INDIANAPOLIS HISTORICAL SOCIETY