The Daily Mirror

Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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June 9, 1958

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Dropcap_a2 bove, yes, such things really happened. Anybody who thinks the past was a "kinder, simpler time" needs to revisit their history lessons ... At left, an interesting figure is back in the news: The late Robert S. "Rattlesnake" James, the last man to be executed by hanging in California.

On Aug. 4, 1935, James tried to kill his wife, Mary, by putting her foot into a box of rattlesnakes after tying her to a table in their La Crescenta home. Although the snakes bit her, she didn't die, so James drowned her in a backyard fish pond. (Does the fish pond part sound familiar?) The man in the news is Johannssen C. Houtenbrink, alias "Snake Joe," who sold James the rattlesnakes that were to be the murder weapon. Houtenbrink was bitten by one of the 200 snakes he kept at his home, 2414 N. San Gabriel Blvd., South San Gabriel. (Note: Google maps doesn't like this address). Snake Joe recovered, only to be bitten again in 1959.


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Comments (2)

The section of San Gabriel Boulevard on which Snake Joe's Anaconda Reptile Farm was located was long ago annexed by the City of Rosemead. Use the address 2414 San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead, CA to fetch the (more or less) correct location.

The area has changed pretty drastically since Joe's day. As I recall, Joe's building sat lower than the street, and back a ways, and the front was built like a greenhouse. It looked very fragile. I'm sure that building is gone. I lived about four blocks from it until I was six years old, and I would sometimes have nightmares in which escaped snakes would come into my room as I slept and bite me.

If you do a Google search on "Anaconda Snake Farm" you'll get a digitized version of a periodical from 1946-47 called Harry Oliver's Desert Rat Scrap Book (a fascinating relic in its own right) where, near the bottom of the web page, there's a text ad for the snake farm. The address then was 3022 San Gabriel Avenue, Garvey, CA, but it was the same place.

By 1958, we'd moved to another neighborhood, and it may be for that reason that this is the first I recall ever hearing about the unfortunate demise of Snake Joe. Or maybe I heard about it then, but have repressed it. I never have been overly fond of serpents.

That Google search should be on "Anaconda Reptile Farm", actually. And, on another reading, I see that Snake Joe didn't die of that bite. I'm sure he's dead by now, though, of whatever cause. RIP, Joe, despite the childhood nightmares your snakes gave me.


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