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The Gila monster, left, has been a favorite subject of storytellers from the Old West through the modern age. (Gila image courtesy Richard Lapidus Collection)

‘Eastern people who have never seen one of these monsters should not fail to inspect his Aztecship, for they might accidentally stumble upon one some fine day and get badly frightened’

The Gila monster was supposed to be dead. Walter Vail, owner of the sprawling Empire Ranch southeast of Tucson, Arizona Territory, was certain he’d killed it. He’d then tied it to the back of his saddle, intent on showing it to an acquaintance who’d never seen one. But then Vail’s saddle had come loose, and when he reached around to check it, the lizard clamped down on the middle finger of his right hand and held on tight. A ranch hand forced open the Gila monster’s mouth with a pocketknife. He then tied saddle strings around Vail’s finger and wrist and cut open the finger to make it bleed. Others summoned Dr. J.C. Handy from Tucson, who met Vail at Pantano. Handy replaced the string tourniquets with rubber bands and returned to Tucson with his patient for further treatment and observation.

For several years after that May 8, 1890, encounter with a Gila monster Vail suffered from swollen and bleeding glands in his throat. Rumor had it that residual effects of the lizard’s venom contributed to Vail’s death 16 years later. In fact, the Arizona Territory pioneer was struck and killed by a streetcar in Los Angeles.

The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is the only venomous lizard native to the United States, but its reputation as a cold-blooded man-killer (in part triggered by the “monster” label) is as overblown as that of most Old West gunfighters. The shy and slow nocturnal creature, which still inhabits the Gila River valley in Arizona and New Mexico among other places in the Southwest, has been the source of endless folklore and exaggerated claims, not unlike Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Just check out (well, maybe you won’t want to actually watch it) the 1959 sci-fi cult classic The Giant Gila Monster, about an oversized killer lizard that terrorizes a rural Texas community—a reptilian John Wesley Hardin, you might say.

In 1881 Tombstone, back in the days of the Earp brothers and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, physician and town coroner Dr. George Emory Goodfellow did “assessment work,” as he termed the required autopsy, on a shooting victim named McIntyre. “The body was rich in lead but too badly punctured to hold whiskey,” he reported, tongue in cheek. On top of his many medical accomplishments, this well-liked doctor would be among the first to assess the effects of Gila monster venom. Goodfellow’s fascination with the Gila monster may have been piqued by such exaggerated and erroneous reports as this one from the May 14, 1881, Tombstone Epitaph:

This is a monster as is a monster, and no baby at that, it being probably the largest specimen ever captured in Arizona. It is 27 inches long and weighs 35 pounds. It was caught by H.C. Hiatt on the road between Tombstone and Grand Central Mill and was purchased by Messrs. Ed Baker and Charles Eastman, who now have it on exhibition at Kelley’s Wine House, next door above Grand Hotel, Allen Street. Eastern people who have never seen one of these monsters should not fail to inspect his Aztecship, for they might accidentally stumble upon one some fine day and get badly frightened, except they know what it is. They are beautiful pets, they are.

Among the many widely believed myths concerning the Gila monster in pioneer days (and even now) are that the lizard has foul or toxic breath and that its bite is fatal. Scientific American had this to say in 1890: “The breath is very fetid, and its odor can be detected at some little distance from the lizard. It is supposed that this is one way in which the monster catches the insects and small animals which form a part of its food supply—the foul gas overcoming them.” That same year The Arizona Star stated, “[The Gila monster] has the habit, too, of throwing its tongue out like a snake, and its bite is very poisonous and always fatal.”

Dr. Goodfellow heard such accounts and offered to pay $5 for Gila monster specimens. He obtained several through purchase and also collected a few on his own. In 1891 he induced one into biting him on the finger so he could analyze the effects. The bite forced him into bed for five days, but he completely recovered. The doctor’s conclusions were clearly weighted on the side of the lizard. “The belief in the [deadly] poisonous nature of the lizard [is] purely mythical and superstitious, the remnant of primitive man’s antagonism to all creepy things.”

Goodfellow released most of the study specimens but kept a few around as pets for his daughter. His keen interest in the lizard led him to become one of the country’s foremost experts. But myths about the Gila monster did not die easily, as is evident from a Tucson resident’s letter published in the March 23, 1907, Scientific American:

Old settlers here know of many cases of Gila monster poisoning, in which the effect was death. I believe that the bite of the Gila monster is dangerous because of the creature’s habit of eating lizards, bugs and rodents and then lying on the sand so hot that it blisters the hands and feet. The heat causes the food to putrefy in the stomach, evidenced by the fact that the teeth are often covered with a fermented, putrefied froth from the food. A bite has the same effect as the cut of a dissecting knife used on a cadaver, in other words, the inoculation of a deadly poison.

Goodfellow responded with his own letter to the editor, published the following week in Scientific American. The doctor mentioned his personal experiences with the Gila monster and his studies of its bite. He concluded that secretions from the lizard are not poisonous, and that it took neither a crowbar nor a hatchet to pry its jaws apart, “merely a strong pull.” He insisted he had known of several people bitten by Gila monsters, and none had died from the bite. In one instance his autopsy demonstrated that an alleged Gila monster victim had died of something else: “Cirrhosis of the liver, ascites, fatty heart, etc., and his history evidenced the cause of his death to be acute alcoholic poisoning grafted upon chronic alcoholism,” Goodfellow wrote.

Among Western Indians the Gila monster has a mixed reputation. It is prominent among desert animals depicted on Indian baskets and pottery. Ancient petroglyphs show the Gila monster individually and in numbers. The Tohono O’odhams and Pimas considered it to possess a spiritual power capable of causing sickness, while the Apaches believed that its breath could be fatal. In sharp contrast, the Seris and Yaquis believed in the healing power of the Gila monster’s hide.

Perhaps the most surprising ceremony involving the Gila monster originated with Mormons rather than Indians. It is detailed in the June 16, 1881, Tombstone Epitaph, which reprinted a story from the Pioche Daily Record. Gila monsters, the story says, were rare in the vicinity of Panaca because Mormons killed them “for the purpose of obtaining oil from their fatty flesh.” After killing a Gila monster, the Mormons would send it to St. George, Utah Territory, there to be deposited into a huge boiler and poached for three days. The Mormons then skimmed the resulting oil and ladled it into earthenware jars. The story explains its use:

Mormons stricken with remorse congregate from different parts of Utah Territory to this [St. George] temple during the conference. Then may be seen the oil, which is religiously preserved, cast on the water by the officiating bishop, while poor, deluded men and women avail themselves of its efficiency—as they imagine—by entering this tank and bathing in it, thus believing by so doing they are entitled to a corner in heaven.

The Gila monster also made an interesting subject for pioneer photographers. Maybe it was the allure of a creature with a dangerous reputation. Perhaps its custom of moving slowly made it an easy subject. Or possibly it was the Gila monster’s unique look or its predominantly Arizona Territory habitat. Whatever the reason, photographers snapped scores of pictures of living specimens or laid-out dead ones, both in the field and in studios. By the turn of the 20th century such images had spread nationwide on cabinet cards, stereo cards and postcards. Although one can occasionally find early images of horned lizards, it is rare to find pictures of chuckwallas, whiptails, swifts or collareds. The Gila monster remains Arizona’s most photographed lizard. It is as representative of Arizona wildlife as the saguaro cactus is of its plants.

As with most other legendary Western characters, it is interesting to separate Gila monster myths from Gila monster facts. Its bite is always fatal (myth). When it bites, it will not let go until sundown or until it thunders (myth). It lacks an anal opening and thus has no means of excretion except by regurgitation, which leads to a fermentation of waste material on its teeth and a much more dangerous bite (myth). It has poisonous breath (myth). As its venom glands are in its lower jaw, it must flip onto its back when biting to introduce the venom (partial myth—while the venom is produced in glands in its lower jaw, a Gila monster can work venom into a wound by chewing).

Some facts about the Gila monster: It is one of only a few species of venomous lizards in the world. It does not have fangs (hollow teeth) like a venomous snake but grooves in its lower teeth that channel the venom. It is North America’s largest lizard, reaching up to 2 feet in length and weighing up to 5 pounds (not 35 pounds, as in the 1881 Tombstone Epitaph account). Although the Gila monster’s bite is extremely painful, none have resulted in a verifiable human fatality to a healthy person. It is easily identified by its bright pink, orange or red markings against jet-black bumpy or beaded skin. It feeds primarily on eggs and small mammals. Researchers have identified components in its venom effective in treating type 2 diabetes. Most people will never see a Gila monster outside a zoo or exhibit. Its numbers are declining due to habitat destruction caused by overgrazing and farming. The state of Arizona considers the Gila monster an endangered species and has protected it by law.

To this day, despite the findings of Doc Goodfellow and experts who followed, people largely regard the Gila monster as interesting but dangerous. Yet clearly it is a monster in name only. Sluggish and slow moving, it attacks people only in its own defense. As with snakes, sharks, bats, spiders and other creatures with dangerous reputations, the Gila monster’s mystique and our fear stem more from erroneous reports and handed-down stories than reality.

California-based author Richard Lapidus saw his first lizard at age 3 and remains fascinated by reptiles, amphibians and Western history. He wrote the memoir Snake Hunting on the Devil’s Highway (2006). Suggested for further reading: Dr. Goodfellow: Physician to the Gunfighters, Scholar and Bon Vivant, by Don Chaput, and Gila Monster: Facts and Folklore of America’s Aztec Lizard, by David Brown and Neil Carmony.