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Posted on 3 Sep 2019 in Non-Fiction |

JOHN CANN with JIMMY THOMSON The Last Snake Man. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

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A dangerous way to make a living: John Cann’s autobiography tells the story of his life as a professional snake handler.

George Cann was a snakey – a snake handler – all his life. His son John grew up to be a snakey too. One time, heading home after a snaking trip along the Murray River, they discovered the brakes on their truck were out. That’s when they noticed a five-foot brown snake, fangs bared, coming up right behind their heads. John recalls his father’s response:

Quick as a flash, the old man whipped his hat off and flicked it sideways at the snake, which bit into the brim.  

The next thing, Dad threw the snake at the windscreen. I was already scared, but when the snake hit the windscreen and dropped into my lap, I was petrified.

With the brakes out, they couldn’t stop. They managed to get the snake’s head out the window, pinning it there until they could gear down, get out, and put the snake back in its bag. ‘We laughed and laughed even though that thing could have bitten us a hundred times.’

John Cann’s autobiography, The Last Snake Man, is full of a lifetime of snakey stories. It also charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century. Cann strings together anecdotes as though sitting down with the reader over beers, his delivery marked by understated blokeyness. His lingo is filled with Australianisms: deadset legends, copped it sweet, yobbo.

John is sometimes called the Snake Man of La Perouse, but it was his father George who made the shows a fixture at La Pa.  An older man named Professor Fox, one of the most famous snakeys in the world, gave the first show in 1897, the year George was born. At the time La Perouse was an Aboriginal area, and a holiday spot for workers from Sydney. The La Pa Loop was the end of the tram line, with a view out to the ocean over Congwong and Frenchmans Beaches, and the perfect spot to capture a crowd’s attention.

John Cann’s earlier books, Historical Snakeys and Snakes Alive, detail the history of snake shows in Australia, starting with ‘Professor’ Fox (he awarded himself the title). These early snake shows focused on entertainment in order to drive snake-oil sales, the ‘highly dubious potions’ that the sellers claimed cured snake bite.

By the age of 10, George Cann was ‘a real runabout’. He discovered the joy of snaking when he met a man in the bush named Snakey George. When the younger George got into trouble for bringing snakes home, he ran away, bought a square canvas snake pit, and began his working life showing snakes at Hatte’s Arcade, a Newtown landmark at the time. Later he would meet the Professor and many others in the snake trade.

Snakeys had a high professional death rate, especially in those days when some performers would put a snake’s head in their own mouth while wrapping a second snake around themselves. One man, Garnett See, died of a brown snake bite during his first performance. Professor Fox died in India after receiving five bites from a cobra. The potions they sold did little if anything. Generally performers survived by building up a tolerance to snake venom. After a bite from a tiger snake in 1915, George Cann spent nearly three weeks with his limbs paralysed.

That bite and others over the years built up the antibodies that kept him alive when so many of his peers were not so lucky.

John notes, however, that his father:

… suffered considerable pain and discomfort, such as when a large brown bit him on the nose at the 1924 Adelaide Show. When people asked if he was sick, Mum replied, ‘Of course he was sick. He was always sick from snakebite.’ He was once blind for three days after a tiger snake bit him on the knee.

After military service in France during World War I, George returned to Sydney to register his claim at the La Pa Loop, where he ran snake shows for decades before passing the tradition down to his sons, John and George Junior. Over the years, the weekly shows shifted to a naturalist focus.

John’s mother was also a snakey. Known as ‘Cleopatra, Queen of the Snakes’, Essie Bradley was born in Hobart in 1907 and met George, her future husband, on the travelling snake show circuit. Snake women weren’t uncommon at the time. They ‘held a particular fascination, as the more daring of them also doubled as striptease artists’.  John is quick to point out that his mother wasn’t one of these salacious snake dancers. When George and Essie married, her performing days ended.

John was born in 1938 and grew up with an above-ground snake pit in his backyard, filled with as many as 300 snakes, most of which were regularly milked for venom. The Canns sold the venom to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, which used it to produce antivenom.

While his earliest memories are of snaking, John’s life wasn’t solely devoted to snakes. He competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, when the athletes were all amateurs with full-time jobs. His training regime included a middy of beer each day to increase his appetite. Due to an injury, he came tenth in the decathlon, but his proudest Olympic achievement was stealing the Russian, US, and UK flags during the games.

John played many sports, including boxing, gridiron, and even sheaf-throwing, a competition that involves heaving a nine-kilogram sheaf of hay over a bar with a pitchfork. But during a rugby league match, a vertebrae in his neck broke, and he ended up first in traction, then in a cast from his waist to the top of his head, with only a hole for his ears and face. The injury ended his sporting career.

He devoted his free time to becoming a self-taught world expert on turtles, and went on to write several books on Australian turtle species. He devotes a chapter of The Last Snake Man to tracing his 25-year search for the natural habitat of the short-neck alpha turtle, which took him all over Australia.

Throughout the book, John also touches on the many jobs he had, including working on an oil rig and at a tobacco factory, running a jackhammer, and installing car-washing equipment. He spent six months in the jungles of New Guinea collecting animals for American zoos. He once provided a bird-eating spider for a Hollywood production filming in Queensland, and when the stuntman refused to film a scene with the spider crawling over him, John took the role.

His wife Helen, ‘a good-looking sort’, was never interested in snakes. She ‘wasn’t too impressed’ at his decision to go snaking on their honeymoon, and was likely even less impressed when he took a bite from a tiger snake on that trip. Helen often worried about John. Unlike his father, who became immune to tiger-snake bites, John developed an allergy to both snake venom and antivenom, and ended up in hospital after various bites. At one point doctors recommend he give up snaking before it was too late. ‘But I kept going for another 17 years, much to the frustration of my family.’

John received the Order of Australia in 1992 for his ‘contributions to turtle research, conservation, the environment and the community,’ but as he notes, ‘it was Helen who deserved a medal’.

The Last Snake Man includes two appendices, one providing biographical summaries of some of ‘Australia’s Great Snakeys’, including Professor Fox. The second lists the turtles John discovered and named.

The chapters exploring his turtle quest, his work life and sporting years have interesting moments, as anyone’s life does. It’s John’s life as a snakey, however, in the tradition passed down from his father, that makes his story extraordinary. The snakes are the true stars, and readers never know when the next venomous bite or dramatic snake encounter is coming.

Although John Cann gave his last show in 2010, members of the herpetological society still run the snake shows every Sunday at La Perouse.

John Cann with Jimmy Thomson The Last Snake Man Allen & Unwin 2018 PB 320pp $32.99

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of My Name is Revenge, a finalist in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing also appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, the Australian, the Big Issue, and Kill Your Darlings. Find her at

You can buy The Last Snake Man from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.