Mithradates of Fond du Lac

image

Kent Russell’s essay on spending a weekend with the only person on Earth who can survive five venomous snakebites in 48 hours. Originally from the June 2013 issue, now available to read in full on Longform.

On the way were still more beers, the night being young in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and Tim’s blood stanching where the cobra had bitten him. He wanded a good finger over the restaurant’s menu pictures and told me, “If it was you, dude, you’d be dead in this Applebee’s.”

If it was anyone else on this earth, they’d be dead. The African water cobra that had tagged him two hours earlier is so rare a specimen that no antivenom for it currently exists. Yet cobra bite and lagers notwithstanding, Tim looked fresh; he was well on his way to becoming the first documented survivor of that snake’s bite.

“Which reminds me,” he said from across the table, taking out his phone so I could snap a picture of his bloody hand. “For posterity. After tonight, every book is fucking wrong.”

It was on my account that he had done this, willfully accept the bite. Even though we’d only shaken hands that bright winter afternoon in the salted parking lot of a Days Inn. Tim Friede, the man from the Internet who claimed to have made himself immune to the planet’s deadliest serpents. I’d come to test his mettle, to goad him into an unprecedented ordeal: five venomous snakebites in forty-eight hours.

Around us, young people were getting unwound in a hurry. The hour was fast approaching when the restaurant would flip off the APPLE portion of its lighted sign, clear out the tables and chairs, turn the edited jams to eleven, and allow for boner grinding on the floor space. Our server returned with the beers, and Tim looked up at her with his serous blue eyes, smiling, and said, “You never did card me. You have to guess.” She demurred. He continued: “I could be your dad.”

While Tim fumbled for an in with her, I considered the swollen hand he propped next to his head. Two streams of blood had rilled down and around his wrist bone, reading like an open quote. He was a dad’s age, forty-four years old, that much was correct. But he appeared both strangely boyish and grizzled. He had an eager smile of small, square teeth and a platinum buzzcut. The skin over his face was very taut; it looked sand-scoured, warm to the touch. Scar tissue and protuberant veins crosshatched his thin forearms, which he now covered by rolling down the sleeves of two dingy long-sleeve T-shirts. His neck was seamed from python teeth.

The snake that had done his twilight envenoming was Naja annulata, about six feet long and as thick as elbow pipe. She was banded in gold and black, a design not unlike that of the Miller Genuine Draft cans we’d bought and then housed on our way to Tim’s makeshift laboratory. When we walked in, the snake was shrugging smoothly along the walls of her four-by-two plastic tank. She was vermiform mercury. And she greeted us with a hiss, a sourceless, sort of circular sizzle, what one would hear if one suddenly found oneself in the center of a hot skillet.

Kissing-distance past my reflection in the glass, the cobra induced in me a nightmare inertia of attraction and revulsion. She had not spirals but eclipses for eyes.

“I love watching death like this,” Tim had said, leaning in, startling me. “Some nights I watch them all night, like fish. Mesmerizing.”

The cobra was one of a $1,500 pair he’d just shipped in, Tim preferring to spend most of what he earns—working the 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. line shift at Oshkosh Truck—on his snakes. The thing nosed under an overturned Tupperware container while I checked her CV on my phone. Her venom? A touch more potent than arsenic trisulfide. Tim unlatched the front of her tank, reached in, and was perforated before he knew it. The cobra flew at him with her mouth open and body lank, like a harpoon trailing rope.

“Ho ho, that’s just beautiful,” Tim said, withdrawing his hand. There were two broken fangs stapled into his ring finger.

He picked up a beer with his other hand, cracked it expertly with his pointer. I glanced around at all the other caged ampersands—mambas, vipers, rattlesnakes—and I smiled. Rosy constellations of Tim’s blood pipped onto the linoleum, shining brighter than old dead ones.

•••

A little while ago, I was searching the web for the man who best embodied the dictum, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” I was looking for him who thought he’d succeeded in fortifying his inborn weaknesses. Who believed he had bunged the holes left by God.

I discovered Tim among the self-immunizers. The self-immunizers are a far-flung community of white, Western men – a few dozen of them – who systematically shoot up increasing doses of exotic venoms, so as to inure their immune systems to the effects. Many of these men handle venomous snakes for business or pleasure, so there’s a practical benefit to their regimen. A few prefer instead to work their way from snakes to scorpions to spiders, voiding creatures’ power over them. Most seem to be autodidacts of the sort whose minds recoil at the notion of a limitation deliberately accepted—something I sympathized with, being myself an unfinished, trial creature. On their message boards, Tim talked the biggest medicine.

Their practice has a great old name: mithridatism. It comes from Mithradates VI of Pontus, a.k.a. “the Poison King.” In his lifetime, Mithradates was the last independent monarch to stand against Rome. He tried to unite Hellenic and Black Sea cultures into a neo-Alexandrian empire that might resist the Western one. For a moment, he was successful. Rome was forced to march against and attempt to occupy the Middle East because of him. The Roman Senate declared him imperial enemy number one. A ruthless general was dispatched to search and destroy. Mithradates went uncaptured, hiding out in the craggy steppes.

Machiavelli deemed him a hero. Racine wrote him a tragedy. A fourteen-year-old Mozart composed an opera about him. A. E. Housman eulogized what was most remarkable about Mithradates:

They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up.

Like any despot, Mithradates inverted humanity’s basic psychic task and made insecurity less, not more, tolerable. He trusted no one, and in anticipation of conspiracy and betrayal, he bricked up his body into an impenetrable fortress. Each morning he took a personal cure-all tablet that included things like cinnamon, castor musk from beaver anuses, tannin, garlic, bits of poisonous skinks and salamanders, curdled milk, arsenic, rhubarb from the Volga, toxic honey, Saint-John’s-wort, the poison blood of pontic ducks, opium, and snake venom. His piecemeal inoculation worked so well that, when finally cornered, Mithradates was unable to poison himself. According to Appian’s Roman History, he begged his guard to murder him, saying, “Although I have kept watch and ward against all the poisons that one takes with his food, I have not provided against that domestic poison, always the most dangerous to kings, the treachery of army, children, and friends.”

The official recipe for his mithridatium was lost. But from Nero onward, every Roman emperor ingested a version of the Poison King’s antidote. Some had thirty-six ingredients; others as many as one hundred eighty-four. Charlemagne took it daily, as did Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Renaissance poor had their generic versions. Oliver Cromwell found it cleared his skin. London physicians prescribed it until 1786. You could buy it in Rome as recently as 1984. It was believed to kill the helplessness in your constitution. It’s our longest-lived panacea.

Read the full piece on Longform.