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What do York’s Penn Common alligators and a well-known 20th century snake oil salesman have in common?

Worthe’s Snake Oil and Pioneer Oil bottles (private collection)

What started out to be a story just on the Penn Park alligators took some interesting twists. According to a 1930 newspaper account there were alligators in the park in the early 1900s and again starting in 1930. From what people have been telling me, the latter group was there until around 1945. Just as I was about to submit my Penn Park alligator column, a friend shared another clipping identifying the mysterious alligator supplier and snake oil entrepreneur as a native Yorker using a flashier show business name.

See below for the whole recent York Sunday News column, and please let me know through the comment section if you remember more about the alligators or G. Tex Worthe and his snake oil.

Remember the alligators in Penn Park?

I keep hearing tales of alligators in a pool in Penn Park. Friends who attended York High in the 1930s and 1940s remember them well, but I could not find much about them. One friend says there were several in the fenced pool in the late 1930s, and he has been told that at some period they may have been wintered over in a building north of Route 30. The alligators’ snouts were reportedly secured by large rubber bands cut from inner tubes for transport and cleaning the pool. (I can’t see people standing in line for that job.)

There is a mention in the York Daily in 1898, at the time of the dedication of the large Rebecca fountain. It says: “An alligator, thirteen feet long, will be one of the additions.” It sounded like it would be in the four feet deep open basin of the fountain, perhaps not a good idea for alligators or human spectators. Thirteen feet is also a lot of alligator for a public park.

At the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives I found two slim volumes indexing the York Dispatch. They were produced in the early 1970s by York College professors G.A. Mellander and Carl A. Hatch and students and subtitled The Depression 1930s and The War Torn 1940s. They are not comprehensive, but still contain a wealth of information. An entry under alligators sent me to the May 3, 1930 newspaper microfilm. It read:

“Alligators Placed in Concrete Pool on Penn Common

Construction of a concrete pool, enclosed under a screen of strong wire mesh, on Penn Common, has mystified the public as to the use it was to be put to. Councilman V.K. Dayhoff, superintendent of parks, would not tell. Park employees did not know.

Today the secret of the pool’s use was revealed when three live alligators were placed in it. Two of the gators were loaned to Councilman Dayhoff for the exhibit by G. Tex Worthe, 438 South George Street, proprietor of medicine shows, who exhibits the saurian in his shows in winter. The one alligator is very ferocious and measures 48 inches. He has a record of killing others of his kind. The other measures 40 inches from snout to tail.

The third reptile, loaned to the city by Harry D. Zeigler, 616 West Market Street, is 32 inches long and is 40 years old. It is very tame and docile and has been a pet in the Zeigler home. The pool with its display of gators is located just west of the Kopp fountain and undoubtedly will prove a big attraction.

It is 14 years since alligators have been exhibited on Penn Common. Councilman Dayhoff, when he was a city gardener, often was asked why there were no facilities for keeping them. They could not be placed in the basins of fountains as they would eat the fish. So Councilman Dayhoff decided that one of the improvements needed on Penn Common was a pool for alligators. He has provided it.

In a tub placed in the center of the pool tropical plants are growing. There is space surrounding the pool where the gators can be on the grass and sun themselves. Their food will be beef lights [lungs] and liver served raw and occasionally live fish.”

As entertaining and informative as it is, this newspaper story raises more questions:
Can you imagine a councilman/park superintendent surprising everyone with a pool of alligators? Did the four feet long killer alligator immediately have the smaller, docile old alligator for lunch? Did the city have beef lungs, liver and live fish in its budget? What had happened to the earlier alligator/alligators that ceased to be on display about 1916 and did they to the large alligator mentioned in the 1898 Daily? Who is G. Tex Worthe and what were he and his alligators doing in York?

There are still a lot of questions to be answered, but there is a good bit of information online on G. Tex Worthe. According to out-of-town newspaper articles and Billboard magazine, G[eorge] Tex Worthe travelled all over the country from the 1910s up into the 1950s with his medicine shows. He brought along entertainers and sold “Worthe’s Famous Pioneer Oil, Formerly Known as Snake Oil.” The oil was advertised to treat or cure “weak limbs, stiff joints, colds & inflammation, rheumatism & lumbago, toothache & sore throat, catarrh, deafness & all head noises, neuralgia, hay fever & asthma, influenza & pneumonia, piles (itching, bleeding or protruding), swelling, unnatural growths, paralysis, bruises, sores and wounds.”

The product was supposedly “rendered from DIAMOND BACK RATTLESNAKE FAT and other oils.” One of Worthe’s ads, written as news article about his demonstrations of milking venom in Reading, Pa., says that he raised thousands of rattlers on his snake farm in Brownsville, Texas for the raw materials.

Besides the medicine shows, over the years Worthe trained military personnel in handling snakes and showed his snakes at venues such as high school assemblies. The venom he extracted was used to manufacture serums to help treat “nervous disorders” as well as for snake bite victims.

The family of his wife, Lillian Harner, lived in Tremont, Schuylkill County, Pa. and Tex and Lillian seemed to be based there much of the time when they weren’t on the road. His 1942 World War II Draft registration gives his residence as Tremont, stating that he was born June 10, 1891 in York, Pa. He filled in the blank for: “Name & address of person who knows where you are:” with Mary Shenberger, 438 S. George St., York. That’s the address the Dispatch used when he loaned the alligators in 1930. A short article in the April 21, 1932 Dispatch tells of the park alligators awakening for another season at the Shenberger house; it also reveals that “Doc Worthe” is really George Shenberger.

The addresses of the G. Tex Worthe company at the bottom of labels of his Pioneer Oil/Snake Oil are “Brownsville, Tex.” and “P.O. Box 332, York, Pa.” I wonder about the reality of that rattlesnake farm in Texas.

Please let me know of any further information on Penn Park’s alligators or G. Tex Worthe (George Shenberger) and his snake oil.

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