In October 1852, Edward Horatio Girling, an employee of London Zoo, died after being bitten by a five-foot cobra. A post mortem on Girling’s corpse showed the cobra had bitten him five times on the nose. One of these bites had penetrated to the nasal bone and bled profusely.
Girling was rushed to hospital by cab, a journey that took 20 minutes. While in the cab his head swelled to “an enormous size” and his face turned black. In the hospital, Girling was given artificial respiration and electrical shocks. Neither was successful and he died 35 minutes after arrival.
A subsequent inquest investigated how Girling had come to be bitten in such a fashion. Early press reports put it down to a homicidal serpent. One suggested the cobra had bitten its victim him with “murderous intent”, another had it lunging from the shadows while Girling was delivering food to the enclosure.
It did not take long, however, for the inquest to learn that Girling was responsible for his own demise. One of Girling’s work colleagues, Edward Stewart the hummingbird keeper, testified at the inquest. He claimed to be passing by the snake enclosure with a basket of larks when he saw Girling inside. Apparently showing off, Girling picked up the ‘Bocco’, a mildly venomous colubrid snake, by its neck. According to Stewart:
“Girling then said ‘Now for the cobra!’ Deceased took the cobra out of the case and put it inside his waistcoat, it crawled round from the right side and came out at the left side… Girling drew it out and was holding the cobra between the head and middle of the body when it made a dart at his face.”
Stewart and other witnesses also testified that Girling had been seen drinking ample quantities of gin at breakfast time. A zookeeper named Baker told the inquest “he believed that the deceased was intoxicated”. It was also noted that Girling had little if any experience with venomous snakes. A supervisor noted that Girling had only recently started working at the zoo after employment with the railways.
Unsurprisingly, the coroner found that Girling had died as a “result of his own rashness whilst in a state of intoxication”. The fate of the fatal cobra was not recorded for posterity.