See The World’s Longest Snake And A Live Gator At America’s Scariest Haunted House

world's longest snakeThere are thousands of haunted house attractions that open up in cities around the country each year around this time but there’s only one place where you can see the world’s longest snake in captivity, nearly get your leg chomped off by a live alligator and slide five stories from heaven to purgatory to hell. Kansas City’s “The Edge of Hell” claims to be the country’s oldest commercial haunted attraction and some think that it, and its sister attraction, “The Beast,” are the scariest haunted houses in the nation.

When I saw a photo of Medusa, who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest snake in captivity, I had to find out more about her and the other attractions at this place. I spoke to Amber Arnett-Bequeaith, whose family owns “The Edge of Hell,” about Medua, Clamp the Alligator and why people still love haunted houses.

How old is Medusa?

She’s 8. We got her as a baby; she was tiny. She weighs over 350 pounds. It takes 15-18 people to get her out and hold her.

Why would you want to do that?

She likes to go for walks in the park sometimes. Only in the summer when it’s very warm. And we get her out for media events. She has a lifestyle cage where she lives in the offseason and she’s in “The Edge of Hell” show during the season.

world's longest snake medusaA lifestyle cage?

(Laughs) She has her own slide. “The Edge of Hell” has a five-story slide where you go from heaven to hell. She has her own slide where she goes down to swim. She loves swimming and she likes to climb trees at the park.

You bring a 25-foot-long snake and let her slither around in public parks? Is that legal?

It’s not a public park; it’s a private area.

What kind of snake is she?

She’s a reticulated python.

Did you have any idea how big she’d get?

No. In captivity, snakes don’t usually eat regularly. But she wants to eat all the time. She’s very hungry. She loves to eat.

How big is she?

Twenty-five feet, two inches.

What does she eat?

She still eats rabbits, but they’re really small for her so she might have to eat 7 or 8 of them at a time. She’s graduated up to eating hogs, goats, deer. She really likes raccoons too.

Hogs, goats and deer? You drag an entire dead deer or hog into her cage for to eat?

No. Constrictors have to kill it themselves, otherwise they won’t eat it. We buy her organic hogs and organic food.

So you put the live animal inside the cage and just let her go at it? That sounds grisly, do you watch this unfold?

The trainer stays in there to make sure she doesn’t choke.

What’s he going to do, give her the Heimlich maneuver?

That’s what we always joke. I don’t know what he would do. Our trainer was made unconscious by a snake before. He passed out before he even knew he was in trouble. His wife saved him.

So does Medusa eat an entire hog or deer in one sitting?

Constrictors swallow hole, so she can’t eat half and save the rest for later. They don’t bite that way. She has to eat it all in one sitting and the lump moves down through her body.

How large an animal can she swallow?

She usually eats 50-75 pounds at a sitting. She needs at least a 50-pound meal about once a month, sometimes more.

And does she snack in between?

No. She just has the one big meal.

Where does she come from?

She comes from the Sulawesi Islands in Indonesia. The trainer bought her on the Internet, but you can’t do that any more.

She doesn’t just slither around the haunted house free does she?

I don’t know, you’ll have to come to the show (laughs). No, she has her own cage at “The Edge of Hell” and we’re open two months out of the year. Her cage is probably 20-by-20, but we’ll have to expand it next year because she’s getting too big for it.

How did she get big enough to make it into Guinness?

A combination of her eating habits and genes. Also, she’s very happy and just loves to eat.

Tell me about “The Edge of Hell.”

“The Edge of Hell” is the oldest commercial haunted attraction in the U.S. It opened in 1975 and this is our 38th season. It’s a family business. Before we did “The Edge of Hell,” we did one called “The Chambers of Edgar Allan Poe.” It got rave reviews and the next year we purchased the building and opened “The Edge of Hell.”

Is Medusa one of the things people like to see the most?

She’s something people look for. We study the psychology of fear. Every person scares differently and has their own adrenaline reaction to things. “The Edge of Hell” is a five-story warehouse building. The premise is that if you live on the edge, you’ll encounter these sorts of demons – rats, snakes, the hounds of hell, vampires. You get a glimpse of heaven, but unfortunately you made too many bad choices and you go to purgatory down the five-story slide and end up in hell. People gaze at her; she’s a beautiful beast. Mesmerizing.

Does she scare the crap out of people?

She does just by capturing their gaze.

Has she bitten anyone?

Oh no. I was bitten by a black snake when I was young but I still don’t have the snake phobia that others do. Sometimes she isn’t in a good mood when we get her out though. She gets nervous and has to go to the bathroom when people are taking pictures of her. But she’s very loving toward her trainer, Larry Elgar.

Is this something everyone likes to do at Halloween time, visit a haunted house?

It is. Especially here in Kansas City, with us being the oldest, and “The Beast” is really the best haunted attraction in the U.S. And we have “The Chambers of Edgar Allen Poe” and “The Macabre Cinema” and those are 501 3c’s for a local charity called the Dream Factory.

What’s The Beast”?


“The Beast” is patterned around time travel. You go into a Southern Louisiana mansion; you enter into a swamp where we have a live alligator. His name is Clamp. You look at this live alligator and proceed into the swamp and an animatronic alligator snaps at your leg. And then you go down a shoot slide to Jack Ripper’s London, and you’re in a pub.
And the werewolf forest is a quarter acre in size and over 10,000 square feet. In the old days, people looked over rails into attractions; we pioneered the open theme where you are inside the attractions. In “The Beast,” it’s all about the phobia of being lost. There are people who are in the werewolf forest for 45 minutes and can’t find their way out.

Tell me about Clamp.

He’s growing like a weed. We’ve had him since he was tiny. Now he’s 8 feet long. He’s very fond of chicken.

You throw him live chickens or give him breasts?

He likes all chicken parts. We don’t feed him anything live.

And how often does he eat?

He prefers to be fed regularly – every week. But Larry doesn’t worry about him choking on anything like he does Medusa. That’s his love.

And what does he do in the offseason?

He has a lifestyle cage as well but he’s a real bear about being transported. We have to wrap his mouth but he likes to swat around a lot. He’s funny like that.

[Photos courtesy of “The Edge of Hell” and Kevin Scott Ramos, Guinness Book of World Records]

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, A French Colonial Town In America’s Heartland

When we think of Colonial America, we generally think of the old parts of Boston, lovely New England port towns such as Marblehead, or Spanish colonial towns such as St. Augustine. America’s heartland has some colonial traces too. The best preserved and most distinct is the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Located about 60 miles south of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve was one of the first permanent European settlements in what is now Missouri. French settlers came here in the early 1730s. The first years were tough ones. The town was poorly situated on the Mississippi flood plain and often got soaked, leading the poor Frenchmen to nickname their town Misère, meaning “misery.”

The French were mostly from Canada and copied the architecture they were familiar with. Single-story houses had walls of vertical logs set into the earth and plastered in a style called poteaux-en-terre. A roof of wooden shingles extended past the walls to bring rain away from the house and a covered porch often ran all the way around the house.

Each lot was surrounded by a palisade of vertical logs to keep out the animals that strayed unattended around town. The tops of the logs were sharpened to keep out unwanted two-legged visitors as well. Inside each of these little forts was a yard, garden, barn and an outside kitchen, placed there to reduce the chance of a fire inside the house.

Ste. Genevieve did well as the center for the fur trade and many local farmers made extra income mining for lead and salt. When the region was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase it kept its French character. Even as recently as a hundred years ago some residents spoke French in the home.

As well as keeping their culture they preserved many of their distinctive colonial houses. While you won’t see buckskin-clad trappers hauling their loads of furs onto shore from canoes, or French farmers heading out into the uninhabited woods with a flintlock over their shoulder in search of meat for the pot, Ste. Genevieve retains a strong historic feel. Many of the original 18th-century homes are open as museums and are stocked with period furniture.

Ste. Genevieve makes a good day trip from St. Louis, and an even better overnight. Several 19th century homes have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts and the shopping district is well stocked with antiques and gift items.

Being a regional attraction means the town keeps a full events calendar, including occasional reenactments, so you might just get to see those French trappers and hunters after all.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.

Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.

In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.

In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.

%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.

This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.

Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.

Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.

Hannibal MO: The Town Mark Twain Has Kept On the Map

hannibal missouri mark twain museumI’m standing across from the Mark Twain Museum Gallery in Hannibal, Missouri, waiting for a “Mark Twain” taxi to let me cross the street. To my right, I can see the Mark Twain Hotel, opened in 1905 and now a home for seniors, and the Mark Twain Print Shop. To the left, is the Mark Twain Dinette, a theater featuring a Mark Twain impersonator, the Twain Town souvenir shop, the Twain boyhood home, the Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall, the Mark Twain Book & Gift Shop, the Huckleberry Finn House and the Tom and Huck statue.

Straight ahead are the Mississippi River and the Mark Twain Riverboat. The main drag is called Main Street, but it should be called Twain Street. Did you know that Samuel Clemens, the boy who became Mark Twain, grew up in Hannibal, Missouri? You sure would if you visited this old Mississippi River town, which capitalizes on the association more than any town plays on a link to a famous person anywhere.Our first stop on Hannibal’s Twain circuit during a visit last week was the Mark Twain Museum Gallery, which, at first, was a bitter disappointment. Ever since watching Ken Burns’ masterful Twain documentary, I’ve wanted to know more about the man who wrote several classics and practically invented the travel writing genre. But the first floor of the museum was a hokey mess, more geared towards children rather than people looking for a serious exploration of this fascinating, wandering soul.

There’s a stagecoach car with a cheesy film, a barrel with phones featuring recorded animal stories and an insipid Huck Finn cinema complete with fake trees. But hidden up on the second floor of the museum, in the laminated flip board section, we found some interesting nuggets, including Twain’s obituary from the April 23, 1910 edition of “The Hannibal Morning Journal.”

The front page, above the fold obit reflected the community’s deep sorrow and admiration for its most famous son and offered a theory on the real cause of his death.

“Those who know the sorrow and shock which had come into Mr. Clemens’ life since the death of his daughter say his death was the trauma of a broken heart,” it read.

The death of his daughter was Twain’s final loss, but not his first: his father passed away when he was 11, four of his six siblings died prematurely, his wife, Olivia died before he did, at age 59, and so did three of their four children.

After an absolutely wretched, overpriced lunch at Breadeaux Pizza across the street from the museum, we gravitated down to Twain’s Boyhood Home Museum, and found some of the historical context and Twain dirt we were looking for at the museum’s interpretive center. If you’re visiting Twain sites in Hannibal, this should be your first stop because it provides a timeline of Twain’s life and some rich details and historical context about Hannibal and the Clemens family’s ties to the region.

Twain was the sixth of seven children. His parents, Jane and John Clemens moved west from Virginia, first to Tennessee and then to Missouri with six slaves they inherited. By the time, Samuel was born, in the small town of Florida, Missouri, 40 miles from Hannibal, they had sold all but one of the slaves and were scraping to get by. The family moved to Hannibal when Twain was 4, and after two years living in their own house, they had to move to a rented apartment above Grant’s Drug Store, which is around the corner from the interpretive center on Main Street.

Twain left school at 11, after his father died and shortly thereafter he became a printer’s apprentice, after his older brother, Orion, bought the local newspaper. His job allowed him the opportunity to read the news, which fed his curiosity about the outside world. Clemens was a restless soul; he left Hannibal at 17 and after brief stints writing articles for various newspapers, he tried his hand as a Mississippi riverboat pilot and a silver miner in the Nevada Territory before becoming a newspaper correspondent in Virginia City, Nevada at age 27.

Twain was a prolific writer for the remainder of his life but had to travel the world on the lecture circuit in order to maintain Stormfield, his opulent home in Hartford. He still managed to go bankrupt in 1894 after a series of investments went south on him, but recovered after an around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 put him back in the black. Nonetheless, Twain’s financial situation remained muddled late in his life as his anti-government sentiments and focus on human greed and cruelty made it difficult for him to get published, as critics labeled him a traitor.

He only returned to Hannibal a handful of times before dying of a heart attack at age 74, but if you visit, you can stay at The Garth Woodside Mansion in the room he supposedly stayed in during his last visit to the town in 1902. Twain may have beaten an early retreat from Hannibal but he used the town as the inspiration for many of his most famous works, and many of the places he wrote about are part of the circuit of Twain sites you can visit today.

Hannibal was the inspiration for the idyllic river town of St. Petersburg in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Visitors can check out some of the places incorporated into the stories like Tom Sawyer’s house (the Clemens family home), the homes of childhood friends who inspired the Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher characters, and “Mark Twain’s Cave,” a mile outside town, among other sites.

twain impersonatorAside from the Twain sites, Hannibal’s main drag is filled with lovely 19th Century buildings and is just a block from the mighty Mississippi River. Some of the tourist kitsch will make you laugh – I saw a man in a straw hat strumming a banjo while leading tourists around on a horse drawn carriage and a woman in a white feathered hat and period costume (see photo) – but it’s all in good fun.

“Twainiacs” from all over the world flock to the place to walk the streets their hero wrote about, and some, like Dr. Cindy Lovell, the executive director of The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, take their Twain obsession a step further by moving to Hannibal. Lovell told USA Today she gave up a job as a tenured professor in Florida to live and work in her favorite author’s hometown.

“People who love Twain and come here don’t see the cars and the power lines,” Lovell told USA Today. “They see St. Petersburg. It’s a town that can’t tell fact from fiction, and we like it that way.”

(Photos by Dave Seminara)

President Obama’s Favorite Pizza Squares Off Against A College Favorite

pi pizza in st louisWho could resist trying a pizza fit for the President of the United States? Last week, I visited a friend in St. Louis and he mentioned that President Obama offended some in his adopted hometown of Chicago a few years ago by choosing a St. Louis pizzeria called Pi to cater a pizza party at the White House, after having tried and liked their pizza at a campaign event at the St. Louis Arch.

Any pizzeria worthy of the President’s admiration is one I want to try, but I was just in Italy for five weeks earlier this year and ate at Da Michele, a pizzeria that many consider to be the best in the world. The pizza at Da Michele is otherworldly and cheap too, so I was skeptical that Pi could measure up but was still eager to give it a shot.

We met at Pi’s Washington Avenue branch, which is in a stunning, high-ceilinged building in downtown St. Louis. My friend and I decided to split a large, thin-crust Central West End pizza, which comes with mozzarella, prosciutto, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and a mountain of arugula.Pi’s thin-crust pizza has very tasty, super thin, almost crispy crust that I found to be outstanding. All of the ingredients were first-rate and the pizza melted in my mouth. For my taste, there was too much arugula and not enough prosciutto, but that’s splitting hairs.

My only complaint about this pizza is the portion and the price, $21. With crust this thin, I could practically eat the large by myself. I had four good-sized slices – half the pie – but I wasn’t full. It’s more than a little unfair to compare a pizza with a slew of toppings in St. Louis to a cheese pizza in Italy, but I’m going to do so anyways.

At Da Michele, the large cheese pizza is just over $6 and is so good you want to get a job at the place, or, better yet, move in upstairs to benefit from the aroma. Over the last decade or so, the gourmet pizza craze has hit every good-sized city in the U.S. to the point that you can get really good, wood-fire pizza fairly easily. But the prices can be ridiculous. In Italy, pizza is never expensive – never. And it shouldn’t be here either.

shakespeare's pizzaWith that ethos in mind, I tried another well-hyped Missouri pizzeria called Shakespeare’s, in Columbia just a few days after our Pi experience. I was just as anxious to try Shakespeare’s because fellow blogger Sean McLachlan wrote that it was “the best I’ve ever had and I’ve been to Rome.”

Shakespeare’s is located right next to the University of Missouri’s main campus in downtown Columbia and the unpretentious vibe couldn’t be more of a contrast to the sleek, trendy interior at Pi’s downtown location. We sat underneath a large sign advertising “Liquor, Guns & Ammo,” and I fell in love with the place after having a look at their homemade food pyramid, which values pizza, candy and my other favorite foods above broccoli and fruit.

We ordered a large sausage pizza and it was tasty, huge and cheap at $15.50. The circumference of the pizza was probably similar to the one at Pi, but the crust was more substantial and filling. That said, I thought that the pizza at Pi was a lot tastier. I ate every morsel of the crust at Pi, but the crust at Shakespeare’s was flavorless.

Verdict: Pi wins the Battle of Missouri for my taste, but even pizza fit for the President should cost less.

Note: Pi now has a location in D.C. as well.

(Photos: first photo by Stlbites on Flickr, second by Dave Seminara)