Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Wanted: Dead or Alive

From the mid-19th century new rail lines fanned out from Melbourne to towns across the colony, providing a conduit for commerce and social regulation. At the same time fear of snakes appears to have been just as widespread.

In an early collaboration between the Museum and the Education Department, a poster, The Dangerous Snakes of Victoria, was produced in 1877 for distribution to all Victorian schools and railway stations.

The poster was loosely based on images originally created by Arthur Bartholomew and Ludwig Becker for the Zoology of Victoria. In contrast to the coolly taxonomic images in the Prodromus, the snakes of the poster are heavily outlined, fierce and oversized. The typeface has the look of a 'Wanted: Dead or Alive' poster from the American West, with the subtitle authoritatively noting that the poster was 'INDICATED BY PROFESSOR McCOY'.

Dangerous Snakes of Victoria imprinted McCoy's name into the minds of generations of Victorian schoolchildren, in association with those images of deadly serpents. It must have been deemed a success, as in the 1890s a second edition was produced, with life-sized snakes and slightly less dramatic typeface. Following McCoy's knighthood, it was subtitled 'as accredited by Sir Professor Frederick McCoy'.

Given the legend of Saint Patrick ridding the Emerald Isle of all serpents, it seems somewhat paradoxical that Frederick McCoy, born a Catholic in Ireland, would seek to be so firmly associated with the venomous snakes of his adopted country. Perhaps he saw them as symbols of power, with which he could leverage influence in both the colony as well as in London.

Dangerous Snakes of Victoria poster (first edition).
Dangerous Snakes of Victoria, distributed to all schools and railway stations in Victoria, circa 1890s.