Once Upon a Time: Rattlers and the Law

An oft-repeated story, about using snakes to ward off the law, took place on the Bruce Peninsula in the late 19th century.

Steve Bradley and his family settled at Boat Cove (later called Bradley Harbour), up the coast from Stokes Bay. At the mouth of Spring Creek he built a log cabin.

Bradley tried a bit of farming but made real money distilling Spring Creek Moonshine for the thirsty people of the Bruce Peninsula.

The story of the Bradley booze gained notoriety in 1952, thanks to William Sherwood Fox’s book The Bruce Beckons, a guide to the peninsula’s natural and human history. It gained a wide audience and attracted many visitors to the Bruce.

According to Fox, Steve Bradley hid his still in the cedar forest—”a crude affair it was, a curious complex of tubes and coils and ancient tin containers rescued from sundry junk-heaps”.

His product sold well, and naturally attracted the attention of the authorities. The way Fox tells it, about 1887 two special constables set out to raid Bradley. They sailed to Boat Cove, couldn’t find Bradley, but ran into his daughter Mag at the shanty on Spring Creek.

Massasauga rattler, Ontario’s only venomous snake, calls the Bruce Peninsula home

An imposing figure, the “husky” Mag confronted them at the door, and “they saw her plunge her right hand deep into a tall barrel that stood close to the door frame. In an instant up came the hand brandishing two large wriggling Massasaugas and thrusting them straight at the officers’ faces.” Waving a deadly rattler in each hand, Mag chased the men, who took to their boat and left.

Bradley, wrote Fox, realized that the law knew where his still was so he left the Bruce Peninsula “leaving no address behind” and Mag became a snake charmer in a travelling circus.

Does this account stand scrutiny? Steve Bradley was indeed living at Boat Cove in 1895, because that’s when he and a companion rescued the crew of the Severn, a coal barge that had ran aground at the cove during a storm.

Local historian Bruce Krug was able to locate the daughter in southern Bruce County. In 1953 he wrote, “I am told that Mag Bradley is now Mrs. Maggie Penleton or Pendleton. She is an elderly lady and lives on a farm near Glamis. Last winter she was a patient in Kincardine hospital.” In a speech about 1956, he said that “unfortunately Mag died about two years ago near Kincardine”.

Intrigued, Bruce Krug interviewed three people who knew the rattlesnake story. In 1955, Sam Myles of Stokes Bay remembered that Steve Bradley had a log house at the mouth of Spring Creek where his daughter Maggie lived. B.B. Miller was the constable sent to investigate the bootlegging. Miller walked in through the bush and asking Bradley about his still, he said that the person he wanted to see was his daughter Maggie out at the lakeshore. When Miller asked Maggie about the still, she reached into the house and picked up some tame rattlesnakes and chased Miller, who ran out into the shallow water of the bay.

Nathan France, of Wiarton and originally from Ripley, knew Steve Bradley quite well. He said in 1960 that Steve Bradley and his wife had come from Ripley by sailboat right up to Boat Cove. Bradley operated a shingle mill on Spring Creek and had several men working for him. He also operated a still and produced a good brand of Bruce Peninsula whiskey. Bradley’s was the only large still in the area and he did a good business. He also owned a farm near Ripley and had someone growing wheat there. Bradley would go down Lake Huron with his sailboat and bring the wheat up to Boat Cove to use in distilling whiskey.

In 1954, when Bruce Krug asked Jack Steip of Lion’s Head if he had read Fox’s book, he said that he’d read part of it and was disgusted with the book. Fox had written that Bradley’s daughter chased the men of the law with rattlesnakes, but Steip said that they were only water snakes that the girl carried. He said that Maggie is living over near Kincardine, is married and has a couple of children.

Could Fox have invented the whole rattler story? It would seem so, if we rely on the book Shipwrecked on the Bruce Coast by Capt. Gerry Ouderkirk. He wrote that in 1953, a year before her death at 88, “Meg” Pinnell, then living two miles north of Kincardine, wrote to Mr. Fox asking him to retract his tale or she would sue for libel. In a letter to Capt. Ouderkirk, Mrs. Pinnell stated that her father, Stephen Bradley, did not move to Boat Cove until 1892, four or five years after the supposed incident. As for Meg Bradley herself, she wasn’t even in Boat Cove at the time of the story, for she had wed Hugh Henry Pinnell and was living on a 50-acre farm on the 10th concession in Culross.


Robin Hilborn, The Bruce, 2018; p. 95.
William Sherwood Fox, The Bruce Beckons, 1952.
Bruce Krug manuscripts, Archives, Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre, Southampton.
Amabel Township, see Nathan France, in William Mason, 1960, p. 194 (A2014.003.0546)
Eastnor Township, see Sam Myles, 1955, p. 221 (A2014.003.0553)
and Jack Steip (Steep), 1954, p. 191 (A2014.003.0553)