‘lower than a snake’s belly’: meaning and origin

A jocular extension of lower than a snake, the phrase lower than a snake’s belly, and its variants, mean utterly despicable.

This phrase refers to:
– two meanings of the adjective low, which are close to the ground and despicable—cf. the phrase the lowest of the low;
– the literal meaning of the noun snake, i.e., a long, thin reptile without legs, and a figurative meaning, i.e., a treacherous or deceitful person—cf. the phrase a snake in the grass.

All the earliest occurrences that I have found of lower than a snake and lower than a snake’s belly are from newspapers published in the U.S. states of Kansas and Nebraska.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase lower than a snake that I have found is from the Ames Advance (Ames, Kansas) of Friday 18th December 1885:

The Clyde Mail editors are troubled with coal thieves. A person who would steal coal from a printer is three degrees lower than a snake.

The variant lower than a rattlesnake occurs in the account of a court case, published in The News-Reporter (Gretna, Nebraska) of Friday 1st April 1898:

Timme is notorious for his cowardly methods of attacking a man, usually having a beer mallet, the butt end of a billiard cue, knife, or some similar weapon handy, and infinitely lower than a rattle snake—he usually gives no warning when he strikes.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase lower than a snake’s belly and variants that I have found:

1-: From the Horton Commercial (Horton, Kansas) of Thursday 2nd March 1893:

If there is a being on God’s earth who is despised by man it is a “spotter.” * A man who will ride about on the cars for the purpose of getting conductors into trouble, or serve in the capacity of the so-called “spotters” in any capacity is lower than a snake’s belly, and should never have the respect of man or the love of beast.

* Here, the noun spotter designates a person employed to monitor the employees of a company in order to detect irregular or illegal behaviour.

2-: From The Horton Commercial (Horton, Kansas) of Thursday 7th August 1902:

We notice a letter advertised for J. F. Cutler. Mr. Cutler is the great and good Christian who used to write so many prohibition articles for the Headlight, advise the people how to walk upright before God and man, when at the same time he was lower than a snake’s abdomen himself, as measured in the moral scale. He wound up by deserting his wife and debts, skipped the town in the night, and is supposed to be living with another woman. Every community is afflicted with these self-righteous lepers.

3-: From The Center Register (Center, Nebraska) of Friday 3rd November 1905:

Barrett is an unprincipaled [sic] liar and we will prove it in our next issue. Healey is of the hyena family and they are both fit associates for the prowling jackal.
No party or creed is safe in their hands. They are devoid of principle and morally are lower down than a snake’s tail in a forty foot well. In fact they are so low down that they would have to strike over-handed to hit the aforesaid snakes [sic] tail.

4-: An abstract image, lower than a snake’s moral pulse, occurs in the following from Appeal to Reason (Girard, Kansas) of Saturday 5th October 1907:

Collier’s Weekly, in the face of all the antagonistic circumstances under which Haywood was tried and acquitted, says that it is privately informed by the best detectives in the country that Orchard told the truth. Well, the Appeal is informed by the best detectives in the country that Orchard maliciously lied, to save his craven neck, under the paid expert coaching of a man whose antecedent history in the “Mollie Maguire” period, and at Parsons, Kan., where good citizens made affidavits denouncing him, shows him to be a creature whose moral pulse beats lower than a snake’s. All the time Orchard was “telling the truth” he was telling stories of his own despicable treachery and double dealing for pay.

5-: From The Crofton Journal (Crofton, Nebraska) of Thursday 21st November 1907:

A report reached us that while Wm. Jackson, of Aten, was working in Crofton, and his women folks were at home alone, a bunch of hoodlums from near Aten went to the house in the dead of night and amused themselves by throwing eggs against it and otherwise trying to frighten the lone women. Mr. Jackson says if the ones who did it are as short of money as they are of brains, he will pay for the eggs if they will call on him. We have heard lots about just such kind of sport and the calibre of the men who would do such a low down dirty trick as to terrorize two lone defenseless woman [sic] is so small that a needle wouldn’t go through the bore. Such a man is lower than a snake’s tail in a 40-foot well, and when he dies his soul will find it d—d hard sledding and up hill to slide into pergatory.

The phrase lower than a snake’s belly is used in Australian English too. The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the account of a street-meeting organised at Port Pirie, in South Australia, by the Industrial Workers of the World, published in The Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, South Australia) of Thursday 25th June 1914:
—This early occurrence perhaps indicates that the phrase was introduced into Australian English by U.S. members of the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labour union founded in 1905 in Chicago, Illinois:

Another man mounted the box […]. This man said they had worse things happen in America than that which just took place. In that country one of their members was shot by the police, and the I.W.W. sent a letter to the Commissioner of Police stating that for everyone of the I.W.W. men shot by the police they would exact a life from members of the “scab” force, and the I.W.W. carried out that threat and killed one policeman for every one of their workers who was killed. He believed that a policeman was one of the lowest men living. Policemen were so low that when they died they would have to climb up a ladder to get into hell. They were even lower than a snake’s belly, and that was always under the ground.

There also exists the image of a person who is so ‘low’ (i.e., so despicable, or so depressed) that he or she could crawl under a snake—these are four occurrences:

1-: From The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate (Dorrigo, New South Wales) of Wednesday 23rd October 1918:

Petty thieving by palsied and morally bankrupt skunks who, if they were as low in stature as they are in principle would not have to stoop to crawl under a snake.

2-: From The Denver Post (Denver, Colorado) of Monday 1st November 1920:

Some Men Are So Low They Can Crawl Under a Snake With a Top Hat On

3-: From the Corvallis Gazette-Times (Corvallis, Oregon) of Saturday 13th February 1926:

Five employes of this paper were defeated by Copco at bowling and are still employes, able in their remorse to crawl under a snake, while wearing a plug hat.—Medford Tribune. We can understand why the employes should be “still” after such a disgrace, but cannot see that it would be any more difficult to crawl under a snake wearing a plug hat than to crawl under a snake that was bareheaded.

4-: From the account of a court case, published in The Mirror (Perth, Western Australia) of Saturday 25th January 1930:

Charged at the West Maitland Court with having used insulting words William Laidlaw was alleged to have said:
“The police are so low that they could crawl under a snake’s belly with an open umbrella and then have something to ‘spare.’”

Finally, there exists the image of a person who is so ‘low’ (i.e., so depressed) that a snake could not crawl under him or her—these are two occurrences:

1-: From the account of an election hustings organised by H. B. Gullett, published in The Argus (Melbourne, Victoria) of Friday 30th August 1946:

Mr R. G. Casey, who supported Major Gullett, said that while Australia today had the highest wages in its history, living conditions probably were never lower. Yet Mr Chifley had said that Australia was on the verge of a golden age at a time when most Australians were feeling so low that a snake could not crawl under them.

2-: From The Custer County Independent (Clinton, Oklahoma) of Thursday 11th December 1952:

One day the wells are spouting oil, the next day sand. One day Gordon Finkenbinder is up in the clouds, the next day a snake couldn’t crawl under him.