Snake Bites and Indian Burns

Kids at my school weren’t THAT bad – I never saw anyone really badly beaten up. About the worst of it was that we all got the occasional “snake bite.” This was accomplished by gripping someone’s arm with both hands twisting both ways at the same time (ie, twisting one wrist forwards and one wrist backwards.) It could be moderately painful.

As of the 1950s, Peter and Iona Opie listed this particular torture as a “a Chinese Burn” or “Chinese Twist,” and noted that in the U.S. it was known as an “Indian burn” or “Indian torture.” My memory of an “Indian Burn” was taking a small piece of yarn, stretched taught, and rubbing it rapidly back and forth across someone’s bare arm as though trying to start a fire.

The same torture goes by various names around the world, such as “Indian sunburn” (Canada) and “Policeman’s glove” (Bulgaria).

What did you call it?

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  1. Anonymous

    Strange, when I heard it here (British Columbia, late 1990's) it was a 'snake bite' as well…

  2. Anonymous

    It's totally a snake bite when I was a kid.

  3. Jason from Maryland

    "Indian rub burn" or "Indian rug burn."

  4. Anonymous

    In the St. Louis area circa mid- to late-1970s the forearm twisting back and forth was 'Indian rug burn.'

  5. Anonymous

    "Indian Sunburn" – in the northern Ohio area late-1950's

  6. Al

    If only there was a dog bite attorney Los Angeles equivalent for snakes.

  7. J. Blessinger

    On the reservation in NE Montana where I grew up, "troubled" kids were known to rub erasers on their skin so persistently and vigorously that the resulting burns were hideous. I saw burns as big as a 50-cent piece. No idea if this connects at all.

  8. Chloe Sellers

    YES! This was still true in St. Louis in the nineties, when I was coming of age.

  9. Chloe Sellers

    YES! This was still true in St. Louis in the nineties, when I was coming of age.

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  12. Timothy

    Well I was born in Ontario and we called it Indian burn and snake bites

  13. Boo

    We used to put paperclips in people’s hair. When we put a paperclip in someone’s hair, we would call it an “owl’s pencil”.


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