The wealthy farmer was buried in 1908 at Hartzell Cemetery, a small graveyard in Deerfield Township in the southeast corner of Portage County. His final resting place — or so he thought — was below a grand monument that he commissioned: a bronze statue of Bedell standing on a 10-foot stone base.
The lifelike sculpture, an uncanny representation of Bedell, was stern and imposing. Its right, upraised hand held a scroll bearing the motto ''Universal Mental Liberty,'' while its left foot trampled a parchment labeled ''Superstition.''
Bedell didn't believe in an afterlife. As an atheist in North Benton, a farming community of fewer than 200, he was distinctly in the minority.
Irascible and outspoken, he scoffed at religion and feuded with the Presbyterian church, yet he studied the Bible and could quote chapter and verse. Ministers dined at Bedell's home — along with his wife, Mary, and eight children — to debate theology and test ideas for sermons.
Despite his notoriety, Bedell garnered respect as the richest man in town. The cattleman owned 1,700 acres and several farms near the Portage-Mahoning County line.
''Chester Bedell had his faults and yet he was full of good qualities,'' the Alliance Review eulogized in 1908. ''He was wedded to his home and his family. He was a man who had endured persecutions without number. He lived a busy life and made the most of the opportunities afforded him. In his grave we lay all his faults and cover them with a mantle of charity. The good of his life we will retain. His eccentricities will be forgotten.''
No one remembered how the snake story got started. It slithered out of nowhere and wrapped itself tightly around Bedell's name.
Before his death at age 81 following complications from a massive stroke, the infidel was rumored to have declared: ''If there is a God, let snakes crawl over my grave.''
Although there was no proof that Bedell made such a remark, whispers grew in the community. People began to show up at Bedell's grave to look for snakes. Soon there were fantastic tales of serpent sightings: black snakes, brown snakes, garter snakes. Out-of-town tourists started to visit Hartzell Cemetery.
Preachers used the snake story as a cautionary tale for nonbelievers, and it spread to congregations all over the country. Over the decades, the legend coiled around the world.
The Rev. Gerald B. Winrod (1900-1957), a fire-and-brimstone minister from Wichita, Kan., made a pilgrimage to Bedell's memorial in the 1930s and published a chilling account in a religious tract titled Snakes in an Atheist's Grave.
''We parked our car, and approached the grave, camera in hand,'' Winrod wrote. ''Was it a hoax? Or was it true? Mr. E. E. Flowers, my companion, was first to see a snake. 'Oh look there,' he shouted. Yes, there it was. We walked around the grave and counted one, two, three, four, five, six. Mr. Flowers killed one. I photographed one.
''We took other pictures. The sexton told us he had killed four that morning, has killed as high as 20 in a single day. Finally he said, 'I don't know, maybe the Lord did have something to do with it.' ''
Famed U.S. journalist Ernie Pyle visited the Deerfield grave in 1938 at the request of his mother, Maria, who had heard the story from an evangelist at an Indiana revival meeting.
The snake-phobic writer was pleased to report that he saw no serpents.
''How ironic it would seem to Chester Bedell that his strong feeling against superstition should merely have fanned further the fires of fanaticism,'' Pyle wrote.
Vandals hurled paint on Bedell's statue, knocked it down and tried to break its arms. Gunmen occasionally peppered it with buckshot. Bedell's descendants patched up the statue, only to see it vandalized anew.
Hartzell Cemetery caretaker Raleigh Bundy, who was 22 when Bedell died, was weary of the constant fuss. He believed the snake legend was rubbish.
''I remember one minister drove up one day and chatted with me about old Bedell's grave,'' the gravedigger, 68, told the Beacon Journal in 1954. ''He was a nice chap and I told him the truth, that no more snakes had crawled over that grave than any other around here.
''Well, sir, I was convinced he was one man who was interested in the truth. But a little while later, an old woman in her 80s comes to the cemetery and asks to see the grave with all the snakes.
''I tell her it isn't so. She mentioned where she was from and it was the same town as this minister. I asked her if she knew him and she said he was the one who told about the grave with the snakes crawling around.''
Local admits truth
Of course, there was a perfectly logical explanation for some of those snake sightings.
A North Benton restaurant owner paid kids to place snakes on the grave in the 1930s. He took photos, made postcards and sold them to tourists.
''Now I can personally testify that snakes surely did infest his grave,'' Canal Fulton resident Carl F. Weast confessed in 1965. ''In fact, I put a few of them there myself! It was a habit of hunters and kids in the area to capture snakes, kill them and drape Bedell's grave with them. It impressed visitors and started the legend of the snakes on the grave. I'm sure some religious 'nuts' thought it genuine.''
Following years of vandalism and storm damage, Bedell's heirs finally took down the statue and moved it to a private barn in the early 1950s. It remained hidden from view for decades until the Berlin Center Historical Society rescued the relic from obscurity.
Today, Chester Bedell's bronze likeness stands in a corner of the historical society's Weidenmier House at 15823 Akron-Canfield Road (U.S. Route 224), Berlin Center.
There are no snakes in sight.
Curious sightseers continue to visit Hartzell Cemetery, which is off Hartzell Road north of state Route 14 near Sebring Country Club. The Internet has helped keep the story alive — although modern interest is nothing like the 1930s, when hundreds of visitors would show up on a single day.
Weirdly enough, the legend has come true — sort of.
Bedell's grave isn't where it used to be. The cemetery had to move several graves in the early 1940s while a dam was built to create Berlin Reservoir. The flood-control project swallowed 249 square miles of Portage, Stark and Mahoning counties.
The original grave site for Bedell — roughly 150 yards from its present location — is now a part of the reservoir. It's the aquatic home of scads of scaly creatures, including walleye, bass, bluegill, muskie and — maybe, just maybe — a water snake or two.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.