The Poison Bugaboo by Samuel
AUTHOR OF "THE GREAT AMERICAN FRAUD," "THE MYSTERY" (WITH STEWART
EDWARD WHITE), ETC.
ROMANCE revels in the peril of the unknown. Lapped about with the
armor-plate of civilization, the modern citizen muses
relishingly, like a child beguiling himself with ogre tales, upon
the terrors which lie just beyond his ken. To his mind,
A stone's throw out on either hand,
And all the world is wild and strange.
Avid for sensation, he peoples the remoteness of forest and
mountain with malign and destructive creatures, whence has grown
up an extensive and astonishing literature of snake and insect
"Deadly" is the master word of the cult. The rattlesnake is
"deadly." The copperhead and moccasin are "deadly." So is the
wholly mythical puff adder. In hardly less degree is the
tarantula "deadly," while varying lethal capacities are ascribed
to the centipede, the scorpion, the kissing-bug, and sundry other
forms of insect life. The whole matter is based upon the
slenderest foundations. I don't mean, by this, that these
ill-famed species are wholly innocuous. It would be highly
inadvisable to snatch a kiss from a copperhead or to stroke a
tarantula's fur the wrong way. But one could do it and live to
boast of the achievement. Pseudoscience to the contrary
notwithstanding, there is no living thing within the boundaries
of the United States of America whose bite or sting is sure death
or (with one possible exception) even probable death.
There are five varieties of venomous serpents in this country:
three of them Crotalids, and two belonging to the Elaps family.
The Elaps are rather rare. The Crotalids (rattlesnake, moccasin,
and copperhead) are common, and of the widest geographical
distribution. Yet, on the basis of actual evidence, the amazing
fact stands out that only about eighty persons, so far as is
ascertainable, have ever died from snake bite in the United
States. Nowhere in the Civil War records does a death from this
cause appear, though hundreds of thousands of men were living "on
the country," and at a time when the serpent clan was much more
numerous than now.
Estimates vary as to the proportion of deaths to bites. Prentiss
Willson believes that something over ten per cent. of all persons
bitten by venomous snakes in the United States die. As to how
many of these succumb, not to the venom, but to the misdirected
efforts of misguided friends at treatment—an extremely important
differentiation—he lacks the data upon which to base a
reckoning. S. Weir Mitchell's figures indicate 8.7 per cent.
mortality for rattlesnake bite. This would make the venom about
as dangerous as the toxin of typhoid fever, which is not
generally regarded as a necessarily "deadly" disease. Other
writers go as high as fifteen per cent. for the rattlesnake and
as low as one per cent. for the copperhead.
All general estimates seem to me to leave one basic element out
of consideration—the unnoted, non-fatal snake bites. That a bite
resulting in death will eventually get itself reported is
reasonably certain. On the other hand, I am satisfied, from
talking with plantation owners in the South, with ranchmen in the
West, and with woodsmen and hunters all over the country, that,
in the remoter regions, many instances of poisoning by
copperheads and the smaller rattlesnakes never attain the dignity
of being listed, so insignificant are they in their effects. Were
all these to be recorded, I believe that the mortality ratio
would fall notably.
Although I have been interested in the subject for many years, I
have never met a man who has seen a fatal case of snake bite.
More than this, my friend Mr. Stewart Edward White, a noted
hunter and explorer of untrodden ground in regions infested by
reptiles, has known of but one case terminating in death which he
believes to be authentic. Dr. J. A. Mitchell, of Victoria, Texas,
one of the most experienced of field observers, has never met
with an instance of fatality from this cause. Dr. Mitchell
believes that horses always, and dogs almost always, recover from
rattlesnake bite. He confirms, from observation, the mysterious
fact that hogs exhibit absolute immunity from the venom.
WHISKY VS. SNAKEBITE
Be it remembered always that death following snake bite is not
necessarily the same thing as death from snake bite. Error in
treatment plays no small part in vitiating the statistics. For
"error" read "whisky." Whoever is primarily responsible for the
hoary superstition that liquor in huge doses is useful in snake
poisoning has many a life to answer for. Apart from any
adventitious aid whatsoever, whether from a snake or any other
source, a whole bottle of raw whisky forced down the throat of a
man unaccustomed to alcohol is pretty likely to kill him, and is
absolutely certain to cause grave poisoning. Add to this that it
is given, often, in such a manner that the reaction from it comes
contemporaneously with the heart collapse caused by the venom,
and a telling commentary upon the method is suggested. It is a
question whether alcohol should ever be given in such cases
without the advice of a physician. Certain it is that it should
not be poured into the victim in quantities limited only by the
flask-contents of the bystanders.
Several years ago I saw two interestingly contrasted cases of
copperhead bite. The first patient was a powerful, full-blooded,
temperate, Irish day-laborer who, while road-mending, was bitten
on the back of the hand between two fingers. His fellows hustled
him off to a room over a neighboring saloon, where they proceeded
to administer the classic treatment. Before the doctor arrived
they had introduced a quart and a half of whisky into a stomach
unused to anything stronger than beer in small quantities. Six
hours later, when I saw the man through the wreckage of chairs,
tables, and bedding, four battered friends were trying to hold
him down. They thought he was having convulsions from the snake
venom. He wasn't. He was having delirium tremens from the whisky.
His arm and shoulder were purple and swollen. Later he collapsed.
"Will he die?" I asked the doctor.
"He won't die of the bite, but I think he will of the whisky,"
replied the disgusted practitioner.
But he didn't. His splendid physique pulled him through. It was
long, however, before he wholly recovered from the effects of the
This was in a Hudson River town. Only a few miles away a negro
boy, shortly after, was struck by a copperhead on the bare leg.
The wound was a deep, double-fanged puncture. While the boy's
father rushed for whisky, his mother ran for the doctor. The
doctor got there first. He opened up the wound and rubbed in
permanganate of potash to oxidize the venom and destroy its toxic
properties. When I talked with the boy, two days later, he was
hobbling about on a crutch, and the swelling had almost subsided.
Setting the boy's lesser age and resistant power against the fact
of the laborer's being bitten in a worse place (for crotaline
venom is much more effective in an upper limb or extremity than
in a lower), we have a fairly illustrative instance of the
relative merits of alcoholic and non-alcoholic measures.
WHEN RATTLESNAKES KILL
Thirteen cases of death following rattlesnake and copperhead bite
in which satisfactory clinical data were obtainable, are given by
Prentiss Willson. Of the victims, five were young children, one
was a fourteen-year-old boy, one a chronic drunkard, and one a
leper who submitted to the stroke of a captive rattlesnake in the
mad hope that it would cure his affliction. It did—in
twenty-four hours. Of the remaining five, three were dosed with
alcohol in large quantities. In several of the cases, notably
those of the children, there seemed to be at least an even chance
of recovery, when the ligatures binding the affected limb were
loosened to relieve the pain, with quickly fatal results. Two of
the fatalities were attributed, not immediately to the venom, but
to the secondary blood-poisoning, this being the case with the
only copperhead bite in the list.
Death resulting typically from crotaline poisoning occurred in
two instances, one the fourteen-year-old boy, who was struck by a
large rattlesnake and died in six hours, despite skilled and
prompt medical attendance; the other, a Dr. Post, into whose
veins, it would appear, the poison entered immediately, since a
jet of blood spurted from the wound inflicted by the captive
rattlesnake. The man passed from great agony into coma, from
which he never rallied, death ensuing in five hours after the
bite. There is nothing in these data to indicate that a
full-grown man in normal health, and with proper treatment, will
succumb to crotaline poisoning unless the venom enters a vein,
In the matter of the comparative potency of snake poisons, there
are apparent contradictions. In the order of recorded fatalities,
the rattlesnake ranks easily first, with the water moccasin a
rather distant second, and the copperhead a very poor third. Yet
experiments upon animals indicate that moccasin venom is five
times as powerful as rattlesnake, though only three times as
powerful as copperhead. Taking the cobra as the basis of
estimate, it requires only twice as much moccasin venom as it
does cobra poison to kill a guinea pig, whereas it requires six
times as much copperhead and ten times as much rattlesnake virus.
Why, then, is the rattler pre-eminent over its more virulent
cousins? Probably for two reasons—the greater amount of venom
secreted, and the superior power with which the rattler drives
its fangs home.
NO VIPERS IN THIS COUNTRY
Fully as much terror attaches, in the country districts, to the
puff adder or sand viper as to the rattlesnake or copperhead.
This is a suggestive bit of superstition, since there's no such
thing as an adder or viper on the Western hemisphere and never
has been one, unless it came, carefully pickled, in a jar. What
passes for the supposedly deadly reptile is the common hog-nosed
or bull snake. It is about as dangerous as an infuriated rabbit.
But it puts up one of the best "bluffs" known to natural history.
When caught at its favorite occupation of basking in the open,
without convenient avenue of escape, it flattens its head, and
strikes right and left, blowing and hissing with an aspect much
more terrifying than that of the truly venomous species. Then,
when the objects of its fury have taken to trees or adjacent
fences, it glides quietly away into the grass and effaces itself.
Any one who has the nerve to look it between the eyes may uncover
its pretense. For by this token may be known the real Crotalids
from the mock: a small but distinct pit between eye and nostril.
Lacking this mark, no ventral crawler in the land of the free
need cause a flutter in the most timid breast, with one notable
BEWARE THE ELAPS
Shun, as you would a rabid dog, a pretty little red-and-black
banded serpent about as thick as your thumb. If any living
creature whose habitat is the United States deserves the epithet
"deadly," it is the Elaps. Two species are known; the harlequin
snake, which ranges throughout the Gulf states to Texas and up
the Mississippi River to Ohio, and the Sonoran coral snake, found
in the Southwest only. By a strange perversion of facts, while
the harmless hog-nosed snake enjoys a repute of terror, the
Elaps, most dangerous of all American reptiles, is commonly
regarded as harmless. Partly this is due to its slight and
graceful prettiness, partly to its innocent-appearing head, which
shows no flattening (the popularly understood mark of the
venomous species), and partly to its lethargic and peaceful
disposition. Experimenters wishing to secure the venom of the
Elaps often find it difficult to rouse the snake to striking
Very few instances are known of Elaps bite, but those few
unquestionably set this ornamental creature in a class by itself,
among American Ophidia, for "results." Out of eight
well-authenticated cases of Elaps bite, six of the victims died.
This is believed to indicate a falsely large percentage, however,
the scientific estimate of mortality being somewhere between
twenty-five and fifty per cent.
A government scientist tells me of a curious result from
coral-snake bite which came under his notice. The victim, who was
handling the reptile preparatory to photographing it, apparently
overstepped the bounds of its habitual forbearance, for it
fastened upon his finger with such determination that it had to
be pried off. The man soon became unconscious, but rallied, and,
after three days of dubious condition, recovered. Every year
since, at about the anniversary of the bite, an ulcer forms upon
the finger and the nail sloughs off. I have heard of similar
recurrent effects from crotaline poisoning, but none
scientifically attested, as is this phenomenon.
Before passing from the subject of snakes, let me make one point
clear. While the venomous snakes of this country are by no means
"deadly" in the ordinary sense of the term, their bite is always
serious, both in its immediate effects and in the possibility of
after effects. The bitten person should get to a physician at
once. The immediate treatment is prompt incision and sucking of
the wound. Permanganate of potash for rubbing into the bitten
place should always be carried by persons traveling in a
snake-infested country. If the bite is on a limb, a light
ligature will check the spread of the venom. Use whisky
sparingly, if at all, and then only in case of complete collapse.
The local treatments are most effective while the venom is still
around the site of the bite, and will reduce the injurious
effects considerably. But after half an hour or so the absorption
of the venom becomes more general and the local treatments
ineffective. When the venom once enters into general circulation
no chemicals or medication can neutralize its effects, except a
specific antivenin, such as has been prepared by Dr. Noguchi at
the Rockefeller Institute in New York. Antivenin is the only
antidote that can counteract the action of venom anywhere in the
body. It finds the venom wherever it is present and neutralizes
it there, without producing any ill effects on the system.
GILA MONSTER NOT SO MONSTROUS
Dissension and discussion have raged for years about the hideous
head of the Gila monster. This great lizard of the Southwest has
been pronounced absolutely deadly by one set of partisans, and
absolutely harmless by another. Somewhere between lies the truth.
If any human being has actually been bitten by a heloderma, the
event has either escaped notice or has been so hedged about with
obstructive legend as to have forfeited scientific credence. But
the saurian itself has been studied and dissected, and its venom
has been analyzed. The venom is related to snake poison, but is
neither crotaline nor elapine. From animal experiments it is
thought that it might be fatal to man under unfavorable
conditions. There are no fangs proper. The poison gland is in the
lower jaw, instead of in the upper, as in snakes, and its product
is projected through small ducts which open in the gums outside
the teeth. The Gila monster has the grip of a bulldog. Torture
will not loosen its hold, once fastened on. It is through this
intimate contact that the venom works into the wounds.
Fortunately, the lizard is slow to anger, and prefers flight to
battle, so it is likely to be long before science has an
opportunity of studying the effect of its envenomed jaw-clamp
upon man. There are a few vaguely rumored reports of prospectors
having perished, in the desert, of Gila monster poison, but these
are so confused with symptoms suspiciously resembling alcoholic
poisoning as to lead Dr. R. W. Shufeldt, an authority upon the
Reptilia, to remark that "a quart of raw whisky, practically
given at one dose, may prove more fatal than the bite of ten
Almost any kind of an insect bite or sting MAY prove fatal. So
may a pin scratch, if the blood of the subject be in bad enough
condition. There is a well-substantiated case of a trained nurse
who died from blood poisoning following a mosquito bite. Ant bite
has resulted fatally, as has a single sting from the common wasp.
No one, however, considers these everyday insects as "deadly."
But substitute "scorpion" for "ant," and "centipede" for "wasp,"
and shrieks of dismay rise from the general throat. Yet perhaps
there is no other variety of harmful creature whose reputation
rests upon so meager a foundation as that of these two.
True, an El Paso report claims that a man stung by a whip
scorpion died in twelve hours; but the details are so vague as to
be in a high degree unconvincing. Dr. Eugene Murray-Aaron, a
witness of unimpeachable scientific competency, describes the
sting, after several personal encounters with the vigorous
tropical species, as no worse than that of a large hornet. Dr. L.
B. Rowland, of Florida, says: "My wife has been stung several
times [by the common scorpion]. It is like a wasp sting, only."
THE SCORPION'S STING
The Mexican scorpion enjoys an evil repute, which, from personal
observation, I consider greatly exaggerated. Stewart Edward White
was so obliging as to afford me excellent opportunity of judging,
in the course of a recent hunting trip which we took together in
a hot and remote Mexican desert. Mr. White, in the process of
disrobing, sat down upon a brown scorpion, an inch and a half
long. The scorpion punctured Mr. White twice. I noted his
symptoms. They were chiefly surprise and indignation. Within half
an hour he was asleep, and on the following day he was riding a
mule. The scorpion, however, died.
With respect to the centipede, satisfactory data are difficult to
obtain. Some scientists whose observations are worthy of note
state that the legs of this curious creature secrete a poison,
and that their trail over human flesh is marked by a sort of
rash, sometimes followed by fever. As showing that this is not an
invariable phenomenon, I may set the circumstantial account given
me by Captain Robert Kemp Wright, who, at his place at Pitch
Lake, Trinidad, saw a good-sized centipede crawl across the
forehead of his sleeping son. Not daring to make a move, as the
centipede is supposed to strike very swiftly, Captain Wright was
compelled to stand still while it slowly made its way to the
pillow and thence to the floor, where it was killed. The boy, who
had neither waked nor moved, showed absolutely no trace of the
THE DEADLY TARANTULA—IN PRINT
The only direct evidence which has come to me regarding the bite
of the hundred-legged crawler was from an English naturalist whom
I met in Venezuela. He was bitten on the ankle by a centipede
nearly a foot long. So severe was the laceration that his sock
was clotted with blood before he could get it off. The two
punctures were marked. Almost immediately the ankle began to
swell. The pain he describes as being equal to a bad toothache.
It kept him awake all that night. He had some fever, which,
however, he attributes rather to the loss of sleep than to any
specific action of the poison, as there were no other general
symptoms. In the morning the pain had abated a good deal, and he
believes that he could have gone about his pursuits had he been
able to get his sock and shoe on. He noted some discoloration
about the wound. Late in the afternoon he was hobbling about. A
week in a carpet slipper was the extent of disability which he
suffered. On these evidences it would seem just, for the present,
to set down the scorpion and the centipede as painful, rather
than dangerous, assailants.
Diseased imagination could invent no creature more horrific of
appearance than the tarantula. Its bristling and hostile aspect,
the swift ferocity of its rush, its great size, and its
enthusiastic preference for combat as against flight, are
sufficient to account for the fear and respect in which it is
generally held. But, though several species of the huge spider
are native to the United States, and others frequently drop out
of banana bunches from South or Central America, to the
discomfiture of the unsuspecting grocer, no authentic instance of
death from tarantula poison in this country is obtainable. St.
Louis papers please copy, particularly that one which, several
years ago, announced in appropriately black headlines:
IN TWO WEEKS Three Men Have Died From Bites of Tarantulas,
proceeding to explain that the victims were banana handlers in
the wholesale fruit district. No names were supplied—a common
phenomenon in this class of obituary notice. Search in the
coroner's records failed to bring to light any case of the sort,
and an exhaustive inquiry in the fruit district was equally
unproductive. The report was a pure fake.
Apparently of the same nature is the "news story" of a
Californian who, presumably mistaking a tarantula for a fragrant
floweret, was bitten on the nose and "died in great agony." That,
of course, is the proper way to die under such circumstances.
They all do it—in print.
Now let us see about the "agony." Herbert H. Smith, the
naturalist and collector, saw a man bitten on the bare foot by a
tarantula (Mygale) so hard as to draw blood. There was very
little swelling, and the man paid no heed to the occurrence, but
went on with his work.
I have talked with a Southern Pacific Railroad fireman who was
jabbed on the wrist by a large tarantula. Some years before, he
had been stung on the cheek by a "bald" hornet. He wasn't
inclined to make any choice between the two except that the
tarantula (not the wound) "looked a d——sight more scary." He
didn't let the bite interfere with his job, even for the day.
On the other hand, Dr. Murray-Aaron records serious symptoms
following two bites upon the hand by a large female trapdoor
tarantula; pain comparable to that of the worst earache,
involuntary twitching of arms, legs, lips, and tongue, great
swelling and discoloration of the hand and forearm, and
considerable suffering for four days, with occasionally recurrent
pains for a month. This, however, was in Haiti. And even there,
he believes, death never follows tarantula bite unless the
subject is in a depleted state of resistance from blood-disease
or other cause.
Under the heading "Fatal Spider Bite" there is a considerable and
interesting newspaper bibliography. The details do not analyze
well. Often the name of the supposed victim doesn't appear; and
where names and specifications are given, the evidence is hardly
sufficient, as a rule, to convict the insect of any crime more
serious than mayhem. For example, a young woman in Brooklyn awoke
one morning to find a swollen spot on her body. On the bed was
(according to allegation) a spider. Some ten days later she died.
For a long period she had been in ill health. Yet the death was
credited to the spider, though specific symptoms of venomous
poisoning were lacking.
The instance of a young woman in an Eastern state is significant.
Thrusting her foot into an old slipper, she felt a sharp jab upon
the point of her index digit. Upon hasty removal of the footgear,
she saw, or supposed she saw, a large and ferocious spider dart
forth. This, to her mind, was evidence both conclusive and
damning. Seizing upon the carving knife, she promptly cut off her
perfectly good toe, bound up the wound, and sent for the doctor,
thereby blossoming out in next day's print as a "Heroine who had
Saved her own life by her Marvelous Presence of Mind." The
thoughtful will wonder, however, whether the lady wouldn't have
got at the real root of the matter by cutting off her head
instead of her toe.
Imagination and terror undoubtedly account for certain general
symptoms in this class of injury. Colonel Nicholas Pike, a
competent observer, records a case of a man slapping his hand
down upon a window sill and feeling a lively stab in the palm. At
the same moment a small spider ran across the back of his fingers
and was captured. There was a distinct puncture in the hand.
Here, then, was a definite case, where the wound and the insect
were both in evidence. But examination of the arachnid's fangs
satisfied Colonel Pike that they were far too small and weak to
penetrate the tough skin where the wound was. Meantime the victim
exhibited the classic symptoms of venomous poisoning: numbness,
nausea, chills, and threatened collapse. A physician, being
summoned, examined both the victim and the accused, and took
Colonel Pike's view that the spider was innocent. The man was
wrathful, with the indignation of terror. He said he guessed he
knew whether he was bitten or not, and that the physician's
business was to eschew idle speculations and go ahead and save
his life if it wasn't already too late. Thereupon the doctor
opened up the wound and extracted a section of a fine needle. The
other half was found sticking in the window sill where a careless
seamstress had fixed it. The spider had been a fortuitous
arrival. The man made one of the quickest recoveries recorded.
Strangely enough, the one really dangerous spider on the American
continent is small, obscure, and practically unknown to popular
or journalistic hysteria. Latrodectus mactans is its scientific
name. It is about the size of a large pea, black with a red spot
on the back—a useful danger signal—and spins a small web in
outhouses or around wood-piles. So far as is known, its poison is
the most virulent and powerful, drop for drop, secreted by any
living creature. Cobra virus, in the minute quantity which the
Latrodectus's glands contain, would probably have no appreciable
effect upon man; whereas the tiny spider's venom, in the volume
injected by the cobra's stroke, would slay a herd of elephants.
Were this little-known crawler as large as the common black
hunting spider of our gardens and lawns, its bite would be almost
invariably fatal. Happily, the "red-spot's" fangs, being small
and weak, can with difficulty penetrate the skin, and are able to
inject venom in dangerous quantity only when the bite is
inflicted upon some tender-skinned portion of the body.
Nevertheless, fatalities consequent upon the bite of this insect
are sufficiently well attested to take rank as established
One of the most detailed comes from an intelligent farmer of
Greensboro, North Carolina. A workman in his employ, while
hauling wood, brushed at something crawling upon his neck and
felt a sharp, stinging sensation. He found a small, black spider
with a red spot. This was at 8.30 A.M. Presently, ten small white
pimples appeared about the bitten spot, though no puncture was
visible and there was no swelling. The pain soon passed, but
returned in three hours and became general, finally settling in
the abdomen and producing violent cramps. At one o'clock the man
had a spasmodic attack. Two hours later he had so far recovered
as to be able to go back to work, for an hour. Then the spasms
took him again; he sank into coma, and died between ten and
eleven o'clock that evening, about fourteen hours after the bite.
At no time were there local symptoms or swelling, other than the
slight eruption, but the neck, left arm, and breast are reported
as having assumed a stonelike hardness.
The same farmer had seen, three years previous, a negro who had
been bitten upon the ankle by a "red-spot" and who suffered from
diminishingly severe spasmodic attacks for three weeks. The white
pimples appeared in this case also. The negro recovered, but the
eruption reappeared for years thereafter whenever he was
Recoveries from Latrodectus bite are much more common, in the
records, than deaths. Dr. Corson, of Savannah, Georgia, reports
six cases, characterized by agonizing pains, spasmodic
contractions like those of tetanus, and grave general symptoms.
All recovered. From Anaheim, California, a fatal case is reported
by Dr. Bickford, death occurring twenty hours after the bite.
William A. Ball, of San Bernardino, California, gives a vivid
account of his sensations after being bitten on the groin by a
red-spotted spider, the data being attested by his physician.
Shortly after being bitten, he began to suffer great agony, with
convulsive contractions of the muscles.
"The pains in my hip-joints, chest, and thighs grew rapidly more
violent, until it seemed that the bones in these parts of my body
were being crushed to fragments." He was seriously ill for ten
WORSE TEXAN THE "DEADLY" COPPERHEAD
It may be that only under certain uncomprehended conditions is
the venom of the Latrodectus effective. Inoculation of guinea
pigs with the poison has been without any resultant symptoms.
Scientific experimenters have suffered themselves to be bitten
and have experienced no ill effects. The foreign cousins of the
American species, however, have as evil a repute as the
"mactans." The "katipo," found in sedges on the beach of New
Zealand, is dreaded by the Maoris, who traditionally refuse to
sleep nearer than half a stone's throw from the water, that being
the extent of range of the spider. The Latrodecti of Corsica,
Algeria, and France are infamous in the lore of the country folk,
which fact must be regarded as strongly evidential, when their
insignificant appearance is taken into account.
Only in America is there no popular fear of this really
formidable little creature. Yet it is found in almost every part
of the United States, though by no means one of the commoner
spiders. In the past five years I have seen two specimens at my
country place in central New York, and have heard of a dozen
others. If people understood generally that this rather
ornamental insect is both more perilous to life and health, and
rather more prone to attack human beings, than the
superstitiously dreaded "deadly" copperhead, there would probably
be a heavy mortality in the Latrodectus family at the hands of
THE RISE OF THE KISSING-BUG
Years ago the United States Bureau of Entomology received from an
exasperated clergyman in Georgia a dead insect, enclosed in this
"Prof. Riley: What is this devil? He sailed down on my hedge. I
took hold of his lone front leg, and as quick as lightning he
speared me under my thumb nail and I dropped him. My thumb and
whole arm are still paining me . . . "
The miscreant was a fine specimen of Reduvius personatus, the
cone-nosed blood-sucker, soon thereafter to achieve heights of
newspaper notoriety together with its cousin, Melanolestes
picipes, as the "kissing-bug." How many persons died (in type)
from kissing-bug bites in the year of enlightened civilization,
1899, will never be known. But from far and near, from California
and Connecticut and the Carolinas, from Minnesota and Maryland
and Maine, came startling reports of this hitherto unfamed
creature's depredations upon the human countenance. Thereby the
spider family was relieved of much unmerited odium, for it is
more than suspected by entomologists that a large proportion of
so-called spider bites are really the work of the more vicious
but less formidable-appearing kissing-bug, as is often evidenced
by the nature of the puncture.
The kissing-bug is about half an inch in length, flat-backed,
shaped in geometrically regular angles, and armed with a large,
hard beak. It is this beak which does the damage, for the
kissing-bug is a fighter and will risk a prod at anything that
gives it cause of offense. Testimony is not lacking that it
sometimes punctures the human epidermis with a view to obtaining
blood at first hand instead of from its natural prey.
But the curious feature of the kissing-bug's bite is its after
effect. Neither the southern Reduvius nor the northern
Melanolestes possesses any venom apparatus. Now, an insect
without fangs (or sting), duct, and poison gland, can no more
envenom the object of its attack than a fish can kick a man to
death. Yet we find such authorities as Dr. L. O. Howard, the
United States Entomologist, Professor Le Conte, Mr. Charles
Drury, of Cincinnati, and others, including a mass of medical
witnesses, declaring from first-hand observation that the
kissing-bug bite causes much swelling and severe pain. Le Conte,
indeed, compares the effect to snake bite, and states that people
are seriously affected for a week. A case is recorded from
Holland, South Carolina, where there were vomiting and marked
weakness. Mr. Schwartz, an expert of the Bureau of Entomology at
Washington, was bitten twice upon the hand and testifies to the
painful effects. In 1899, when the species was very common in
Washington, the Emergency Hospital had a long list of patients
who appeared on the records under the heading, "Insect Bite."
THE DECLINE OF THE KISSING-BUG
Thus was started the general "scare," a reporter with a keen nose
for news having made a legitimate "sensation" from the repeated
entries on the hospital roster. From Washington it spread over
the country, and became the topic of the day, until any insect
bite or sting—mosquito, hornet, bedbug, or whatnot—was
magnified by the hysteria of the patient and the credulousness of
the public into a "dangerous" instance of kissing-bug poisoning.
Reports of fatal cases, however, invariably proved to be canards.
For explanation of the marked local symptoms resultant upon
attack by the insect, science has been hard put to it. The
general symptoms, observed in a few cases, where violent, may
probably be ascribed to shock and nervousness. But the marked
swelling and pain cannot be thus dismissed. Medical men believe
that the insect, in its various prowlings for food, thrusts its
exploring beak into decaying animal and vegetable matter and
thus, in a sense, so poisons it that when it comes into contact
with human blood, a rapid local infection is set up—not through
any specific poison, as in spider bite or bee sting, but by the
agency of the putrefactive germs collected on the weapon.
Not the least interesting phase of the kissing-bug scare is the
rapidity and completeness of its decadence. It is but ten years
ago that the newspapers rang with it; that victims of the bite,
in every city, were fleeing, white-faced and racked with
forebodings, to doctor or hospital. To-day, both the Melanolestes
and the "conenose" are abroad in the land. Doubtless, upon
provocation, they are "spearing" others as they speared the
outraged clergyman. But that's all. The bepunctured ones do not
seek the consolations of medical or journalistic attention. They
put a little wet mud or peroxide on the place and let it go at
that. Exit another bogy!
OUR REAL POISON PERIL
One venomous creature there is in this country which may justly
be termed a public peril, in the widest sense. Proportionately to
population, more victims fall to it yearly in the United States
than to the dreaded cobra in India. Some twelve thousand
Americans are killed every year by its bite. Three hundred
thousand more are made seriously ill from the after effects.
Unfortunately, the virus works so slowly that alarm is stilled.
The victims do not sicken at once. The bite is forgotten; but ten
days or two weeks after, the subject falls into a fever. His
blood is poisoned within him. Eventually, in extreme cases, he
becomes delirious, succumbs to a stupor, and dies.
Yet, because there is nothing horrific to the sensation-loving
imagination in the malaria-bearing mosquito, public inertia or
ignorance tolerates it with a grin and permits it to breed in
city and country alike throughout the length and breadth of the
nation. Compared with it, as a real menace, all the combined
brood of snakes, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, and other pet
bugaboos of our childish romanticism are utterly negligible; are
as figment to reality, as shadow to substance. It is perhaps
characteristic of our wryly humorous American temperament that we
should have invested the unimportant danger with all the
shuddering attributes of horror, and have made of the real peril
a joke to be perennially hailed with laughter in a thousand