The March of the Tarantulas: Giant, Poisonous, Aggressive, and Scary Spiders
A married man in Buffalo came near being killed by a spider. It was an iron one, and his wife had hold of the handle.
Public Ledger [Memphis TN] 4 November 1873: p. 4
Today’s entry in the Things That Scare Us series is spiders, mostly giant and aggressive ones. I know the party line about Our Friends, the Spiders: they are good for the environment, they keep down vermin and harmful insects, they make lovely pets, etc.
I don’t really care.
“They’re more frightened of you than you are of them,” say the arachnophiles.
I don’t think so.
And don’t even mention camel spiders. (Do they blow up pictures of the damn things on a copier and paste them onto a desert background?)
Let’s just say this is one of those desensitization exercises psychologists do when they need to help a client with arachnophobia. I’ve got the Flit™ standing by and have chosen the items that most make my skin crawl.
Spiders never captured the public’s (or perhaps the journalists’) imagination the way Big Snake stories did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were plenty of factual stories about tarantulas, their life cycles, and their enemy the “tarantula hawk,” who had the deeply unpleasant habit of injecting tarantulas with a poison that paralyzed, but did not kill, so it could lay its eggs inside the spider. The newly hatched wasps would then eat the living spider from the inside out, a practice which has inspired several horror stories.
There were also stories about large spiders snaring mice, snakes, and even fish. For example, the Hon. David E. Evans of Batavia, N.Y. claimed he saw a 9-inch striped snake killed by a spider: its mouth wrapped with spider silk and its tail drawn into a hoop from which the snake was suspended. Perhaps a bit of a tall tale…). There were many reports of people killed by spider bites. There are a few stories about the Tarantella, a hypnotic Italian dance said to be the result of hysteria caused by a tarantula bite.
But for real arachnid horror you would have to turn to fiction: Dracula’s Renfield, eating spiders, Lovecraft’s Atlach-Nacha, and “The Ash Tree,” by M.R. James all spring to mind. Continuing the theme, we find Tolkien’s Shelob, the spiders in the Harry Potter series, and those unfortunate girls with lacquered beehive hairdos of urban legend.
Still, some authors rose to the occasion, such as Col. Percy Fawcett, the South American explorer, who wrote of the apazauca spider, a giant black tarantula the size of a dinner plate that left its victims blackened from the poison.
Or this author who wrote about
SPIDERS AS BIG AS A HAT
[from an article on insects found in Nassau, Bahamas]
The tarantula…will empty a room of its occupants in about as short order as a tiger would. The first one I ever saw in Nassau was when I had been at Waterloo about a month, and was having the bushes cleared away from the house. Some of the colored boys were at work in the flower garden, and one morning they made a grand dash for the front piazza. They all looked well frightened, and I asked them what was the matter.
“Groun’ spider, boss,” one of them replied as soon as he could catch breath enough.
We all went out to kill him armed with hoes, rakes, brooms, and all the long-handled implements we could find, as well as a wagon-load or so of good-sized stones. He sat among the grass and weeds, easily seen and watched on account of his intense blackness, and did not offer to move. None of the boys would go within eight or ten feet of him, because it was commonly believed that tarantulas can and do spring a long distance, being well supplied with muscular and hairy legs for that purpose. I think, however, that this is a mistake. I have seen a great many of them and never yet have seen one jump or make any movement beyond a slow, crawling walk…At any rate we all kept at a respectful distance from this fellow and pelted him with rocks. The first shot must have hurt him, for he made no effort to get away, and in a minute or two he was pounded into a jelly—a nasty, hairy, black jelly that no one would care to touch. When he was used up beyond all danger of resuscitation we cut him to pieces with the hoes and threw him over the wall. He was not a very large one for a tarantula—perhaps about four inches long and three inches broad. The hairy black legs make them more obnoxious and disgusting than they otherwise would be…
The largest tarantula I ever saw paid me a visit one evening and walked into the parlor without waiting to be announced. Several Nassau gentlemen were spending the evening with me, and we were talking and thinking about anything but spiders, when somebody exclaimed:
“There’s a ground spider!” If a hand grenade had come through the ceiling and dropped on the floor none of us could have been on our feet quicker. Everybody jumped back two or three feet, for the beast was right in our midst. He was, without any exaggeration, as large as the crown of a man’s hat. His legs looked a thick as the neck of a small bottle, and they were covered with coal-black hairs, some of which were more than an inch long. Fortunately I was following a Nassau custom at that time of leaving the floors uncarpeted, and we had no trouble to see him against the light-colored boards. There was immediately a rush for walking-sticks and umbrellas to fight him with, but one gentleman, with great presence of mind, picked up a large ottoman that stood near and threw it at him. That one shot put an end to the tarantula’s career. I don’t know whether he was a grandfather spider or why he was so large; but he was big enough to make anybody even people used to seeing them, shudder to look at him. He was soft, and the ottoman left nothing of him but a big spot on the floor, larger than the rim of a hat, and a little heap of black hair and legs. He was too badly used up to be kept for a curiosity, so we pitched him out and went on with the conversation. The Nassau gentleman did not consider him a particularly large one, but he was much larger than any I ever saw in Arkansas or anywhere else, and I have never seen as large a specimen in Nassau since. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 May 1885: p. 12
As grocers began to import produce either from outside the US or from distant states, stories like this began to pop up. A bunch of bananas was the cliche venue for giant spiders.
GIANT TARANTULA ATTACKS WOMAN
He Puts Up a Fierce Fight Before Being Finally Subdued.
The most enormous tarantula that ever beat his transportation bill from the West Indies fought like seven devils when attacked by a gang of men and boys at Louis Findorff’s grocery store, Fourteenth and Grant Streets Northeast, Minneapolis, yesterday.
Findorff was unpacking a crate of tomatoes when the many-legged insect, looking like an enormous spider and as large as a hardshell crab of two years’ growth, hopped from the crate and began executing circles on the floor of the store.
A woman customer who had just entered the place was so alarmed at the terrible aspect of the creature that she became hysterical and shrieked at the top of her voice. Immediately the tarantula jumped six feet in her direction, clearing a stove in transit and clinging to the dress of the distracted lady.
Then there was trouble. The tarantula seemed bent on reaching the face of its victim, and was making good progress in that direction when a venturesome customer with a paddle knocked it loose and started it on a new tour of hostility.
The woman who had been originally attacked was thrown into such paroxysms of fright that it required the combined efforts of half a dozen people to calm her. Meantime the tarantula was being chased from one end of the store to the other. When hard pressed it took refuge behind cracker boxes and other store furniture. At such moments as the chase became lax, the tarantula became aggressor and put his assailants to flight.
After fifteen minutes of strenuous work, the tarantula was placed hors du combat by a well-directed blow from a slat. The insect was poked into a fruit jar and it is now on exhibition. The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 29 July 1903: p. 1
Periodically we read of plagues of spiders, usually black spiders
A Plague of Spiders
Mrs. Julia Pierce and her daughter, who are well to do and live in a fine old house in Southport, Me., are the victims of a plague of small spiders, which have taken possession of their house The spiders’ bites are very painful, leaving a sore much like a fresh vaccination wound and causing extreme nausea. All efforts have failed to drive the pests out. Some days ago 10 pounds of brimstone were burned in one room, but the next day more than 300 live spiders were killed in that room. Mrs. Pierce and her daughter have had to leave the house for the time and fear it will have to be burned to give place to one that will be habitable. Southport. (ME) Special Chicago Times-Herald.
Monstrous spiders, of a dark green hue, have appeared in Nemaha County. They are so large that they prey on chickens, killing the fowls in most cases. In many ways they resemble the tarantula. The North Platte [NE] Semi-Weekly Tribune 16 June 1922: p. 6
PLAGUE OF SPIDERS
An Ugly, Black Monster is Overrunning New Jersey.
VICTIMS BY THE SCORE
The Jersey Mosquito a Blessed Boon as Compared to the New Pest.
New York, June 21. The Jersey mosquito has been dethroned by a species of black spider which is now running rampant in that state and whose victims during the past fortnight are numbered by the score. In three instances the depredations of the insect have been attended with serious results.
Lawyer G.F. Fort of Camden, while lying on his bed felt a tingling pain in the foot and looking down, saw a huge spider. Within a few hours his entire leg had swollen to an enormous size, and it was only after a confinement of a week that he was able to leave his house.
A similar case was that of C.H. Folwell of the same city, who was bitten on the temple. For several days he carried around a swelling the size of a baseball and was deprived of the use of his right eye Harry Linn of Williamstown was bitten on the hand, and the pain became so intense that he was thrown into nervous prostration, from which he has not yet recovered.
The other cases are so numerous that considerable alarm is felt lest the state should be afflicted with a veritable plague of spiders. Grand Rapids [MI] Press 24 June 1895: p. 3
Possibly in response to the way Americans often root for the underdog, tales of spiders killing prey much bigger than themselves were a popular staple of the papers.
SPIDER CATCHES A BIRD
Kentucky Farmer Rescues Flier From Prison in Web.
E.V. Anthony, a farmer who lives near the Kentucky-Tennessee line, discovered a new species of spider while at work in his garden, and the insect, which has been seen by many, surpasses anything of the kind ever seen in that section.
Mr. Anthony says the discovery of the spider was made through the shrill chirping of a bird. In a bed of weeds he found a huge spider web, and entangled therein was the bird’s mate, fluttering for freedom, while a monster spider was slowly weaving a web around its victim. The spider was some two inches in length, coal black, with green velvet spots on its body. The web in which it lives was some three feet in diameter, and the thread composing it was as strong as silk thread.
The spider was captured, although allowed to live, and was sent to an expert to be examined.Aberdeen [WY] Herald 25 November 1907: p. 6
My son, a lad of 14, being alone in the store yesterday at noon, was attracted to a retired corner of the room, by the piteous cries of some small animal, when, on gently removing the top of a barrel-cover from the wall against which it was leaning, he discovered a large Spider on the floor, in firm grapple with a half-grown Mouse. The main point of contact was in the side of the Mouse, where the spider has his hold, and was slowly but firmly advancing, in the deadly purpose of gaining his den, with his terrified and screaming victim, which the humane inference of the observer obliged him to relinquish. A SUBSCRIBER Gettysburg, June 19, 1835.
TRAPPED BY A SPIDER
Yesterday quite a crowd gathered on Greatman Street, at a carpenter’s shop. Near a bench in the shop hung a mouse, medium sized, head downward, and around its body was coiled a single thread of a spider’s web, which reached to a corner of the bench above, and had its fastening there. Or the mouse’s tail quietly set the spider, which seemed to be manipulating the thread and working it as with a pulley. When caught the mouse was on the ground and after five or six hour’s work the spider managed to hoist it about an inch, and there it hung. The explanation concerning this singular circumstance is that the mouse was accustomed, when on a predatory excursion, to emerge from a hole under the bench and pass into an inner room. The spider laid a trap in its path, it is conjectured, and yesterday morning as the mouse was making its accustomed daily rounds it was caught, in the not and held, the spider taking up a position on its tail. Although the mouse hung suspended, dead weight, the thread did not give way, and there it hung helpless between heaven and earth. At night the carpenter closed up his shop, but the spider was still at work, and had completed about an inch in the elevation. The Christian Recorder [Philadelphia, PA] 1 June 1876
This story came from an author who was obviously fond of spiders. He had hired someone to capture three tarantulas to take back to the Zoological Gardens in London.
“For some time after they commenced their voyage they ate nothing, though I put flies and cockroaches into their cage. Then I offered them bits of fresh-killed raw beef, which they seemed to suck; and then, as if this had whetted its appetite, to my great disgust one killed the other two, and sucked them till only the dry shells were left of them, bloating itself out visibly in the process.
When it began to get cold I filled up the box with hay, under which it retired and went to sleep and in that condition was forwarded by rail from Southampton to the Zoological Gardens in London, where I next saw it in a splendid glass cage, labelled with a Latin name several inches in length, and composed expressly for it.
They called it the “mouse-eating” spider, because it seemed to prefer the bodies of young mice to anything else. At first it used to drain them of blood as vigorously as it had served its late companions, but after a bit it got to know that there were more in the larder, and that it could have as many as it wanted, so it would cut out the top of the head with its sharp nippers, suck the brains and leave the rest.
From this there can be no doubt that it is quite capable of preying upon humming birds as it is reported to do in its native land; but its ordinary food more probably consists of insects, since the web which it spun in its cage (always on the ground) was not strong enough to catch anything heavier than big cockroaches. Of these it devoured a great number.
“A Chat About Spiders” James Elverson, Los Angeles [CA] Herald 10 June 1906: p. 32
Here are some modern examples of some nasty great spiders capturing large-scale prey, as posted by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman.
Something that struck me in looking at spider stories is that while there were many reports of people dying or being injured by spider bites, there was a small, but persistent set of people said to have swallowed spiders and either becoming seriously ill or dying.
SWALLOWED A SPIDER
A Kentucky Woman Experiences Awful Torture from a Peculiar Mishap.
Frankfort, Ky., June 22. Mrs. Peter Pardie met with a most peculiar and almost fatal accident yesterday. She arose before daylight to get a drink of water. In drinking she swallowed a small black water spider that had dropped into the bucket during the night. She felt the insect going down her throat, but did not know what it was. In an hour or two she became nauseated and threw up the spider, but not until it had bitten her repeatedly internally. The poison from the bites soon spread through her system and her condition became alarming. Here flesh puffed up in rolls and ridges, her ears swelled so tightly that the blood oozed through the skin, while her tongue swelled till she almost suffocated. Physicians worked for several hours administering all antidotes known and finally pulled her through, and she is now convalescent. Colored Citizen [Topeka, KS] 24 June 1897: p. 6
Samuel Roger’s little child, aged about one year, swallowed a spider Wednesday, and died from the effects of the poison in three hours in the Plum Lick neighbourhood.Semi-weekly Bourbon News [Paris, KY] 31 August 1883: p. 1
Mount Healthy, O., Oct. 19. Mrs. Hannah Beaver had a strange experience the other day which she does not wish to occur again. While drinking a cup of coffee at dinner she felt something run down over her nose. It fell into her coffee and went down her throat. Mrs. Beaver became deathly sick and vomited frequently and finally landed a spider. She has been very ill for the last three days. Evening Bulletin [Maysville, KY] 19 October 1892: p. 1
Swallowed a Spider
A spider swallowed by Katherine Degen, the 6-year-old daughter of H.C. Degen, of Louisville, Ky., is believed to have caused the little girl’s death which occurred early in the morning. At dinner she ate a saucer of strawberries and while eating the fruit remarked at the table that she “thought she had swallowed something.” Two hours later she was taken ill and died despite all the efforts of physicians to save her. The latter believe the poisonous insect caused her death.
According to the child’s grandmother, the strawberries were being prepared for the table when she discovered a spider in the fruit. The berries were washed several times, but the spider was not found. The grandmother believes the insect was among the berries served to the little girl. St. Johns Review [St. Johns, OR] 2 July 1909: p. 1
Certainly a spider might bite the swallower in the mouth or on the lip, but surely the venom of a poisonous spider would be neutralized by stomach acid?
For me, one of the most frightening aspects of spiders is how they move.
Skitter skitter skitter.
Makes me shudder just to think of it. As does this mass march of the tarantulas. There are, apparently, videos of this kind of thing online. I’ll let you look them up. I’d be moving in with flamethrowers.
How the Monstrous Spiders Move in Bodies Over the Country
An old military friend of mine told me not long since that in the summer of 1859 he and a companion were traveling before day one morning, to escape the terrible heat of the later hours along the bank of the Gila River, on the Arizona side, writes Rev. J. D. Gillilan, in the Christian Advocate. Jogging along and chatting as they went, or listening to a distant tu-whit-hu of some drowsy sand owl, their horses suddenly snorted and stopped short, and endeavoured to turn about. They brought their guns into position and peered into the dissolving darkness, expecting to see some “varmint” or skulking Indian, but nothing appeared in view. They urged their horses, but not a step did or would they budge, except in the wrong way, when their eyes lighted upon a long, black, flat serpentine-looking zone or ribbon stretching as far as the eye could reach in either direction and directly across their path. One of them dismounted, and upon reconnoitering found it to be nothing more or less than a mighty multitude of silent, soft-footed, marching tarantulas, migrating somewhere, they could not tell where. Their animals could not leap over them, and would not go through, so there was but one alternative, if they did not care to stay there, and that was to return about two miles to where they had just broken camp.
Coming again later in the day they found the host had passed by, but had left in their wake thousands that had been killed by a little enemy that follows them—a small bird that stabs the monster spider to death wherever found. Grand Forks [ND] Herald 11 January 1895: p. 2
Camel spiders are said to be able to run at about 10 mph for short distances. Wolf spiders are aggressive jumpers. A horse’s trot is roughly measured at 8-10 mph—is this last story a tall tale, an exaggeration, or fact?
Chased by a Spider
The king of the spiders on the pampas is not a Mygale [Mygale avicularia?] but a Lycosa [wolf spider] of extraordinary size, light gray in color, with a black ring around its middle. It is active and swift, and irritable to such a degree that one can scarcely help thinking that in this species nature has overshot her mark. When a person passes near one—say within three or four yards of its lurking place—it starts up and gives chase, and will often follow for a distance of 30 or 40 yards. I came once very nearly being bitten by one of these savage creatures. Riding at an easy trot over the dry grass, I suddenly observed a spider pursuing me, leaping swiftly along and keeping up with my horse. I aimed a blow with my whip and the point of the lash struck the ground close to it, when it instantly leaped upon it and ran up the lash and was actually within three or four inches of my hand when I flung the whip from me. The gauchos have a very quaint ballad which tells that the city of Cordova was once invaded by an army of monstrous spiders, and that the townspeople went out, with beating drums and flags flying, to repel the invasion, and that after firing several volleys they were forced to turn and fly for their lives. I have no doubt that a sudden great increase of the man-chasing spiders, in a year exceptionally favorable to them, suggested this fable to some rhyming satirist of the town. San Antonio [TX] Light, 9 August 1884: p. 3
And, oh, look what popped up in yesterday’s news feed–a plague of poisonous spiders in Britain!
Any horrific spider tales? Immobilize in spider silk until they stop struggling and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Previous posts on giant spiders are this one, about The Ash Tree and a South American spider and this, about giant spiders creating silk for clothing.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.