Poisonous Kisses: A Valentine’s Day PSA

Kiss of Death. Death and the Maiden, Hans Baldung Grün.

Poisonous Kisses: A Valentine’s Day PSA Kiss of Death. Death and the Maiden, Hans Baldung Grün.

When kissing your sweetheart’s tender lips, do your thoughts turn to pneumonia, diphtheria, or Streptococcus pyogenes?

No? You’re living in a fool’s paradise. You might want to get out the mouthwash before you read this public service announcement for Valentine’s Day. Who knew that the lover’s salute was the equivalent of snake venom or that there is death in that kiss?


In His Ecstasy of Joy Theodore Bolton Gently Bit the Lips of Pretty Ethel Granger, His Fiancée, and How it Came About That This Unfortunate Caress Was Poison and laid Her in Her Grave.

Kill all stray dogs; muzzle all others; if you are scratched or bitten by a household pet that appears to be out of condition, take the Pasteur treatment quickly, to avoid the possible horror of rabies.

These are the sentiments expressed or acted upon by the Health Departments of most of the big cities now that the mercury is climbing up to “dog day” altitudes. Dread of infection from deadly microbes is one of the easiest read signs of the times.

But suppose the Health Department added to its warnings an admonition like this: “Keep young lovers apart—to permit them to kiss each other may be to condemn one or the other, or both, to an agonizing death from blood poisoning.”

Of course no such official warning has been issued, and would not be regarded if it were; but, nevertheless, such a warning carefully observed by at least one pair of lovers would have prevented a tragedy. A pretty Southern girl, now in her grave, would be alive and in happy anticipation of a September marriage to the man of her choice.

She was a red-cheeked country girl living with her parents near the little Northern Georgia village of Pots Mountain. Her name was Ethel Granger. Theodore Bolton, a railway employe, met her when she had gone to Pickens—the nearest railway town to her home—to do some shopping.

They fell in love, and once or twice a month—when his duties as one of a train crew gave him a day off at Pickens—he went out to her country home “courting.”

They became engaged. Naturally it was quite a trial to both of them that their meetings were of necessity so infrequent. But all that would be changed when they were married and had a home of their own at the station where he could spend every other night.

They were very deeply in love with each other. In May it was a deep disappointment to both that his work kept them apart for a whole month. At last they were to have an evening together.

At dusk she walked down the road to meet him. He was on horseback. When he saw her beside the road he dismounted and took her in his arms, kissing her fondly. As they walked toward her home, he with the bridle rein over one arm, frequent kisses were exchanged. They became very merry, and once he bit her playfully on the lip.

“Oh, you bad boy,” she said. “you’ve made my lip bleed.”

“Never mind,” he answered: “It’s all right. My lip is bleeding too. It’s nothing but a little cold sore. They spent a most happy evening planning their wedding for September, when he was promised promotion and a raise of wages—and then he rode away. He was never to see her again in life, but no presentiment of such a misfortune oppressed them.

Next day she noticed that her lip was slightly swollen. Two days later the inflammation had spread to her other lip. Her parents became alarmed and applied simple household remedies. The swelling continued until the poor girls’ face was unrecognizable.

The country doctor’s efforts produced no favorable result. After a week another doctor was summoned by telegraph. When he arrived the girl was suffering great agony. She had taken to her bed and was delirious at times.

The two physicians held a consultation, and walked out into the fields with the father to break to him the terrible truth.

“It’s blood poison. We can do nothing. It is too late.” They sent for Theodor Bolton, but when he arrived his sweetheart was dead.

To the simple country folk it seemed a stroke of “fate”—something that could not be explained to which they must be resigned. “Blood poisoning” was the official cause of death. If the doctors were able to particularize they forbore doing so.

Human bites are rare, for civilized man almost never uses his teeth as weapons. Nevertheless on an average, six people in this country die from man-bite every year. That is statistics. Undeniably, the danger is sufficiently great to make it wise for the sufferer in such a case to resort promptly to cautery of the injured part as a precaution.

So much being admitted, one naturally asks, “Why is the human bite so dangerous? Is there a virulent germ that commonly inhabits the mouth of man, which, if introduced into the circulation, poisons the blood and is liable to cause death?

Unhappily, this question must be answered in the affirmative. But a proper reply to it involves a certain amount of explanation, inasamuch as the mouth even of the most healthy person usually contains a good many kinds of germs, several of which are “morbific,” or “pathogenic,” as the doctors say—in other words, of disease producing species.

“The human mouth is a veritable microbe farm,” said Dr. D.S. Lamb, Anatomist-in-charge at the Army Medical Museum. “Germs of many kinds live and multiply on the tongue and in the throat; and the average healthy person you meet may, perhaps, have twenty-five or thirty different species in his mouth, including a few dangerous ones, such as those which cause pneumonia and diphtheria. Decaying teeth afford opportunity for the propagation of some tribes of bacteria; others are bred by particles of food caught between the teeth; but most of them feed upon the saliva and other normal secretions.”

Why, then do not the dangerous germs, such as those of diphtheria and pneumonia, when they are present, cause infection? The answer is that, under ordinary circumstances, so long as the system is in a healthy condition, attack by them is successfully resisted. But let a person become sick, or even run down in health, and, the resisting power being lessened, the deadly microbes invade the tissues, feeding upon them, ad as they do so excrete poisons of their own manufacture which are destructive to life.

“Such poisons—at least in some instances—are chemically akin to the venoms of snakes,” said Dr. Marion Dorset, of the Government Bureau of Animal Industry. “For example, the bacilli of diphtheria, growing on the tonsils and neighboring regions of the throat and nose passages, produce an extremely virulent poison, which causes the terrible prostration characteristic of that disease. This poison is what chemists call a tox albumin, and in character is closely related to serpent venom, as well as to the poison of certain deadly mushrooms.”

But to return to the consideration of the human bite and its dangers. It is not the pneumonia or diphtheria germs that carry the peril—which is fortunate, perhaps, in view of the statement of Dr. William M. Gray, the bacteriologist in chief of the War Department. He said.

“A microscopic examination of the sputum of a healthy human being will nearly always reveal the presence of germs of pneumonia. Let me inspect a small quantity of your saliva, and there is little doubt that I can obtain from it microbes which, started to growing on gelatin, will establish a thriving colony of those maleficent bacteria.” If it be not such germs as these that cause the mischief in cases of fatal man-bite, what are the ones responsible?

The answer is microbes of blood poisoning. On this point let Dr. Gray, the foremost authority in this country, speak again. He says:

“There are several species of microbes that cause blood poisoning, but the one that is usually responsible for the trouble in fatal cases of human bite is the Streptococcus pyogenes—a bacterium that is found quite commonly in the mouths of healthy people. Pyogenes it should be explained means “pus-forming.”

Incidentally to feeding on the tissues, when once it gets started, this microbe excretes a tox albumin which, like that produced by diphtheria germs, is chemically speaking, near akin to the venom of the rattlesnake. Whence it appears that, while man, properly speaking, is not a venomous animal, his bite is liable to produce effects not unlike those of serpent poison when introduced into the circulation. Of a certainty, it is offtimes equally deadly.

Plenty of proof of the danger that lurks in human saliva, however, is afforded by its effect when injected into the veins of rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals. The creatures thus inoculated nearly always die—usually of blood poisoning.

All things considered, it is a good idea to avoid being bitten, in love or in hate, in play or in earnest, by another person. It is too dangerous. Better a toothless lover than one who, through carelessness, mixes bites with his osculation. Even to bite one’s self—a thing which now and then happens—is an accident to be escaped if possible. To be one’s own victim in such a fashion would be a fate too dreadful to contemplate, even in imagination. Lexington [KY] Herald 12 July 1908: p. 7

We might think that this was a freak incident that inspired a one-off, crankish rant against kissing, or perhaps more accurately, against love-bites, but there were dozens of doctors all spewing the same warnings against mouth-to-mouth contagion, some more luridly phrased than others:

So long as rosy and inviting lips are presented by the fair maiden. so long will the ardent lover risk the thousands or millions of microbes that may dwell thereon. But remember the probability that in many instances of the customary kissing, there is a great vicious bloodhound lying hidden, ready to strike his poisonous fangs into the very flesh and bone of the unsuspecting individual, who may afterwards suffer untold wretchedness during the remainder of life, and die a premature death, never knowing what struck him. It is not always apparent on the outside of a person what pain and misery lurk beneath the surface, and which may be communicated to others by a kiss. Pennsylvania Medical Journal, Vol. 2, 1899

The invective is not unlike some Church Fathers railing against marriage (Odo of Cluny compared women to bags of excrement.) or 20th-century anti-venereal-disease warnings. (“She may look clean, but…”)

 The Deadly Kiss

“Remember,” said a Detroit physician to his wife as he was leaving home for a few days, “and do not let the children kiss any one.”

“Is it possible,” asked a surprised third party who was present, “that you consider it necessary to give such instructions as that. Where is the danger?”

Said the doctor: “In my case all kinds of people come to my house and office to consult me and they often wait hours. If one of my children happens to come in they are almost certain to talk to it, and you know almost the first impulse with people who notice children is to kiss them. Bah! It makes me shudder—tainted and diseased breaths, lisp blue with cancer, foul and decayed teeth. You would kill a stranger who would waylay your young lady daughter and kiss her by force, but the helpless, innocent, six-year-old child, susceptible as a flower to every breath that blows, can be saluted by every one who chances to think of it. I tell you it wasn’t Judas alone who betrayed by a kiss. Hundreds of lovely, blooming children are kissed into their graves every year.” “But, doctor, how can a mother be so ungracious as to refuse to allow people to notice her children?” “There need be no ungraciousness about it. Let the mother teach her child that it is not a kitten or lap dog to be picked up and fondled by every stranger, and instruct it to resist any attempt to kiss it. Why, there are agents, peddlers of household ware, who make it a custom to catch up a prattling child, kiss and pet it, and so interest the mother that she will buy something she does not want. I tell you there is death in the kiss. The beloved and lamented Princess Alice of Hesse, took diphtheria from the kiss of her child, and followed it to her grave. Diphtheria, malaria, scarlet fever, blood poison and death lurk in these kisses!” And waving his hand the doctor drove away. Detroit Free Press. Northern Christian Advocate [Syracuse, NY] 15 May 1884: p. 6

To be fair, all the warnings against poisonous kisses came in the pre-antibiotics era. It wasn’t until the 1930s and sulfa drugs that the anti-kiss campaign came to a close, although there was an echo of it in the germaphobe childcare manuals of the 1950s.

I’ve previously discussed the deadly “kissing bug” menace. If you’ll forgive the pun, this young man perished as a result of a “kissing bee.”


Osculations Scare Lad, Who Jumps Aside, Falls on Stick and Dies.

New York, Feb. 15. Skylarking with a bevy of pretty typewriter girls, who were laughingly threatening to smother him with kisses on his fifteenth birthday, George Spencer Millett met death in a strange and for a time most mysterious manner today in the office of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. at 1 Madison-av.

Nimbly leaping aside to escape the make-believe embrace of Miss Gertrud Robbins, the boy tumbled to the marble floor with a cry of pain. There was a deep stab wound, as it afterward transpired, just under his heart. Some hours later Miss Robbins, who is twenty-three, was locked up charged with homicide. Later the charge was made merely “suspicious person.”

According to the police, Miss Robbins said she, with a number of other women stenographers, were preparing to leave the office when one of them happened to remember that it was young Millett’s fifteenth birthday. She suggested that each of the young women give him fifteen kisses in celebration of the event. The lad tried to avoid the embraces of the girls and Miss Robbins said that as she drew near him he held something in his hand that looked like a stick, about six inches in length. In the struggle that ensued, she said, the lad fell to the floor and the point of the instrument entered his side. [The “instrument” was an ink eraser, according to other articles.] Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 16 February 1909: p. 1

Someone seems to have taken the warnings of the past to heart.  Now “Burberry Kisses” allows you to lock lips with anyone anywhere–safely–via your smart phone. Where’s the frisson of danger in that?

Any other notable deaths by kiss? Vampires excluded. Buss me at Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.

Be careful out there, this Valentine’s Day. Mwah!





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.


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