Many of us know the beloved story Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, published in 1958. As a child-reader I never thought about how White came up with the idea of a spider writing in a web. Perhaps he knew of the vogue for “educated spiders” and “prophetic spiders” in the 19th and early 20th-century press.
The earliest example I’ve found is this story, from 1868 Tennessee:
A Wondrous Spider
He Weaves Words in His Web.
At 188 North Summer street, a few doors below Line, is a little boot and shoe shop, kept by an honest and industrious man named Walley Williams, whose family occupy the rear portion of the building. All day yesterday this little shop and humble dwelling was the scene of a wondering and excited crowd, attracted thither by a most curious, but nevertheless truthful story, which gained general currency throughout the city. According to this story a big spider had weaved a big web in the shoemaker’s little shop, and was actually weaving the delicate shreds of his work into letters, and arranging those letters into words. The story seemed almost too steep for belief, without the most positive proof, and therefore we concluded to go and see for ourselves. So, yesterday afternoon, in company with several other curiosity hunters, we visited the place. It required some skillful engineering to get through the crowd of wondering people outside the house, and still more skillful management to get inside, for Willey had been compelled to shut and bar his windows and doors to keep out the excited crowd. But succeeding at last, we were abundantly compensated for the trouble taken. Doubt gave place to confirmation; for, sure enough, there was the spider and the result of his wondrously delicate and beautiful work. The web had been woven in a corner of the little shop, and hung suspended by a single thread from the ceiling. It was about a foot in circumference, and quite evenly and smoothly wrought. In the centre was the industrious builder of this linsey fabric, busy at his literary labors. He was much above the usual size of the spider family, but in all other respects bore a perfect resemblance to the fraternity who invite flies into their parlors. It was easy to discover upon entering the room, that the spider had been, and was, at work on the alphabet, for the letters already made were large, plain capitals, beautifully and perfectly formed and glistening like gems in the middle of the web. They were arranged close together, and upon a nearer inspection we were enabled to make out the characters with the utmost distinctness. The first two letters were W.W. followed by others which, viewed in one direction, plainly made the word “MERCER,” and, when looked at from above, plainly represented the word “BEWRE.” When we left the place, the spider was at work on another letter, but had not gone so far along as to allow us to distinguish the character. Nashville (Tenn.) Gazette.
San Francisco [CA] Bulletin 17 September 1868: p. 2
Atlanta boasted a spider with a crush
A Spider’s Romance
There’s a love sick spider out on Cedar street. He is a great big fat fellow, of a greenish yellow color, and has built a nest between a small china tree and the fence.
The spider is evidently in love with some married woman, and, considering his case hopeless, he employs his time in writing her name across his web.
About fifty people have called at his house this morning and read the writing on his web.
Looking at the web from one direction it reads very plainly, “Mrs. V.W.W.,” and viewing it from the other side you have “W.W.W.V.”
The spider seems oblivious to the presence of strangers and is still working on the name. Atlanta Journal.
The United Opinion [Bradford VT] 15 February 1889: p. 7
The election of 1896, between silver-standard advocate William Jennings Bryan and gold-standard man William McKinley inspired a partisan arachnid.
WOVEN BY A GOLD BUG.
A Curious Bladensburg Spider Spins the Name of McKinley
Bladensburg has a novelty. This is nothing more nor less than an educated spider, and a well-educated one at that, the republicans of that vicinity stoutly maintain, though the democrats shake their heads and express pity for the misguided insect. This spider has woven the name of William McKinley in the center of its web.
The spider itself is not the ordinary insect, but is a genuine gold bug. It has two golden stripes down its back, and there is not a particle of silver coloring to be seen anywhere in its make-up. These same stripes, so the more enthusiastic residents of that section who are partial to the spider’s candidate aver, shine at night with a radiant, golden light, so that the name of the candidate is always visible. Greater stress is laid upon this freak of nature from the fact that it has come to light in a silver man’s house. That individual stoutly maintains, however, in answer to a republican’s assertion, that “When a spider gets to writing a man’s name, there is no holding him back,” that Bryan does not need a spider to bring his name into prominence, and that all the spiders in the country cannot weave enough nets to hold him down.
A number of people both from that section of the country and this city have seen the strange working of nature. The spider resides in the kitchen of the residence of Mr. Alexander Moffit, which is on the old Bladensburg mill property, near the Highland station, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. The house is an old structure and the spider made his home in the rafters between two heavy beams, almost over the kitchen stove. The phenomenon was noticed at least six weeks ago, and a Star reporter visited the place yesterday to ascertain the real facts in the case. He found everything exactly as reported, and, although the flies and ravages of time had wrought a few changes in the delicate silken structure of the fly-catching trap, the writing was still plainly legible.
The writing itself is very nearly the size of ordinary large handwriting, and is situated very near the center of the web, the first letter starting just at the center. The web is about a foot in diameter and the lines which form the writing are darker and heavier than the other portions of the gauze-like structure. When the reporter visited the house the flies had destroyed the three first strokes of the “W” and a portion of the “e” and the “y,” but Mrs. James Hart drew in the remaining strokes just as she had seen them. otherwise the writing was intact, and the occupants of the house are willing to make affidavit, as well as the rest of the people who have seen the sight, that the whole name was there in the beginning and was plainly legible. The outer structure of the web is joined by thousands of strands to the writing, while the letters themselves are joined in the most approved fashion.
Among those who witnessed the spider’s handiwork are Major and Mrs. James P. Hart of 618 11th street northeast; Miss Annie hart, Miss Bell hart, Miss Clara Hart, Mr. C. Paxton, Mr. Lewis Esper and Mr. Albert McConochle of 304 9th street northwest, and, as stated above, are all willing to make affidavit to what they have seen.
Evening Star [Washington DC] 26 September 1896: p. 22
A man stabbed to death in a Toledo barroom led to ominous commentary from a spider. This story got a lot of play, with such titles as “Spider Spins Murder Epitaph” or “Spider Weaves a Death Tale”
SPIDER CAUSES TERROR
Name of Man Who Was Killed Woven In Its Web.
Toledo, O., Aug. 20 Jim Lee was killed in a saloon on Canton avenue last Thursday, and his slayer is now in jail. Jim Lee was a prominent figure on the avenue and the denizens looked for something strange out happen, and yesterday morning something did happen which would make even the unbeliever in spirits wipe cold sweat form his brow.
A few feet above the core of Jackson and Canton avenues is a bill board, and a few feet further on is a chute in which a spider has woven its web, and rests contentedly in the middle of it. A short distance above is the alley where Jim Lee was killed. The chute in which the spider made his home is directly by the side of the house from which Lee was buried. Early yesterday morning a woman who lives in the house was terror-stricken to discover that the spider had woven in his web the words, “My Jim,” on one side, and “Murder” on the other. These words were as legible as if written by hand when viewed by a newspaper correspondent about 10 o’clock yesterday morning.
The letters are woven into the web and are of the same substance as is the web, and are connected with the spider by the silken strings that form the web.
When seen later in the day the wind had blown the letters “Murder” partly together, so they were not so plain, but the words “My Jim” were still to be seen, plain as Gothic type.
Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 20 August 1901: p. 2
Alas, someone had woven a tangled web of deceit….
Toledo’s wonderful spiderweb mystery has at last been cleared up. Several days ago thousands of Toledo people flocked to a point on Canton avenue, near the courthouse, where in plain letters on a spiderweb appeared the words“My Jim” and “Murder.” .What made the denizens of that locality shudder every time they looked at it or thought about it was the fact that the web was spun at the corner of. a house in which Jim Lee, a colored man, had been murdered a day or two before. The letters were of white, while the web appeared a few shades darker. Yet it was the belief of everybody who saw it that it could not have been the work of human hands.
Names appeared on other spider-webs, but the mystery remained unsolved until a Mrs. Leggett, who came here from Detroit, said her husband made the letters. She made the admission to ease the-mind of a servant girl who had shown signs of insanity because of the web on the house where Lee was killed. Mrs. Leggett said her husband makes letters from fibers he takes from spider webs. Armed with a string of letters, he has but to put them on a web that strikes his fancy. The letters are slightly moistened, and then Leggett, by a gentle breath, b1ows them upon the web, and they cling there as though placed there by the spider itself. Of course, a stirring breeze soon destroys the letters or blows them together. He does it so deftly that no one, unless cognizant of the method employed, would suspect the deception. He spread the names about to call attention to his invention, expecting to use it for advertising purposes.
Jackson [MI] Citizen Patriot 30 September 1901: p. 1
I call that ingenious, although how much practical value (and money) there might be in spider-web advertising, is still unknown. The “Murder” inscription monopolized the press; I would have liked to have found notices of those “other names.”
Did Leggett continue his advertising campaign in Michigan?
A SPIDER’S WORK
It is Causing Residents of Owosso Much Alarm.
Owosso, July 28. An incident which, to the minds of the superstitious, contains a forewarning of some dire event has occurred at the home of Peter Mohan, residing seven miles northwest of Chesaning. A black spider has woven a web two feet across, and in a heavy mesh the word “Murder” appears so plainly that it can be seen across the room. Underneath that is a number of letters which are incomplete and cannot be made out. The spider is busy apparently completing its work. The web is a source of curiosity to the neighborhood and vicinity, hundreds of people having viewed it.
Mrs. Mohan, who first discovered the spider and its work, is very much alarmed, and is prepared to vacate the house.
Saginaw [MI] News 28 July 1902: p. 8
The Great War brought a fresh crop of alarmist arachnids writing of WAR and the armed forces. Or perhaps the natural zig-zag patterns of the orb weaver simply lent themselves to martial interpretations.
SPIDER WEAVES A STRANGE MESSAGE
Phenomenal Web on Door of Collinsville Homes Attracts Hundreds.
IS IT OCCULT MESSAGE?
“Army, “Navy” and “War” Are Some of the Words Plainly made Out.
By William Greshman
Collinsville, Okla., Oct. 6 Will wonder never cease? What is the solution of the phenomenon in the spider web woven over the south window of the home of G. Spyres at 1321 South street? Are a few of the thousand questions that are being asked by the hundreds of people who are flocking to see the greatest wonder of this century. Many treat the phenomenon as a curiosity, while others see a message from some higher power to the people of the city of some great calamity. Others think that it is a message of a great victory that the army and navy of the United States will soon win in the great world conflict.
Tuesday morning as Richard Compton was dressing for school, he noticed a large spider weaving a web over the window on the south side of his room. Looking closer he discovered that the spider was sitting in the center of the web and the word “army” was woven in large letters and was plain even thru the screen wire. Richard is 12 years old and he and his little sister have lived with their grandparents since he was 4 years old. At that time his mother died shortly after their father deserted them. He went to his grandmother and said: “Mother there is a center of his back. His head is has a web over my window. The spider remained quiet all day, but this morning the word “army” had been removed and in its place was “L.M. W. navy.” The “L” is plain and distinct, but there is some discussion as to whether the next letter is an “M” or “W.” Some say that the reading is “L.W.M. Navy” and others contend that the reading is “L.M.W. Navy.” But there is no question as to the “L” and the word “navy.” Neither was there any question as to the “army” on the web Tuesday, October 2.
The house faces the north and the room is in a lean-to on the south side of the house. The eave of the roof is not more than six feet from the ground and projects about fifteen inches over the wall. There is a screen wire over the window and the web is hung from the eave of the roof to the bottom of the window and is about two feet square.
The spider is a very large one. The spider has a very large body which is yellow on the side with small stripes and a large black stripe down the center of his back. His head is a light brown. He has four legs on each side of his body and the two front legs on each side are very long, while the other legs are not more than half as long as the front legs. The legs are brown from the body to about half way to the head and from there they are black with a very small brown stripe at the joints. The web was first woven Monday night, October 1, with the word “army” written on it and which was removed Tuesday night and the “L.M.W. Navy” written in its place.
Tulsa [OK] World 7 October 1917: p. 15
TULANE SAVANTS SCOFF AT SPIDER’S WEAVE OF VICTORY
Insect Has had Great Name for Prophecy in mythology Nevertheless.
Prof. G.E. Beyer, Tulane University professor of biology, and Ed Forster, state entomology, Tuesday scoffed at reports that giant spiders here are weaving the words “Victory America,” “Wilson Wins,” “War Ends November, 1918” and other “superstitious” tales of the prophetic insect. Professor Beyer compared the report to the traditional about the seventeen-year locust that is said to spin a “W” and to indicate war whenever it arrives. Mr. Foster explained how the zigzag nature of the web might have led to the war surmises.
The alleged prophetic spider was first reported Sunday as operating at the home of Mrs. Peter Bouchon, 2230 Frenchmen street. A reporter for The Times-Picayune found the same kind of a spider Tuesday with its zigzag web at the home of Mrs. Ora Toragano, 1816 Columbus street, and at two places near Lapeyrouse and Miro streets.
Mrs. Bouchon’s daughter has set up a small business on the strength of the curiosity aroused by newspaper stories of the spider and is charging 5 cents admission. She leads the visitor to a half dozen different spiders’ webs in the back yard and points out the different letters which she says she sees. She uses a magnifying glass for exhibition.
Stories were current in the neighborhood Tuesday when a limousine stopped at the Bouchon home to the effect that the wealthy occupants had bought two of the spiders for five hundred dollars each. Miss Bouchon has a sign painted on the fence warning people not to touch the web. In the few minutes the reporter was at her home eight persons saw the sight.
As explained by Mr. Foster the impression that the words “victory American” were written by the web might be conveyed with the aid of a little imagination because the zigzag naturally forms the letters V and M and forms A in connection with a radial line, which runs out from the center of the web. The word “war” is the nearest approach of any of the words to reality, because the W and the A are zigzag letters, and the R in one instance was vaguely formed, probably by some obstruction which caused the spider to veer at a right angle form the top of the R. The two sides are formed in the regular zigzag and the center is a radial line.
After an examination Tuesday with a magnifying glass of thirteen of the spider webs a Times-Picayune reporter could find no straight letters such as the I and T in the words supposed “Victory America.” The only words resembling the alleged “War ends November, 1918,” the reporter could find any semblance in reality were “War” and the Ns in “ends” and “November” and the V in “November.”
Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 30 September 1917: p. 48
SPIDER WAS PROPHET
Springfield, Ill., Nov. 24. Spiders in New Orleans that months ago wove prophetic allusions on the ending or the war, to wit: “Win War,” “U.S. Win War,” and “White [slang for cowardly] Kaiser,” can all take a back seat.
The real spider prognosticator has been found at Riverton, near here. It is owned by Louis Glueck and a few days before the signing of the armistice looked into a crystal ball of dew on his silken weavings and got busy.
This is what it wrote in filmy letters:
“Win War in November.”
Baltimore [MD] American 27 November 1918: p. 9
Prophetic spiders seemed to catch the fancy of parody-spinners:
Hunting Prophetic Spiders New Game
Everybody’s Doing It, and One More is Reported.
Have you bought a Liberty bond?
Have you done your Christmas shopping early?
And now, it’s have you found a prophetic spider in your back yard?
Everybody’s discovering a spider that is weaving in a web its prophecy that American will win, war ends in 1918, and the like, it seems.
Half a dozen more were “discovered” Wednesday.
Fred Eisemann, 4121 St. Claude, is the very latest to report one. Emphatically stating that he isn’t superstitious, Eisemann ‘phoned The States late Wednesday that there is a spider with two webs in the yard of a washerwoman’s house at Burgundy near Lesseps street.
“You can see ‘W-A-R’ as plain as day,” he said
Later—‘Hello,” said the voice at the other end of the wire. “We have one of those writing spiders in our yard at 1114 Marengo street. It’s busy writing those white lines that The States showed in the picture the other day
‘Nobody around here can understand what the spider is writing.”
The Spider Editor fainted:
But it wasn’t long before he was revived, for the following message came in on the phone at noon Thursday from a man who gave his name as William Dale, and his address as 723 St. Andrew street.
“I discovered a snail in my backyard this morning. It had crawled over a packing box there, and the gummy trail it left behind it spelled out the words: “Don’t Worry, Uncle Sam!”
New Orleans [LA] States 27 September 1917: p. 1
Despite that diverting image, snails as prophets never took off, and after 1918, the web of prophetic spiders seemed to unravel, although there was a brief revival during the Second World War.
I see orb weavers spinning their webs around my porch in the summer–entirely too close for comfort, I might add–but, while they keep down the fly population, they have, alas, woven no prophecies.
Other prophetic spiders? Spin your tale to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
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.