I am an utter coward when faced with “bugs.” For me that category encompasses (accurately or not) spiders, flies, stink bugs, bees, millipedes, scorpions, ants, and anything else that crawls on me in my sleep. Millions of people share this revulsion, so it is surprising that we do not find more mystery insect panics buzzing through historic newspapers.
Again, I warn you that I am not an entomologist and if you are, you may feel like mounting me on a pin when I include a report of a bug readily identifiable by the meanest entomology undergrad. The point of this collection of mystery insects is that the creatures mystified contemporary observers and scientists.
The “kissing bug” was the mystery insect sensation of 1899. The epidemic began in June with reports from Washington DC. It quickly spread up and down the eastern seaboard. The odd part was that nobody actually saw the insect, only experienced the painful bites. This is a typical early report.
IS A MYSTERIOUS BUG
It Affects a Love of Biting the Upper Lips of Washington People.
A mysterious bug is doing considerable damage in Washington, and although the entomologists have been busy trying to discover exactly what it is and how it works, their researchers have utterly failed so far. The peculiarity of this bug is that is generally works at night, with the most disastrous effect upon the upper lip of its victim.
Some days ago the presence of this bug was discovered by the bringing of two or three of its victims to the Emergency hospital for treatment. Each person had a badly swollen upper lip. In each case the patient said he had been attacked during sleep by a bug or insect which came noiselessly, wrought the injury inflicted and departed unseen. At first the hospital physicians thought he bite was that of the common cimex lectularius, [bed bug] which is well known to every housewife, but when case after case was brought to their attention by the arrival of fresh victims, they began to see that their first diagnosis was wrong.
The swelling is sometimes enormous. All the cases brought to the attention of the doctors have been on the upper lip, and the inflammation so distorts the features that the victim is unrecognizable even by his acquaintances. When white persons are attacked the swelling is a very brilliant red. Considerable pain accompanies it, which fortunately does not last long. The doctors have found that collodion applied to the swollen surface brings the best results.
So much interest has been excited over these bug bites that whenever a new victim is brought into the hospital the first question asked him is “Did you see the bug?” The invariable answer so far has been “no,” but the entomologists are determined to find the insect before it creates an epidemic. New York Mail and Express. Grand Rapids [MI] Press, 1 July 1899: p. 10
Kissing bug reports began appearing in the papers in June. In just one of my newspaper databases, there are over 1,400 mentions of the kissing bug (obviously with some duplicates) for the whole of 1899. Panic ensued. Some saw in the insect, a harbinger of the Apocalypse:
A new and terrible significance is attached to the advent of the “kissing bug” by Professor A.M. Leonard, the apostle of the Mission of the Messenger of Truth, In Chicago, In a recent discourse before a large audience the speaker pronounced the “mysterious picipes to be the veritable locust which the Book of Revelation says shall come from the bottomless pit, attack men with the string of the scorpion, from the effects of whose bite the victim shall linger five months, and which fastens itself upon those whose foreheads do not bear the seal of the Lord. Sedan [KS] Lance 10 August 1899: p. 7
Amateur disease hunters captured all types of insects that they believed to be the kissing bug. Dr. Samuel M. Dow of Cleveland believed that he had captured the culprit insect—a type of assassin bug–melanolestes picipes. Professor Frederick Odenbach of St. Ignatius College disagreed, believing the “kissing bug” to be a type of uber-bedbug. [Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) 14 July 1899: p. 1] But by early August, the true origin of the kissing bug was “revealed.”
KISSING BUG A MYTH
Originated in the Brain of a Washington Newspaper Man
The kissing bug is a myth. There is no such creature in existence as the much advertised melanolestes picipes. [Not true—there really is an assassin bug with that nomenclature.] The whole thing is a hoax, started by some bright young newspaper men in Washington when there was a scarcity of real news, and swallowed by the gullible public as many a hoax has been before and will be hereafter. The Washington boys started the yarn as a hot weather fake to relieve the tedium of a summer with no congress in session, and the enterprise of journalism did the rest. Pictures of the mysterious bug have been published, and telegraphic dispatches have told of its serious and occasionally fatal, ravages. And now the truth is out, and the public will have to laugh away its discomfiture at having been fooled again.
A Washington correspondent of the Pittsburg Dispatch tells the origin of the kissing bug, but probably the exposure of the hoax will travel neither as far nor as fast as the hoax itself and many people will continue to live in mortal terror of the winged osculator.
It was in the early part of June that the wonderful creature was first heard of. At that time many complaints were made with sore and swollen lips, and it is not hard for a newspaper man to exaggerate the swelling and make it any size desirable. The victims presented to the reading public by the originators of the yarn in Washington were unknown, and perhaps fictitious, colored persons. The story being well established in the national capital, it was pushed northward by the gentlemen in the conspiracy. The boys of Baltimore threatened to stop the fun, however. They would have none of it; knowing it to be a fake, and the kissing bug did not invade Baltimore and create hysterics there. The Washingtonians says that the newspaper men of Baltimore are entirely too conscientious for this world. The kissing bug, however, extended itself and carried its devastations northward into New Jersey and to Philadelphia and New York, and has worked into New England. The summer resorts have seen it. A supposed specimen or two has even been captured in this city and doctors have diagnosed its “kisses.”
And now the bottom drops out of the whole hoax, and everybody will proceed to laugh. It was time to crash the kissing bug. He was making people nervous, and his effect was especially bad on hysterical women. The whole thing shows the power of journalism, and while all journalists may not be proud of this illustration of their power, it is to be wished that the press were never used for a worse purpose. Concord Evening Monitor.Omaha [NE] World Herald 6 August 1899: p. 18
Like so many debunkings of Fortean events, this one doesn’t quite satisfy. Despite this prompt exposure of the “hoax,” stories are found up through the early 1920s about epidemics of kissing bugs such as a story headed “Kissing Bugs Descend on Keansburg” Jersey Journal [Jersey City, NJ] 17 June 1922: p. 1. Eventually the term became slang for an excessively amorous lover.
Of course, there really is a “kissing bug,” also known as cone-nose bugs, Mexican bedbugs or chinches. They deliver painful bites around the eyes and mouth and can spread chagas disease. The assassin bug also delivered a painful bite, which might cause disease in some individuals. It is difficult to tell which genuine insect might have caused the ravages attributed to the Kissing Bug. Charles Fort, in Wild Talents, wrote about the panic, comparing it to the tarantism mania of southern Europe.
Let us continue with some lesser-known mystery insects.
WHAT IS IT?
A most singular nondescript was discovered yesterday in a window in town. It seems to be a cross between a butterfly and a bat! It has six legs. Its wings are partially painted, with a grayish ground. It has a large gray body, and an unwieldy head from which two yellow horns project. It has a bad temper, is easily irritated, and shows fight whenever anyone manifests an aggressive disposition. It is an ugly customer. It has small, brown, twinkling eyes. What is it? The oldest inhabitant never saw such a sight as this before. We hope it will be preserved in the cabinet of natural curiosities in the College on the hill. Daily Iowa State Register [Des Moines, IA] 21 June 1866: p. 1
Mysterious Bug Inhabits Grounds of State Capitol
A mysterious bug inhabits the grounds of the state capitol. So strange looking is this queer insect, reptile or whatever it may be, that girl stenographers have sworn off on noontime lunches on the statehouse steps and grounds for fear that the “bug” may be a species of scorpion.
The animal of mystery looks much like a scorpion, with the exception that it has a beadlike head and jointed legs, with sharp claws. These claws or spurs number thirteen on each of the legs. Its body seems to be incased in a sort of bony armor.
The only example of this bug so far discovered was found by one of the young women clerks. She screamed and ran to the custodian, telling him what a fearful animal it was. Sundry brave state officials thereupon armed themselves heavily and attacked the animal in its lair, the underside of a rock on the grounds.
It was turned over to Dr. T.B. Beatty, state sanitary inspector. Dr. Beatty was unable to say what it was or to what family it seems to belong. He has it on exhibition in his office and will turn it over to the “bugology” experts at the University of Utah. Salt Lake [UT] Telegram 13 October 1915: p. 13
From a story about unusual insects of the tropics:
Here is a bug that may not be so easy to classify.
An American tourist once asked me to show him the jungle. In the course of our wanderings I showed him a vast cave where an estimable pirate gentleman is said to have buried his treasure at one time. We penetrated the cave for some distance, but were finally brought up short at the edge of a hole that sank into the bowels of the earth. My American friend picked up a stone, intending to throw it down the hole. He had no sooner picked up the stone, however, than he dropped it with a yell.
“What’s that?” he cried, pointing to a weird-looking insect that sat perched on the edge of a rock.
By the dim light coming from a rift in the rock overhead we distinguished a thing that was half spider, half grasshopper, and about two inches long. In order to determine what manner of insect it was and what it did for a living I threw a pebble at it. Instead of moving away from us the insect darted right onto my shoulder and as quickly bounded away again. That insect was not half so scared as the person who is now writing about him.
We discovered presently that the cave was full of the nondescript, and that they were blind. My friend, who was something of a “bugologist,” struck a match. I will never forget the peculiar tightening of my scalp when we saw, gleaming in the matchlight, dozens of pair of silky antennae waving from the crevices in the rocks. “Bugology” and nerve collapsed simultaneously. There was something weirdly suggestive of a Welsh rabbit dream about those blind, green antennaed nondescripts. [cave or camel crickets?] Baltimore [MD] American 2 July 1904: p. 13
“Bugtown man-eater?” Too pat? Local joke article?
ALL BUGTOWN SCARED BY MYSTERIOUS BUG
Hurrffville, N.J., Sept. 7 A new bug has been found at “Bugtown,” a settlement about a mile from here, which threatens to depopulate that section, if any more of the same kind appear. It is a regular man-eater, and the greatest excitement prevails.
The creature was found yesterday hanging to a tree and captured and taken to the corner grocery, where scores of people tried ineffectually to name it.
The bug is about five inches long, has four legs, two of which protrude from close to the neck. It is without wings and crawls. Its large eyes extend beyond the head. It is a wicked-looking varmint. The capture was made by several men, who finally got it inside a large jar. Scientists at Woodbury and Philadelphia have been notified. Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 7 September 1921: p. 4
A MYSTERIOUS WORM THAT HAS PUZZLED THE LUMBERMEN
A special correspondent of the Boston Globe, writing from Bangor, Me., July 25, says: There is considerable alarm felt among owners of timber lands on which there is juniper on account of the appearance of what is called, for the want of a more definite term, “the juniper worm.” This worm is about an inch long, green in color, with a black band. It seems that the appearance of these worms was noticed last season, but nothing in particular was thought or said about them. This year they have appeared in large numbers in Piscataquis, Penobscot, Aroostook, and perhaps other counties in the State. Observation shows that they begin work on the very top branches of the trees and work downwards, stripping everything green as they go. They began work a few weeks ago, and in some sections large growths of juniper bark looked as though burned. The worms have now mysteriously disappeared, and it is thought have gone into the ground. Indeed, one lumberman reports finding a large quantity of these worms in the ground at the foot of a juniper. ..Where the worms come from no one knows. The old settlers never saw any worm that resembles them…. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 31 July 1883: p. 3
One of the most famous mystery insects is the strange winged creature of Borley Rectory. Was it a real, unknown (to the witness) insect or something supernatural? An artist, Mrs. Wilson, who was engaged in painting the old building, told psychic researcher Harry Price her story.
“While I was painting, and about 3 o’clock in the afternoon I suddenly noticed a sound, such as of approaching wings or rushing wind coming towards me. Looking up, I saw the queerest object with impelling eyes advancing towards me at about eye level. It seemed to be coming out of a mist. It was accompanied by a wasp on its left and this must have been the wings I heard. I had just time to jump up and as they were quite near my face, which seemed to be the objective, I struck at it with my mahlstick, and seemed to hit the big object into the grass. The wasp seemed to go off on its own. With alarm I searched for the nameless object I had struck, as if I had not killed it, I thought it was possible it might attack me. I searched, but was unable to trace it and eventually gave up looking. Gradually, the unusualness of the creature dawned upon me and the more I thought of it, the less I could understand what it was.
“Certainly I had never seen anything like it before, and should describe it as being quite three inches in length, the body entirely black and composed of sections enabling it to bend and expand with ease. Its eyes were large and the color of bloomy black grapes. The object was flattish…”
Harry Price continues with the following: “When Mrs. Wilson arrived home, she at once painted the strange, articulated creature with large goggle eyes, while its appearance was still fresh in her memory. Later, Mrs. Wilson asked her friend, Miss Joyce Mercer, to re-draw the creature in black and white, more suitable for reproduction…No wonder Mrs. Wilson was startled! I have shown her sketch to several naturalists and entomologists and they all declare that it is like ‘nothing on earth’!” He further remarks that Mrs. Wilson is well-acquainted with the insect world as she spent much of her time outdoors painting and drawing insect life and plants. The Most Haunted House in England, Harry Price, pp. 134-6
The illustration looks like a caricature of a garden-variety dragonfly to me.
In a letter about Liberia warning that people not be sent there from America, the author mentions a mystery insect.
“It is a good place for the natives themselves, but it does not suit any other living animal on earth that is born anywhere else. Dear sir, it is practising the most cruel murder on the people to send them here in the dreadful situation in which they send the people here. It is but few that escape the fever, and many die with it, and they who escape death only live to drag out a miserable, unhappy life…Drivers [driver ants], bugabugs [termites], claw scorpions…a thing like a spider, it has three mouths, it comes in the house in the night, and crawls on the wall. If it should bite a person, it is instant death to him. The claw scorpion is almost as bad with its sting. The drivers have been known to kill cattle and men. The Liberator [Boston, MA] 31 May 1834
Three-mouthed spiders aside, the most intriguing mystery insect I found was this one: The Death Bug of Chicago.
MYSTERIOUS BUG BITES CHICAGO WOMEN AND POISONS THEM SEVERELY
Chicago, Oct. 23. The Death Bug is loose in Chicago.
A mysterious insect, as deadly as the tarantula, has bitten three persons and in every case the bit would have been fatal, but for the quick work of doctors.
The haunt of the “death bug” is the skyscraper. Its victims invariably have been young women.
Miss Frances Ross, 327 West 26th street, is the first recorded victim of this death-dealing bug, and but for heroic and immediate treatment would not have survived the terrible effects of its attack.
Despite the fact that she was in the hands of a physician four minutes after the venomous creature bit her Friday last, she is still ill.
For two days she was in a delirium and her life was despaired of.
It was only yesterday that she was able to leave her bed.
With the utmost carefulness, the matter has been guarded because of the public place which the “death” bug inhabits—most frequently the probate court of Chicago.
There among the wills of the departed this winged animal still lives. All search for it has been of no avail.
Even the officers of the court yesterday admitted their fears when they found that the secret could be kept no longer.
Clark Abraham Kallis, 138 West Twelfth street, said that every means to rid the place of the presence of the deadly insect had been made, but that it was feared it still lived as no trace of it could be found. It is believed that, now the matter has become public, chlorides and sulphates will be scattered around the room in the hope that fumigation will kill the insect.
Miss Ross was attacked while she was working in the court. She had taken legal documents to the room for Attorney Julius Coleman, Plaza hotel, for whom she is a stenographer.
While leaning over a file she felt something light on her neck and brushed it off with her hand. Instead of knocking the bug to the ground, she found it clung to her index finger. With a strenuous gesture she threw it off.
Not until then did she feel pain. She screamed and fell to the floor in agony.
Clerk Kallis ran to her side and summoned a doctor.
Miss Ross’s finger had turned black by the time the physician arrived, however, and there was no time wasted in splitting the flesh and allowing the poisoned blood to escape. She was then hurried to her home in an ambulance. Half an hour after she reached the 26th street residence she became unconscious.
For forty-eight hours she was in a delirium. When her talking became coherent it was always about the “death bug” or about the wills for the dad. At times she would cry for protection against “the dead that were gripping her.”
When seen in her home last night she gave a description of the “death bug.”
“It was very large,” she said, “and had two pairs of wings—gauzy wings like those of a fly, but about an inch long. The body of the creature was black” and she shuddered. “And he had a sort of claw for a mouth, something like a lobster’s claw.”
William G. Ross, who for years was connected in an official capacity with the house of correction, said he had investigated the matter and had been told that a woman died from the bite of a similar bug about one year ago.
“I was told this by a clerk in a down-town drug store,” said Mr. Ross. “We feel that it was extremely fortunate that Frances received treatment so quickly. As it is, it seems a horrible thing, but I am sure she will be well very soon.”
Attorney Coleman has also interested himself in the matter and he states yesterday that two other women had been similarly attacked. There were serious results in both cases, he said.
Several scientists who were called upon to explain the technicalities of the death bug admitted themselves puzzled. The strange winged creature will be made the subject of scientific inquiry. Duluth [MN] News Tribune 23 October 1907: p. 3
And there, maddeningly, the story ends. Let’s look at a couple of issues. This story appeared in only four newspapers: two Washington state newspapers, one from Aberdeen, South Dakota, and the Minnesotan story above. It does not seem to appear in any Illinois papers. I haven’t been able to nail down the “Clerk Kallis,” or Miss Ross and her father definitively since the names are so common. However, the attorney, Julius Coleman, was easy to spot.
Attorney Julius A. Coleman seems to have been, to be kind, an ethically challenged individual. Here’s a brief summary of his career:
Described as an “expert lawyer” he was accused by the Pacific Accident Insurance of deliberately diving off a train headfirst in order to get $100 a week from the company. At Chicago, he had his foot cut off by a train and secured heavy damages from the railroad company, which claimed that he deliberately stuck his foot under the train. He also sued the doctor who amputated the foot for malpractice—and won.
He lost money on some real estate deals and to recoup his losses he “induced a young woman, who lived in his family, to marry a man whom she had never seen in her life, and then insured the life of the young man for $20,000, the policies payable to the wife. The young man was then thrown overboard from a steamer in the Ohio River, in a life-saving suit one night, and the announcement made that he was dead.”
In fact, the young man got cold feet and found that his life-saving suit was punctured. He accused Coleman of attempted murder. Coleman was prosecuted for fraud and sent to jail where he ate soap and convinced a doctor that he had consumption. He escaped and went to Mexico. Later he gave himself up and was pardoned because his wife’s family had influence with the Indiana Governor. He forged the name of his father-in-law to notes which the man was then forced to pay. He took charge of $2,000 for a benefit entertainment for the Odd Fellows, then placed the money in his safe, which was then conveniently robbed. Inexplicably, he was never disbarred, although motions were made to that effect. He moved from Evansville to Chicago and thence to Washington State, where he seems to have ended his career as a Judge.
Perhaps I wrong him, but the Death Bug of the Probate Court sounds like the perfect set-up for a personal injury or negligence lawsuit against the Chicago government. The only “real” witnesses to this phenomenon are Miss Ross and her father (formerly with the Department of Corrections—did he know Coleman from jail time served?). He could have tempted them with the lure of a hefty settlement—obviously he knew how to get results in personal injury suits.
And so we close our look at mystery insect cases with another mystery—perhaps the mystery of sociopathic human nature. If any of you have any more facts or thoughts on the Chicago Death Bug case, please pop them in a killing jar and send 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.