My brother-in-law is an expert in convenience stores and he tells me that the top-seller at UK convenience stores is the banana. Recently the reputation of this popular fruit has been sullied by the finding of a sac containing hundreds of spider eggs, believed to be from the deadly Brazilian wandering spider, in a bunch of bananas purchased from Aldi. The banana purchasers fled their home when they found the egg sacs, possibly primed by an incident in 2014 when bananas from Waitrose were found to contain not only an egg sac, but a large and very aggressive spider, which was trapped by a pest expert before it could do any more than emotional damage to the family. The Aldi branch was closed down, but later it was reported that the spider eggs were from a suspiciously unnamed “totally harmless” species instead.
Bananas have long been a British favorite—a greasy black peel of the beloved fruit was found in a Tudor rubbish pit, pushing back the presence of bananas on English soil from the previous date of 1633. The first bananas/plantains were shipped from the Caribbean to the United States in the early 1800s and we find them sold as a “novelty fruit” in New York in 1804. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s/early 1900s that the banana really came into its own, partly because of its cheapness and for its sanitary peel.
You may wonder why I’m burbling on about bananas, but I was inspired (and not in a good way) by the Aldi spider-egg incident to track down the earliest US example of the urban legendesque “Tarantula in the bunch of bananas” story, abbreviated to “TIBB” for convenience.
Here’s an early candidate:
Deadly Venom From the South
It has not been long since a live tarantula was found snugged in a garment in a Clifton pantry alongside which a bunch of bananas had been hung. These insects are of the spider kind, huge, hairy, ungainly, but active and venomous. In the countries where they find a home, the natives have an inveterate dread of them. Last Frieda night Mr. Clench, grocer, on the corner of Cutter and Betts streets, discovered a huge live specimen in a bunch of bananas he had for sale. He cautiously captured the monster and took it to J.G. Menninger’s drug-store, corner of Clinton and Cutter streets, where the strange little monster excited great curiosity. He crawled about and looked menacingly at the great number of visitors who came to see him. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 20 May 1877: p. 4
An ill-informed naysayer wrote to the same paper shortly afterwards.
To the Editor of the Enquirer:
Several notices have appeared lately in reference to a spider found in a bunch of bananas, and on exhibition at Marty’s drug-store. Some claimed that it was a true species of the tarantula, while Mr. Tenner asserted it was not. To satisfy myself, I examined the insect in question, and then consulted some of the leading authorities on the subject, viz.: Wood, Oken, Brehm and others, and found that Mr. Tenner is correct. There is no tarantula known to science to exist in the new world. [The residents of the Southwestern United States would beg to differ.] The only country where the true tarantula makes its home is Italy. Besides, the difference between this spider and the tarantula is so marked that even a person not versed in Zoological matters must at once be convinced that the spider at Marty’s drug-store has neither in size nor color anything in common with the tarantula, except that both belong to the spider family.
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 May 1877: p. 4
The nay-saying naturalist may have had a point that the creature was not a tarantula—but all Victorian/Edwardian spiders reported lurking in banana bunches are apparently required by some journalistic cabal to be of that fearsome species. I can’t think of a single TIBB story where the spider is identified as some other species or as an unidentified “non-tarantula.” The aggressive demeanor of these spiders and their bite, said to be invariably fatal, seems to have outweighed journalistic accuracy.
The Cincinnati story was from 1877. But there is this:
A child of Dr. S.S. Jerman, of St. Louis, while separating leaves from a bunch of bananas, discovered a genuine tarantula. It was killed and then cured in alcohol. Memphis [TN] Daily Appeal 9 May 1869: p. 1
But wait! Here is a still earlier candidate:
WHAT IS IT?
A.G. Clark & Co. have captured a queer looking customer. It has a circular body set on eight monstrous legs, and the way the thing gobbles up flies and wasps is a caution. It is supposed to be a “foreigner,” as it was found on a bunch of bananas, imported from the West Indies. Have we an entomologist among us, who can classify the monster and tell us if it is a tarantula, and whether its bite could be cured by the music of Gideon’s band? Clark is so choice of the curiosities that he keeps it in a glass jar in his store, where every body can look at it, provided they keep their fingers off. Stamford [ CT] Advocate 1 July 1864: p. 2
“Gideon’s band” may refer to the Old Testament episode of Gideon’s out-numbered force blowing trumpets to disconcert the enemy or to a popular song of that title from 1861. Of course the music of the tarantella was believed to cure the spider’s bite.
By the 1870s the mythos of Death lurking in the banana bunch was firmly established in the newspapers.
Tarantulas in Bananas
We learn from the Memphis Appeal that two immense tarantulas have been brought to that city within a day or two, ensconsed [sic] in bunches of bananas. One was killed at the fruit store under the Peabody, on Sunday, and another at a private residence on Exchange street, on Monday. The family had received a bunch of bananas the day before, from New Orleans, and while dressing in the morning the lady of the house was horrified to see a tarantula crawling on her dress. Her screams alarmed the servants who rushed in and swept the reptile off with a broom and killed it. They are more poisonous than the rattlesnake, and as much of this luscious fruit is brought to our city persons would do well to be on their guard. Nashville [TN] Union and American 14 May 1870: p. 4
Having found what may be the first TIBB in 1864, I decided to look further: for other tarantula/banana “firsts.”
Is this the first account of a bite?
A TARRANTULA [sic] BITE
One of our fruit dealers on Congress street, was bitten on the fore finger by a young tarantula who had come over in a bunch of bananas from Cuba. The gentleman suffered severely, and was unable to sleep for several days and nights. It is said the bite from a full-grown tarantula oftentimes causes sufficient pain to throw the strongest man into convulsions, and oftentimes is attended with fatal results. Portland [ME] Daily Press 30 June 1873: p. 3
And is this the first account of a bite at the stereotypical Italian fruit stand?
Lewis Guardo, an Italian fruit vendor, while handling a bunch of bananas in New York, Oct. 10th, was bitten by a tarantula on the right hand. His arm swelled to double the ordinary size, and his head also swelled enormously. He was removed to Bellevue Hospital, where antidotes were administered. Hopes are entertained of his recovery. It is supposed the insect was imported with the bananas from Panama. The County Paper [Oregon, MO] 20 October 1882: p. 2
It was not until 1888 that we find the first fatality.
Mrs. Mary Johnson, who keeps a fruit store on Independence avenue, in Kansas City, discovered a tarantula in a bunch of bananas she was handling. The hairy monster jumped at the woman’s hand, but she withdrew it in time to escape a fatal bite. Her cat was not so fortunate. It attacked the big spider, and was bitten and soon died. San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 5 April 1888: p. 1
We are reassured by spider experts that the tarantula bite may be painful, but rarely kills, so stories like the following are mercifully rare. Small children and animals were the more usual fatalities.
Hidden in Bunch of Bananas, Fatally Bites an Indiana Merchant.
Rushville, Ind., February 20. Alva Newhouse, a prominent merchant, was fatally poisoned to-day by the bite of a tarantula when he laid his hand on a stalk of bananas. The spider measures six inches from leg to leg and is the largest ever seen here. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 February 1911: p. 9
As if tarantulas popping out of banana bunches weren’t bad enough, an article in the New York Herald 1892 upped the ante, telling of “Venomous creatures found in banana bunches: Scorpions, Tarantulas, Spiders, Centipedes and Snakes.” Similar articles depict workers nonchalantly knocking tarantulas from their trouser legs and crushing them underfoot as they unload fruit from tropical ports. I have previously posted on the horrors of two men trapped in a ship’s hold menaced by ravening tarantulas. Unusually large specimens or “Goliaths” were captured and exhibited, as were snakes found nestling among the fruit.
A QUEER ONE Is This Snake, That Made the Trip From the Tropics in a Bunch of Bananas
Cases of finding tarantulas concealed in bunches of bananas sent to this market from the islands of the Caribbean Sea are by no means uncommon, but the discovery of a snake of considerable length and of an unknown variety curled up in a bunch of the delicious fruit is rather out of the ordinary and apt to cause no little excitement. Such a find was made yesterday at the commission house of F. Delsignore, down in the bottoms, and as yet the wonder and interest in the strange visitor that made the trip successfully from the tropics have in no way died down.
A grocer had purchased a bunch of bananas from the firm, and one of the men was taking the fruit from the store to put it in the wagon, when he noticed a peculiar nest or collection of mud near the central stem beneath the bananas. He laid the burden down and proceeded to rake out the strange-looking object, when he was horrified to see drop out of the hiding place a snake several feet in length, which fell to the ground and lay quite motionless. It was benumbed by the cold experienced in the Northern climate, and when the warm sunlight shone upon it for a short time it began to writhe and squirm preparatory to making its escape. This was not to be.
When the surprised men came to their sense they quickly captured the strange reptile, and in its weak condition it was placed on a box and measured by a rule and found to be 5 feet 3 inches in length. It was imprisoned in a box and allowed to regain its usual friskiness. When it had become thawed out it made all sorts of efforts to get it. Its forked tongue was darted out with lighting-like rapidity, and its eyes seemed to glow with an angry fire. The snake was given a wide berth by the curious sightseers by whom it was looked upon as a most strange creature. And indeed it is. A long white body, with large black spots, give it a grotesque and uncanny appearance, even greater than that usually displayed by snakes.
The nest that it was concealed in is of the most peculiar construction. It has the appearance of being made from oakum, with which boats are caulked, and it is the supposition on the part of some that this substance was secured during the trip in the steamer where it constructed its nest of the shape and appearance of a barn swallow’s nest, and made its home of the journey abroad. There is no one of the commission merchants that recalls a similar strange visitors, and the variety of the reptile is a problem that is awaiting a solution by some scientist. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 March 1895: p. 4
While noxious banana-nesters received the most press, occasionally there is a story of something mammalian found among the fruit, although, sadly, this story ended badly for the little creatures.
Come from the Tropics in a Bunch of Bananas
Somewhere down in the tropics a few months a family of sigmodonts took up its abode in a bunch of bananas. In the course of time the bunch of fruit was picked and shipped to Chicago before the little creatures had an opportunity to give up their lease. A Mr. Kaufmann, a Wrightwood avenue grocer, brought the cluster of fruit, and yesterday, when he went to cut a dozen bananas for a customer he found the nest. Besides the mother, there were six baby sigmodonts.
When they were disturbed the little ones jumped on the back of the parent, and clung for protection to her fur with their little hand-like feet, and further secured themselves by turning their own tails around that of the mother. Unfortunately, in the excitement of the discovery the mother and five of the little ones were killed. The other one was rescued by Mrs. Dr. Tomagin, who was in the store at the time, and it is now at her home, No. 1634 Wrightwood avenue, thriving on a fare of bananas.
Banana rats, crabs, scorpions, and tarantulas are frequently found hiding among the bananas received in Chicago, and their appearance has ceased to cause comment, but the advent of this new immigrant has aroused quite an interest on South Water street, and general regret is expressed that the parent and young ones were not preserved alive.
Fred Black, a man who is familiar with the names of tropical animals, says there is no doubt that the little creatures are signodonts, a species found in Jamaica and Mexico. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 30 June 1895: p. 28
As a bat aficionado, I had thought I might find tales of bats tucked away among the fruit they so helpfully pollinate, but was disappointed. However, I did find this somewhat suspect tale.
Hatching a Crocodile on the Mantel.
About six months ago Charles Addington, of Sacramento, Cal., son of Mrs. W.H. Coker, of Auburn, carried home a bunch of bananas. Among the bananas he found a small egg, about the size of that of a canary. His wife took the egg and put it in a small covered toy dish on the mantelpiece. During fair week, Mr. Addington’s sister went down from Auburn, and while in her brother’s house very naturally inspected the toys and ornaments in sight. She lifted the lid of the said little dish, but dropping it, with a scream that attracted the household, jumped back and tremblingly wanted to know what kind of an animal they had in that dish.
“None,” they all insisted. After due argument and not a little amusement at what was believed the sister’s imagination, the lid was carefully raised, and sure enough out jumped an animal. In the excitement of the moment Mr. Addington put his foot on it and killed it. It was of the crocodile species, from four to five inches in length and it had been hatched from the little egg put there some six months previously.
Pieces of the egg shell still remained in the dish, but some bird seed that was in the dish when the egg was put there had all been consumed, and on this alone had the animal subsisted. As a case of self-incubation and suspended animation this would afford interest to the scientists. Placer Herald. The Topeka [KS] State Journal 2 December 1882: p. 2
If not just a tall tale, was this some sort of lizard? Crocodile seems exceedingly unlikely, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.
I realize that this sort of chronological whimsy does not appeal to everyone, but if you have earlier examples of the first US TIBB, the first US TIBB bite, or the first US TIBB fatality, I would be delighted to hear from you. 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.