Trapped and Tortured by Tarantulas

A Brazilian tarantula in attack posture.

A Brazilian tarantula in attack posture.

Spiders have been much in the news: That house in Missouri where venomous brown recluse spiders came (horrid phrase) “bleeding out of the walls;” the Coronation Street poison spider invasion sub-plot, and a child killed by a recluse bite. Dr Beachcombing has posted a shuddersome piece about a tarantula duel. And this, just in, about a “puppy-sized” spider. And, this, about a family’s terror at finding a Brazilian Wanderer spider in their bananas. My previous post on spiders, from the “Things That Scare Us” series, made it crystal clear how I feel about Our Friends, the Arachnids. This year I am feeling even less affable towards the species, having been bitten a couple of times this summer and recently having a large black orb weaver suddenly drop inches from my face as I opened the door.

I can hear some of you tut-tutting about how spiders help maintain ecological balance and how “Bunny,” the tarantula is the best pet you ever had.  If so, I don’t expect to change your minds, but will still share one of many scary tarantula stories found in the Victorian and Edwardian papers, which delighted in sensational eight-legged horrors.



Two Stowaways in the Hold of a Banana-Carrying Vessel from Havana Have a Battle for Their lives

Rescued Just in Time.

Joseph Mabry, of St. Louis, tells the most remarkable tarantula story that has come to light for several months. Mabry has papers to show that he was a member of a Georgia company during the Spanish war, and that he was in Cuba. If only one other man in the world were living, and lived in Havana, Mabry says, he would die before going to see him. He is now in Denison, Texas. Speaking to a newspaper man of that town, he said:

“My home is St. Louis. Last winter I left home and came south, passing through Texas and finally going to Georgia. I worked wherever I could get employment, that being my mission down this way. I was out of work in St. Louis and was discouraged there. In Georgia I got work for a while, but in the spring my employment gave out. Companies were being organized to go to the war and I offered myself as a volunteer. I joined a company of Georgia volunteers and went off to camp. We did not get to the front, and after the protocol was signed I and a friend of mine decided we would get out of the service. My friend was from Kentucky. I was a machinist and my friend a stenographer. We decided that if we could get over to Havana, we would probably be able to get in on the ground floor. We applied to a Congressman who was a friend to my friend, and our discharges finally came and we went to the coast, taking a boat for Havana. We wore our army uniforms, not thinking that they would make any difference after we were discharged, but they did. Our desire to save money and not buy any citizen clothing got us into serious trouble.

As soon as we reached Havana we were told that we must leave. We were labouring under a grave mistake, thinking that the United Sates had some authority there in the fall before the peace treaty was signed. We were put under a guard and ordered to leave on the first boat, as our presence in Havana might be dangerous to the peace and safety of the community. All we could do was to wait our time. A British boat touched at Havana, bound for New Orleans with a load of tropical fruit. We tried to get passage on the boat and were refused point blank, as the boat did not carry passengers. Our guards gave us to understand, as we thought, that we must leave or go to jail. We decided to leave. Before the boat sailed we managed to slip aboard by bribing a couple of sailors. We were told that we could climb into the bins where bananas were stored and that the sail would be a short one to New Orleans. The sailor promised to smuggle food to us on the journey and they fastened us up in the bins of bananas, closing the hatchway. We had not had any sleep for forty-eight hours and were dead on our feet. We turned in on a pile of straw and slept soundly until nearly morning of the following day, when I was awakened by my friend calling to me.

“What is that?” I heard him ask.

“The light was very dim and I could barely see the outline of his form near me.

“I don’t see anything,” I replied.

“I thought you were tickling me with a bundle of straw,” said he.

“I did not waken till you called to me,” was my reply.

“I guess it was a rat,” said he, and we both dozed off.

“Shortly I was awakened by a shriek from my friend. He had jumped up and was staring at a black, fuzzy object in the straw. I recognized it at once as a tarantula. The light was not good, but that much was plain. Soon it was joined by another and another, and in a few hours it looked like we were surrounded with tarantulas. The big spiders regarded us as imposters. [interlopers?], for they seemed bent on attacking us. We stamped them, killing many, and fought them with all our might.

“Did you ever see an angry tarantula? If you never did, don’t go looking for one, and if you find one, don’t look for a hundred. I suppose it is no exaggeration to say that we were faced by a hundred of these angry insects.

They spring like rats or frogs, and all of a sudden a black object would come whirling through the air, and in nine cases out of ten it would strike some unguarded spot and inject its venom. I was bitten in half a dozen places on the face, and as many more on the hands and arms, and the insects would crawl up the legs of our pantaloons to bite us. Both of us were horribly bitten all over our persons. The fight with the insects lasted all day long, and, though we were both strong, sound men when we went on the boat, by evening we were almost too exhausted to stand up. We called for help, shrieked, yelled and cried, but no help came. We were faint for want of food and dying from thirst. It was a day of horror s for both of us. Our wounds were swelling and our throats were parching for water. After continuing to fight the tarantulas and shrieking for help, we finally attracted attention and some of the sailors came to our rescue. Whether it was the sailors we bribed who came to us or whether it was someone attracted by our cries I don’t know. I was then in delirium and my eyes were swollen closed.” Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Lincoln County Leader [Toledo, OR] 23 June 1899: p. 6

It was surprising to see how many reports there were in the US papers of people dying of tarantula bites in the late 19th and early-20th centuries, seemingly spurred by an increase in banana and other tropic fruit imports to the United States. A grocer’s wife was one victim; a baby in a pram who played with a bunch of bananas outside a grocery another. In areas where the tarantula is native to the United States, there were stories about dogs, chickens, and farmers being killed by the spiders.

Even today, we find tarantulas hiding in banana bunches.  Do not be fooled by their cuddly, furry appearance.  You can be sure that they are not emigrating in those banana bins merely in hopes of a better life. I suspect that their aim is nothing less than World Domination. Four legs good; eight legs better.

Other nasty spider stories?  Stand back! I have a broom! Chriswoodyard8 AT

You might also enjoy this story about a giant spider and M.R. James.


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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