This article was written for TCF Magazine by Andrew D. Gable and we are happy to share it with you for the latest TCF blog post.
The true fin de siècle, 1899, was a troubled time. The Treaty of Paris was signed in April, formally signaling an end to the Spanish-American War, although the Phillippine-American War was looming on the horizon. Rumblings were beginning to be felt of the Second Boer War, which would eventually culminate in the addition of South Africa to the British Empire. In France, scapegoated “traitor” Alfred Dreyfus enjoyed a brief period of freedom before he was again imprisoned; anti-Semitism and a contentious relationship between France and Germany seethed and bubbled beneath the surface, setting the stage for the battles to come in the next century.
These tensions, worries, and fears may each have played their part in the development of a unique – and problematic – hysteria that gripped the United States (I’ve managed to find no reports of the panic from foreign lands and in fact nary a mention in the foreign press) in the summer of 1899, the so-called “kissing bug.” The panic, so named because the titular insect was reputed to oftentimes bite its victims on the lips (although the hand or eyelid was also a common spot for the bite), is by definition one of the most “Fortean” phenomena, as it was one of those discussed by Charles Fort in his quadrilogy of chronicles of the unexplained and bizarre (more specifically, in 1932’s Wild Talents).
Fort cited only a handful of cases, from the populated centers of the East Coast; the ensuing hysteria was revisited only rarely in the literature of the bizarre since that time, most significantly in Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew’s 2009 book Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior (which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in the effects of mass hysteria). Evans and Bartholomew cited mainly the same cases discussed in Fort, however; something that has been lacking in the literature is a sense of just how “mass” the hysteria really was, spanning the entire United States, from coast to coast. But at the same time, it was a hysteria, the stories of the kissing bug were based on very real insects. Countless tales of bugs captured came in that summer; many are consistent with each other. And, of course, the effects of being bitten were markedly consistent with each other, as well.
The tale formally starts over a period of a few days in June; a Washington, DC, crime reporter, James F. McElhone, had been monitoring reports from city hospitals of anomalous admissions. A number of individuals found themselves in the morning to have lips and eyes swollen, as if from the nocturnal bite of some insect 1. In a weeks’ time, the stories of the kissing bug had traveled to New York2; by the next day, Boston3; by July 1, to Norfolk, Virginia.4 Stories of the bug’s depredations were spreading like wildfire. As early as July 5, the kissing bug phenomenon was already beginning to take root as a full-fledged hysteria. On that date, the New York Times recounted a humorous situation in which some girls were sent into paroxysms of terror after a large insect collided with one of them. They scattered, and drew a crowd with their antics; once clearly seen, the offending insect proved to be only a large moth.5
Fueled by nearly daily news reports, the panic had spread even further afield to Pennsylvania and Delaware, but the bug was still a geographically-limited phenomenon, outside of a few reports in Redding, California (where Henry Clineschmidt and Mrs. E.T. Durfor reported being bitten,6 although West Coast reports of the bug should perhaps be dealt with separately, for reasons that shall soon become clear). Stories of encounters with the bug caught on like wildfire, though, after the July 8 death of Helen Lersch, one of the cases discussed by Fort. Lersch was a 2-year-old girl, the daughter of Frank Lersch of Trenton, NJ. She suffered an injury presumed to have been the bite of a kissing bug a few days before death. “The swelling resulting from the bite extended to all parts of her body, and even to the head. Her arms, head, and face were swollen to almost twice the natural size. On Friday the child began to vomit and this continued until death.”7 Helen’s mother noticed a red spot on her leg, presumably the spot where she had been bitten, and her swollen arms had turned black.8 Records, however, seem to indicate that despite what was widely-reported in the press, the girl’s name may have actually been Helen Skowronski, not Lersch. If this was not her, the fact that two separate two-year-old girls, both named Helen, died in Trenton on July 8 is a coincidence that nearly boggles the mind.9
The death of the Lersch/Skowronski girl was only the first fatality associated with bites from the bug. Most (but not all, there being an exception to every rule, of course) were young children. Newspapers in Janesville, Wisconsin, reported the death of an unnamed young man in a Madison hospital on July 13. It was “given out at the time [the death was] from blood poisoning,” although it “was really due to the bite of one of these insects on the chin.” A Dr. Jackson commented that he believed “the kissing bug [was] largely a humbug and that the disease is really what is long known among physicians as a malignant pustule, caused by the bites of flies or other insects which have been feeding on decomposed matter.”10 a malignant pustule, implicated in a handful of other kissing bug cases (almost all from Wisconsin), is actually what is now known as anthrax.
On July 19, 6-year-old William Martin of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania died after some sort of bite which caused “a purple spot the size of a pinhead just over the lip, surrounded by inflammation…face much swollen.”11 Mary Vaughan of Cedar Rapids, Iowa died in late July, suffering the effects of a bite she had received around July 9. Her face was considerably swollen, “near unrecognizable,” and the swelling had spread to her arms and chest before she died.12
Another death attributed by some to the kissing bug was that of a young boy named Walter Nickerson, of Matteawan, New York, who sustained a bite of some sort on his family’s farm on August 5. He died about a week later, of what to all appearances was rabies. Physicians were baffled as to the source of his affliction, however, and there was “no positive knowledge that the boy was bitten.” The boy’s father, George, searched the barnyard on August 5 after Walter began to cry, saying that he had been bitten, but found nothing.13
“Spontaneous hydrophobia,” as it was known, is a phenomenon in which patients develop rabies-like symptoms with no apparent bite. One case was reported before the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by a Dr. Condie, who reported that a longshoreman named Willetts, working at the docks in Southwark, London, awoke on the morning of August 27, 1850, with a numbness and stiffness in his left arm and neck. This was followed by the development of hydrophobic symptoms and eventual death.14 Another case was reported by Dr. Dujardin Beaumetz of Paris who reported the death of a 29-year-old man with the symptoms of rabies at the Hôtel Dieu. The blood of the deceased man transmitted its infection to a number of rabbits when they were injected with it.15
The day after Walter Nickerson died, another death attributed to the bug came. Mary Steger, an adult woman from Chicago whose immune system was already somewhat compromised due to a bout of tonsilitis, died from the effects of what was at least claimed to have been a bite she had suffered (“a small abrasion on the upper lip”). Her face had swelled considerably, but though a physician had signed a death certificate for Mrs. Steger declaring that the cause of death was the kissing bug’s bite in combination with tonsilitis, she had been embalmed before a coroner was called and so no detailed examination of the body was made and no definitive blame could be laid on the bite as cause of death.16
A few weeks after Steger’s death, on August 27, there was one final “kissing bug” death, that of a young girl named Ida Harnischfezer, a resident of Paterson, New Jersey. Few details about the Harnischfezer death are known, however.17
But beyond the deaths and other encounters (given in a list at the end of this article with little elaboration, since the details of the cases are all basically extremely similar), there were the social effects of the phenomenon, beyond the humorous encounter with a large moth described earlier. They ranged from other humorous items (it seemed many newspapermen of the day didn’t take the kissing bug very seriously), like a very brief editorial note in another New York paper – “A kissing bug attended an emancipated women’s convention in Kansas and committed suicide. Draw your own inferences.”18 A newspaper in Philadelphia reported an incident in which a rather cruel young man, jabbing fellow passengers on board a streetcar with a hatpin, caused the commuters to panic that a kissing bug was flying about in the car.
Newspapers in Trenton, New Jersey reported on a case of kissing bug-induced paranoia when a fireman named Nathan Cowell, who had reportedly been bitten by one of the insects, was seen patrolling his firehouse with his face and neck swathed in a white cloth and brandishing a rifle with which he swore to “slaughter any kissing bug that would presume to attack him or anyone else.” Whenever the kissing bug was brought up to Fireman Cowell in conversation, “he almost took the roof of the house off with the yell of agony the emotion evoked…his gaze was up in the vacant air, no doubt to watch for any winged assailant of that kind.”19
One of the more bizarre effects of the hysteria was the formation of so-called “kissing bug clubs.” One existed in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, where on July 6 Isaac Baver captured one of the bugs and gave it to a man named J. Frank Smith. Smith was the “recognized head of a movement looking toward the organization of a society, composed chiefly of young old girls, who do not believe the published stories about the bug and are willing that it shall kiss them.” It was said that members of the society were to draw lots to determine who had the dubious honor of being bitten.20
Another group was that formed in La Salle, Illinois. The club was “formed exclusively of young women, and the object to acquire one specimen for each member. In nearly every store window is a glass jar with a prisoner, supposed to be a Melanolestes picipes, and the young women may every afternoon be seen in front of the business places studying the different species. The woods and meadows are scoured by other members for the coveted insects…”21 (Melanolestes picipes was the scientific name given to the kissing bug by many, and although newspapers regularly mentioned that the name was unknown, it is, in fact, a real insect – and a moderately common one, at that. More on that later, however.)
Several regions were not to be outdone by the kissing bug and created new tales to rival it. During the 1899 panic, Maine farmers told tales of “Sunkhazer Flies.” A Sunkhazer was a “ferocious big fly that infests the flats and meadows about Sunkhaze dead water, a place in the Penobscot River…They are four times the size of the famed mosquitoes of Jersey, and any Maine man will back one of them against a dozen kissing bugs in a fair stand-up fight.”22
In the following years, more variations were to follow. In August 1901, residents of Berwick, Pennsylvania reported a new menace: the ankle bug. As its name suggests, it bit people’s ankles, and “a number of persons have been crippled as the result of its bite.”23 A few years later, Indiana newspapers reported on the emergence of a new flying pest: “This pest, however, has taken the eye for the point of attack…[the new bug] is about the size of a mosquito, has wings very much like one, but the form of its body is more like an ant…he comes while you are asleep…[it] quietly places a little poisonous acid in the corner of the eye…On awakening, the victim opens his eyelids and allows the poison to run down into his eyes…The eye quickly becomes irritated and swells to an alarming extent.” It was called Pulex irritans, which is the common flea.24
In 1915, Philadelphia was home to something called a Dooleybug. Vampiric, with a predilection for sucking the blood of infants. “Because of this,” the article continued, “the child’s health was affected, and [witness Harry Dooley] was compelled to send the baby away in order to escape the ravages of the insect.” Another man, one Richard Ostertag, captured a bug a week later that he claimed was a “new species” of Dooleybug. “The bug is six inches long, and, with the exception of a narrow band of green at the base of its wings, is reddish-brown in color. The head resembles that of the oft-described but never seen ‘Jersey Devil’…The bug has six legs, each one twice as long as the body.” While the size – if accurate, the insect would have been two feet across – is truly ludicrous, a description of its feeding habits – “It will grasp a defenseless grasshopper between its two front legs, and proceed to chew its head off; then the body follows” – suggests some sort of mantid, if indeed a real animal at all.25
Through a bit of a timewarp now, back to 1899, a Chicago professor by the name of A.M. Leonard, the “apostle of the Mission of the Messenger of Truth,” delivered a sermon in which he passed apocalyptic judgment on the kissing bug. Leonard’s sermon rattled off various calamities in the Book of Revelation, which he identified with recent events. An excerpt from Leonard’s sermon is worth repeating.
“You have all read of this latest mysterious visitation which has come to the earth, the so-called kissing bug, which stings men on the lips and leaves them in terrible agony. Here is what I take to be the Biblical prophecy of their coming from the ninth chapter of the book of Revelation:
“And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth; and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power.
“And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree, but only those men which have not the seal of God upon their foreheads.
“And to them, it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months, and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion when he striketh a man.’
: This is what is said of the coming of the so-called ‘kissing bug’ in the Bible. This insect which has stung men all over the country, and which is unknown to the scientists.
“Professor Choate of the Field museum has said that there has never been an instance of the real ‘kissing bug,’ or picipes, which lives in the South, biting a man. What, then, is this mysterious insect but the visitation of one of the last of those torments which the Bible has declared shall come, and which precedes the final destruction…
“I regard the appearance of this bug as a final warning to the people of this earth to prepare for the hereafter…”26
So what, then, was the kissing bug – real, hysteria, or a combination of both? As already mentioned, the predominant scientific name given to the bug in the press was Melanolestes picipes. Many experts were consulted who declared this was an invalid name, and that there was no such animal. Nothing could be further from the truth. M. picipes is the fairly common black corsair, a variety of assassin bug. Assassin bugs (family Reduviidae) are members of the Hemiptera or true bugs. They’re easily recognizable by a large, curved rostrum, a sort of beak or proboscis. Far from the murderous monsters, the kissing bug was made out to be, most assassin bugs are fairly benign, feeding as they do on bedbugs. Assassin bug nymphs are often found under beds and anywhere else their preferred prey would be hiding. However, Professor Choate’s statement, quoted in Leonard’s sermon, is simply untrue. Although not aggressive and actively seeking out humans to bite, most all assassin bugs (tellingly, they’re often referred to as kissing bugs) will bite when they feel threatened – for example, if someone brushes one while sleeping, or swats at one.
Dr. W.J. Holland of the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh felt that the kissing bug was a bombardier beetle, any one of several species of ground-dwelling beetle which can expel a gout of a chemical irritant from its abdomen. Holland said it was unlikely to kill anyone, but that ”The circumstances under which such a thing might happen are when the poison is thrown upon a scratch or some abrasion of the skin and so gain access to the system causing blood poisoning.”27 Aside from one instance, in which a stray cat in San Jose, California died after picking a supposed kissing bug up in its mouth (the sketch of the bug makes it resemble one of these beetles far more than an assassin bug)28, the bombardier beetle identity doesn’t hold up well.
Throughout the panic of 1899, people killed or captured a variety of species of creepy-crawlies and labeled them kissing bugs. V.G. Truscott of Kent, Kansas captured a centipede29; a man in Brooklyn captured a “pinch bug” (presumably an earwig).30 Thomas Fee of Lowell, Massachusetts killed some sort of insect “as long as his forefinger, and streaked with yellow” (likely some variety of beetle) which he identified as a kissing bug31 and something called a “walnut bug” was captured in Pennsylvania.32 Most unbelievably, a hummingbird was caught in New York and declared to be the bug!33
Other sources seem to indicate that the summer of 1899 was a bad one for mosquitos – “a delegation of mosquitos, millions in number” visited Chicago. A high concentration of biting insects would certainly heighten the panic already being felt.34
Another possibility, one which to me is the most likely, is that the origins of the panic lay in Chagas disease. Several species of assassin bug can play host to the parasitic organism that produces the disease. Although most of them exist in the border states and further south throughout Mexico and South America, it is possible that a warmer summer allowed assassin bugs infected with Trypanosoma cruzi to range further north than usual; I’m tempted to wonder whether soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War and disturbances in the Phillippines could have brought some infected bugs home with them, stationed as they would have been in regions where Chagas was common. Chagas disease causes inflammation, headaches and fever, and painful swelling at the bite’s location; it can lurk in a person’s system for decades, slowly causing damage to the heart and eventually death, or the afflicted individual can never develop any more symptoms beyond the initial discomfort.
An old miner named Drabek, from Arizona told of the kissing bug, which was known locally as a Walapai Tiger; “there were a good many of Walapai Tigers. They have a habit of crawling into blankets. You won’t feel them at work, but the next morning you will find bumps the size of walnuts where they have stung you.
“First time I heard about the Walapai Tiger was at the Golden Gem mine in the Cerbat Mountains, then operated by the late A.W. Clapp. June, July, and August are the months when these insects are most obnoxious in Arizona, said Clapp. Another old time, Jerry Laudermilk, had a run-in with a Walapai Tiger in Arizona. At Kirkland, while on a long hiking trip, he was bitten on the upper lip. A large, hard swelling about the size of a half-dollar developed and Jerry took to a hotel bed for to days, suffering from fever, weakness, and nausea.”35 All these symptoms are consistent with early symptoms of Chagas.
That, then, is my contention: that the kissing bug phenomenon was a hysteria, at the heart of it all. But one very much based on a real bug that was actually biting people – just wasn’t, maybe, quite so widespread as the media would have had you believe. The instances of deaths recorded are interesting in that they are all very small children, or the previously ill; people that would have had weakened or immature immune systems, ones in which a relative nuisance could have developed into a deadly condition relatively quickly.
VICTIMS OF THE KISSING BUG, 1899
June 27 New York City, NY August Langwasser (New York Times, June 29)
June 28 Boston, MA Nellie Fife (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
New York City, NY Oscar Meltzner (New York Times, July 2)
June 29 Boston, MA Jimmy Fife (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
New York City, NY Robert Leibowitz (New York Times, June 30)
New York City, NY William Wallace (New York Times, July 2)
June 30 Boston, MA Johnny Fife (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
July 1 Boston, MA Kitty Fife (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
Norfolk, VA Unnamed girl (Richmond [VA] Times, July 2)
July 2 Atlantic City, NJ John McCaffrey (New York Times, July 4)
July 3 Atlantic City, NJ Helen Veasey (New York Times, July 4)
Boston, MA Nellie Driscoll (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
July 4 Boston, MA Lizzie O’Keefe (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
Boston, MA Thomas Riley (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
Chelmsford, MA Mrs. James Dawson (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 10)
New Brunswick, NJ Freda Sharkey (New Brunswick Times, July 11)
July 5 Lebanon, PA Mrs. Will Klopp (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA John Little (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA A.A. Fralinger (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA Martin Murray (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA Daniel Shingle (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA Joseph McLane (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Philadelphia, PA John Schmidt (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
York, PA Alcesta Reilly (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
July 6 Dover, DE Miss Holston (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
Dover, DE Mrs. W.O. Evans (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 6)
New Brunswick, NJ Ethel Bergen (New Brunswick Times, July 7)
New Rochelle, NY Ollie Burke (New York Times, July 8)
Redding, CA Henry Clineschmidt (San Francisco Call, July 12)
Trenton, NJ Helen Lersch dies (New York Times, July 10)
July 9 Ambler, PA Mrs. S.J. Gilbert (Ambler Gazette, July 13)
Redding, CA Mrs. E.T. Durfor (San Francisco Call, July 12)
July 10 Evansville, IN Mrs. Edward McGee (Hopkinsville Kentuckian, July 13)
Lowell, MA A.H. Carson (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 13)
New Castle, PA Harry Moore (New Castle News, July 11)
New York City, NY James Hickey (New York Times, July 11)
New York City, NY Charles Bonsignore (New York Times, July 11)
New York City, NY Edward Quick (New York Times, July 11)
New York City, NY Mary Smith (New York Times, July 11)
Providence, RI Rose Grosvenor (New York Times, July 20)
July 11 Lowell, MA John Lynch (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 13)
Redding, CA Maud Perry (San Francisco Call, July 12)
July 12 Logansport, IA Unnamed woman (Logansport Pharos, July 13)
Lowell, MA Mitchell girl (Lowell Sun, July 13)
July 13 Ambler, PA Robert Gourley (Ambler Gazette, July 13)
Oconto, WI Daughter of R. Ames (Janesville [WI] Daily Gazette, July 13)
July 14 Lawrence, MA Robert Hennessey (Boston Globe, July 16)
Lawrence, MA Hennessey’s sister (Boston Globe, July 16)
Lowell, MA Annie Dancks (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 15)
Lowell, MA Patrick Shanahan (Lowell [MA] Sun, July 15)
July 15 Andover, MA Alexander Dundas (Boston Globe, July 16)
Philadelphia, PA William Martin dies (Dubuque [IA] Herald, July 19)
July 16 Chicago, IL Mary Steger dies (Washington [DC] Evening Times, July 19)
St. Paul, MO Fred Goeswisch (St. Paul Globe, July 25)
July 17 Newport, RI Mrs. I. Burden (New York Times, July 22)
Omaha, NB Percy Lockyear (Omaha Daily Bee, July 20)
July 18 Beaver Dam, KY Virgiline Hocker (Hopkinsville Kentuckian, July 18)
Coal City, IL Victoria Trotter (Freeport [IL] Daily Journal, July 21)
Omaha, NB Herman Nagle (Omaha Daily Bee, July 20)
Omaha, NB Sing Lee (Omaha Daily Bee, July 20)
July 19 Cedar Rapids, IA Mary Vaughan (Renwick [IA] Times, July 21)
Omaha, NB Helen Jackson (Omaha Daily Bee, July 20)
Reno, NV Charles Lake (Reno Nevada State Journal, July 20)
Reno, NV Alfred Updike (Reno Nevada State Journal, July 20)
July 20 Ambler, PA J.H. Shapperkoffer (Ambler Gazette, July 27)
Eldorado, IA Mrs. Charles Starr (Hawkes Bay [New Zealand] Herald, September 9)
La Crosse, WI Matt Spaah (Freeport [IL] Daily Journal. July 21)
Madison, WI Unnamed man dies (Janesville [WI] Daily Gazette, July 13)
July 21 Waterloo, IA Daughter of William Christopherson (Renwick [IA] Times, July 21)
Arcola, IL John Shearer (Hawkes Bay [New Zealand] Herald, September 9)
Arcola, IL Rev. Joseph Smith (Hawkes Bay [New Zealand] Herald, September 9)
August 10 Matteawan, NY Walter Nickerson died (New York Times, August 11)
August 27 Paterson, NJ Ida Harnischfezer died (New York Times, August 27)
1: Washington Post, June 20, 1899.
2: New York Times, June 29, 1899.
3: Lowell (MA) Sun, July 10, 1899.
4: Richmond (VA) Times, July 2, 1899.
5: New York Times, July 5, 1899.
6: San Francisco Call, July 12, 1899.
7: New York Times, July 10, 1899.
8: Rockland County (NY) Journal, July 15, 1899.
9: “New Jersey Deaths and Burials, 1720-1988,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:FZ2K-Y3J : accessed 23 September 2015), Helen Skowronski, 08 Jul 1899; citing Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey, reference v 58 p 369; FHL microfilm 589,072.
10: Janesville (WI) Daily Gazette, July 13, 1899.
11: Dubuque (IA) Herald, July 19, 1899.
12: Renwick (IA) Times, July 21, 1899.
13: New York Times, August 11, 1899.
14: Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 23 (January 9, 1850), 456-458.
15: New York Times, December 26, 1885.
16: Akron (IA) Tribune, July 20, 1899.
17: New York Times, August 27, 1899.
18: Rockland County (NY) Journal, August 5, 1899.
19: Trenton (NJ) Times, July 22, 1899.
20: Lebanon (PA) Daily News, July 7, 1899.
21: Logansport (IN) Pharos, August 17, 1899.
22: Monticello (IA) Express, August 24, 1899.
23: Frederick (MD) News, August 24, 1901.
24: Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, September 8, 1915.
25: Logansport (IN) Pharos, August 9, 1904.
26: Buffalo Center (IA) Globe, August 17, 1899.
27: New Castle (PA) Times, July 19, 1899.
28: San Francisco Call, July 8, 1899.
29: Hutchinson (KS) Daily News, August 7, 1899.
30: New York Times, July 1, 1899.
31: Lowell (MA) Sun, July 13, 1899.
32: Ambler (PA) Gazette, July 27, 1899.
33: Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, July 14, 1899.
34: New York Times, July 20, 1899
35: Kingman (AZ) Daily Miner, November 20, 1978.