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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/Spider Bites and Kissing Bugs

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | November 1899



ON several occasions during the past ten years, and especially at the Brooklyn meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1894, the writer has endeavored to show that most of the newspaper stories of deaths from spider bite are either grossly exaggerated or based upon misinformation. He has failed to thoroughly substantiate a single case of death from a so-called spider bite, and has concluded that there is only one spider in the United States which is capable of inflicting a serious bite—viz., Latrodectus mactans, a species belonging to a genus of worldwide distribution, the other species of which have universally a bad reputation among the peoples whose country they inhabit. In spite of these conclusions, the accuracy of which has been tested with great care, there occur in the newspapers every year stories of spider bites of great seriousness, often resulting in death or the amputation of a limb. The details of negative evidence and of lack of positive evidence need not be entered upon here, except in so far as to state that in the great majority of these cases the spider supposed to have inflicted the bite is not even seen, while in almost no case is the spider seen to inflict the bite; and it is a well-known fact that there are practically no spiders in our more northern States which are able to pierce the human skin, except

PSM V56 D0040 Different stages of conorhinus sanguisugus.png
Different Stages of Conorhinus sanguisugus. Twice natural size. (After Marlatt.)

upon a portion of the body where the skin is especially delicate and which is seldom exposed. There arises, then, the probability that there are other insects capable of piercing tough skin, the results of whose bites may be more or less painful, the wounds being attributed to spiders on account of the universally bad reputation which these arthropods seem to have.

These sentences formed the introduction to a paper read by the writer at a meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington, held June 1st last. I went on to state that some of these insects are rather well known, as, for example, the blood-sucking cone-nose (Conorhinus sanguisugus) and the two-spotted corsairs (Rasatus thoracicus and R. biguttatus), both of which occur, however, most numerously in the South and West, and then spoke of Melanotestis picipes, a species which had been especially called to my attention by Mr. Frank M. Jones, of Wilmington, Del., who submitted the report of the attending physician in a case of two punctures by this insect inflicted upon the thumb and forefinger of a middle-aged man in Delaware. I further reported upon occasional somewhat severe results from the bites[2] of the old Reduvius personatus, now placed in the genus Opsicostes, and stated that a smaller species, Coriscus subcoleoptratus, had bitten me rather severely under circumstances similar to some of those which have given rise in the past to spider-bite stories. In the course of the discussion which followed the reading of this paper, Mr. Schwarz stated that twice during the present spring he had been bitten rather severely by Melanotestis picipes which had entered his room, probably attracted by light. He described it as the worst biter among heteropterous insects with which he had had any experience, and said he thought it was commoner than usual in Washington during the present year.

No account of this meeting was published, but within a few weeks thereafter several persons suffering from swollen faces visited the Emergency Hospital in Washington and complained that they had been bitten by some insect while asleep; that they did not see the insect, and could not describe it. This happened during one of the temporary periods when newspaper men are most actively engaged in hunting for items. There was a dearth of news. These swollen faces offered an opportunity for a good story, and thus began the "kissing-bug" scare which has grown to such extraordinary proportions. I have received the following letter and clipping from Mr. J. F. McElhone, of the Washington Post, in reply to a request for information regarding the origin of this curious epidemic:

"Washington, D. C, August 14, 1899.

"Dr. L. O. Howard, Cosmos Club., Washington, D. C.

"Dear Sir: Attached please find clipping from the Washington Post of June 20, 1899, being the first story that ever appeared in print, so far as I can learn, of the depredations of the Melanotestis picipes, better known now as the kissing bug. In my rounds as police reporter of the Post, I noticed, for two or three days before writing this story, that the register of the Emergency Hospital of this city contained unusually frequent notes of 'bug-bite' cases. Investigating, on the evening of June 19th I learned from the hospital physicians that a noticeable number of patients were applying daily for treatment for very red and extensive swellings, usually on the lips, and apparently the result of an insect bite. This led to the writing of the story attached.

"Very truly yours,
"James F. McElhone."

It would be an interesting computation for one to figure out the amount of newspaper space which was filled in the succeeding two months by items and articles about the "kissing bug." Other Washington PSM V56 D0042 Washington post article.png newspapers took the matter up. The New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore papers soon followed suit. The epidemic spread east to Boston and west to California. By "epidemic" is meant the newspaper epidemic, for every insect bite where the biter was not at once recognized was attributed to the popular and somewhat mysterious creature which had been given such an attractive name, and there can be no doubt that some mosquito, flea, and bedbug bites which had by accident resulted in a greater than the usual severity were attributed to the prevailing oscillatory insect. Ill Washington professional beggars seized the opportunity, and went around from door to door with bandaged faces and hands, complaining that they were poor men and had been thrown out of work by the results of "kissing-bug" stings! One beggar came to the writer's door and offered, in support of his plea, a card supposed to be signed by the head surgeon of the Emergency Hospital. In a small town in central New York a man arrested on the charge of swindling entered the plea that he was temporarily insane owing to the bite of the "kissing bug." Entomologists all through the East were also much overworked answering questions asked them about the mysterious creature. Men of local entomological reputations were applied to by newspaper reporters, by their friends, by people who knew them, in church, on the street, and under all conceivable circumstances. Editorials were written about it. Even the Scientific American published a two-column article on the subject; and, while no international complications have resulted as yet, the kissing bug, in its own way and in the short space of two months, produced almost as much of a scare as did the San José scale in its five years of Eastern excitement. Now, however, the newspapers have had their fun, the necessary amount of space has been filled, and the subject has assumed a castaneous hue, to Latinize the slang of a few years back.

The experience has been a most interesting one. To the reader familiar with the old accounts of the hysterical craze of south Europe, based upon supposed tarantula bites, there can not fail to come the suggestion that we have had in miniature and in modernized form, aided largely by the newspapers, a hysterical craze of much the same character. From the medical and psychological point of view this aspect is interesting, and deserves investigation by competent persons.

As an entomologist, however, the writer confines himself to the actual authors of the bites so far as he has been able to determine them. It seems undoubtedly true that while there has been a great cry there has been very little wool. It is undoubtedly true, also, that there have been a certain number of bites by heteropterous insects, some of which have resulted in considerable swelling. It seems true that Melanotestis picipes and Opsicostes personatus have been more numerous than usual this year, at least around Washington. They have been captured in a number of instances while biting people, and have been brought to the writer's office for determination in such a way that there can be no doubt about the accuracy of this statement. As the story went West, bites by Conorhinus sanguisuga and Rasatus thoracicus were without doubt termed "kissing-bug" bites. With regard to other cases, the writer has known of an instance where the mosquito bite upon the lip of a sleeping child produced a very considerable swelling. Therefore he argues that many of these reported cases may have been nothing more than mosquito bites. With nervous and excitable individuals the symptoms of any skin puncture become exaggerated not only in the mind of the individual but in their actual characteristics, and not only does this refer to cases of skin puncture but to certain skin eruptions, and to some of those early summer skin troubles which are known as strawberry rash, etc. It is in this aspect of the subject that the resemblance to tarantulism comes in, and this is the result of the hysterical wave, if it may be so termed.

Six different heteropterous insects were mentioned in the early part of this article, and it will be appropriate to give each of them some little detailed consideration, taking the species of Eastern distribution first, since the scare had its origin in the East, and has there perhaps been more fully exploited.

Opsicostes personatus, also known as Reduvius personatus, and which has been termed the "cannibal bug," is a European species introduced into this country at some unknown date, but possibly following close in the wake of the bedbug. In Europe this species haunts houses for the purpose of preying upon bedbugs. Riley, in his well-known article on Poisonous Insects, published in Wood's Reference Handbook of Medical Science, states that if a fly or another insect is offered to the cannibal bug it is first touched with the antennæ, a sudden spring follows, and at the same time the beak is thrust into the prey. The young specimens are covered

PSM V56 D0044 Melanotestis abdnominalis.png
Melanotestis abdominalis. Female at right; male at left, with enlarged beak at side. Twice natural size. (Original.) Head and Proboscis of Conorhinus sanguisgus. (After Marlatt.)

with a glutinous substance, to which bits of dirt and dust adhere. They move deliberately, with a long pause between each step, the step being taken in a jerky manner. The distribution of the species, as given by Router in his Monograph of the Genus Reduvius, is Europe to the middle of Sweden, Caucasia, Asia Minor, Algeria, Madeira; North America, Canada, New York, Philadelphia, Indiana; Tasmania, Australia—from which it appears that the insect is already practically cosmopolitan, and in fact may almost be termed a household insect. The collections of the United States National Museum and of Messrs. Heidemann and Chittenden, of Washington, D. C, indicate the following localities for this species: Locust Hill, Va.; Washington, D. C; Baltimore, Md.; Ithaca, N. Y.; Cleveland, Ohio; Keokuk, Iowa.

The bite of this species is said to be very painful, more so than that of a bee, and to be followed by numbness (Lintner). One of the cases brought to the writer's PSM V56 D0045 Coriscus subcoleoptratus.pngCoriscus subcoleoptratus: a, wingless form: b, winged form; c, proboscis. All twice natural size. (Original.) attention this summer was that of a Swedish servant girl, in which the insect was caught, where the sting was upon the neck, and was followed by considerable swelling, Le Conte, in describing it under the synonymical name Reduvius pungens, gives Georgia as the locality, and makes the following statement: "This species is remarkable for the intense pain caused by its bite. I do not know whether it ever willingly plunges its rostrum into any person, but when caught or unskillfully handled it always stings. In this case the pain is almost equal to that of the bite of a snake, and the swelling and irritation which result from it will sometimes last for a week. In very weak and irritable constitutions it may even prove fatal."[3]

The second Eastern species is Melanotestis picipes. This and the closely allied and possibly identical M. abdominalis are not rare in the United States, and have been found all along the Atlantic States, in the West and South, and also in Mexico. They live underneath stones and logs, and run swiftly. Both sexes of M. picipes in the adult are fully winged, but the female of M. abdominalis is usually found in the short-winged condition. Prof. P. R. Uhler writes (in litt.): "Melanotestis abdominalis is not rare in this section (Baltimore), but the winged female is a great rarity. At the present time I have not a specimen of the winged female in my collection. I have seen specimens from the South, in North Carolina and Florida, but I do not remember one from Maryland. I am satisfied that M. picipes is distinct from M. abdominalis. I have not known the two species to unite sexually, but I have seen them both united to their proper consorts. Both species are sometimes found under the same flat stone or log, and they both nate in our valleys beneath stones and rubbish in loamy soils." Specimens in Washington collections show the following localities for M. ahdominalis: Baltimore, Md.; Washington, D. C.; Wilmington, Del.; New Jersey; Long Island; Fort Bliss, Texas; Louisiana; and Keokuk, Iowa; and for M. picipes, Washington, D. C.; Roslyn, Va.; Baltimore, Md.; Derby, Conn.; Long Island; a series labeled New Jersey; Wilmington, Del.; Keokuk, Iowa; Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio; Louisiana; Jackson, Miss.; Barton County, Mo.; Fort Bliss, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Crescent City, Fla.; Holland, S. C.

This insect has been mentioned several times in entomological literature. The first reference to its bite probably was made by Townend Glover in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for 1875 (page 130). In Maryland, he states, M. picipes is found under stones, moss, logs of wood, etc., and is capable of inflicting a severe wound with its rostrum or piercer. In 1888 Dr. Lintner, in his Fourth Report as State Entomologist of New York (page 110), quotes from a correspondent in Natchez, Miss., concerning this insect: "I send a specimen of a fly not known to us here. A few days ago it punctured the finger of my wife, inflicting a painful sting. The swelling was rapid, and for several days the wound was quite annoying." Until recent years this insect has not been known to the writer as occurring in houses with any degree of frequency. A May, 1895, however, I received a specimen from an esteemed correspondent—Dr. J. M. Shaffer, of Keokuk, Iowa—together with a letter written on May 7th, in which the statement was made that four specimens flew into his window the night before. The insect, therefore, is attracted to light or is becoming attracted to light, is a night-flier, and enters houses through open windows. Among the several cases coming under the writer's observation of bites by this insect, one has been reported by the well-known entomologist Mr. Charles Dury, of Cincinnati, Ohio, in which this species (M. picipes) bit a man on the back of the hand, making a bad sore. In another case, where the insect was brought for our determination and proved to be this species, the bite was upon the cheek, and the swelling was said to be great, but with little pain. In a third case, occurring at Holland, S. C., the symptoms were more serious. The patient was bitten upon the end of the middle finger, and stated that the first paroxysm of pain was about like that resulting from a hornet or a bee sting, but almost immediately it grew ten times more painful, with a feeling of weakness followed by vomiting. The pain was felt to shoot up the arm to the under jaw, and the sickness lasted for a number of days. A fourth case, at Fort Bliss, Texas, is interesting as having occurred in bed. The patient was bitten on the hand, with very painful results and bad swelling.

The third of the Eastern species, Coriscus subcoleoptratus, is said by Uhler to have a general distribution in the Northern States, and is like the species immediately preceding a native insect. There is no record of any bite by this species, and it is introduced here for the reason that it attracted the writer's attention crawling upon the walls of an earth closet in Greene County, New York, where on one occasion it bit him between the fingers. The pain was sharp, like the prick of a pin, but only a faint swelling followed, and no further inconvenience. The insect is mentioned,

PSM V56 D0047 Rasatus biguttatus and reduvius personatus.png
Rasatus biguttatus. Twice natural size. (Original.) Reduvius Opsicostes personatus. Twice natural size. (Original.)

however, for the reason that, occurring in such situations, it is one of the forms which are liable to carry pathogenic bacteria.

There remain for consideration the Southern and Western forms—Rasatus thoracicus and R. biguttatus, and Conorhinus sanguisugus.

The two-spotted corsair, as Rasatus biguttatus is popularly termed, is said by Riley to be found frequently in houses in the Southern States, and to prey upon bedbugs. Lintner, referring to the fact that it preys upon bedbugs, says: "It evidently delights in human blood, but prefers taking it at second hand." Dr. A. Davidson, formerly of Los Angeles, Cal., in an important paper entitled So-called Spider Bites and their Treatment, published in the Therapeutic Gazette of February 15, 1897, arrives at the conclusion that almost all of the so-called spider bites met with in southern California are produced by no spider at all, but by Rasatus biguttatus. The symptoms which he describes are as follows: "Next day the injured part shows a local cellulitis, with a central dark spot; around this spot there frequently appears a bullous vesicle about the size of a ten-cent piece, and filled with a dark grumous fluid; a small ulcer forms underneath the vesicle, the necrotic area being generally limited to the central part, while the surrounding tissues are more or less swollen and somewhat painful. In a few days, with rest and proper care, the swelling subsides, and in a week all traces of the cellulitis are usually gone. In some of the cases no vesicle forms at the point of injury, the formation probably depending on the constitutional vitality of the individual or the amount of poison introduced." The explanation of the severity of the wound suggested by Dr. Davidson, and in which the writer fully concurs with him, is not that the insect introduces any specific poison of its own, but that the poison introduced is probably accidental and contains the ordinary putrefactive germs which may adhere to its proboscis. Dr. Davidson's treatment was corrosive sublimate—1 to 500 or 1 to 1,000—locally applied to the wound, keeping the necrotic part bathed in the solution. The results have in all cases been favorable. Uhler gives the distribution of R. biguttatus as Arizona, Texas, Panama, Pará, Cuba, Louisiana, West Virginia, and California. After a careful study of the material in the United States National Museum, Mr. Heidemann has decided that the specimens of Rasatus from the southeastern part of the country are in reality Say's R. biguttatus, while those from the Southwestern States belong to a distinct species answering more fully, with slight exceptions, to the description of Stal's Rasatus thoracicus. The writer has recently received a large series of R. thoracicus from Mr. H. Brown, of Tucson, Arizona, and had a disagreeable experience wath the same species in April, 1898, at San José de Guaymas, in the State of Sonora, Mexico. He had not seen the insect alive before, and was sitting at the supper table with his host—a ranchero of cosmopolitan language. One of the bugs, attracted by the light, flew in with a buzz and flopped down on the table. The writer's entomological instinct led him to reach out for it, and was warned by his host in the remarkable sentence comprising words derived from three distinct languages: "Guardez, guardez! Zat animalito sting like ze dev!" But it was too late; the writer had been stung on the forefinger, with painful results. Fortunately, however, the insect's beak must have been clean, and no great swelling or long inconvenience ensued.

Perhaps the best known of any of the species mentioned in our list is the blood-sucking cone-nose (Conorhinus sanguisugus). This ferocious insect belongs to a genus which has several representatives in the United States, all, however, confined to the South or West. C. rubro-fasciatus and C. variegatus, as well as C. sanguisugus, are given the general geographical distribution of "Southern States." C. dimidiatus and C. maculipennis are Mexican forms, while C. gerstaeckeri occurs in the Western States. The more recently described species, C. protractus Uhl., has been taken at Los Angeles, Cal.; Dragoon, Ariz.; and Salt Lake City, Utah. All of these insects are blood-suckers, and do not hesitate to attack animals. Le Conte, in his original description of C. sanguisugus,[4] adds a most significant paragraph or two which, as it has not been quoted of late, will be especially appropriate here: "This insect, equally with the former" (see above), "inflicts a most painful wound. It is remarkable also for sucking the blood of mammals, particularly of children. I have known its bite followed by very serious consequences, the patient not recovering from its effects for nearly a year. The many relations which we have of spider bites frequently proving fatal have no doubt arisen from the stings of these insects or others of the same genera. When the disease called spider bite is not an anthrax or carbuncle it is undoubtedly occasioned by the bite of an insect—by no means however, of a spider. Among the many species of Araneidæ which we have in the United States I have never seen one capable of inflicting the slightest wound. Ignorant persons may easily mistake a Cimex for a spider. I have known a physician who sent to me the fragments of a large ant, which he supposed was a spider, that came out of his grandchild's head." The fact that Le Conte was himself a physician, having graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1846, thus having been nine years in practice at the time, renders this statement all the more significant. The life history and habits of C. sanguisugus have been so well written up by my assistant, Mr. Marlatt, in Bulletin No. 4, New Series, of the Division of Entomology, United States Department of Agriculture, that it is not necessary to enter upon them here. The point made by Marlatt—that the constant and uniform character of the symptoms in nearly all cases of bites by this insect indicate that there is a specific poison connected with the bite—deserves consideration, but there can be no doubt that the very serious results which sometimes follow the bite are due to the introduction of extraneous poison germs. The late Mr. J. B. Lembert, of Yosemite, Cal., noticed particularly that the species of Conorhinus occurring upon the Pacific coast is attracted by carrion. Professor Tourney, of Tucson, Arizona, shows how a woman broke out all over the body and limbs with red blotches and welts from a single sting on the shoulders. Specimens of C. sanguisugus received in July, 1899, from Mayersville, Miss., were accompanied by the statement—which is appropriate, in view of the fact that the newspapers have insisted that the "kissing bug" prefers the lip—that a friend of the writer was bitten on the lip, and that the effect was a burning pain, intense itching, and much swelling, lasting three or four days. The writer of the letter had been bitten upon the leg and arm, and his brother was bitten upon both feet and legs and on the arm, the symptoms being the same in all cases.

More need hardly be said specifically concerning these biting bugs. The writer's conclusions are that a puncture by any one of them may be and frequently has been mistaken for a spider bite, and that nearly all reported spider-bite cases have had in reality this cause, that the so-called "kissing-bug" scare has been based upon certain undoubted cases of the bite of one or the other of them, but that other bites, including mosquitoes, with hysterical and nervous symptoms produced by the newspaper accounts, have aided in the general alarm. The case of Miss Larson, who died in August, 1898, as the result of a mosquito bite, at Mystic, Conn., is an instance which goes to show that no mysterious new insect need be looked for to explain occasional remarkable cases. One good result of the "kissing-bug" excitement will prove in the end to be that it will have relieved spiders from much unnecessary discredit.


  1. A paper read before Section F of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Columbus meeting in August, 1899.
  2. When the word "bite" is used in connection with these bugs, it must be remembered that it is really a puncture made with the sharp beak or proboscis (see illustration).
  3. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. vii, p. 404, 1854-'55.
  4. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, vol. vii, p. 404, 1854-'55.