Hidden Histories

Philadelphia's 'Strangling Bug' of 1899 and The American Entomological Society

Friday, 3/18/11
Philadelphia is of course best known for its seminal role in the creation of the United States of America, as witnessed by the Liberty Bell, Declaration of Independence, and meeting of the Founding Fathers at Independence Hall, during the Constitutional Convention, etc. However,  the 'City of Brotherly Love' is less known for being the birthplace of the science of Entomology, or the study of insects.

The American Entomological Society was founded by fifteen individuals on February 22, 1859 in Philadelphia, and what became the Entomological Society of America was also organized in the city in 1904. As it is now March, I thought it appropriate to commemorate that society's organizing committee report at a meeting held on March 1, 1859, where the name, 'The Entomological Society of Philadelphia' was adopted, being the "oldest continuously operating group in the western hemisphere dedicated to the study of insects..." (see, W. H. Day and G. W. Cowper, "The Early Meeting Sites of the American Entomological Society in Philadelphia, PA, 1859-1876," in, Transactions of the American Entomological Society, Vol. 135, No.4 (2009): 397-406).

Consequently, as can readily be observed, Philadelphia and 'bugs' have a long and honored association with one another. I will relate a few accounts of an invasion of certain mysterious insects plaguing the city during the month of July 1899, when various newspapers carried a number of stories on a 'strangling bug.'  Not only Philadelphia, but a few surrounding counties, as well as within parts of New Jersey were experiencing these 'attacks.'

One of the most detailed accounts concerned a section of the city known as 'Haddington,' a neighborhood located primarily in the 34th Ward of Philadelphia. Here city residents, Robert Taylor, Frederick Shortland, and Edward McAleer, witnessed the 'attack' against Taylor's dog Prince, by a "large brown insect, his claws locked over the dog's throat." Shortland purportedly held a match to the insect, which then "released his canine victim and dashed at the throat of the man," which brought the aid of the other bystanders, who "grasped the insect and tore it away," though its "strong fangs clutched the man's neck," leaving "two livid red spots."

The "strangling bug" was described as being brown in color, "about two and a half inches long," with wings and a "long pair of pointed claws." A short but thick ''sucker" was said to complete "the insect's war-like equipment." (see, The Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, for July 17th, 1899). Accounts also exist of the mysterious insect being "attracted by the electric lights," and "intruding their ugliness...up the pantaloon legs of men, in the hair and down the necks of females and children." (see, Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, July 30th, 1899).

The belief was that the 'strangling bug' was originally from Northern Africa, and had somehow arrived on a cargoe ship. Jail Warden Thomas S. Fields of Media, PA in nearby Delaware County, succeeded in capturing one of the "bloodthirsty" creatures within "a glass jar." A "live mouse" was placed inside, after which it was said the "bug in a minute made a sudden dash upon the neck of the mouse, and stung it in such a way as to cause it to keel over dead, the bug hanging on to it and sucking its blood." This 'vampire-like' insect was also described as being some "two and a half inches long, has a strong pair of wings and is armed with a sharp-pointed 'sucker' or sword and two crab-like claws."

Northwards, at Doylestown in Bucks County, a "plague" of the bugs was reported at the same time, which were being found near the city's lights in swarms, one being captured by John Wesley Newman, at the Fountain House. The insect was described as having, a "heavy body and wings, and pointed bill, with which it sucks the blood of its victim." (see, "A Plague of Offensive Bugs Invade Doylestown Like a Mighty Army and Darken Street Lights," The Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, July 19th, 1899).

In actuality, the 'strangling bug' was nothing more than the giant water bug, or Belostomatidae, of the order Hemiptera, known in folk-terminlogy as 'toe-biters' and in Florida as 'Alligator Ticks.' It is one of the largest insects in the United States, and can inflict a "nasty nip" at times to humans.

The insects can reach up to four inches in length and 'inject' their saliva into their victims by use of a "beak," which dissolves the "body tissues," and sucks out "the liquefied remains," hence their 'vampire-like' attributes. They also love porch or street lights and are often mistaken to be cockroaches or a beetle because of their physical characteristics. Water-bugs are usually not aggressive to large predators and often 'play dead' like an oppossum, but can quickly 'come alive' as many have found who have attempted to pick them up.

Phildelphia survived its invasion of the so-called 'strangling bug,' which was apparently not from Africa, but simply a 'home-grown' grown variety, and since there is an abundance of water in the Philadelphia area (their favorite habitat), it's not surprising they liked it here in 1899!

(By the way, 'giant water bugs,' such as Lethocerus, are said to be quite popular as a treat in the country of Thailand).

If one has an inclination to see and learn more about these 'critters' in detail, see:

'Belostomatidae' at Wikipedia

EduWebs - Giant Water Bug