A Kissing Bug Incident: 1899

Mrs Daffodil has been alerted by the Two Nerdy History Girls that today is National Kissing Day and was reminded of this


A Young Kindly Disposed Man’s Recompense for Gallantry on a Street Car

A young man wearing a blue linen suit walked with a perceptible limp into a Canal Street cigar store a few nights ago and carefully examined his reflection in the mirror above the lighter. A purple circle surrounded his left eye, his lips were slightly swollen and there was a strip of sticking plaster on the bridge of his nose. “Why, hello, Charley!” exclaimed a friend at the counter. “Watevy’ been up’gainst?” “Been up against a kissing bug,” replied the young man, gloomily. “A kissing bug!” said the friend, in surprise. “Why, I didn’t know a kissing bug would mangle a fellow like that!” “The bug didn’t exactly do the mangling,” responded the victim, “but it’s responsible all the same. It happened like this,” he continued: “Last night I was standing on the street corner waiting for a car, when I noticed a horrible-looking bug crawling up a lady’s shoulder. I knew right away what it was, and saw that I’d have to act quick and explain afterward, so I reached over with a folded newspaper and hit Mr. Bug a swipe that knocked him into the next precinct. As I did so I grazed the lady’s ear, and, not knowing that I had just saved her life, she let out a terrible screech. ‘How dare you slap me with that paper?’ says she, mad as fury. ‘Excuse me, miss,’ says I, ‘but I’ve—‘ ‘Don’t you dare to speak to me!’ says she, and at that up rushed a big two-fisted chap and grabbed me by the coat. ‘Did you strike that lady with your paper?’ says he, all out of breath. ‘Very lightly,’ says I, and before I could get another word out he gave me these pretty decorations. ‘Now, you g’wan,’ he says, when I picked myself up, ‘and don’t let me hear a word from you, or I’ll have you run in for insulting ladies on the street.’

“Well, what could I do? I knew if I got arrested nobody would believe my story, and I would be ruined forever. If I tried to explain I was certain of another thumping. So I simply sneaked off with murder in my heart and blood all over my new 75-cent necktie. That’s what a man gets for performing a heroic act and saving a human life. Next time I see a kissing bug making a beeline for a lady’s lips he can go right ahead on his mission of crime. I wouldn’t molest him for two quarts of diamonds.”

Daily Herald [Biloxi, MS] 16 December 16 1899: p. 2 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The “kissing bug” was the mystery insect sensation of 1899. The epidemic began in June with reports from Washington DC and quickly spread up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States. The odd part was that nobody actually saw the insect, only experienced the painful bites which made the victim’s lips swell. There were many theories: the bug was a common bed bug, it was an assassin bug, it was a kind of super bed-bug, it was a sign of the impending Apocalypse. Amateur disease hunters captured all types of insects that they believed to be the kissing bug.  But by early August, the true origin of the kissing bug was “revealed.” 


Originated in the Brain of a Washington Newspaper Man

The kissing bug is a myth. There is no such creature in existence as the much advertised melanolestes picipes. [Not true—there really is an assassin bug with that nomenclature.] The whole thing is a hoax, started by some bright young newspaper men in Washington when there was a scarcity of real news, and swallowed by the gullible public as many a hoax has been before and will be hereafter. The Washington boys started the yarn as a hot weather fake to relieve the tedium of a summer with no congress in session, and the enterprise of journalism did the rest. Pictures of the mysterious bug have been published, and telegraphic dispatches have told of its serious and occasionally fatal, ravages. And now the truth is out, and the public will have to laugh away its discomfiture at having been fooled again.

A Washington correspondent of the Pittsburg Dispatch tells the origin of the kissing bug, but probably the exposure of the hoax will travel neither as far nor as fast as the hoax itself and many people will continue to live in mortal terror of the winged osculator.

It was in the early part of June that the wonderful creature was first heard of. At that time many complaints were made with sore and swollen lips, and it is not hard for a newspaper man to exaggerate the swelling and make it any size desirable. The victims presented to the reading public by the originators of the yarn in Washington were unknown, and perhaps fictitious, colored persons. The story being well established in the national capital, it was pushed northward by the gentlemen in the conspiracy. The boys of Baltimore threatened to stop the fun, however. They would have none of it; knowing it to be a fake, and the kissing bug did not invade Baltimore and create hysterics there. The Washingtonians says that the newspaper men of Baltimore are entirely too conscientious for this world. The kissing bug, however, extended itself and carried its devastations northward into New Jersey and to Philadelphia and New York, and has worked into New England. The summer resorts have seen it. A supposed specimen or two has even been captured in this city and doctors have diagnosed its “kisses.” And now the bottom drops out of the whole hoax, and everybody will proceed to laugh. It was time to crash the kissing bug. He was making people nervous, and his effect was especially bad on hysterical women. The whole thing shows the power of journalism, and while all journalists may not be proud of this illustration of their power, it is to be wished that the press were never used for a worse purpose. Concord Evening Monitor.Omaha [NE] World Herald 6 August 1899: p. 18




2 thoughts on “A Kissing Bug Incident: 1899

  1. Freaky Folk Tales

    What an absolutely fascinating tale! It just goes to show that it isn’t just today’s internet generation which are the culprits in perpetuating myths and apocryphal tales. And despite the debunking I’m more than happy to continue believing in the kissing bug. Lovely stuff. Regards, Paul



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