A 19th Century Chicago Horror Show – The Electric Light Bug

A 19th Century Chicago Horror Show – The Electric Light Bug
These nasty things swarmed electric lights in many areas around the world.

Alright, I am not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination but when I came across this little historic gem I have to admit it took a little while to get it out of my head.

I was browsing through some nineteenth-century newspapers recently, as us history geeks like to do on occasion, and almost went right past an article about “Electric Light Bugs.”

At first glance, I thought it was going to be something about “fireflies” or as some of us Chicagoans say, “lightning bugs” but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

I guess the installation of the first electric streetlights was not all rainbows and unicorns as we might have thought. The first electric lights brought out of hiding a carnivorous, cannibalistic, 4.5 inch, predatory, flying, swimming, biting, giant water bug known as Lethocerus Americanus.

The Lethocerus Americanus can grow to 4.5 inches

The Lethocerus Americanus can grow to 4.5 inches

It is difficult to determine the exact date that Chicagoans started dealing with these nasty critters because the introduction to electric public lighting was rather spotty in the beginning.

I do know that the outdoor electric arc lamp was first tested in Chicago atop the Chicago Water Tower on April 25, 1878, and was met with mixed reviews. The outdoor test was impressive at times but the light sputtered and the experiment wasn’t planned all that well. Rumor has it that at its brightest it could be seen as far south as Hyde Park.  Oddly, even though they emit carbon monoxide, the lights were used more extensively indoor at first due to the fact that buildings were not insulated well and still circulated enough fresh air to keep them from becoming lethal.

Arc lights used carbon rods that were used up very rapidly and had to be changed almost every day.

Arc lights used carbon rods that were used up very rapidly and had to be changed almost every day.

I did read an 1895 article in the Downers Grove Reporter that mentioned that in 1893 Chicago was the originator of the “Electric Light Bug” but that is highly suspect since many towns were lit with electric light long before 1893 and other cities were reporting the nuisance before that. However, Chicago did have the World’s Fair in 1893 that was brightly lit and right on the lake so it would have been a pretty good target for the bug.

There is a great website including videos of the arc lights in operation at the Edison Tech Center website.

Regardless of when it started, many towns and cities across the country were reporting huge numbers of these critters hypnotized by the lights. They would accumulate in huge numbers. Many would fly into the arc of electricity and be killed, or worse, stunned by electricity. Stunned was worse because of a few reasons.

First of all, one of the insect’s defenses was to “play dead”. It would even emit an amount of fluid from its anus which would make it appear as though it was smashed. An unsuspecting person would pick up one of these gross, cockroach-like behemoths and be stabbed by its “spear”. The spear would be its sharp 3/5 inch syringe-like proboscis or beak.

Second, keep in mind that this “bug” uses this spear to kill and digest its prey which includes, fish, frogs and in the largest examples, small turtles or snakes! It usually hides at the bottom of rivers, lakes, under rocks and vegetation waiting for its prey to swim by. Then it can move faster than a fish in the water to snatch its prey using its raptor-like front claws and hold it in a death grip while injecting venomous saliva that kills and simultaneously digests its prey from the inside out. It then sucks out the liquefied insides at its leisure. “Blechhhh”.

The photo of that nasty critter eating that wood frog is from the website "Mister Toad"  and you can get tons of reptile and amphibian information there!

That's right! That bug is eating a FROG! Image copyright Michael F. Benard

That's right! That bug is eating a FROG! Image copyright Michael F. Benard

One of the craziest stories I read about these guys was out of Syracuse, NY. In the Chicago Tribune of June 7, 1891, the reporter was telling of a story that happened one month earlier on June 5th.

It seems that along the Lackawanna railroad between Brighton Corners and Syracuse there were extensive limestone quarries.

Workers wanted to load train cars at night to increase their productivity and in anticipation of the locomotive showing up, they placed arc lights over the darkest part of the track.

When the locomotive showed up the men noticed that about 60 feet of track under the light was covered in a thick carpet of these nasty “electric light bugs”. Some were lying still while others were playing a continuously grotesque game of leapfrog.

As the engine moved forward, and I quote, “…as the drivers rolled over the insects they died with a crackling sound like the successive explosions of toy torpedoes. As the iron monster plowed its way along the bugs became more numerous and the cracking grew to a monstrous din, as though some firecracker storehouse had been touched off in a hundred places, until the drivers [wheels] refusing to catch on the now slippery rails, greased by the crushed and slaughtered bugs.”

These nasty things stopped a locomotive!

Probably the funniest thing I read about these guys was in a government report from California in 1907.

It seems that the male of the species is forced to carry the eggs of the female on his back until they hatch! In fact, a fight that can last for hours always ends up with the male losing the battle and being subjugated. In the Appendix to the Journals of the Senate and Assembly of the Thirty-Seventh Session of the Legislature of the State of California, on page 74 an entomologist Miss Slater states, “An egg-bearer remains quietly clinging to a leaf with the end of the abdomen just out of the water. If attacked, he meekly receives the blows seemingly preferring death, which in several cases was the result, to the indignity of carrying and caring for the eggs.”

Some good things to come out of the electric light attracting these nasty buggers are that wherever the lights were installed the fish population flourished due to the young ones surviving longer. Also, the lights attracted and killed huge numbers of these along with other pests and the arc lights were used as a first “bug zapper” to control insect populations rather than the arsenic-based poisons like “Paris Green”.

Eventually, the reports of the bugs started dying out. Not really sure if that was due to the numbers being depleted by the lights themselves or whether the expansion of pavement over wetlands eventually pushed them further and further away from populations but do not fret because these guys affectionately known as “Electric Light Bug”, “Toe-Biter” or “The Strangler Bug” are still around in marshy wetlands all around the world.

Yummm! Don't get me wrong, I like Thai food but...nope!

Yummm! Don't get me wrong, I like Thai food but...nope!

In fact, in Thailand, you can eat them as a delicacy!

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