From the Archives

05.19.13 8:45 AM ET

Cicada Panic, 1860 Style

Freaking out about cicadas is a grand tradition—but 150 years ago, newspapers had to explain that the little bugs weren’t harbingers of war. Josh Dzieza mines the archives.

Every 17 years, a swarm of cicadas emerges from the ground and starts its cacophonous humming, and swarms of journalists rush to explain what on earth is going on with all these red-eyed insects everywhere.

It was no different 150 years ago, a search through The New York Times’s archives confirms—except that, back then, journalists also had to reassure readers that the bugs were not the wrath of God, they don’t bite babies, and they don’t prophecy war. Also, instead of comparing the sound to a buzzsaw or a subway train, it was “a wood-working shop with every lathe and chisel and saw and band roaring full tilt” and “a big knife laid against a coarse, flying grindstone, at first lightly and then pressed down hard.”  

A look back on 150 years of the Times’s cicada explainers.

On April 17, 1860, James Angus wrote a letter to the editor about finding the first cicada of the summer and his fear that it was “the forerunner of a countless host, from the ravages of which our forests and orchards will be likely to suffer.”

This confusion of cicadas and locusts—that they’d eat everything in sight—must have been a longstanding one, because it’s mentioned in every single article written by the Times, all the way up to 1987. Also, apparently people thought that the bugs had poisonous stings and prophesied war.

On May 20, 1894, the Times set about debunking some of these myths. 

In 1936, in an article with the excellent headline “After Seventeen Years the Cicada Leaves the Earth, to Wail, to Mate, and to Meet Death,” Donald C. Peattie tries to reassure readers—sort of. Don't fear the cicadas, he says, but do think about the fact that we live but a brief time and only to breed and perish, and that you might be dead before you ever hear again the cicadas’ mournful cry.

First, Peattie debunks the usual myths:

Then he goes existential: “Such is nature’s inexorable law. the moment of mating is also the moment of death,” he writes.