From the Archives

05.19.134:45 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. 

The letter “W” is quite plainly marked on forewings of the mature insect, and some superstitious persons have greatly alarmed themselves, most unnecessarily, by thinking this meant war. Others, more sensible, think it means warm weather, and prepare their thick clothing for immediate use. Other persons have feared that these insects may sting, and carefully avoid handling them. As they have no sting, and are only armed with a beak for sucking, which, however, is never used by the perfect fly, such fears are groundless. There is nothing poisonous about them, and, like some other noisy animals, their bark is worse than their bite, if this may be said of a creature that cannot bite.

Some persons have thought that it was this fly that made the plague that so much worried the ancient egyptians in the time of Moses, and, indeed, it might well be called a plague, if the whole country were swarming with these screeching, noisy creatures, formidable in their appearance and dreadful to the ignorant by their sudden and overwhelming possession of the land.

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:

Agriculture and other institutions will be deluged with letters, telegrams, telephone calls, and questions. Small newspapers or those running to sensationalism will dust off the old story about babies in their cradles outdoors stung to death by the ovipositors of the female cicadas. They aren’t locusts, but the confusion is natural enough. “For the seventeen-year cicada’s cry, if you listen to it carefully, sounds rather like “Phar-a-a-a-o-o-o-o-h!” descending in a dismal wail most dismal to hear. The Plymouth colonists were startled in May of 1634 by this voice of doom keening in the forests and were convinced that it was the wrath of God.

The Federal Government and most of the State agricultural departments in the East have issued bulletins striving to correct the many misconceptions popularly held. Perhaps this year authorities will supplement these by radio. And people may at least learn that the cicada does not eat crops, does not sting babies (no authentic case of baby-stinging has come to hand) or invade gardens.

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

The effect of the cicada’s song on human beings is of interest to students of psychology. To me the din is one of the most depressing and unnerving ever heard, not because of its monotony but because of its suggestion that something terrible is going to happen.”

For the periodical cicada, that giant-in-the-earth among aboriginal American insects, appears to be on the wane. like the dinosaur or the buffalo, it is too great for these small times. Every farm, every town, every clearing and pasture lot spells its doom, curtails its once far-flung empire.

Far from fearing the cicada, we should rather regard it with interest as a curiosity of the past, of the primeval state of the North American Continent. Many of the broods are already greatly weakened and are, each cycle of the years, becoming smaller and more inert. The cicada is going away, shrinking, like the power of the red man, like the hosts of the passenger pigeon.

Some day we may hear it no more. And as Dr. Howard, the distinguished entomologist of the Department of Agriculture, has put it, one can never hear that fateful crying without wondering whether, seventeen years from now, one will still be alive to mark again the wail of “Phar-a-a-a-o-o-oh!”

Freaking out about cicadas is a grand tradition. Josh Dzieza mines the archives.