Pests and Vermin on Muddy Creek

Dealing with bedbugs, head lice, pests and vermin in the early 1900s


| October 1999



Bedbugs, head lice and other vermin

Bedbugs, head lice and other vermin

In the great mystery of creation, it was somehow ordained that man would be in constant warfare with nature for survival. The Good Book says "Man shall live by the sweat of his brow," but it doesn't tell him how to compete with the Creator's other creations. Perhaps that is why man was given the ability to reason, so he could rigger out some things for himself. And believe you me, outfiggerin' some of Muddy Creek's scourge of pests and vermin took some doing. Keeping such beasties as head lice, bedbugs, houseflies and cockroaches under control required both expertise and ingenuity. 

Perhaps the most obnoxious and the most difficult of the lot to eradicate was the bedbug. One summer, this tiny red unwelcome guest invaded the home place. It was during the war, the Kaiser's war, that is, and farmhands were few and available only because they were for some reason unacceptable to the Armed Forces. The fly-by night transient laborers and I use that term advisedly usually were recruited from those hanging around saloon alley in Vincennes or, preferably, from homeless hobos, fresh from a boxcar pullman, able and willing to do a few days' work to replenish a flat purse. Such was the one who, we will presume, brought the tiny stowaway to Muddy Creek during hay harvest time.

Ma Ma first noticed that Enoch (that was his unlikely name) was scratching a good deal, and even drawing blood from the itch. Then one day, after Enoch had caught a fast freight and while she was changing the bed, that they was: millions of them. Tiny red wingless bloodsucking insects infested every button on the mattress and every spring coil or crack in and around the wooden bedstead. There were so many that they could be scooped up by the tablespoonful. Enoch had, apparently, imported them from one of his former abodes, and left them behind as he moved on. One thing was for sure: they had found a happy home there on Muddy Creek.

Eradicating them proved to be not only a difficult and time-consuming task, but an almost impossible one. The bed was stripped to the bare frame with the bedding hauled out through the window so as not to send the bugs to the rest of the house. The springs and bed frame were then scrubbed with hot soapy lye water that only seemed to encourage them. Coal oil, in generous amounts, was then poured over each crack, and careful squirts from an oil can were "shot" into every deep crevice to drive them out. The stench of the oil and drips on the floor (with oil also seeping into the plaster below) made the cure worse than the bite.

Finally, the old wooden bedstead, a family heirloom, was sadly dismantled and fed into a bonfire. The room was sealed with strips from an old rug and one of dad's discarded shirts. The strips were crammed and stuffed around the windows and under the doors to make the room as airtight as possible. Dad had brought several sulfur candles from the hardware store. They were lighted and allowed to burn in the room until the oxygen was used up. The room was then left unopened and untouched for nearly a week, and, when it was finally opened, the formerly unpainted, white plaster walls were pockmarked forever with the tiny black pinhead-size tattoos that marked the final resting place of a Chicago-bred bedbug.

The fumigation with the sulfur candles formed sulfuric acid that seeped out and ate holes in the curtains and hand-woven rugs, so another huge bonfire was in order. Needless to say, that "extra" hired man was far, far away long before his traveling companions had become extinct.