Friday, September 24, 2010

The Very Rare Book On Bedbugs, From 1730

by Stephen J. Gertz

Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Bedbugs. Lately, there's been no way to avoid them. The media is completely infested with the little suckers; Google News has indexed over 700 articles since the beginning of this month alone. The stories are spawning almost as fast as Cimex lectularius itself; individual females can lay up to twelve eggs a day.

(But getting there is an ordeal. Bedbugs reproduce via traumatic insemination - the female, without genital orifice, is stabbed by the male's hollow-needle penis, which ejaculates into her body cavity. Ladies, how often has this happened to you?).

We are in the midst of a nationwide infestation. The National Guard, alas,  is preoccupied with other matters.

It is c. 1670 when England experienced its first invasion by bedbugs. By 1730, Britannia may have ruled the waves but bedbugs ruled Britannia. Something had to be done.

Enter John Southall, and the first book (as far as I've been able to determine) in the English language to solely concern itself with the tiny mattress vampire.


When and How they were first brought in England. How they are brought into and infect Houses.

Their Nature, several Foods, Times, and Manner of Spawning and Propagating in this Climate.

Their great Increase accounted for, by Proof of the Numbers each Pair produce in a Season.

REASONS given why all Attempts hitherto made for their Destruction have proved ineffectual.

Vulgar Errors concerning them refuted.

That from September to March is the best Season for their total Destruction, demonstrated by Reason, and proved by Facts.

Concluding with

DIRECTIONS for such as have them not already, how to avoid them; and for those that have them, how to destroy them.

By John Southall,
Maker of the Nonpareil Liquor for Destroying Buggs and Nits.

Frontispiece to A Treatise of Buggs
Note that full-grown American bedbugs are king-sized
compared to their European cousins.
The result of good ol' American bodybuilding blood?

Southall, 215 years prior to J. Robert Oppenheimer post-Trinity, paraphrases the Bhagavad Gita -

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of Bedbugs

- in so many words:

"As Buggs have been known to be in England above sixty years, and every season increasing upon us, as to become terrible to almost every Inhabitant in and about this Metropolis, it were greatly to be wished that some more learned Person than my self, studious for the Good of Human Kind, and the Improvement of natural Knowledge, would have oblig'd the Town with some Treatise, Discourse or Lecture on that nauseous venomous Insect.

"But as none such have  attempted it, and I have ever since my return from America made their destruction my Profession, and was at first much baffled in my Attempts for want, (as I then believ'd, and have since found) of truly knowing the Nature of those intolerable Vermin; I determin'd by all means possible to try if I could discover and find out as much of their Nature, Feeding, and Breeding, as might be conducive to my being better able to destroy them" (Preface).

Would that bedbugs were as rare as this book. Though represented in institutional holdings, ABPC reports only two copies at auction in the last thirty-five years, the most recent in 1997.

So we are fortunate that Bonhams is offering a copy in  their October 12, 2010 Printed Books and Maps sale at Oxford. The estimate is a paltry $150 - $300 (obvious major condition issues). Considering, however, the current bedbug crisis and the acute need for this book right now, the bitten may bid the book up to the sky.

Losing bidders may drown their sorrows in drink followed by traumatic insemination - on any surface other than a bed, home sweet home to these villainous varmints.


Note that this book not only addresses the current bedbug brouhaha but product placement in books as well. Mr. Southall purveys the Nonpareil Liquor for destroying buggs and lice and brazenly advertises it on the title page.

SOUTHALL, John. A Treatise of Buggs... London: J. Roberts, 1730. First edition. Octavo. xii, 44 pp. Frontispiece.

Booktryst's Nancy Mattoon was on the cutting edge of the crisis with her September 27, 2009 feature, Beware of Bibliophiles Bearing Bedbugs.


  1. OK, so what was Southall's solution already? Or do I have to buy the book to find out?

    I am too old for plot spoilers, so just spill it, OK?

  2. I really enjoyed this, very intersting and well written! I hope you do not mind but I shared the link to this on my blog at Love your site!


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