Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘History of Madison’

Crazy As A Bed Bug

Posted by Admin on August 15, 2019

Have you ever heard someone claim someone else is crazy as a bed bug? Have you wondered how in the world someone would know if a bed bug was crazy?

The expression refers to someone who is behaving in a way that makes no sense at all. In other words, that person is acting so crazy that it’s crazier than what one would expect from a crazy person. Imagine the most eccentric lunatic, and that person would be crazy as a bed bug.

Bed bugs have been around for centuries, making their first literary appearance in Aristotle’s tome “Historia Animalia.” They have been the bane of people’s existence since long before Aristotle made mention of them in his tome.

It was a sufficiently interesting expression that in 1938, Dr. Anne E. Perkins wrote two articles for the American Speech magazine. The first was titled, Vanishing Expression of the Main Coast (Vol III, pp 138-141) and More Notes on Main Dialect (Vol. V, pp 118-131). In both articles, she claimed the expression as being unique to Ohio.

It wasn’t just an expression people in Ohio used as is found in a Rice v the State in the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas on November 6, 1907, and referred to a letter written in 1904. Convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the State penitentiary, Rice was found guilty of murdering his wife on 6 December 1904. He had administered strychnine from a fountain syringe into his wife, and, of course, she died.

In 1904, Mr. Rice and his wife lived in the small town of Joshua in Joshua County (TX) and the accused was well known for neglecting his wife in favor of women living in Fort Worth. It took an hour for his wife to die, and during this time she stated in front of witnesses and her husband that her husband was responsible for poisoning her.  At the time of the trial, it was learned that Mr. Rice had encouraged one of his female friends by the name of Nellie Long to send his wife strychnine poison in a fake headache compound with directions that only she was to use the remedy.

His appeal referenced testimony from the trial, included this:

He further testified that from his acquaintance and conversation with her he was so alarmed, that he wrote to J.M. Rice, brother of the defendant, at Ranger, Texas, on the subject. This letter of date June 23, 1904, written by E.J. Rice to J.M. Rice was read in evidence. This letter, among other things, recites that deceased had been on a visit to him but he, witness, was sorry to see Mandy, the deceased, crazy, but that she was as crazy as a bed bug and was jealous about Ward being too thick with other women and advised J.M. Rice to go and see defendant, and have him to have the deceased adjudged insane.

In 1893, H.A. Shands (Fellow in English, University of Mississippi) published a book titled, “Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi.” It was written as a thesis for his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Mississippi, with a focus on collecting dialect words and phrases — excluding slang phrases — that were peculiar or very common in Mississippi.  In his thesis, he included crazy as a bed bug but stated he was unsure of its origins, or whether it was an expression specific to Mississippi. As an added note, he stated in Germany the expression was ‘as impudent as a bed bug.’

A decade earlier, however, the expression had been used by the Anderson Intelligencer newspaper published in South Carolina on 06 November 1884 with regards to an unfortunate situation.  The article was published just two days after the presidential election of 1884 where Democrat Grover Cleveland of New York defeated Republican James G. Blaine of Maine in what is still considered one of the most acrimonious presidential campaigns in the history of presidential elections in the U.S.

SIDE NOTE 1: The 1884 presidential election was marked by bitter mudslinging and scandalous accusations

A well-known business man of Chicago surprised his friends, the other day by turning up as crazy as a bed bug. As he had no bad habits and was in a sound financial condition, people were puzzled over his sudden derangement, but the mystery was fully explained when it was discovered that the unfortunate man’s mind had been unhinged by reading campaign literature. The only wonder is that the entire country is not full of howling lunatics.

In October of 1874, the “History of Madison, the Capital of Wisconsin, including the Four Lake Country of Wisconsin” by Daniel S. Durrie (1819 – 1892), Librarian of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin was published.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Daniel S. Durrie was also known as Daniel Steele.

In Chapter VI, the story of Tom Jackson, a man of Scottish origin, was recounted. Tom Jackson (known as Jack by everyone) had come to Madison (WI) as a ship sawyer to assist in ripping out (with a whip-saw) a great deal of the lumber that was used in building the old Capital.

Jack was soon on his feet, as crazy as a bed-bug — could find nothing, and relieved himself by many a hard oath, directed at persons and things about him. In his searches for his pants, he caught hold of a sailor-jacket belonging to one of his room mates, and imagining the garment to be his breeches, thrust his feet through the sleeves, and finding them too short for his legs, uttered a fearful judgment upon the man who had cut off the legs of his pantaloons!

Two decades earlier, the expression was used when reporting on the testimony of an African-American brought up before the Mayor of Philadelphia for stealing chickens, as reported by the Missouri Whig newspaper in Palmyra (MO) 02 March 1854.  Supposedly, the accused gave this up as his reason for the caper.

“I was crazy as a bed bug when I stole dat pullet, coz I might hab stole the big rooster and neber done it. Dat shows ‘clusively to my mind dat I was laboring under de delirum tremendus.”

The interesting thing about bed bugs during this period is that they were also referred to as Kalamazoo bedbugs. That being said, no one ever said someone was crazy as a Kalamazoo bedbug.

While the English started using the word bug to refer to insects in 1642, the word bed bug referring to blood-sucking insects that were found in beds and bedding came into use in 1772.

It is thought that bed bugs were introduced into England by way of fir timber imported to rebuild London after the Great Fire of London in 1666, and once rebuilt, many of the new homes suffered from bugs that got into beds and bedding, and bit people. It wasn’t long before people realized bed bugs also enjoyed the creature comforts of heavy drapes and padded chairs.

By 1810, a slang term for an upholsterer was a bug-hunter.

But why are people who are acting irrationally said to be crazy as a bed-bug? Well, while bed-bugs have incredible survival instincts, and while bed-bugs are methodical in their feeding patterns, those raised welts on people and animals due to bed-bug bites cause intense itching — sometimes enough to figuratively drive a person crazy.

Although Idiomation wasn’t able to pinpoint an exact date for the expression, the fact that people with no access to education in 1854 were using the expression means it was an idiom understood by people from all classes. For this reason, Idiomation puts the idiom’s probable inception to a generation earlier to some point in the 1820s, and possibly earlier based on the slang term for an upholsterer.

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