AUGUST
2006

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

8-10-06

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The Gold-Bug of Edgar Allan Poe


One of Edgar Allan Poe's most famous literary productions was a short story entitled "The Gold-Bug." Published in 1843, it is about the search for buried treasure. Treasure supposedly hidden on a small island near Charleston, South Carolina, by the famous pirate, Captain Kidd.

Of course, finding buried treasure is easier said than done. Such is the case in this story. The main character, Mr. William Legrand, uses a combination of luck, hard work and forensic skills to uncover the treasure. Cryptology and an insect ­- the gold-bug -- also play roles.

The role of the insect was a minor one, even though it is the title to the story. But its discovery started the sequence of events that lead to the treasure. Legrand was said to be interested in "sauntering along the beach... in quest of shells or entomological specimens." On one of these jaunts, he had acquired a "scarabaeus which he believed to be totally new."

That scarabaeus was described as a "bug...of a brilliant gold color --about the size of a large hickory-nut -- with two jet black spots near one extremity of the back, and another, somewhat longer, at the other."

So what is this insect? The reference to scarabaeus suggests it is a member of the beetle family scarabaeidae. Generally known as scarab beetles, many species feed on decaying plant material or dung. The family includes the sacred Egyptian scarab beetle and other dung beetles. That notorious pest of lawn and garden, the Japanese beetle, is also a scarab.

It is impossible to say exactly what insect was the inspiration for Poe when he created the story. However, the description of the insect closely fits a plant-feeding scarab known as the grape pelidnota. This insect is about the size of a hickory nut, is golden-colored with four black spots on the outer wings and is found in the eastern part of the United States.

There is a group of North American beetles that have a golden metallic luster, which are sometimes called gold beetles. One, Metriona bicolor, officially has the common name "golden tortoise beetle." While it is a bright-gold color, this beetle is much smaller than a hickory nut and does not have black spots.

So Poe's insect should correctly be called a beetle, not a bug. However, the term bug is widely used in popular language to describe all insects and, in this story, might convey additional meaning. The original use of the term bug had the meaning ghost or spirit of the night and was used originally to describe the insect we know today as the bed bug.

Certainly Poe's Mr. Legrand seemed to be somewhat possessed in his pursuit of the hidden treasure. In fact, the story begins with a quote from All in the Wrong: "What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad! He hath been bitten by the Tarantula." A reference to the uncontrolled dancing said at one time to be useful in overcoming the bite of a tarantula. It is easy to imagine that such a frenzied dance would be much like the behavior of someone possessed by a spirit or "bug."

In addition to its use in entomology, today the term gold bug is also used to describe a supporter of the gold standard or a speculator in gold. This use is more likely based on the idea of the spirit bug than the insect bug.

The first use of the term relative to gold metal appears to have been associated with the U.S. presidential campaign of 1896. In this campaign between William McKinley and William Bryant, the issue of silver or gold backing for the U.S. dollar was a hotly-debated topic.

Political buttons came on the campaign scene for the first time in the 1896 election. A "gold-bug" pin was produced to signify McKinley's support for the gold standard. The pin looks like a scarab beetle ­- one with large mandibles.

I don't know if having a campaign button with an insect motif had anything to do with it or not, but McKinley did win. It is the kind of story that Edgar Allan Poe might have created ­- using a gold bug to help find buried treasure or win an election!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox