“Those Disturbers of my Rest”: The First Treatise on Bedbugs (1730)

Written by John Southall — the godfather of exterminators, known in his day as a “bug destroyer” — A Treatise of Buggs (1730) is the first scientific study of bedbugs. According to its author, this lousy presence was still novel in London, only “known to be in England above sixty years”. Its supposed source? The importation of foreign lumber (namely “Firr-Timber”) in the wake of the city’s Great Fire, which raged in 1666. Across this book, bug bites serve as proto–heat maps, pocking the skin of victims in proximity to imperial supply chains. “Not one Sea-Port in England is free; whereas in Inland-Towns, Buggs are hardly known.”

In order to defend against the invasion of bedbugs that “abound in all foreign Parts”, Southall seeks out a wiseman where the parasites spawn to learn his ways of combat. Our exterminator finds himself in a kind of colonial fever dream: sick in Kingston, Jamaica, he has “lost the Use of my Limbs” through “a Complication of the Country Distempers”. He meets an “uncommon Negro”, “one of the first Slaves brought into that Island” during Oliver Cromwell’s time. Observing Southall “often rub and scratch”, the nameless man “wonder’d [why] white Men should let them bite; they should do something to kill them, as he did.” The itchy Englishman is titillated: “this unexpected Expression excited in me a Curiosity to have farther Discourse with him”. When Southwall asks “how to destroy those Disturbers of my Rest”, the former slave trades him a “Calibash full of Liquor” in exchange for some tobacco and Spanish coin. Applying the liquor to his bedding, the author observes “vast Numbers . . . come out of their Holes, and die before my face.” Southall, it seems, has found his calling. He further trades the Jamaican some “English Beef, Pork, Biscuit, and Beer” for knowledge of the “Secret”. Curiously, the supposed cause of the British infestation — the importation of foreign resources — also becomes its potential cure. “Believing some of the Materials not to be had in Europe, I procured of him a quantity, and soon after returned to England.”

We never learn the ingredients of this pesticidal liquor, for A Treatise of Buggs is really an advertisement for Southall’s services. It ends with a price list: ten shillings for de-pestering a bedstead and adjacent furniture; six for a four-poster; and surcharges if the wainscotting needs clearing. And yet, before this, the treatise wanders into a different mode entirely, one inflected not by disgust, but rather coy wonder and begrudging awe.

He starts to breed bedbugs, admiring them under microscopes. “A Bugg’s Body is shaped and shelled, and the Shell as transparent and finely striped as the most beautiful amphibious Turtle”. For eighteen months, Southall mates a new pair of bugs every fortnight, recording their reactions to various foods. “Their beloved Foods are Blood, dry’d Paste, Size, Deal, Beach, Osier, and some other Woods, the Sap of which they suck”. They don’t care for oak, walnut, cedar, or mahogany. In temperament, bedbugs are “watchful and cunning”, “timorous of us”, but when fighting each other, they war “as eagerly as Dogs or Cocks”, waging internecine battles where both parties “have died on the Spot”. He becomes intimate with their sexual habits. “They are hot in Nature, generate often, and shoot their Spawn all at once, and then leave it”. And he uses their bites as a heuristic of his personal health: “I daily am bit when practicing and at work in my Business, destroying them; and as they never swell me but when out of order, from thence I infer, that not only myself, but all such who are among Buggs, and do not swell with their Bites, are certainly in good Habit of Body.” One section of Southall’s bugbook approaches something like nature writing as he attends to the shifting colors of his developing subjects.

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Page from Southall's treatise discussing the colours of bedbugs at different intervals in their developmentScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Southall was writing in a period before the connotations of verminous insects had been fully entrenched within regimes of class, race, cleanliness, and abjection. As the eighteenth century progressed, argues Lisa T. Sarasohn, the bedbug became a “canary in the coal mine, indicating the changing attitudes towards body and environment that characterize modern society.” Prior to this shift, however, there was a markedly different sense of what a bedbug meant, a sense that shines through during sections of Southall’s treatise. In Samuel Pepys’ diaries, for instance, we find the cryptically joyous account of waking up and “finding our beds good, but lousy; which made us merry”. The bedbug made no distinction between hosts, and, like John Donne’s flea, swelled with “one blood made of two”, transgressing freely across the social striations that separated various kinds of bodies. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, writes Sarasohn, Londoners “smelled an enemy that could threaten their social aspirations”.

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