Black widows have figured in everything from real life murder plots to James Bond novels. It's understood that they mean certain death. They don't. They just got one spectacularly bad piece of press.
Black widows are not a threat to house and home. It's understandable that most people don't want to be around them, but even before the antivenin was created for them, they were rarely deadly. They're not aggressive. Often they don't even inject a bite with venom. If they do and you're otherwise healthy, you'll probably escape the bite with nothing more than abdominal cramps and dizziness. Some estimate the death rate without antivenin to be up to five percent, but most sources say it's less than one percent – with most victims being the elderly, small children, or people with existing health problems.
So why did black widows get such a bad rap? They feature as deadly in everything from James Bond novels – where Honeychile Ryder gets rid of someone by shaking black widows into his bed - to real life murder attempts. People have tried to poison each other with venom sacs from black widow spiders. Commissions have been formed to eradicate black widows. Where does all this come from?
It came from Stephen Liarsky, a depressed young man who, in 1935, decided to end his life. He wrote a note which explained not only his reasons, but his method. He was using a black widow spider, which he had bought from a man in California. When he died, it set off a frenzy of sensational reporting about the black widows and their capacity to kill. One reporter tried to debunk the story and, in a way, should have succeeded by failing. He couldn't get the black widow he had obtained to bite him, no matter how much he provoked the animal.
Some time later, an article quietly came out which stated that Liarsky had committed suicide using pills. Doctors found narcotics in his system and a student nurse and acquaintance of Liarsky came forward and confessed that Liarsky had swiped a vial of pills that she had taken from the pharmacy to treat another patient. The bell didn't unring, though, and black widows became known as a sure cause of death ever since.
Top Image: James Gathany