Spiders in her eyes

Case of spiders discharged from the eyesA previous post about the boy who vomited millipedes proved surprisingly popular – so when I came across this tale of a girl who cried spiders it seemed too good to waste.

On February 5th 1840, Dr Lopez, a physician from Mobile, Alabama, visited a young woman in Charleston.  The previous week she had been staying with friends in the country:

On the night of the 29th January, while conversing in bed, she was sensible that some object had fallen from the ceiling of the apartment, upon her cheek, just below the inferior lid. This caused her to apply the hand briskly and forcibly in order to brush off, what she supposed to be some one of the many insects so common in country houses, upon which, the friend with whom she slept observed, that as the room was much infested with spiders, it was probable that the object which had fallen was one of them. In the course of the night she was awakened by a feeling of intense pain in her left eye, which continued at intervals until morning, when, upon examination, the eye was discovered to be highly inflamed and lachrymose. Ordinary domestic means were applied, and during the morning feeling an intense degree of itching and irritation, she rubbed the lids together upon the ball and removed two fragments which were readily recognised as the dismembered parts of a spider. Her alarm in consequence became very great, and was much heightened when the same thing was repeated in the afternoon.

She left for home, and when the doctor arrived to see her she was in a state of considerable anxiety.  He found

the right eye unaffected; the left, turgid, inflamed and weeping; and there had been removed from it that morning, a spider, imbedded in a mucous covering. It was entire with the exception of two legs. The two preceding days before I had seen her three others had been removed and were now exhibited to me. I immediately submitted the eye to as close an examination as the irritable condition of the parts permitted, without being enabled to discover the minutest portion of any foreign substance. In order however to combat the pain and inflammation I ordered leeches, saline-antimonial medicines, and evaporating lotions. I thenceforward visited her daily until the 19th, and at every visit, I removed either an entire or dismembered spider from the same eye.

Perplexed, Dr Lopez enlisted the help of four colleagues, including two professors.  They carefully examined the patient’s eye and nose to see whether there was any place where spiders or their eggs might be concealed, but all to no avail.

Up this point the phenomenon had only affected the left eye; but now the spider-emission became binocular:

From the 19th they were removed from both eyes, and so continued until the 23d, when again they became confined to the left, and afterwards from each eye alternately until the 5th of March, when a truce was had until the 10th. During this interval, the eyes resumed their normal condition, but again on the 10th the inflammation was renewed and the discharge of spiders recommenced, the right eye being now chiefly the depository. Up to the date, during which time my visits were unremittingly made, none other than general observations were kept, but, the spider-making power appearing so inexhaustible, a more circumstantial diary was thought necessary.

For the next two months Dr Lopez kept a careful log.

10th. Two spiders.

11th. Two.

12th. Previous to my visit, one from the left eye, which was much less inflamed than the right.

13th. Eyes much improved in appearance. One discharged since my last visit, and another just previous to my departure this morning.

15th. Eyes extremely healthy and clear. On the 13th just after my visit, the mother removed three spiders, two entire and one broken; also a putrid substance, the precise nature of which I could not define. No others discharged to date.

Three days later there was a further twist:

18th. Right eye still inflamed — discharged a portion of web from the inner canthus.

19th. Eyes the same — another piece of web.

Were these spiders building webs behind her eyes?

20th. Eyes perfectly natural. After my departure on the 19th, there was removed a sacculum containing ova.

27th. None since 20th until to-day. The left eye being inflamed and painful she was advised by a friend to insert an eye stone, which at its exit protruded one spider of the long-legged kind, entire.

This was, however, the last arachnid to be evicted from its unusual home.  On May 14th Dr Lopez pronounced his patient cured.

The total number of spiders removed from commencement were between forty and fifty. During the progress of this very singular case, the treatment was regulated according to the greater or less degree of local or general disturbance. The patient was restored to good health, and continued so uninterruptedly to the date of my leaving Carolina in November, 1840.

A century earlier, a report of a case like this would probably have ended at this point, maybe with some remarks concluding that a spider had laid eggs in the girl’s eye.  The fact that Dr Lopez is open to other possibilities gives some insight into the increasing knowledge of mental illness at this date.  Acknowledging the good character of his patient, he is emphatic that she would never fake something like this purely to gain notoriety; however

the pathological history of the patient… has induced me to distinguish this case as one unequivocally of Hysteric Monomania.

He then reveals conclusive evidence that the spiders must have been placed deliberately in the woman’s eye; they did not find their own way there.

The spiders removed from the eye were subjected to close microscopic examination by myself, assisted by several professional gentlemen accustomed to scientific investigations, among whom was the Rev. Dr. Bachman, whose reputation precludes all doubt, and we discovered at least three different species.

The young woman, he explains, had a long history of mental disturbance, for which he had previously treated her.  This was merely its latest and strangest manifestation.

At the incipiency of the case, I do not for an instant doubt the presence of those fragments of spiders, and perhaps one or two entire, but my opinion is, that subsequently, terror, superinduced upon the idiosyncrasy described, dethroned the judgment; hallucination usurped its seat; a morbid concatenation was excited, and the patient under the control of this influence was urged irresistibly to introduce them from day to day, until the morbid series was exhausted.

[Source: American Journal of the Medical Sciences, July 1843]

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