Beware the Squirrel Pie: Cincinnati’s Long History With Cicadas

A brief recap of our love/hate affair with Brood X all the way back to 1800.

The song of the 17-year cicada will soon resound throughout the Cincinnati region just as it has since 1800, as always breeding myths, memories, rumors, and a great deal of unsubstantiated folderol.

Cincinnati’s cicadas emerge as part of Brood X, the “Great Eastern Brood,” largest of the 17-year cicada groups.

From The Cincinnati Enquirer April 6, 1902 (image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand)

When Cincinnati was founded in 1788, the local periodical cicadas, known as Brood X, had been slumbering as subterranean grubs for half a decade. The first emergence to attract the settlers’ attention would have taken place in 1800 but was apparently unmentioned in the local newspapers. An anonymous correspondent known only as “M.C.” confirmed to The Cincinnati Gazette [June 23, 1868] that cicadas were not unknown to the city’s first European colonizers:

“During the last of May, 1817, I first witnessed their appearance in this vicinity. Being then a boy, my father gave me facts connected with their appearance in 1800, which have now been confirmed four times.”

An early painting of Cincinnati in 1800 suggests that cicadas may have been a minor phenomenon then because the settlers had chopped down all the trees for miles around the Cincinnati riverfront, so there were few places for emerging grubs to metamorphose into flying, humming adults. A letter from Philadelphia that year, printed in one of Charles Cist’s collections, records that the City of Brotherly Love was inundated to the extent that conversation was impossible without shouting and church services were cancelled. No one had, as yet, surmised that both Cincinnati and Philadelphia host Brood X and endure the eruption simultaneously.

A big concern in 1868 involved the ability of cicadas to sting, which they do not. Although the female is equipped with an ovipositor sufficient to penetrate tree bark for the purpose of laying eggs, the insects do not confuse humans for trees and don’t sting. Still, The Gazette [June 12, 1868] reported:

“The Dayton Empire says that when the locusts visited that vicinity seventeen years ago, many persons were stung by them, and in some cases fatally.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer [June 16, 1868] spread this tale as well:

“We learn that on Saturday last two children in Dayton were stung by them so severely that one died, and of the life of the other there is but little hope.”

Another concern raised that year involved the potentially poisonous effects upon squirrels fattened on cicadas. The Enquirer [June 17, 1868] warned readers that cicada-fattened squirrels were to be avoided:

“Our readers should be cautious in eating squirrels during the locust season, as these rodents eat the locusts. Dr. Wright informs the Terre Haute Express that in 1851 he knew one family, and the inmates of a large boarding house, among them Col. R.W. Thompson, made quite sick, with every symptom of poisoning, traced to the eating of squirrel pie.”

By the appearance of 1885, The Cincinnati Post [June 2, 1885] advised residents to look upon the rare infestations of this sonorous insect as a benefit because they prune weak tree branches:

“Fruit growers count on better apple crops for the half-dozen years after a ‘locust year’ than the half-dozen years before they come.”

Although The Enquirer in 1868 claimed locust-fed squirrels were a hazard, the newspaper changed its tune in 1885:

“The seventeen-year locust has been eaten in North America and is said to have been used in soap-making.”

The Post [June 12, 1885] agreed, taking biblical inspiration from John the Baptist, who subsisted on locusts (of an entirely different species) and honey, and suggested that the insects might be breaded and fried:

“Those who have eaten of him may be pardoned for saying, after acknowledging that the new dish was very good, that it had a flavor unlike anything else in their experience.”

C.H. Newton, librarian at the Mercantile Library, brought a couple of cicadas from his home in College Hill to cicada-less downtown that year, only to have them devoured instantly by the city’s abundant sparrows.

If you’re keeping track, Cincinnati endured visits by the periodical cicada in 1800, 1817, 1834, 1851, 1868, 1885, 1902, 1919, 1936, 1953, 1970, 1987, 2004, and this year.

From The Cincinnati Post April 28, 1902 (image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand)

By 1902, reporters deferred to scientists in all matters cicada, advising calm until the plague passed, but rumors of cicada stings persisted. The Post touted the nutritional value of our infrequent visitors, reporting [June 11, 1902] on a man who served dinner consisting of cicada soup, cicada fritters, cicada pie, and cicadas on toast, noting that no one asked for a second helping. It would be another 85 years, until 1987, before the Snappy Tomato Pizza Company introduced their Snappy Cicada Pizza.

Cincinnati’s hillsides had returned to sylvan grandeur by 1919 as trees were permitted to grow rather than be chopped down for fuel and housing. Newly reforested hills hosted billions of cicadas in 1919, requiring extraordinary measures, according to The Enquirer [June 2, 1919]:

“In College Hill the insects were reported to be so numerous yesterday that the residents in several sections of the hill scooped them up with shovels and, pouring coal oil on the insects, burned them in heaps.”

At the Cincinnati Zoo in 1936, cicadas competed with the orchestra during rehearsals for the Summer Opera. But the biggest cicada problem affected the Bavarian Brewery in Covington when several bushel baskets-full of dead cicadas clogged the cooling tower, halting production of the golden amber beverage until workmen could clear the blockage.

Dousing cicadas with bug spray in Price Hill in 1936, a lost cause. The insects die off quickly on their own.

From The Cincinnati Post May 28, 1936 (image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand)

The 1953 emergence here coincided with a significantly more harmful insect pest, the army worm. A caterpillar of insatiable appetite, the army worm devoured lawns, garden, trees, and any foliage in its path. Compared to the relatively harmless—though loud—cicada, the army worm posed a real threat.

In recent years, Cincinnati has gained international renown through the research of Gene Kritsky of Mount St. Joseph University, who has made the study of this fly-by-night insect the hallmark of his esteemed career in entomological investigations.

Throughout Cincinnati’s love-hate relationship with the 17-year periodical cicada, the occasional insects have proved to be a good omen for baseball. As our good friend Joe Hoffecker reports, the Reds have played eight seasons during which Cincinnati endured an infestation of 17-year cicadas. During those eight seasons, the Reds won a World Series, two National League pennants, and two second-place finishes. The combined won-lost record for those eight years is 633–553, for a cumulative .534 percentage. This bodes well for the 2021 season.

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