The Bedbug Letter

Letter Recipient: Miles Poindexter? Frank Crane? John Phillips? Hugh Ironpants Johnson?

Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore the provenance of a story called “The Bedbug Letter” about a revelatory customer relations blunder?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared on June 12, 1913 in multiple newspapers such as “The Duluth Herald” of Duluth Minnesota 1 and “The Daily Northwestern” of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 2 The columnist Fred C. Kelly recounted the anecdote. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

Senator Miles Poindexter had occasion to stop at a leading hotel in a big Western city a time ago, and while there was unable to sleep because of certain vexatious conditions that existed with reference to his bed. He was obliged to toss about all night and act like a man with hives.

When he got back to his office he wrote a scathing letter to the proprietor of the hotel. The proprietor wrote back a three-page letter done in the politest of phraseology. In which he thanked Poindexter for telling him.

“Such a thing has never occurred before in this hotel,” said the proprietor, “and we trust it never will occur again. We are deeply obligated to you for telling us, because if we did not know of such things the trouble might become greatly augmented. While we are astonished that the condition you mention could exist, we are thankful that you told us before any other guest is exposed to similar annoyance.”

Thus the letter went on. But the writer had unintentionally inclosed in the envelope a small scrap of yellow memorandum paper. On it was a line written evidently for the stenographer’s eye and for no other. It said: “Write this man the bedbug letter.”

Variants of this tale have evolved over the years. A 1915 version shifted the locale to a railway sleeping car. A 1927 anecdote published in “The New Yorker” mentioned water bugs instead of bedbugs.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The 1915 collection “Some Stories by Famous Men” printed a version which named Frank Crane, a minister and pioneering self-help columnist, as the recipient of the deceptive letter: 3

Dr. Frank Crane has a suspicion that form letters are sometimes dangerous. Not long ago he wrote a letter of complaint to a Western railroad explaining in detail why he had preferred to sit up all night in a smoking compartment rather than share his berth with a fine line of bugs that are not called by their first name in polite society.

The letter of apology that he received was so much of an apology and so reasonable an explanation, that Dr. Crane felt perhaps he had been unreasonable in filing his complaint, when he happened to notice that his original letter, through error, had been returned with the letter of apology. Looking at it, he saw scrawled across the top this blue-pencil indorsement:

“Send this guy the bedbug letter.”

In January 1915 the identical story above appeared in “Everybody’s Magazine”, but the crucial beginning sentence was modified to name another person as recipient of the bedbug letter. The tale was grouped together with miscellaneous items sent to the magazine by readers within a section called “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”: 4

John Phillips, the magazine editor, has a suspicion that form letters are sometimes dangerous. Not long ago he wrote a letter of complaint to a Western railroad . . .

The version from “Everybody’s Magazine” was reprinted in newspapers such as the “La Crosse Tribune” of La Crosse, Wisconsin. 5

In 1927 “The New Yorker” printed an interesting variant in “The Talk of the Town” section which featured water bugs in a rental apartment: 6

Recurrent is the story, or perhaps it is the incident itself, of the gentleman who moved into a new apartment, to discover the presence of water bugs. He immediately dispatched a wrathful letter to the renting agent. In reply he received a lengthy communication in which the agent expressed his deepest grief, his intention of taking up the matter with the owner at once and his assurance that nothing remedial would be left undone. A careless secretary, however, had enclosed a note which read: “Miss Fraser, send this guy the bug letter.”

The 1942 compendium “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” by Edmund Fuller included another version, but Fuller recognized that the story was not new: 7

In one of his political speeches in the early days of the N.R.A., Hugh “Ironpants” Johnson revived a story which probably dates from the days of Chauncey Depew and Rufus Choate, demonstrating the usual futility of letters of complaint. It concerns the case of the man who was tormented by bedbugs in his sleeping car . . .

This was the concluding sentence:

His elation was quashed a moment later, however, by the discovery of the inter-office memo which had inadvertently been inserted with the letter and which said tersely, “Send this s.o.b. the bug letter.”

In 1955 “Playboy” magazine presented a version in “Playboy’s Party Jokes”: 8

A wealthy gentleman was badly bitten by bugs while riding on a certain railway line. Arriving at his destination, he wrote the company an indignant letter and received a prompt reply. It was, said the letter, the first complaint the company had ever had of this nature. . .

These were the concluding lines:

The gentleman was well satisfied with this reply and was returning it to the envelope when a slip of paper fell out onto the floor. The hastily scribbled note on it read: “Send this guy the bug letter.”

In 1992 the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” printed a missive from M. William Adler who presented a suspiciously elaborate version of the anecdote. QI believes that Adler’s letter was intended to be humorous and not veridical. He stated that Phineas P. Jenkins, a salesman of pig-iron products for the Monongahela Ironworks Company, of Pittsburgh was “viciously attacked in the dark by a horde of ravenous bedbugs” on March 4, 1889 while traveling by rail. Jenkins sent a letter of complaint to George M. Pullman of the Pullman Palace Car Company: 9

When Jenkins received the reply, he found his original letter mistakenly enclosed with it. Across that letter, Pullman had hand-written (not stamped, as your article erroneously stated) this note to his secretary: “Sarah—Send this S! O! B! the ‘bedbug letter’.”

Researcher Jan Harold Brunvand included the “bedbug letter” anecdote in his valuable “Encyclopedia of Urban Legends”. 10

In conclusion, the 1913 version is currently the earliest known to QI who hypothesizes that subsequent tales were derived directly or indirectly from that instance or a precursor. QI suspects that almost all of the stories are fictitious. Yet, the first incident with Miles Poindexter might be genuine.

Image Notes: Bed illustrations from Maklay62 at Pixabay. Two images were combined and resized.

(Special thanks to top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located the earliest published instances of this tale. Additional thanks to brilliant etymologist and communicator Michael Quinion for his analysis at World Wide Words. Also, thanks to the people at Snopes for their entry on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1913 June 12, The Duluth Herald, Statesmen, Real and Near by Fred C. Kelly, Quote Page 10, Column 6, Duluth Minnesota. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1913 June 12, The Daily Northwestern (The Oshkosh Northwestern), Statesmen, Real and Near by Fred C. Kelly, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1915, Some Stories by Famous Men as Told by Brand Whitlock, Admiral Lord Fisher, Sir Gilbert Parker, Henry Ford and over 150 others, Quote Page 16, Hearst’s International Library Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1915 January, Everybody’s Magazine, Volume 32, Number 1, Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree (Stories sent to magazine editor by readers), Start Page 141, Quote Page 142, The Ridgway Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1915 January 9, La Crosse Tribune, Wit of Sages, Folly of Clown, Stolen Gems from Humor’s Crown: Then He Was Mad, Quote Page 8, Column 3, La Crosse, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive.com)
  6. 1927 March 5, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, Entomological, Start Page 17, Quote Page 19, Column 2 and 3, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  7. 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Section: Public Relations, Quote Page 242, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1955 June, Playboy, Playboy’s Party Jokes, Quote Page 23, Column 1, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1992 February 5, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 92, (Letter to the editor from M. William Adler, Weston, West, Virginia, Princeton Class of 1948), Quote Page 4, Column 2 and 3, Princeton Alumni Publications, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)
  10. 2012, Encyclopedia Of Urban Legends (Updated and Expanded Edition), Jan Harold Brunvand, Volume 1: A to L, The Bedbug Letter, Quote Page 55, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California. (Verified with scans)