Victorian strangeness: The man driven mad by spiders
- 4 May 2014
A new app developed by a British psychiatrist aims to cure a fear of spiders. Sadly it's arrived more than a century late for poor James Payn. Author Jeremy Clay tells the shuddersome tale of the man trapped in a darkened train teeming with tarantulas.
In hindsight, there were better places to hunker down for a kip. But James Payn wasn't to know that as he clambered into the goods van of a waiting freight train. He was just thankful he'd found somewhere to rest.
What's more, it seemed like he'd hit the hobo equivalent of the jackpot - the carriage was loaded with bananas. James cheerfully helped himself to a few, then drifted off to a contented sleep.
But Payn, a Liverpudlian who had been riding the railroads of America, had Goldilocks' luck when it came to stumbling upon free board and lodging. When he woke, it was to a sensation plucked straight from an arachnophobe's nightmare.
The carriage was dark. The door was sealed. The train was rattling along the track - and something had just crawled over his face. Something large. Something hairy. Something leggy.
With quivering fingers, James struck a match. There was the door. There was the fruit. And there, dotted all around, were a multitude of tarantulas.
As he looked up, one tumbled down on to his head. The moment he'd regained consciousness, James dashed to the door, but couldn't force it open. Another strike of a match revealed yet more spiders, all creeping from their hiding spots in the bunches of bananas.
For hour upon horrible hour, Payn stood pinned by fear to the carriage door, too terrified to move, even as the tarantulas scurried over him.
Eventually, inevitably, he fainted again. This time, when he came to, he found himself in a hospital bed in Portland, Oregon, with an angry mark on his head where he had been bitten.
It wasn't the only lasting damage from his ordeal. "It seems that when the car was opened upon reaching its destination, Payn was found in it, mad," said the Hull Daily Mail in January 1897.
"He is now recovering from an attack of insanity."