Last year on Slate’s sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” Josh Levin recounted one of the most spectacular events of 1934: a fight between a scorpion and a spider in a California garage. An adapted transcript is below, and you can listen to the full audio version by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.
On Aug. 23, 1934, the United Press news wire moved a story with a Long Beach, California, dateline. Here is that story, as it appeared in the Nevada State Journal:
A death duel between a scorpion and a black widow spider today was underway in a Long Beach garage, where the scorpion was caught in a spider web.
The fight started yesterday when the scorpion lunged at the black widow and became tangled in the net. The spider immediately went into action and at noon today had spun sufficient new web to lift the scorpion three inches from its position at the start of the battle.
C.A. Pastorius, owner of the garage, said he thought it a three to one bet that the black widow eventually will be victorious.
It is no exaggeration to say that over the next few days, this death duel between a scorpion and a black widow spider in a Long Beach garage captivated America.
OK, it might be a very small exaggeration. But there were a huge number of stories published about the death duel as it developed, including in Time magazine, and the duel took some remarkable and frankly terrifying twists and turns. For a few days in August 1934, scorpion-spider death dueling became a spectator sport with heavy betting action.
On Aug. 24, the United Press hit us with another update, one that erroneously referred to these beasts as insects rather than arachnids:
A desperate battle between two deadly insects, a scorpion and a black widow spider, passed its 45th hour today with scores of onlookers laying heavy odds that the little spider would emerge victorious,
The two killers fought a patient battle, waiting for the chance when one might pounce upon the other and end the fight with one quick thrust.
Although the spider had given away almost three times its size and weight to the scorpion it had spun a web around one of the scorpion’s pinchers and was gradually enmeshing its lethal weapon, the stinger, in the thin thread.
The grim battle, taking place in a nasty corner of a large Long Beach garage, attracted hundreds. Betting odds were 4 and 5-to-1 on the spider with few takers.
On Aug. 25, our intrepid, unbylined United Press reporter was still on the scene. By this point, it was like we were in the middle of one of those interminable Test cricket matches—and we know the black widow at least would’ve been up for eating crickets. But back to our story. Dateline Long Beach:
A deadly scorpion and an equally lethal black widow spider, locked in mortal combat for three days in a dingy garage here, battled on even terms tonight because of the widow’s error.
While crowds pressed about, the widow proceeded calmly to knot the scorpion in the webs she was busily spinning. For three days the fight was entirely on her side. Late today she even succeeded in enmeshing the scorpion’s deadly stinger, attached to his lashing tall.
But the widow grew overconfident. As her spinning proceeded with a calmness that belied the deadliness of the battle, she forgot the scorpion possessed two flashing foreclaws.
Suddenly the crowd stood aghast as the widow, dangling six inches from the floor, allowed herself to sway too near the claws. One claw snapped out—and she was trapped.
The widow’s spinning stopped suddenly. She was helpless in the scorpion’s grasp.
But those who had their money on the widow—and there were many—refused to concede the battle to the scorpion or even admit it was a stalemate. The scorpion, they pointed out, can’t really hurt the widow because his stinger is tied up in her web. And even if he wriggles the tail loose, his present position is such that the stinger couldn’t reach the widow.
They were still dangling, silent and motionless, as the crowd settled down for an all-night vigil.
Some newspapers ran photos, and the scorpion was indeed much bigger than the spider. The caption in the Daily Capital News from Jefferson City, Missouri, noted “the large claws of the scorpion vainly trying to break through the silken-like ropes while its tiny captor stands by.”
Another United Press dispatch from Aug. 25, this one published in the San Bernardino County Sun, recounted the duel’s shocking conclusion:
Under-dog in its four day struggle with a deadly black widow spider, a venomous scorpion rallied and was about to deliver the knockout punch today when the humane society ended the bout with chloroform.
On the short end of 20-to-1 odds, the scorpion staged a belated rally which freed its deadly stinger from the silken web the spider had woven around it.
The scorpion was within an inch of its opponent when City Prosecutor John K. Hull stepped in the ring.
“I’m sorry, boys,” he said, “but the humane society has complained about the show.”
The battlers were then sprayed with chloroform and the fight was over.
Victory, however, would have been a hollow honor for the scorpion. The winner was under sentence of death as both insects are poisonous to humans.
The story then continued, under the bold header “ERROR BY SPIDER”:
Until late yesterday, the spider held the upper hand. It had woven an imprisoning web around its much larger opponent, even to the point of enmeshing the stinger on the scorpion’s tail.
Betting odds among the spectators increased to five to one as the black widow finished tying up her adversary. Resting then for a moment on a silky strand, she swayed too closely to a free foreclaw. The scorpion caught her quickly and held her there helplessly. But it could not free its stinger to finish the fight.
The spider already had lost a leg in the grim battle. But her general condition was much better than the scorpion’s. The latter seemed groggy and appeared to be losing strength.
A lesson from 84 years ago that still applies today: In a duel between a spider and a scorpion, always bet on chloroform.