A bite in the night
Fifty-one-year-old Wellington delivery man Malcolm Fraser lived a fairly ordinary life, but one small native New Zealand spider gave him 15 minutes of fame – in death.
On February 5, 1891, Fraser became one of only a handful of recorded cases of fatal katipō spider bites.
Fraser immigrated to Wellington from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1880 with his wife and children. He lived in Tasman Street, Mt Cook and worked as an expressman – a person responsible for packaging and delivering goods.
In January 1891 he attended a two-day Wellington Racing Club event at Hutt Park. He slept overnight in a tent at the racecourse and awoke on January 24 to see the spider inflicting a painful bite to his right forearm.
Fraser returned home and spent an agonising night in his bed. On January 26, with his condition worsening, he consulted Dr McCarthy, who found the arm much inflamed. The doctor, noting his patient appeared to be suffering from blood poisoning, prescribed a Turkish bath to sweat the poison out. Despite the treatment, Fraser’s condition continued to deteriorate and on January 29 he was admitted to hospital, where he died seven days later.
A postmortem was performed by Wellington Hospital’s medical superintendent, John Ewart, which revealed Fraser was not a well man before the bite. Dr Ewart told the inquest he did not believe it would have proved fatal to Fraser if his liver and blood had not been in such poor condition due to the habitual use of alcoholic spirits.
Fraser’s wife Elizabeth and their children were left destitute following his death and the Evening Post newspaper began a subscription for their support. The newspaper reported that Fraser, who was the family’s breadwinner, had not worked since the nationwide maritime workers strike which ended in November 1890.
While a bite from a katipō spider is an excruciatingly painful experience, the little spiders have a lot more to fear from humans than we do from them.
Spider expert, Lincoln University’s Dr Cor Vink, told GI that New Zealand’s katipō population is in steep decline. Katipō live only in coastal sand dunes and much of this habitat has been lost or modified since European settlement. Katipō also face competition from the fast-breeding invading South African spider Steatoda capensis, commonly known as the false katipō, black cobweb spider, brown house spider or cupboard spider, which has become widespread throughout New Zealand, as well as in sand dunes. The introduced Australian red back spider, which is related to the katipō, is also a threat as male red backs and female katipō can breed and produce viable offspring.
According to Dr Vink, one thing we can do to help keep katipō safe is not to take driftwood from beaches as this is one place the little spiders make their nests. Trail bike riding and four-wheel driving on dunes is also harmful to the spiders and their habitat.
If you are unlucky enough to be bitten, ice and painkillers should be enough to get you through. For serious cases, an antivenom is available
Records of fatal katipō bites are sketchy. There are reports of some fatalities among Māori pre-European settlement. In fact, the Māori name katipō translates as ‘night stinger’.
Seven cases of fatal bites were recorded in New Zealand newspapers pre-1950, but it appears only Fraser’s death, which was attributed to erysipelas consequent on the bite of a katipō spider, was confirmed by a postmortem and inquest. Fraser is buried in Bolton Cemetery in Wellington.