Because of its clicking noise, chiefly in the latter end of spring, which may be considered analogous to the call of birds. This is caused by beating on hard substances with the shield or fore-part of its head. The general number of successive distinct strokes is from seven to nine, or eleven. These are given in pretty quick succession, and are repeated at uncertain intervals. In old houses, where the insects are numerous, they may be heard, if the weather be warm, almost every hour in the day. In beating, the insect raises itself upon its hinder legs, and, with the body somewhat inclined, beats its head, with great force and agility, against the place on which it stands. This insect, which is the real death-watch of the vulgar, must not be confounded with a minuter insect, not much unlike a louse, which makes a ticking noise like a watch; but, instead of beating at intervals, it continues its noise for a considerable length of time without intermission. This latter insect belongs to a very different tribe. It is usually found in old wood, decayed furniture,museums, and neglected books.*
* Mr. Carpenter; mentioned at p. 223.
Philosophers and wits have written on the habits of this insect. That grave and good man, Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote a book on Vulgar Errors, remarks, with great seriousness, that the man " who could eradicate this error from the minds of the people, might prevent the fearful passions of the heart, and many cold sweats taking place in grandmothers and nurses." Baxter, in his World of Spirits, observes : " There are many things that ignorance causeth multitudes to take for prodigies. I have had many discreet friends that have been affrighted with the noise called a Death-Watch; whereas, I have since, near three years ago, oft found, by trial, that it is a noise made upon paper by a little, nimble, running worm, just like a louse, but whiter and quicker; and it is, most usually, behind a paper pasted to a wall, especially to wainscot; and it is rarely if ever met with but in the heat of summer." - In the British Apollo, 1710, is the following query: "
A. We look upon all such things as idle superstitions; for, were any thing in them, bakers, brewers, inhabitants of old houses, etc. were in a melancholy condition." Duncan Campbell, in his Secret Memoirs, 1732, says, " How many people have I seen in the most terrible palpitations, for months together, expecting every hour the approach of some calamity, only by a little worm, which breeds in old wainscot, etc. endeavouring to eat its way out, makes a noise like the movement of a watch." Grose also tells us that " the clicking of a death-watch is an omen of the death of some one in the house wherein it is heard." Swift, on the other hand, has let fly the shafts of satire, as well as furnished a charm to avert the omen, as follows : " A. wood-worm, That lies in old wood, like a hare in her form, With teeth, or with claws, it will bite or will scratch ; And chambermaids christen this worm a Death-Watch,
Because, like a watch, it always cries click;
Then woe be to those in the house who are sick :
For, sure as a gun, they will give up the ghost,
If the maggot cries click, when it scratches the post.
But a kettle of scalding hot water injected,
Infallibly cures the timber affected;
The omen is broken, the danger is over,
The maggot will die, and the sick will recover."
What an amusing treatise could Swift have written on the dry-rot: his charm, in this instance, is even more effectual than the cauldron in Macbeth. Gay, too, in a pastoral dirge, says: " The wether's hell, Before the drooping flock, toll'd forth her knell; The solemn death-watch click'd the hour she died."