Text: John E. Reilly, “The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ ” (1969, revised 2001)


The Lesser Death-Watch and “The Tell-Tale Heart”(1)

By John E. Reilly

Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a genuine mystery story, one that thus far has eluded satisfactory solution. The mystery surrounds the source of the sound that drove Poe’s deranged narrator to murder an old man and subsequently to reveal both the crime and his own guilt to the police. The narrator himself believes the sound to have been the heart of his victim beating even after his dismembered body has been concealed beneath the floor boards of his bedchamber. Most commentators upon the tale identify the sound either as an hallucination or as the narrator’s misapprehension of his own heart beat.(2) Only one commentator feels that the sound was indeed that of the old man’s heart, first heard in fact and then “pounding in the murderer’s ears after the man was dead.”(3) Although any of these answers may seem to satisfy, they really only raise a still larger question, a crucial critical one involving the artistry of the tale itself. This larger question stems from the narrator’s repeated insistence upon his acuteness of hearing. “The disease,” he tells us of himself at the opening of the story, “had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.”(4) “And have I not told you,” he reiterates, “that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?” He describes what he heard or believes he heard, both before and after the murder, to have been “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”.(5) Moreover, he insists that this sound originated outside of him. It “came to my ears,” he says before murdering the old man; “the noise was not within my ears,” he insists as he describes himself sitting over the dismembered body chatting with the police. If in fact he heard something other than his own heart, then what was it? If he really heard nothing, if it was only a hallucination, then why did Poe, who advocated economy in the short tale, dwell in this, one of his shortest, upon the apparently inconsequential detail of his narrator’s acuteness of hearing?

It is possible, of course, that the narrator’s acuteness is as much a delusion as the sound may have been a hallucination. If this is true, then the question of artistry is forestalled. For if Poe left us with a narrator whose reliability cannot be measured against what really transpired on the night of the murder, much can be said about “The Tell-Tale Heart” but little can be concluded.(6) The purpose of the present paper is to demonstrate that much can be concluded because the narrator is reliable at least to the extent that there was present in the old house where the murder took place a watch-like sound resembling the one the narrator describes, a sound he misapprehended to have been the heartbeat of the old man. The presence of this sound establishes the extent of the narrator’s reliability and helps to identify the nature of his malady. Furthermore, the source of the sound not only enhances our recognition of the ironic dimension of the narrative, but it renders “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as Arthur Hobson Quinn divined even in the absence of corroborative evidence, “an almost perfect illustration of Poe’s own theory of the short story, for every word contributes to the central effect” (Quinn, 394).

Poe’s narrator boasts that for seven nights preceding the murder, he had quietly edged into the old man’s bedchamber just at midnight to peer at his sleeping victim with the aid of a lantern and that he had followed each surreptitious visit with a cheerful morning call. When he crept into the room on the eighth and fatal night, however, he fumbled with the tin fastening on his lantern. Startled by the sound, the old man sprang up and remained for an hour “sitting up in the bed listening,” the narrator tells us, “just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death-watches in the wall.” It should be noted that it was not the old man who was listening to the death-watches, for he was trying to determine what made the noise produced by the tin fastening on the narrator’s lantern, and the narrator imagines that the old man attributed the sound of the fastening to “a mouse crossing the floor” or “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” It is the narrator, giving us a glimpse of himself alone in his own bedchamber, who has hearkened to the death-watches. Herein lies the source of the sound that the narrator believes to have been the heartbeat of the old man.

Death-watches are insects that produce rapping sounds, sounds that superstition has held to presage the death of someone in the house where they are heard. There are two common varieties of the insect.(7) The “greater” death-watch, or Xestobium rufovillosum, is a wood boring beetle of the family Anobiidae. It has also been called Anobium tessellatum and Scarabaeus galeatus pulsator. The sound of the greater death-watch, presumably a mating call, is made by the rapping of its head upon whatever surface it is standing; and although it probably would go unnoticed against the background noise of waking hours, the rapping is sufficiently loud to be heard in the stillness of the night. The other insect, the “lesser” death-watch, or Liposcelis divinatorius, is a louse-like psocid that thrives upon mold. It is commonly called Atropos divinatoria, but has also been called Pediculus pulsatorius and simply book louse. Much smaller than the beetle, the lesser death-watch emits a faint ticking sound believed to be produced by means of stridulatory organs.(8)

On the basis of the sound described by Poe’s narrator, the insect in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the lesser rather than the greater death-watch. The rapping sound of the greater death-watch bears little resemblance to the “low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” The rapping of the greater death-watch resembles instead the drumming of a pencil in irregularly occurring episodes of six to eight beats. The sound of the lesser death-watch, on the other hand, is faint (and thereby appropriate to the narrator’s acuteness of hearing), regular, and sustained over a period of hours. Most appropriately, however, it resembles the ticking of a watch, and it has often been described in precisely these terms. Among the “vulgar and common errors” that Sir Thomas Browne sought to dispel in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica in 1646 is the melancholy superstition associated with “the noise of the Dead-watch, that is, the little clickling sound heard often in many rooms, somewhat resembling that of a Watch.”(9) Several decades later (1668), John Wilkins, Dean of Ripon, identified the “lesser” death-watch as an insect “of a long slender body, frequent about houses, making a noise like the minute of a Watch, by striking the bottom of his breast against his belly.”(10) Evidently unaware of the distinction between the “greater” and the “lesser,” Benjamin Allen contributed an essay to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1698 in which he described the death-watch as a “beetle” that “makes a Noise resembling exactly that of a Watch.”(11) A more accurate observer than Allen, the Reverend William Derham, submitted two studies to the Philosophical Transactions in 1701 and 1704 carefully distinguishing the sounds emitted by the “two sorts” of insect: “The [greater] Death-Watch beateth only about 7 or 8 strokes at a time, and quicker: but [the lesser] will beat some hours together, without intermission; and his strokes are more leisurely, and like the Beats of a Watch.” They are “even as loud almost as the strongest Beats of a Pocket-Watch,” Derham adds at the close of his first account; and in his second account, he alludes once again to their “regular clicking noises (like the Beats of a Pocket-Watch).”(12) In Poe’s own time, the resemblance was noted in the kind of popular and semi-popular scientific literature with which he was familiar. William Kirby and William Spence, for example, devote several pages of their Introduction to Entomology (1828) to the lesser death-watch, “so called, because it emits a sound resembling the ticking of a watch, supposed to predict the death of some one of the family in the house in which it is heard.”(13) Similarly, two treatises by James Rennie, Insect Architecture and Insect Miscellanies, rehearse the superstition attached to the death-watch and describe its sound as “resembling the ticking of a watch.”(14) Originally published in England, Ronnie’s books were republished in Boston in the early 1830s as contributions to the popular Library of Entertaining Knowledge.

There are, then, a number of printed sources from which Poe could have become acquainted with the sound of the lesser death-watch. Similarly, there were a number of precedents in literature for his use of the death-watch. For “The Tell-Tale Heart” by no means marked its debut. In the Spectator for 8 March 1711, Joseph Addison alluded to the death-watch in the course of depicting “an extravagant Cast of Mind” that in some ways curiously anticipates the morbid narrator of Poe’s tale:

I know a Maiden Aunt, of a great Family, who is one of these Antiquated Sybils, that forebodes and prophesies from one end of the Year to the other. She is always seeing Apparitions, and hearing Death-Watches; and was the other Day almost frighted out of her Wits by the great House-Dog, that howled in the Stable at a time when she lay ill of the Tooth-ach. Such an extravagant Cast of Mind engages Multitudes of People, not only in impertinent Terrors, but in supernumerary Duties of Life, and arises from the Fear and Ignorance which are natural to the Soul of Man. The Horrour with which we entertain the Thoughts of Death (or indeed of any future Evil) and the Uncertainty of its Approach, fill a melancholy Mind with innumerable Apprehensions and Suspicions, and consequently dispose it to the Observation of such groundless Prodigies and Predictions. For as it is the chief Concern of Wise-Men, to retrench the Evils of Life by the Reasonings of Philosophy; it is the Employment of Fools, to multiply them by the Sentiments of Superstition.(15)

Among Addison’s “Fools” is the bumpkin Grubbinol in John Gay’s The Shepherd’s Week (1714) who associates the sound of the death-watch with the demise of the fair damsel Blouzelind: “When Blouzelind expir’d, the weather’s bell / Before the drooping flock toll’d forth her knell: / The solemn death-watch click’d the hour she dy’d, / And shrilling crickets in the chimney cry’d.”(16) Jonathan Swift (1825) prescribed a decisive antidote for both the death-watch and the effects of its superstition:

The Third is an Insect we call 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, as 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 broke, the Danger is over;

The Maggot will dye, and the Sick will recover.(17)

Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (17 December 1760) reported the conversation of a splenetic English acquaintance whose melancholy deepened at the sound of the death-watch:

I sate silent for some minutes, and soon perceiving the ticking of my watch beginning to grow noisy and troublesome, I quickly placed it out of hearing; and strove to resume my serenity. But the watchman soon gave me a second alarm. I had scarcely recovered from this, when my peace was assaulted by the wind at my window; and when that ceased to blow, I listened for death-watches in the wainscot. I now found my whole system discomposed, I strove to find a resource in philosophy and reason; but what could I oppose, or where direct my blow, when I could see no enemy to combat. I saw no misery approaching, nor knew any I had to fear, yet still I was miserable.(18)

Similarly, and in Poe’s own time, John Keats warned his reader against the influence of the death-watch (“the beetle”) upon the melancholy mind: “Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be / Your mournful Psyche” (“Ode on Melancholy”). And after Poe, Twain’s Tom Sawyer lay in his darkened room hearkening to sinister sounds, among which was the mournful message of the death-watch:

Everything was dismally still. By and by, out of the stillness, little, scarcely perceptible noises began to emphasize themselves. The ticking of the clock began to bring itself into notice. Old beams began to crack mysteriously. The stairs creaked faintly. Evidently spirits were abroad. A measured, muffled snore issued from Aunt Polly’s chamber. And now the tiresome chirping of a cricket that no human ingenuity could locate, began. Next the ghastly ticking of a death-watch in the wall at the bed’s head made Tom shudder — it meant that somebody’s days were numbered (Chapter 9).(19)

If any work of literature prompted Poe to adopt the death-watch for use in his own story, the most likely candidate would be Henry David Thoreau’s “A Natural History of Massachusetts” where Thoreau alludes to the death-watch in the course of describing the harmony between the sounds of insects and the rhythms of nature. Thoreau concludes his description by challenging the reader to bring himself into like harmony:

In the autumn days, the creaking of crickets is heard at noon over all the land, and as in summer they are heard chiefly at nightfall, so then by their incessant chirp they usher in the evening of the year. Nor can all the vanities that vex the world alter one whit the measure that night has chosen. Every pulse-beat is in exact time with the cricket’s chant and the tickings of the death-watch in the wall. Alternate with these if you can.(20)

Published in the Dial for July of 1842, very likely only shortly before Poe wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Thoreau’s essay could hardly have been overlooked by Poe,  who commented upon the Dial on a number of occasions both in print and in his correspondence from as early as September of 1841. The contrast between their uses of the death-watch is illuminating. A man who found nature a “tonic,” Thoreau was, so to speak, upbeat about the sound of the death-watch, where Poe’s deranged narrator associated the sound with the threat of his own mortality.

Although the sound described by Poe’s narrator resembles the ticking of the lesser death-watch, there are discrepancies. Where the narrator heard the sound on two occasions during the night of the murder, the ticking of the lesser death-watch is said to continue for hours. Moreover, the narrator reports that the sound he heard increased in tempo just before the murder and grew in volume on both occasions, where the ticking of the lesser death-watch is uniformly faint. These discrepancies, however are neither liberties nor lapses on the part of Poe. They are, instead, an expression and a measure of the narrator’s derangement.

All the evidence in the story points to the likelihood that the narrator is a victim of paranoid schizophrenia. He is “very, very dreadfully nervous,” fearful, anxious, moody, suspicious, and, of course, homicidally violent in his effort to preserve his well-being against what he believes to have been the threat of the old man’s eye. Even more significant, “the disease” had “sharpened” his “senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.” One of the frequent symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia is perceptual disturbance, a disturbance often assuming the form of hyperesthesia, specifically the kind of hyperacusis suffered by Poe’s narrator.(21) Although the term paranoid schizophrenia is of recent coinage, the phenomenon of perceptual disturbance accompanying insanity was noted in Poe’s time. In his Practical Observations on Insanity (Philadelphia, 1811), for example, Joseph Mason Cox included among the signs of approaching insanity “listening to fancied whispers or obscure noises” (Cox, 13), and he noted that some insane persons “are a prey to fear and dread from the most ridiculous and imaginary sources” (Cox, 15). Similarly, John Conolly, An Inquiry Concerning the Indications of Insanity (London, 1830), observed that among the “plainly legible” indications, “impairment of some of the senses is not uncommon; or an increased acuteness of sense, which is made a subject of boasting with the patient” (Cox, 463).(22) A student of psychopathological disorders and perhaps even a sufferer himself at certain periods in his life, Poe did not need a formal introduction to the phenomenon of perceptual disturbance in order to invest his narrator with the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

The presence and absence of the sound during the night of the murder was not, then, a function of its source, the faint ticking of the lesser death-watch, but a function of the narrator’s frame of mind that gave rise to hyperacusis. Significantly, on the two occasions when he heard the sound, but at no other point in the tale, the narrator’s condition was one of extreme agitation, an agitation conveyed in the very tempo and texture of the prose. The narrator was calm when he edged into the bedchamber, and he remained calm for an “hour” even when his fumbling with the tin fastening on his lantern startled the old man. But his calm vanished when he saw the “dull blue” eye: “It was open — wide, wide open — and I grew furious as I gazed upon it.” In the grip of this fury he heard the sound: “And now — have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses? — now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” He then had to struggle to remain silent and to hold the ray of his lantern on the old man’s eye:

Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! — do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me — the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come!

Having purged his fury by killing the old man, the narrator regained his composure, and he ceased to hear the sound. Calmly and deliberately, he set about dismembering and concealing the corpse. Even when he received the police officers sent to investigate the old man’s scream, he “was singularly at ease.” But his ease deserted him as the officers lingered at his invitation to chat in the very room where the corpse was concealed: “I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: — it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness — until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.” The initial sound, the ringing, marked the onset of anxiety, and the ringing gave way to the ticking sound as hyperacusis once again developed. At that point the narrator’s anxiety mounted to rage as he desperately attempted to cope with the noise:

No doubt I now grew very pale; — but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick soundmuch such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently, but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Just as he had purged his fury by killing the old man, so the narrator purged his rage by exposing what he believed was the taunting and hypocrisy of the police. The result was self-incrimination.

The hyperacusis accompanying paranoid schizophrenia accounts for the apparent presence and absence of the ticking of the lesser death-watch, but it does not account for variations in the tempo and volume of the sound as the narrator perceived it. The sound “grew quicker” as the moment of the old man’s death approached, whereas the tempo of the lesser death-watch is uniform. An explanation for this apparent discrepancy has already been suggested in an essay on “The Tell-Tale Heart” by E. Arthur Robinson.(23) He notes (1) “two levels of chronological development” in the story, objective time or duration and “subjective time sense” or the narrator’s consciousness of time, and (2) “the psychic merging of killer and killed,” or the identification of the narrator with his victim. Although Professor Robinson’s interest is in “the slow-motion technique” of the narrator’s subjective time sense, a rapid-motion technique is equally possible, i.e., the narrator’s subjective sense of time accelerated the regular ticking of the lesser death-watch. This acceleration occurred appropriately when, through identifying with his victim, the narrator imagined that terror had caused the old man’s heart to beat faster: “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme!” And just as the narrator’s deranged subjectivity controlled the apparent tempo of the sound, so it controlled the volume of what was, in fact, a uniformly faint ticking, amplifying the sound as his agitation increased. The sound seemed to become so loud on the first occasion that the narrator feared a neighbor would hear it, and on the second occasion he was convinced that the police officers only pretended not to hear.

Briefly, then, the faint ticking of the lesser death-watch was present in the old man’s bedchamber throughout the night of the murder, but the narrator’s perception of it was governed by the hyperacusis that occurred during his moments of extreme agitation. On both occasions when he heard the sound, his deranged imagination altered its volume and tempo and attributed its origin not to the insect but to the heart of the old man beating even after he had been murdered, dismembered, and concealed.

The identity of the lesser death-watch as the source of the sound that the narrator heard sheds light upon the strategy of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the extent of Poe’s achievement. The strategy is a classic example of irony, of the dramatic collision of appearance and reality. The reality is an unusual but perfectly natural situation: an old house infested by a common insect and occupied by two men, one old and evidently partially blind, the other insane. The appearance is the illusion of the situation created by the disturbed perceptions and deranged imagination of the narrator. What brings the story to life and renders it a species of mystery is that Poe chose to limit his readers’ knowledge of the total situation, of both the appearance and the reality, to the report of the disordered consciousness. Hence, just as the strategy of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a classic example of irony so it is also a classic example of the kind of unreliable narration through which the reader must penetrate to discover the truth.

One of Poe’s achievements in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the special use he made of the phenomenon of acute perception. Although they have been unable to identify what the narrator heard, several commentators upon “The Tell-Tale Heart” have noted similarities between his insistence upon his acuteness of hearing and the acute sensibilities of characters in other stories by Poe, especially “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), both of which appeared in print before “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843). But there is a crucial difference. Roderick, we assume, heard and correctly identified the sound of Madeline struggling to escape from the vault “lying, at great depth,” beneath the house of Usher. And there is no reason to doubt that Monos correctly apprehended the reports of his acute synesthetic sensibilities in the period immediately following his death. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” however, heard the faint ticking of the death-watch but misinterpreted the sound, distorted its meaning into terms of his deranged image of the world. This more complex and dramatic use of perceptual anomaly represents an enlarging of the psychological dimension of Poe’s fiction.

But an even greater achievement in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the exquisite appropriateness of the lesser death-watch to what Poe would call the moral or allegorical dimension of his story. Much of Poe’s fiction and poetry participates in the romantic complaint against Time, the lament that the spirit of man is the victim of corruption and death. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the innocuous sound of an insect becomes a measure of time under the aspect of death, a kind of metaphor binding together three tokens of man’s mortality: the process of nature, the beating of the human heart, and the ticking of a watch. And it is the agony of Poe’s deranged and superstitious narrator to have hearkened to the sound, to have been driven to homicidal frenzy by a metaphor.



1.  This essay first appeared in 1969 in one of the earliest issues of the then obscure American Transcendental Quarterly (“The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’.” American Transcendental Quarterly 2, 2nd Quarter 1969, pp. 3-9). Because the Quarterly had only limited circulation and because a number of Poe scholars have asked to see copies of the essay, I am pleased that the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore has agreed to make the text available online and am grateful to Jeffrey A. Savoye for doing so. The only substantive change I have made in my text is the addition of information drawn from an insightful essay by E. Arthur Robinson on the possible influence upon Poe of an allusion to the death-watch in Henry David Thoreau’s essay “A Natural History of Massachusetts.”

2.  See, for example, Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), 394; N. Bryllion Fagin, The Histrionic Mr. Poe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), 204-205; Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1947), 236; Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe Melville (New York: Knopf, 1958), 145-146; E. Arthur Robinson, “Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19 (March 1965): 369-378; David Halliburton, Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), 295; and, to bring this list up to date, Steven Carter, “From Room to Room: A Note on the Ending of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’,” Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 31 (1998): 33.

3.  Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), 189-190.

4.  Citations to the text of “The Tell-Tale Heart” are to Works (Mabbott, 1978), 2:792-797.

5.  This is the narrator’s description of the sound in Works (Mabbott, 1978), 3:795 (following the text of Griswold’s edition), as he heard it just before the murder. The narrator uses slightly different working, quoted later in this paper, to describe the sound as he heard it again in the presence of the police. In the initial publication of “The Tell-Tale Heart” in James Russell Lowell’s The Pioneer 1 (January 1843): 29-31, the narrator employs identical wording at both points in the story: “a low, dull, quick soundmuch such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” Italics here, as in other passages quoted from the tale, are Poe’s.

6.  E. Arthur Robinson, for example, finds the narration “so completely subjective” there is “no way of ascertaining” whether the narrator’s words “constitute a defense before some criminal tribunal or the complete fantasy of a madman” (Robinson, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 19:377-378).

7.  I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Emmanuel I. Sillman, Professor of Biology, Duquesne University, on technical aspects of the entomology of the death-watch. For recent accounts of the greater death-watch, see British Ministry of Technology, The Death-Watch Beetle, Forest Products Research Laboratory Leaflet No. 4 (revised April, 1963); and Norman E. Hickin, The Insect Factor in Wood Decay (London, 1963): 111. For recent literature on the lesser death-watch, see E. A. Back, “Psocids in Dwellings,” Journal of Economic Entomology 32 (June 1939): 419-423.

8.  Among modern accounts of the ticking of the lesser death-watch, the most detailed is recorded in a controversy over the sound: Claude Morley, “Notes and Observations,” The Entomologist 43 (1910): 31-32; and C. J. Gahan, “The Taps of the ‘Death-Watch Beetle’,” The Entomologist 43 (1910): 84-87. I am especially indebted, however, to M. G. White of the Forest Products Research Laboratory of the British Ministry of Technology. In a letter to this author, Mr. White described oscillographic studies of the sound of the greater death-watch, showing that “each ‘tap’ comprises 6 to 8 knocks of the frons delivered at intervals of about 105 milliseconds with a tendency to accelerate to a 90 millisecond interval toward the end.” The sound of the lesser death-watch, Mr. White adds, “is a continuous ticking rather like a wrist watch and is said to go one for hours without a stop. The noise is much softer than that of Xestobium and is believed to be made by stridulatory organs.”

9.  The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 2: 150-151.

10.  John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, And a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), 127.

11.  Benjamin Allen, “An Account of the Scarabaeus Galeatus Pulsator, or the Death-Watch; taken August, 1695,” Philosophical Transactions 20 (1698): 376-378.

12.  “A Letter from the Reverend Mr.William Derham to the Publisher, concerning an Insect that is commonly called the Death-Watch,” Philosophical Transactions 22 (1701): 832-834; and William Derham, “A Supplement to the account of the Pediculus Pulsatorius, or Death-Watch,” Philosophical Transactions 24 (1704): 1586-1594.

13.  William Kirby and William Spence, An Introduction to Entomology (London, 1828), 381-383.

14.  James Rennie, Insect Architecture in The Library of Entertaining Knowledge (Boston, 1830), 4:304-305; and his Insect Miscellanies in The Library of Entertaining Knowledge (Boston, 1832), 12:98-102.

15.  The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965), 1:34.

16.  The Poetical Works of John Gay, ed. G. C. Faber (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), 49.

17.  The Poems of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 3 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1958), 1:351. The passage on the death-watch is taken from “Wood, an Insect,” one of a series of Swift’s poems attacking William Wood of “Wood’s half-pence” fame.

18.  Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman, 5 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1966), 2:367.

19.  Other allusions to the death-watch in literature include Coleridge’s Remorse in 1812 (4:i.12); the 1842 version of Tennyson’s “The May Queen” (line 21 of the Conclusion) and his “Forlorn” (line 24) in 1889.

20.  E. Arthur Robinson, “Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” Poe Studies 4 (June 1971): 14-16. The passage from “Natural History of Massachusetts” is in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906) 7:53.

21.  See, for example, Carney Landis, Varieties of Psychopathological Experience, ed. Fred A. Mettler (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), especially 90-96; The American Schizophrenia Foundation, What You Should Know About Schizophrenia (Ann Arbor, 1965): 4-5; and Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond, “Some Psychological Consequences of Perceptual Disorder and Schizophrenia,” International Journal of Neuropsychiatry 2 (Jan. Feb. 1964): 1-19. In addition to presenting the results of their own research into the area of perceptual disturbance, Hoffer and Osmond cite a number of similar studies.

22.  A professor of the practice of medicine at University College, London, when his Inquiry was published, Conolly later achieved renown for his work with the insane at Hartwell Asylum.

23.  Robinson, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, passim.



This article originally appeared in The American Transcendental Quarterly, II (2nd Quarter), 1969, pp. 3-9. It is reprinted by permission of the author, John E. Reilly, including minor modifications made by the author specifically for this printing.


[S:1 - ATQ 1969, revised typescript 2001] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Lesser Death-Watch and 'The Tell-Tale Heart' (J. E. Reilly)