Q From Richard Moseley: When working for a large organisation, we would sometimes send complaining customers a bug letter. This was one contrived to seem like a one-off personal response to a complaint, but was generally sent out en masse to a number of complainants. Have you come across this usage?
A I know of it. One example:
No one even gets the courtesy of “the bug letter” these days. These days, what the consumer mostly gets is neglect.
Elyria Chronicle-Telegram (Ohio), 26 Sep. 2000.
I remember a tale several decades ago about a customer complaining to a British airline (BOAC, I think) about finding a cockroach on board; this ended with his receiving an earnest apology, spoiled by a scrawled note on his original complaint, accidentally included, “Send this idiot the cockroach letter.”
You mentioned that its origin is supposedly an incident in which the American Pullman Car Company had received a complaint about a bug infestation in one of its sleeping cars. The reply had accidentally and similarly included an instruction to a secretary.
In The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends, the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand mentions a letter in the Princeton Alumni Magazine of 5 February 1992 which claims to substantiate this story. It gave detailed information about the supposed incident, notably that it took place on 4 March 1889 and involved Mr Phineas P Jenkins, a salesman of pig-iron products for the Monongahela Ironworks Company of Pittsburgh, who was travelling in a Pullman car on the New York Central Railroad and found that his berth was infested with bedbugs. He was said to have received a hugely apologetic and detailed reply:
The car was located on March 8th, immediately removed from passenger service and sidetracked in a remote area until it could be transported by a specially dispatched locomotive to our maintenance facility at Alton, Illinois. There, it has been stripped of all furnishings. The bedding, upholstery, curtains, carpet and all other combustible materials have been burned. The toilets and their fixtures have been scrubbed down and sterilized with carbolic acid. By the time you receive this letter, the car will have been fumigated and steam cleaned from end to end.
The effect was spoiled, the writer went on, because enclosed with the letter was a hand-written note by George Pullman, “Sarah — send this S! O! B! the ‘bedbug letter’”.
The writer to the Princeton Alumni Magazine identified himself as “corresponding secretary of the George Mortimer Pullman Encomium Society, Appalachian Branch”. The letter reads too much like an elaborate leg-pull to be trusted, particularly as I can find no other reference to the wonderfully named Society, the Ironworks or the Pullman company’s Alton works.
The first example of the story that I know about, which Peter Morris unearthed, is in a 1916 issue of an American periodical, Southern Hardware, but only the punchline is visible, not the preceding text. The next is in the Lowell Sun for 24 February 1917:
The passenger who complained to a western railroad that he had to sit up all night in the smoking compartment, rather than share his berth with a fine line of bedbugs, received an abject apology. The letter was so courteous and reasonable he felt that he had been rather curt and fault-finding. Through error his original letter had been returned with the letter of apology. Looking at it, he saw scrawled across the top this blue pencil endorsement: ‘Send this guy the bed-bug letter’.
It would seem that if the incident had ever happened, it had by this date already passed into folklore. Many other examples have appeared since, whose details have changed to fit contemporary circumstances. By 1944, the term had become a generic one for any formal response:
An average of 2,200 requests for November general election ballots are received each day from service men and women in all parts of the world. ... Some of the cards are not properly filled out and smooth future procedure is hindered. These are returned to the senders with a form letter, titled the “Bedbug” letter by the secretary of state office workers.
Racine Journal-Times (Wisconsin), 25 Aug. 1944.
My gut feeling is that there never was a real incident that set this urban legend in motion. It’s so obviously a classic of the type. As Jan Harold Brunvand says of others that he documents, such as the Vanishing Hitchhiker, it has a strong and entertaining story, it’s believable, and it contains a meaningful message or moral, in this case that people in authority tell lies, or perhaps — at the very least — that the senders of such letters should take more care what they’re doing.
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