The patron cockroach for this page was a correspondent of Don Marqius, an editorial columnist for the New York Sun in the teens and twenties of the last century. Marquis described his meeting with Archy in a column dated March 29, 1916. After a few short comments on Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, Pancho Villa, and a couplet about scarlet fever, he launched into the following story.
Dobbs Ferry possesses a rat which slips out of his lair at night and runs a typewriting machine in a garage. Unfortunately, he has always been interrupted by the watchman before he could produce a complete story.
It was at first thought that the power which made the typewriter run was a ghost, instead of a rat. It seems likely to us that it was both a ghost and a rat. Mme. Blavatsky's ego went into a white horse after she passed over, and someone's personality has undoubtedly gone into this rat. It is an era of belief in communications from the spirit land--there is Patience Worth and there is the author of Letters of a Living Dead Man and there are many other prominent and well though of ghosts in touch with the physical world today--and all the other ghosts are becoming encouraged by the current attitude of credulity and are trying to get into the game, too.
We recommended the Dobbs Ferry rat to the Psychical Research Society. We do not pretend to know anything about the Dobbs Ferry rat at first hand. But since this matter has been reported in the public prints and seriously received we are no longer afraid of being ridiculed, and we do not mind making a statement of something that happened to our own typewriter only a couple of weeks ago. We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys.
He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.
NOTE: This is a slightly different version of the story than the one published in the books Archy and Mehitabel and The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel. Loyal archyoligists should thank John Batteiger for publishing the entire original Sun Dial column on his great website Don Marquis.com.
Archy, we were told was the spirit of a vers libre poet who had passed over into the body of a cockroach. He proclaimed, "expression is the need of my soul." He had always been a writer and had one been a drinking buddy of old Bill Shakespeare. His politics were progressive and he opposed prohibition ("prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into").
I'll talk about the wit and wisdom, politics and poetry of Archy another day. Today, I want to talk about Archy the cockroach. Archy is a singular and special cockroach in more than one way, but what kind of cockroach is he?
Because of his size, some have assumed he must be a palmetto bug, but Archy never called himself anything other than a cockroach. Archy was clearly American, a product of New York City. Archy clearly had a few traits that are not common to cockroaches. In the George Herriman illustration he is almost always shown wearing a derby and occasionally using a walking stick. These could be accounted for by considering them them human habits carried over from a previous life. Though where he found his size .0007 hat remains a mystery. Are there insect haberdasheries? His taste for a nice cold beer is less problematic; all cockroaches are omnivores and will consume anything containing even the smallest bit of nutrition, including plywood and old campaign speeches.
Common American Cockroach
We might be safe in assuming he is just an unusually large individual of the common American cockroach species (Periplaneta americana), but for one problem, his longevity. Archy remained an active correspondent of Marquis's for a good fifteen years, and he was fully adult at the beginning of that period.
I think we have to say Archy represents a hitherto uncatalogued species. Any proper description should include the facts that this species is a large, unusually long lived urban dweller that wears hats, can operate complex machinery and hangs out in saloons with poets, reporters, and other riff-raff. I'll take it upon myself to name this new species, Periplaneta archii, though the proper credit for discovering and describing it goes to Don Marquis.
For more information on Archy, see Don Marquis.com. For more information on cockroaches in general, see Joe Kunkel's Blattabase: The Cockroach Homepage.