During a freak locust infestation in Kansas in the summer of 1874, a young farm boy of 14 recalled that “with a whizzing, whirring sound the grasshoppers came from the northwest in unbelievable numbers. They lit on everything. I was covered from head to foot…. The hoppers ate my straw hat, or most of it, leaving me only a part of the brim and part of the crown.”a

Kansas and Nebraska experienced the worst locust plague in their history. Missouri, next in line, expected the worst. In the spring of 1875, Missouri governor Hardin issued a proclamation that echoed the Book of Joel:

“Wherefore, be it known that the 3rd day of June proximo is hereby appointed and set apart as a day of fasting and prayer, that the Almighty God may be invoked to remove from our midst those impending calamities….”

Missouri’s state entomologist, C. V. Riley, later chief entomologist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, predicted correctly that the swarm would not penetrate any great distance into Missouri because the Rocky Mountain locust was not indigenous to the Mississippi Valley. He also wrote to the St. Louis Globe several days after the governor’s proclamation: “For my part, I would like to see the prayers of the people take on the substantial form of collections…for the benefit of the sufferers….”

Riley rejected the idea that the locusts were a “Divine Visitation” sent to punish people for their sins, calling it “a downright insult to the hard-working, industrious and suffering farmers of the Western country, who certainly deserve no more to be thus visited by Divine wrath than the people of other parts of the State and country.”

But not everyone shared Riley’s view. A well-known clergyman from St. Louis remarked that Riley was taking “unnecessary pains to sneer at Providence.”

The Rocky Mountain locust, a cousin of the biblical desert locust, never again infested North America to the extent it did in 1874. A small swarm was observed in 1888 and again in 1892. Since 1902, no one has seen the species. Is it extinct? Perhaps. Says entomologist Howard Evans, we may have “lost something that we shall not find again in the farthest recesses of space.”