Dakota Datebook

The Butterfly Guy

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Today we’re talking about a man whose chronic insomnia was first his curse and then his blessing. Emil Krauth was born around 1872 in the German village of Eberbach. As a child, he became fascinated with the stone entrance to a local cemetery. Carved into the stone were butterflies, which, his pastor explained, represented the Resurrection of Christ; the butterfly begins as a caterpillar that retreats into a cocoon and then emerges beautifully transformed.

Emil suffered from poor health as a child. He left Eberbach to study art in Karlsruhe, Germany, while continuing to seek answers at the University Clinic of Heidelberg. His physicians finally told him his only hope was to go to a land with an arid climate.

Krauth chose New York, where several of his siblings lived. But once there, he found himself plagued by a new problem: he couldn’t sleep. Becoming more and more anxious, he thought he was losing his sanity. His doctors thought he might improve if he lived in the open country. They suggested North Dakota, much to the dismay of his brothers and sisters. They told him no man of education and culture could be happy in “a land of ice and snow, bare and void, neglected by nature, and fit only for coyotes and cowboys.”

Emil followed his doctors’ advice, however, and arrived in central North Dakota in October 1907. He was pleasantly surprised to find he loved the open prairie and its incomparable sunsets. He dabbled in farming and then went into business selling real estate and insurance in Hebron.

Fresh air and sunshine improved his health, but insomnia still had him worrying about his sanity.

One summer evening, he sat on his porch looking for a diversion, when he noticed a large “silk-spinner” moth circling the porch light. It brought to mind the stone-carvings outside the Eberbach cemetery, and his boyhood fascination with butterflies was re-awakened. He ordered a book on butterflies, made a net, and began to ramble the Hebron hills looking for specimens. After each excursion, he used his butterfly text to identify his trophies and then carefully mounted them.

As Krauth’s collection grew, so did his zest for life. His friends teased him, saying there would soon be no more butterflies or moths to discover. People generally agreed there couldn’t be more than thirty or forty species on the North Dakota prairie, but Krauth made an accidental discovery. One evening, darkness caught up to him as he walked home, and, to his surprise, he found there were more moths and butterflies out at night than during the day.

With his insomnia now working to his advantage, Krauth spent many hours bagging night fliers, and his collection continued to grow. He bought more books on butterflies, subscribed to entomology magazines, and wrote letters to other collectors. He also started raising his own specimens and learned about their growth habits. Soon he was trading for moths and butterflies native to Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. He also began to travel and was the first to discover the Parnassus butterfly east of the Rocky Mountains. In the Black Hills, he discovered a new species of butterfly that has since been named in his honor: Colias Christina Krauthii; the original specimen is now in the American Museum of Natural History.

Krauth died on this date in 1941, leaving a mounted collection of more than 10,000 specimens – the largest private collection in the Nation. After his death, part of it went to the State Historical Society of ND, and the other went to a Hebron attorney. Having found his passion, Emil Krauth happily admitted he lived his life “chasing butterflies instead of dollars.” Even at night.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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