1939 Exton, PA, Rabid Dog Bite Spurs Regional Manhunt

Selling Sweet Corn in Exton
Larry Polite working on corn stand signage while daughter, Wanda, keeps an eye on customers. (Early 1940s)

On January 24, 1939, my 3-year-old mother, Wanda Polite, was bitten by the family dog. Earlier in the day, an Exton Dairy Grille customer was nipped on the hand by the same dog. Her father, Larry Polite, suspected something was wrong with the dog and, according to my mother, he killed the dog, severed its head, and drove it to Harrisburg for rabies testing. This was, and remains today, the only way to test an animal for rabies.

A few days later, results showed the dog did indeed have rabies and an alert

Reading Eagle - Google News Archive Search 2019-02-27 11-00-12.png
Tue, Jan 31, 1939, Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania)

from the Pennsylvania state police went out to the press in the area in search of the man bitten. According to reports at the time, effective treatment must occur within 10 days of a bite. A race against the clock ensued to find the traveler identified only as a likely New Jersey resident — based on Polite’s recollection of the man’s Oldsmobile license plate.

Articles appeared in newspapers in the region starting on January 26, 1939, and were seen as far west as South Dakota and as far south as South Carolina based on searches of newspaper archives on Newspapers.com.

The most dramatic headline appeared in the Reading Eagle: State Police Seek Rabid Dog Victim: Race Against Time ot [sic] Save Man From Death.

Clipping from The Indiana Gazette - Newspapers.com 2019-02-27 11-34-53
Tue, Jan 31, 1939, Indiana Evening Gazette (Indiana, Pennsylvania) • Newspapers.com

For historical context, some of the “Dog Bites Man” articles shared front-page space with coverage of Hitler’s infamous Reichstag speech the prior day.

Unfortunately, there were no subsequent reports found of the fate of the New Jersey man.

A few more examples of the items found in two dozen newspapers at the time appear below.

Tue, Jan 31, 1939 – Page 13 · The News Journal (Wilmington, New Castle, Delaware, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

Tue, Jan 31, 1939 – Page 9 · The Daily Times-News (Burlington, Alamance, North Carolina) · Newspapers.com

Tue, Jan 31, 1939 – 10 · The Daily Item (Sunbury, Northumberland, Pennsylvania, United States of America) · Newspapers.com

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