Peter Barnsley reports on the 1862 trial of Richard Evans and Charles Thomas, who were accused of administering "Lytta vesicatoria" to a young lady's breakfast
First published in The Blackcountryman, Winter 1999/2000, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 44-46
The Aphrodisiac on the Cradley Line by Peter Barnsley
You could live your lifetime in Cradley without knowing that it even had a railway line. The track, sunk in a cutting, just clips Cradley's western end - its Netherend in fact - and the conscientious train driver, approaching from Stourbridge, and passing under the bridges that carry him under Mogul Lane and Maypole Hill, is as unconscious of Cradley as Cradley is of him. He is too busy peering through his windscreen, and assessing the braking distance between himself and Cradley Heath station, into which his train glides as it crosses the Stour and leaves Cradley behind.
If, in 1862, you had told Richard Evans and Charles Thomas that the Aphrodisiacs were a range of mountains in North America - just down a bit from the Adirondacks - they might well have believed you. Probably neither knew much about geography. They certainly would not have known what Lytta vesicatoria was - a music hall artiste perhaps - even though they tried to exploit what they believed to be its powers. Thomas was the son of Henry Thomas, a Netherend farmer, and Evans (who was also known as Scriven) worked for Henry Thomas as a waggoner. In the autumn of 1862, both men, whose services were presumably not required down on the farm, were working as labourers on the Cradley line, which was then under construction. They were close to Cradley Forge (which was actually in Cradley Heath) just outside the site of the future Cradley Heath station.
Among the workers at Cradley Forge was twenty-year-old Mary Bridgwater who was a glede-washer, she washed the forge's dead embers or cinders before they were re-used as fuel. She always brought food with her, and for some reason she always left it outside the forge at a spot where she could see it while she worked. At about 8.30 a.m. on 1st October, she saw Evans pick up the bundle and, followed by Thomas, take it into a small cabin where they remained for about half an hour. She must have wondered what they were doing but she knew both men, and so possibly saw no reason to be suspicious.
Shortly afterwards, Mary Bridgwater took her breakfast break. Opening her bundle, and taking a bite into a piece of bread, she found what lawyers would - and subsequently did call a 'noxious substance'. A second piece of bread contained an identical 'substance' as did an apple, which had been given to her by Evans who had cut a hole in the core to accommodate this mysterious foreign matter. Mary Bridgwater showed the first sample to a colleague, a Mrs. Williams, who said she had no idea what it was and 'threw it away among the ashes'.
Even in 1862, you could not put noxious substances into a lady's victuals with impunity, and on Friday 10th October, Evans and Thornas found themselves facing the Stourbridge Bench, (which on that day comprised C. E. Swindell, W. P. Firmstone and C. P. Noel) charged with having administered a certain noxious drug to Mary Bridgwater with intent to do her grievous bodily injury. The Act under which Evans and Thomas were charged was almost certainly the 1860 Act, which has no short title but whose preamble describes it as 'An Act to amend the law relating to the unlawful administering of poison.'
Section 1 of the Act defines the offence of administering 'any poison or other destructive or noxious thing so as to thereby endanger life ... or to inflict grievous bodily harm'. This was classed as a felony, punishable by anything from up to three years imprisonment (with or without hard labour) to penal servitude for ten years.
Section 2 deals with the administering of poison 'with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy'. This is classed as a misdemeanour only, punishable by up to three years imprisonment (with or without hard labour).
One would have thought that Section 2 was more applicable to this case, but the wording of the newspaper report suggests that Evans and Thomas were tried under Section 1.
The trial lasted a full five hours, and the Brierley Hill Advertiser printed a bowdlerised report that must have puzzled its more innocent readers. 'The evidence,' said the Advertiser primly, 'was of such a nature as to preclude its publication at any length.' The court was packed, and it is interesting to reflect that in those pre-tabloid days there was already a keen public appetite for sex cases.
For it was, of course, sex - or the desire for it - that was behind the insertion into Mary Bridgwater's breakfast of Lytta vesicatoria, which was described coyly by the Advertiser as 'a fly', but which is better known as Spanish Fly (actually a beetle of about an inch in length). Spanish Fly has a long-standing reputation as an aphrodisiac but in fact it has no such quality. Evans and Thomas were hoping to make Mary Bridgwater responsive to their advances; they hardly intended to endanger the life or cause her grievous bodily harm (they could hardly have known that Spanish Fly - which is also known as the Blister Bettle - is dangerous if swallowed; it does have medicinal uses but only when applied externally). The two defendants were represented by a Mr. Maitby. The Advertiser tells the story of the trial.
The complainant was subjected to severe cross-examination by Mr. Maitby, in the course of which she made some serious variations from her original statement, and was obliged to admit that she had given different versions of the affair to different people. The woman Williams, and another woman named Banner were called to corroborate the complainant's evidence.
Mr. Maitby, addressing the Bench on the prisoners' behalf, contended that it had been only an attempt to administer, and that the law did not recognise such an offence. To constitute an offence under the Act, the drug must have been administered. The Bench overruled this view. Mr. Maitby addressed himself to the facts.
He commented at considerable length and with great force on the contradictory and unsatisfactory nature of the complainant's evidence, and submitted that it was unworthy of belief by the Bench. He alluded to the character of the complainant, and submitted that she had shown from her own mouth that her character was not what it should be. He said he would call witnesses who would directly contradict all she had stated, and place it beyond doubt that her antecedents were not such as to entitle her to be believed by the Bench, nor her evidence, and that of her witnesses, such as to warrant them in sending the prisoners for trial on such a grave charge.
Mr. Maitby called his witnesses, and the Bench said that as the evidence was so contradictory, they had no other resource than to dismiss the charge. It was very clear that on one side or the other there had been the most gross and corrupt perjury.
There is no cause for wonder at the fact that Evans and Thomas knew of the supposed properties of Spanish Fly. There were enough returning servicemen in the days of Empire to spread such information into the most remote areas of the country. Where the men obtained their specimens is a more interesting question. They are hardly likely to have bought them over - or even under - the counter in Cradley. And though Spanish Fly has occurred, very rarely, in this country, it is not likely that they picked them off a bush in Cradley, if only because they would probably not have recognised it if they saw one. And though they obviously knew what Spanish Fly was supposed to do, they clearly had no idea how to administer it. The episode now seems comic rather than sordid, but it certainly throws a little light on an aspect of Cradley's social history - the sexual habits of its men in the nineteenth century - about which remarkably little is known. Sadly, we shall never know who was telling the truth.
As far as the trial itself is concerned, feminists might well point out that Mr. Maitby used tactics that have been practised by defence lawyers in cases of sexual assault ever since: use every means to blacken the character of the female complainant. He hardly needed to do this because, if the newspaper report is accurate, Mary Bridgwater's own evidence was clearly unreliable.
Mr. Maitby does seem to have had a point when he argued that the accused had only attempted to administer the Spanish Fly to the complainant, and that therefore no crime had been committed according to the provisions of the Act under which they were charged. He was quite right. The Act is short (it contains only three sections) and quite specific. The only offences defined in the Act involve the actual administering of 'any poison or other destructive or noxious thing.' 'Attempt' is not mentioned. Had the accused been committed for trial at Worcester Assizes, it would have been interesting to see how a judge reacted to such a submission on behalf of the defence.
As it was, Evans and Thomas left the dock, and walked free from the court. One wonders if they led blameless lives thereafter. As for Mary Bridgwater - it is to be regretted that she never published her memories.
I wish to thank John 'Rim-shot' Sparry for technical information about glede-washing; Deryck Cox (a former Cradley pharmacist who certainly never sold Spanish Fly) for information about that beetle's characteristics; and the staff of the Harding Law Library of the Law Faculty of Birmingham University for allowing me to consult the 1860 Act.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.
The Spanish fly, in fact a beetle, occurs throughout southern Europe and eastward all the way to Siberia. The Spanish Fly has always been rare in Britain but since July 2000, some have been found on the Isle of Wight. It feeds on tree leaves; the larvae grow in wasps' nests. When the Spanish fly feels in danger, it secretes a colourless, odourless crystalline substance called cantharidin, a highly toxic substance, even in small doses. Taken internally, it can cause acute gastroenteritis and nephritis. Collapse occurs in severe cases and death might follow. A very small dose can prove fatal. Cantharis is a homeopathic remedy for various inflammations. However, a great many more medicinal properties have been claimed for cantharidin since ancient times, including a cure for baldness and the healing of rheumatism, pneumonia, swellings and gout. Another application of the substance was as an elixir or ingredient of "love drinks", which presumably is what Richard Evans and Charles Thomas had heard about. In 1772, the Marquis de Sade decided to make a joke with his guests. To stimulate their sexuality, he gave them Spanish fly-laced sweets. This resulted in many deaths and Sade was sent to prison for life. So things could have been much worse for Evans and Thomas. - Nigel Brown