Bad Decisions in History – featuring Spanish Fly

It’s time for another Bad Decision in History!

Last time, I showcased a bad decision with a fairly violent outcome (not surprising, considering it involved Vlad the Impaler). This time around, we’re going with something sexier.

Except not really, because this bad decision, as one might expect, does not have the desired outcome.

Bad Decision: Using Spanish fly as an aphrodisiac

I feel like it shouldn’t be a surprise that a fly beetle is not a good inspiration for sexual enhancement, and yet Spanish fly (also known as cantharides) is one of the most notorious aphrodisiacs in history.

You see, once upon a time, someone lingered under an olive tree and saw an iridescent green beetle crawling along a low-hanging branch. “My, that’s a fine beetle,” they said. “I bet that for some reason it contains properties for increased sexual prowess.”

Here's a nice olive grove. I'm not cruel enough to make you look at close up

Here’s a nice olive grove. I’m not cruel enough to make you look at close up photographs of bugs. Plus, then I would have had to when searching for a picture. Pass.

Clearly this is one of those things where we don’t really know how the first usage came about, but the odd fact is, Spanish fly does have certain properties. After copulation with a female beetle, the male beetle secretes cantharidin, which she then uses to cover the eggs as a defense against predators. So, that actually adds a nice uncomfortable element to my earlier musing about how someone discovered the use of cantharides as an aphrodisiac. Apparently someone got some ideas after watching those bugs just go to town…Nope, I can’t even. Let’s leave it a mystery.

Anyway, cantharidin is an irritant, and will cause topical blistering. If ingested, it also causes the blood vessels to widen. Like a pre-modern version of Viagra, Spanish fly could produce and maintain erections, and the burning properties of the cantharidin also caused irritation to the urethra, which the ingester of Spanish fly might then seek to relieve through intercourse.

Cantharides isn’t just an irritant, though. It’s a poison (those beetles take protecting their eggs very seriously). The substance irritates anything it comes into contact with, to the point of burning pain, blistering of skin and mucous membranes, and bleeding. It can also cause vomiting, colic, bloody diarrhea and urine, low blood pressure, coma, and death. Not sexy. There’s also no antidote, and treatment mainly consists of trying to reduce the symptoms.

When has Spanish fly cropped up through history? Well, lots of times, although not all of the references are proven. Allegedly, Empress Livia (the wife of Augustus Caesar) dosed her dinner guests with it to encourage them to commit lustful indiscretions and provide her with blackmail fodder for later.

La Voisin, the French fortune teller and poisoner hired by Madame de Montespan, the mistress of King Louis XIV, supposedly concocted a mixture of dried mole and bat blood with Spanish fly for the Montespan to put into his food and thus secure his lust for her. Since Madame de Montespan and La Voisin are both strongly associated with the scandal of the Affaire des Poisons, this unfortunately doesn’t seem too far-fetched, and there’s a chance poor Louis XIV was fed Spanish fly against his will.


Madame de Montespan. Probably not as innocent as she looks in this portrait. (Is that the apocalypse behind her? Seriously, it’s such a dark background for her pose and sweet expression).

The Marquis de Sade also employed Spanish fly (of course he did) but not on himself (of course, again). He is said to have fed it to two prostitutes at an orgy, who became sick and nearly died. The Marquis de Sade was sentenced to death for this, among other charges, but was saved by a successful appeal.

In the 1950s, a man called Arthur Ford, under the mistaken impression that candy infused with cantharidin would basically be a love potion, poisoned two women who worked with him. Both of them died, and were found to have ingested 60-120 mg of cantharidin. Ford fell sick as well, but recovered from his symptoms, fortunately, as it meant he was alive to plead guilty to manslaughter.

Since there is no antidote for this cantharidin, and historical medicines were usually not very effective at treating the symptoms, victims who received a large enough dosage often died. One of the tests for death by cantharides poisoning was make an ointment out of the organs of the suspected victim, and then rub it on the shaven skin of a live rabbit. If the rabbit’s skin blistered, it meant the person had died from Spanish fly. Poor rabbit.

See? Using Spanish fly is a very bad decision.

Outcome: Death. Pain. A distinct lack of sexiness.



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