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-
The Aphrodisiac on the Cradley Line
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 -
If, in 1862, you had told Richard Evans and Charles Thomas that the Aphrodisiacs were a range of mountains in North America -
Among the workers at Cradley Forge was twenty-
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 -
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-
For it was, of course, sex -
The complainant was subjected to severe cross-
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 -
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 -
I wish to thank John 'Rim-
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-