1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 34

“I believe Herr Schaub died of poisoning,” Phillip said. He had intended qualifying the statement, but the man who’d since been identified as the dead man’s younger brother exploded.

“You agree that she poisoned Ludwig,” Heinrich Schaub shouted, waving an accusing finger towards a white-faced Maria.

“You’re supposed to be proving that my daughter didn’t poison Ludwig,” Maria’s father shouted at Phillip.

Phillip hastened to reclaim the situation. He held up his hands and called on everyone to “please calm down.”

Naturally, in such a charged environment, such a plea went unheeded, until Professor Bauhin added his weight to the request.

“Please, I’m sure Dr. Gribbleflotz will explain if only everyone would calm down.” Gaspard cast speaking looks at the counselors for the families, who took the hint. A couple of minutes later the room was silent and everyone was looking intently at Phillip.

“As I was saying,” Phillip reiterated. “I suspect that Herr Schaub died from the ingestion of poison.” Members of the Schaub family started smiling while the Beck family frowned. “However,” Phillip continued, “rather than being poisoned by his wife, I believe he died of a self-administered overdose . . .”

“My brother did not commit suicide,” Heinrich shouted.

Phillip winced at the volume Heinrich was directing at him. “I didn’t mean to imply that it was suicide, Herr Schaub. If we can just wait to see what happens with the rabbits, I will be able to explain everything.”

The combined parties settled down to watch the two rabbits. Initially not much happened, but after about a quarter of an hour the rabbits started to display signs that they were suffering pain. Then, as more time passed, blisters started to appear on their shaved flanks.

“Professor Bauhin, if you would please examine the rabbits and tell everyone what you see,” Phillip said.

Gaspard picked up each rabbit in turn, displaying the shaved and blistering flanks to the audience. “I see blisters in the areas where Dr. Gribbleflotz smeared tissue from Ludwig’s kidney.” He turned to the two counselors. “Wouldn’t you agree?’ he asked them. Both men nodded.

“Thank you,” Phillip said as he rubbed his hands together. He smiled benevolently at his audience — he so loved being proven right. “With this evidence, I am confident that Herr Schaub died after ingesting powdered Cantharis beetle,” Phillip saw the blank looks being sent his way and quickly elaborated, “more commonly known as Spanish Fly.”

“But that’s not a poison. Ludwig’s been taking that for years,” Heinrich protested.

“Then he has been very lucky for years, Herr Schaub,” Phillip said. “I’ve seen horses that have died after eating feed that has been contaminated with the Cantharis beetle.” That was a slight exaggeration. In his life he’d seen exactly one horse that had died from eating contaminated feed, but they didn’t need to know that. “The powder of the Cantharis beetle is actually a poison. However, as Paracelsus himself said, a little poison can be good for you.” He gave a wry smile. “There are a number of conditions where a little of the powder is supposed to be beneficial, unfortunately, a little too much can kill you.”

Phillip turned to Captain Brückner. “I expect that somewhere in his rooms is Herr Schaub’s supply of ‘Spanish Fly’. Could you see if you can find it?”

Captain Brückner nodded.

“Do you know what you’re looking for?” Phillip asked.

“A sort of brown powder with iridescent reflections,” Captain Brückner said as he gestured to Sergeant Schweitzer. The two of them, with the two counselors and members of both families in tow, headed back to Ludwig’s bedroom.

“What made you think Ludwig died of Cantharis poisoning?” Gaspard asked after the procession had left, leaving only a handful of people in the kitchen.

Phillip gestured towards the body still lying on the kitchen table. “A man of his age and constitution is likely to feel the need for an aphrodisiac when marrying a much younger woman. If we add that situation to the presence of blood in his urine, I was sure we were looking at Cantharis poisoning.”

“But Heinrich insists his brother has taken Spanish Fly for years with no ill effect,” Gaspard said.

Phillip shrugged. “As I said before, he’s been extremely lucky. I’ve extracted the essence of Cantharis from a variety of Cantharis beetles over time, and one thing I have discovered is, the amount of the essence present in a sample can vary from as little as half a part per hundred by weight in older female beetles to up to six parts per hundred in males. And if you are selective in what parts of the beetle you take, the legs and thorax can contain up to twelve parts per hundred.”

“So that’s why you want Ludwig’s supply of Spanish Fly. You want to check to see how strong it is.”

Phillip nodded. “Usually the powder is a random mixture of male and female beetles. If the ratio is about equal, the active essence of Cantharis makes up less than two parts per hundred.”

“But if the ratio starts to favor the male beetles, that particular dose of Spanish Fly can be stronger than normal.”

“Or if there is a surplus of the larger female beetles it can drop. The amount of essence of Cantharis in any given dose of Spanish fly can vary from as little as one part per hundred to as much as six parts per hundred.”

Gaspard whistled. “And the person buying it has absolutely no idea how strong it’s going to be!”

Philip nodded. “Like I said, Herr Schaub’s been extremely lucky.”

“Up until now,” Gaspard added with a smile.

“Yes, up until now,” Phillip agreed. “He probably purchased a fresh supply so he could be sure of performing for his new bride, and just to be doubly sure, exceeded his normal dosage.”

“Resulting in the overdose that killed him. Congratulations, Phillip,” Gaspard said as he held out his hand. “It’s been a pleasure working with you, Phillip.”

“We haven’t checked the strength of Herr Schaub’s supply of Spanish Fly yet,” Phillip protested.

“I’m sure we’ll find it is somewhat over two parts per hundred,” Gaspard said.


Phillip was still in the kitchen in Ludwig Schaub’s house, but now he was carefully weighing the amount of essence of Cantharis he’d extracted from a one hundred grain sample of the Spanish Fly they’d found in Ludwig’s room.

He gently brushed the white powder he’d isolated into the pan of his apothecary’s scales and weighed it. “Just over five grains,” he announced to his audience.

“What does that mean?” Dr. Cludius asked.

“It means that the Spanish Fly Ludwig took in preparation for his wedding night was more than double the normal strength one would expect,” Gaspard said. He turned to Captain Brückner. “You need to contact Ludwig’s supplier and warn him that his powdered Spanish Fly is stronger than normal.”

“I will do that,” Captain Brückner said. He turned to Philip. “Would you be willing to conduct a similar test on any Spanish Fly powder the man might have?”

Phillip nodded.

“That’s it?” Heinrich protested. He pointed at Phillip. “That man produces some white powder and claims that it’s what killed my brother, and you just believe him?”

Captain Brückner turned to Phillip. “Can you prove that white powder is poisonous?” he asked.

“Sure,” Philip said. “Just let me mix it with some water and Herr Schaub here can drink it.”

Captain Bruckner smothered a grin. “Maybe you could feed it to one of the rabbits?”

Phillip looked at rabbits in the basket. “They aren’t stupid enough to eat or drink enough of it to kill them.”

“Are you calling my brother stupid?” Heinrich demanded.

Phillip really wanted to say yes, but warning glances from both Captain Brückner and Gaspard stopped him. Instead he considered the problem of getting a rabbit to ingest the poison. “I could try pouring it down its throat.”

“Please do that,” Captain Brückner said.

Phillip dissolved a quarter of the powder in a little warm water and with the assistance of one of the kitchen hands, poured it down the rabbit’s throat. He put it back in the basket and stood back to watch.


Naturally, the rabbit died, and as a result the death of Ludwig Schaub was recorded as an accidental death. That allowed Maria Beck to collect her full entitlement as Ludwig Schaub’s widow, much to the distress of his family. Maria took her inheritance and moved out of Basel, taking Katarina and Peter with her. Katarina’s departure left Johann distraught for a while, but he soon found a new target for his affections.

Captain Brückner warned the apothecary that his Spanish Fly was unusually strong, and quite naturally, the apothecary used that information to promote sales of his especially strong aphrodisiac. Public announcements were made about the risks of using Spanish Fly, and demand for the aphrodisiac jumped, as did the number of deaths associated with its use.

Phillip also suffered as a result of the case. Previously a bit of a nonentity in Basel outside the small community of alchemists, Phillip suddenly found himself the center of attention amongst a certain stratum of society — the middle level merchant class — and had more requests for his professional services as a physician than he wanted to handle.