The Dubious Legend of Virgil's Pet Fly

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bust: Hulton Archive, Getty. Fly: iStock

Here at Mental Floss, we come across a lot of "facts" that, upon further examination, don’t hold up. Like, did Benjamin Franklin invent the concept of Daylight Saving Time? Not really. (Several ancient cultures seasonally adjusted their clocks, and Franklin only jokingly pondered having people wake up earlier. The modern version was proposed in 1895 by George Hudson, an entomologist who wanted extra daylight so he could collect more insects.) Do sea cucumbers eat through their anuses? Some, but not all. (One species, P. californicus, uses its backdoor as a second mouth.)

Other facts have been trickier to debunk because the historical record was being snarky or sarcastic: Was Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is likely named, a measly pickle merchant? (Ralph Waldo Emerson said so, but he was probably being snide.) Did people in 16th century France wipe their butts with geese? (A quotation from François Rabelais's comic series of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel has been confused as evidence, but Rabelais was a bawdy satirist.)

Yet one of our favorite dubious fun facts—a Trojan Horse that has snuck into a handful of trivia books—concerns Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid. The story goes that Virgil had a pet housefly, and when the insect died, Virgil spent 800,000 sesterces—nearly all of his net worth—for an extravagant funeral. Celebrities swarmed the poet’s home. Professional mourners wailed. An orchestra performed a lament. Virgil drafted verses to celebrate the fly’s memory. After the service, the bug’s body was ceremoniously deposited in a mausoleum the poet had built on his estate.

Virgil wasn’t losing it: It was all a scheme to keep the government’s fingers off his land. At the time (and this part is true), Rome was seizing private property and awarding it to war veterans. According to legend, Virgil knew the government couldn’t touch his property if his estate contained a tomb, so he quickly built a mausoleum, found an arthropod occupant, and rescued his house.

It’s a great story! It’s also unsubstantiated. None of Virgil’s contemporaries mention the poet throwing a lavish funeral—especially one for a housefly. The story probably has roots in an old poem that’s been (incorrectly) attributed to the poet called "The Culex." In the poem, a fly (or, depending on your translation, a spider or gnat) wakes up a man just as a snake is lurking nearby. The man kills both the insect and serpent, but soon regrets killing his winged protector. He builds the bug a marble headstone with this epitaph:

O Tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing
The duty of a ceremonial tomb
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Virgil wrote "The Culex." But as Sara P. Muskat, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh during the 1930s, wrote in a short essay, Virgil was regularly the subject of this kind of mythmaking. Shortly after his death, people in his hometown of Naples alleged he was the founder of the city. (He wasn’t.) Others claimed he had been the city’s governor. (He hadn’t.) By the Middle Ages, Virgil was depicted as a magician or dark wizard who could communicate with the dead. (He couldn't.)

“There is then no evidence, ancient or medieval, that I can find to support the story that Vergil had a pet fly and gave it an elaborate funeral,” Muskat writes. “It seems quite inconsistent with Vergil’s usual behavior, and may indicate that the period of myth-making about Vergil has not yet closed.”

Like our friendly imaginary fly, perhaps it’s time for this factoid to bite the dust, too.

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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“Slick” Julia Lyons: The Con Artist Who Posed as a Nurse During the 1918 Flu Pandemic—Then Robbed Her Patients

An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
An actual nurse tends to a patient during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In September 1918, a 23-year-old woman “of marvelous gowns and haughty mien” was arrested at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel after a crime spree that included posing as a Department of Justice representative, cashing stolen checks, and performing “various miracles at getting ready money,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

The authorities underestimated their slippery prisoner, who escaped from the South Clark Street police station before answering for her alleged offenses. By no means, however, had her brush with the law scared her straight. Soon after her police station disappearing act, Julia Lyons—also known as Marie Walker, Ruth Hicks, Mrs. H. J. Behrens, and a range of other aliases—concocted an even more devious scheme.

The Rose-Lipped, Pearly-Toothed Price Gouger

As The Washington Post reports, Chicago was in the throes of the 1918 influenza pandemic that fall, and hospitals were enlisting nurses to tend to patients at home. Lyons, correctly assuming that healthcare officials wouldn’t be vetting volunteers very thoroughly, registered as a nurse under several pseudonyms and spent the next two months caring for a string of ailing men and women across the city.

Lyons’s modus operandi was simple: After getting a prescription filled, she’d charge her patient much more than the actual cost. Once, she claimed $63 for a dose of oxygen that had actually cost $5 (which, once adjusted for inflation, is the same as charging $1077 for an $85 item today). Sometimes, “Flu Julia,” as the Chicago Tribune nicknamed her, even summoned a so-called doctor—later identified by the police as a “dope seller and narcotic supplier”—to forge the prescriptions for her. Then she’d flee the property, absconding with cash, jewelry, clothing, and any other valuables she could find lying around the house.

As for the physical well-being of her flu-ridden victims, Lyons could not have cared less. When 9-year-old Eddie Rogan fetched her to help his older brother George, who was “out of his head with illness,” Lyons retorted, “Oh, let him rave. He’s used to raving.” Unsurprisingly, George died.

Though pitiless at times, Lyons flashed her “rose-lipped smile and pearly teeth” and fabricated charming stories to gain the confidence of her clueless patients. To win over “old Father Shelhauer,” for example, she asked, “Don’t you remember me? Why, when I was a little girl I used to hitch on your wagons!” Shelhauer believed her, and threw a snooping detective off the scent by vouching for Lyons, whom he said he had known since she was a little girl.

Clever as she was, Lyons couldn’t evade capture forever. In November 1918, detectives eventually linked her to Eva Jacobs, another “girl of the shady world,” and wiretapped the home of “Suicide Bess” Davis, where Jacobs was staying. Through their eavesdropping, they discovered Lyons’s plans to marry a restaurant owner named Charlie. They trailed Charlie, who unwittingly led them straight to his new—and felonious—bride.

“The wedding’s all bust up! You got me!,” Lyons shouted as the detectives surrounded her. They carted the couple back to the station, where they asked a bewildered Charlie how long he had known Lyons. “Ten days!” he said. “That is, I thought I knew her.”

When it came time for Lyons to appear in court, Deputy Sheriff John Hickey volunteered to transport her.

“Be careful, she’s pretty slick,” Chief Bailiff John C. Ryan told him. “Don’t let her get away.” Detectives Frank Smith and Robert Jacobs, who had headed the investigation and arrested Lyons in the first place, echoed the sentiment, citing Lyons’s previous escape from South Clark Street.

“She’ll go if she gets a chance. Better put the irons on,” Jacobs advised. Hickey shook off their warnings with a casual “Oh, she won’t get away from me.”

He was wrong.

“Slick Julia” Escapes Again

Hickey did successfully deposit Lyons at the courthouse, where about 50 victims testified against her. An hour and a half after Hickey left with Lyons to bring her back to jail, however, the police received a phone call from an “excited” Hickey with some shocking news: Lyons had leapt from the moving vehicle and climbed into a getaway car—which sped away so quickly that Hickey had no hopes of chasing it down.

Hickey’s story seemed fishy. For one, he mentioned that they had stopped at a bank so Lyons could withdraw some cash, leading officials to believe that Hickey may have accepted a bribe to set her free. They also happened to be suspiciously far from their intended destination.

“If they were way out there,” Ryan told the Chicago Tribune, “They must have been cabareting together.”

Furthermore, a friend of Lyons named Pearl Auldridge actually confessed to the police that the entire plot had been prearranged with Hickey. He was suspended, and investigators were forced to resume their hunt for “Slick Julia.”

A Schemer 'Til the End

In March 1919, after poring through nurses’ registries for a possible lead, detectives finally located Lyons, under the name Mrs. James, at a house on Fullerton Boulevard, where she was caring for a Mrs. White.

“Mrs. M.S. James, née Flu Julia, née Slicker Julia, who walked away one November day from former Deputy Sheriff John Hickey, walked back into custody, involuntarily, last night,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on March 21, 1919.

In addition to her 19 previous counts of larceny, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” and “conducting a confidence game,” Lyons racked up a new charge: bigamy. Her marriage to Charlie the restaurateur still existed on paper, and Lyons had taken a new husband, a soldier named E.M. James, whom she had known for four days.

With no unscrupulous officer around to help Lyons escape yet again, she was left to the mercy of the court system. True to her sobriquet, “Slick Julia” stayed scheming until the very end of her trial, first claiming that she had been forced into committing crimes against her will by a “band of thieves,” and then pleading insanity. Nobody was convinced; the jury found Lyons guilty of larceny and the judge sentenced her to serve one to 10 years in a penitentiary.

Just like that, “Flu Julia” traded in her nurse's uniform for a prison uniform—though whether she donned her healthcare costume again after her release remains a mystery.