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.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

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