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The Bite Of The Tarantula

( Originally Published Late 1800's )

According to your desire I send you an account of the effect the bite of a tarantula has upon the human body. I shall only give a distinct detail of all the circumstances that I have seen, having once been instrumental at the cure of a poor plowman that was bit by that insect. I'll not undertake to give you any account of the tarantula itself, being sure you are perfectly well acquainted with it. I shall only tell you what has happened in my country at a small village called La Torre della Annunziala, about ten miles from Naples, where I was at the time the affair I am going to relate happened.

It was in the month of October, a season of the year when all the students in Naples that have any relations in the country have leave to visit them. I was one of those that enjoyed the privilege of visiting the place of my nativity, and as I was then studying music in the college of Naples, generally (whenever I went into the country) brought my violin with me.

It happened one day that a poor man was taken ill in the street, and it was soon known to be the effect of the tarantula, because the country people have some undoubted signs to know it, and particularly (they say) that the tarantula bites on the tip or under lip of one's ear, because the tarantula bites one when sleeping on the ground ; and the wounded part becomes black, which happens three days after one is bit, exactly at the hour of the hurt received; and they further assert, that if no one was to undertake to cure him he would feel the effect of it every day at the same hour for the space of three or four hours, till it would throw him into such madness as to destroy him in about a month's time ; some (they say) have lived three months after they have been bit; but the latter I cannot believe, because it never happens that any man is suffered to die by such distemper, the priest of the parish being obliged to play on the fiddle in order to cure them ; and it has not been known, in the memory of man, that any one is dead of it ; but to proceed.

A poor man was taken ill in a street (as I said before), and as the priest was out of the way, several gentlemen begg'd of me to play for that poor fellow. I could not help going, without offending a number of friends. When I was there, I saw a man stretched on the ground, who seem'd as if he was just a-going to expire. The people at the sight of me cried out, "Play—play the tarantella !" (which is a tune made use of on such occasions). It happen'd that I had never heard that tune, consequently couldn't play it. I asked what sort of tune it was. They answer'd that it was a kind of jigg. I try'd several jiggs, but to no purpose, for the man was as motionless as before. The people still called out for the tarantella. I told them I could not play it, but if any would sing it, I would learn it immediately. An old woman presented herself to me to do the good office, who sung it in such an unintelligible sound of voice, that I could not form an idea of it. But another woman came, and helped me to learn it, which I did in about ten minutes' time, being a short one. But you must observe that while I was a learning the tune, and happened to feel the strain of the first two barrs, the man began to move accordingly, and got up as quick as lightning, and seem'd as if he had been awaken'd by some frightful vision, and wildly star'd about, still moving every joint of his body ; but as I had not as yet learn'd the whole tune, I left off playing, not thinking that it would have any effect on the man. But the instant I left off playing, the man fell down, and cried out very loud, and distorted his face, legs, arms, and any other part of his body, scraped the earth with his hands, and was to such contortions that clearly indicated him to be in miserable agonies. I was frighted out of my wits, and made all the haste I could to learn the rest of the tune; which done, I play'd near him—I mean about four yards from him. The instant he heard me, he rose up as he did before, and danced as hard as any man could do. His dancing was very wild—he kept a perfect time in the dance, but had neither rules nor manners, only jumped, and runned, to and from, made very comical postures, something like the Chinese dances we have some-times seen on the stage, and otherwise everything was very wild of what he did. He sweated all over, and then the people cried out, " Faster ! faster !" meaning that I should give a quicker motion to the tune, which I did so quick, that I could hardly keep up playing, and the man still danced in time. I was very much fatigued, and though I had several persons behind me, some drying the sweat from my face, others blowing with a fan to keep me cool (for it was about two o'clock in the afternoon), others distancing the people, that they might not throng about me, and yet notwithstanding all this, I suffered a long patience to keep up such long time, for I played (without exaggeration) above two hours, without the least interval.

When the man had danced about an hour, the people gave him a naked sword, which he applied with the point in the palm of his hands, and made the sword jump from one hand into the other, which sword he held in equilibrium, and he kept still dancing.—The people knew he wanted a sword, because a little before he got it he scratched his hands very hard, as if he would tear the flesh from them.

When he had well pricked his hands, he got hold of the sword by the handle, and pricked also the upper part of his feet, and in about five minutes' time his hands and feet bled in great abundance. He continued to use the sword for about a quarter of an hour, some-times pricking his hands and sometimes his feet, with little or no intermission ; and he threw it away, and kept on dancing.

When he was quite spent with fatigue, his motion began to grow slower; but the people begg'd of me to keep up the same time, and as he could not dance accordingly, he only moved his body and kept time; at last, after two hours' dancing, fell down quite motionless, and I gave over playing. The people took him up, and carried him into a house, and put him into a large tub of tepid water, and a surgeon bled him. While he was a-bathing, he was let blood in both his hands and feet, and they took from him a great quantity of blood. After they had tyed up the orifices, put him in a bed, and gave him a cordial, which they forced down, because the man kept his teeth very close. About 5 minutes after, he sweated a great deal, and fell asleep, which he did for five or six hours. When he awakened, was perfectly well, only weak for the great loss of blood he had sustained, and four days after, he was entirely recover'd; for I saw him walk in the streets, and what is remarkable, that he hardly remembered any-thing of what was happened to him. He never felt any other pains since, nor any one does, except they are bit again by the tarantula.

This is what I know of the tarantula, which I hope will satisfy your curiosity; and as you are a great philosopher, may philosofy as you please. I need not make any apology for my bad writing ; you must excuse it, considering that it was only to obey your commands : if you have any other, you may dispose of,


Your most humble servant,


The effects of the bite of the tarantula, and the cure of them by music, are so wonderful that many have doubted whether the accounts of them were true. They have, indeed, for the most part been related in general terms, and therefore, as they have wanted the circumstances necessary to distinguish them as different facts, they have not often been confirmed by the force of concurrent testimony ; for this reason I was much pleased with the account printed from the letter of an Italian gentleman in your magazine (see vol. xxiii., p. 433), in which particular circumstances are preserved. As a supplement to that account I send you two others, which appear to be signally authentic, though they are more extraordinary, the disease being such as music has not been reported to cure. They are extracted from the history of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Paris.

A gentleman whose profession was music, and who excelled both in manual performance and composition, was seized with a fever, which on the seventh day brought on a delirium, attended not only with perpetual wakefulness, but such inquietude and horror that he frequently shrieked aloud, lamented himself in the most passionate exclamations, and wept in an agony of distress. On the third day of his delirium, whether he was prompted by that instinct which directs irrational animals to eat such herbs when they are sick as are best adapted to cure them, or whether merely by a sense of misery and a desire of that which had been used to please him, he requested of his physician that he might be permitted to have a little concert in his chamber. This request, after much consideration, and not without some reluctance, was granted; before the first strain was played his countenance became placid and serene, his eyes, which had been haggard and wild, overflowed with tears of joy, his whole demeanour was gentle and composed, and his fever itself was suspended. This, however, was only a temporary relief, for the moment the music ceased all his disorders returned with the same violence as before ; the remedy was again supplied with equal success, and music was found to be so necessary that his kinswoman who sat up with him was not only obliged to sing, but to dance. It happed that he was one night left alone with his nurse, who could no otherwise gratify his desire of music than by singing a despicable ballad, which was not, however, totally without effect ; by degrees the relief which he obtained by the repetition of so uncommon a remedy became more lasting, his intervals were longer, and his paroxysms less violent; and in about ten days he was perfectly cured, without any assistance either from surgery or physic, except that, having been before blooded in the foot, the operation was once repeated.

A dancing-master of Alais, in Languedoc, having suffered excessive fatigue during the Carnival in 1708, was seized with a fever in the be-ginning of Lent, and on the fifth day fell into a lethargy ; the lethargy, which lasted a considerable time, was succeeded by a violent delirium, in which, though he did not speak, yet all his gestures were furious and menacing ; he made continual efforts to get out of bed, and refused all medicines by the most expressive signs of rage and abhorrence. M. Mandajor, a gentleman of probity and understanding who relates the case, conceived a sudden thought that music might possibly contribute to soothe an imagination over which reason had lost its power; he therefore proposed it to the physician, who did not disapprove the experiment, but would not venture to advise it, lest it should expose him to ridicule, especially if the patient, of whose life he despaired, should happen to die during the application of so strange a remedy. A friend who was present at this consultation, and had no medical reputation to lose, immediately catched up a violin and began to play ; the people, who were with all their force holding the patient in bed, thought the musician the maddest of the two, and finding he would not desist, began to resent his behaviour with opprobrious language ; the patient, however, instantly started up, as if he had been agreeably surprised by the sound, and used all his efforts to keep time with his arms and his body; and tho' he was held with so much force that he could scarce move, yet he continued his attempts, which still corresponded with the music, and he signified his pleasure by the motion of his head. This was at length perceived by those who held him, who, remitting their grasp by degrees, suffered him to produce the motions that he attempted, and having regularly continued them about twenty minutes, he fell into a deep sleep, from which he 'awaked without the return of any dangerous symptom, and soon after perfectly recovered.

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