Here's a delightful story: In 1820 Jamaican-born U.S. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson convinced a skeptical crowd in New Jersey that tomatoes are not poisonous, after all, by eating an entire basket of them.
His doctor warned him that he would foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. Many in the cheering crowd thought that the colonel was a fool—that he was committing public suicide—after all, everyone knows that tomatoes are poisonous, just smell their leaves! The crowd grew and grew, as crowds often do, as the colonel kept eating more and more tomatoes, and eventually 2,000 people had gathered around him as he stood there eating tomatoes on the steps of the Salem Courthouse.
And of course, Johnson lived! The people were amazed!!! Tomatoes were proved to be edible, after all!
Here's the thing about the story: it almost certainly did not happen.
Colonel Johnson was a prominent citizen of Salem County, New Jersey, and stuff was written about him during his life—but nobody wrote about this story at the time. Some 68 years after the supposed event, someone wrote that Johnson ate a tomato in 1820. (That might have occurred, who knows? I ate a tomato two days ago. These things happen.) Somehow all the details of the story, including a specific date and location and even a quote or two, emerged from someone, somewhere, and were added to the story, and it was even dramatized as true on the national radio show “You Are There.” The story was not just printed, but reprinted and quoted and referenced over and over again—even in newspapers and scholarly journals. I'm sure that people who passed on the story believed it was true.
But historians are almost positive it didn't happen—because, if it did, there would've been a full report (or two, or more) in the days just after it happened. Colorful events don't go unmentioned for decades, and then get reported as being simple and plain and then get reported in more and more elaborate and colorful ways as the years pass—but that' s exactly what happens with legends.
Wait! Tomatoes? Poisonous?
Here's one reason that such a legend is often believed: many people in many places and times have believed that the fruit of a tomato plant, although beautiful in its smooth yellow or red skin, is poisonous. Here is the true history of tomatoes:
Tomatoes were a New-World food first brought to Europe and the rest of the Old World after Cortez conquered the Aztecs in Mexico in the early Sixteenth Century (that is, the early 1500s). Apparently some populations were early acceptors of the tomato as food; other groups grew the plant for tomatoes' ornamental value and thought the fruit to be poisonous. Names for the fruit included pomodoro (Italian for “golden apple”), pomme d'amour (French for “love apple”) and of course the English tomato, which came from the Aztec word tomatl. The British, and therefore the British colonists in North America, were holdouts and didn't include tomatoes into their diets until the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (1700s). We know that Thomas Jefferson grew tomatoes, and his daughters left many recipes that involved tomatoes, so his family saw them as food at least by 1782.
It wasn't until after America's Civil War that tomatoes took off in popularity in the U.S. (in the second half of the 1800s). Whether most or just some Americans thought they were poisonous in 1820, by the late 1890s, tomatoes were being enthusiastically used in soups, salads, and sauces, without any cautions or reservations.
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