The Salem….Tomato Trial?

American History(SB), Study Break

Local legends are interesting, with many tied to an actual historic moment, but whose facts are distorted over time. Some legends are downright sketchy because it could be argued that they were used to bring in tourist revenue.

One legend is the Salem “Tomato Trial” of 1820. Long considered to be a mild aphrodisiac (therefore sinful) and even poisonous during the 1500s-early 1800s, the tomato was not given the love it deserved in the early days of our country.

As the History Channel writes, “One the fruit’s earliest cultivators, a barber-surgeon by the name of John Gerard, believed they were poisonous because they contained low levels of the toxic chemical tomatine. Tomatoes do, in fact, contain low levels of this glycoalkaloid with fungicidal properties, but the levels are so low as not to be dangerous. Nonetheless, Gerard’s views caught on and for years tomatoes were considered unfit for consumption in England and its North American colonies.”

The multiple tellings of this legend differ on the date when the “trial” took place, but one fact they do share is that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, a New Jersey farmer, is the key protagonist. To dispel rumors – and to help his profits undoubtedly – during the harvest of 1820, Johnson ate a tomato “without incident” on the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey. Word spread that Johnson didn’t die, so Americans and Britons began to eat tomatoes in droves.

The legend of Johnson’s daring deed grew in numerous retellings. See the story for yourself in the Travel Channel’s 3-minute “A Poisonous Tomato?” – even an amateur used Legos to bring the legend to life.

What local legends have taken a life of their own in your community? Discuss with your students and share at