Oddities & Curiosities: The Colonial Case of the Mysterious Jimson Weed

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(Courtesy of Project Gutenberg)

JAMESTOWN — Virginia Colonists had to deal with many hardships: starvation, consistent warring with the Indigenous People, and the constant ebbs and flows of colonial-era finances and government. However, there was something more nefarious hiding in plain sight; a plant that could alter the mind and cause unexpected madness. This was none other than the Jimson Weed.

Perhaps the earliest written account of the mind-altering plant was documented by a Virginian named Robert Beverley.

Beverley was a man born and raised in the colonies. Historians estimate that he was most likely born in 1667 or 1668 in Middlesex County. The Virginian lived a relatively successful life because he had family connections in key positions of power.

One of these connections included his half-brother, who Robert Beverley eventually succeeded as the chief clerk of the General Court, the secretary’s office, and the clerk of James City County. In 1699, he became a member of the House of Burgesses; a role that ended for him in 1706 when Governor Francis Nicholson politically maneuvered to have him stripped of his clerkship. However, through all of Beverley’s political gains and losses, his most notable piece of work would actually come from a book he published towards the end of his political career.

The book is called, “The History and Present State of Virginia in Four Parts,” and was first published in 1705. The work is considered the first published history of a British colony by someone born in North America. It highlights what life was like for Virginians living during that time period and includes stories on politics, Native Americans, agricultural products, and the flora/fauna of the colony.

There’s one story in particular that catches the eye of many who read through the book. It’s a story about a plant that Beverley calls, “The James-Town Weed.” This is a name that supposedly influenced its modern, more common name: “The Jimson Weed”.

Datura Stramonium goes by many common names: devils snare, thorn apple, devils trumpet, and jimson weed. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

“The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the Plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in the World. ” wrote Beverley in his book.

Beverley calling it one of the greatest coolers in the world might have been an understatement. Botanists now know that consumption of the Jimson Weed causes an intoxication that produces a kind of delirium where the effects have been reported of being similar to schizophrenia and dissociative disorder.

Of course, colonists didn’t fully understand the chemically-toxic effects of the plant when this event supposedly took place, which was around the same time Bacon’s Rebellion, which occurred from 1675 to 1676.

A group of unsuspecting British soldiers were sent to the Virginia colony to “pacify the troubles of Bacon.” The group, according to Beverley, gathered the plant for a boiled salad and then some of them ate, as Beverley described, “plentifully of it. The Effect of which was a very pleasant comedy.”

The British troops that consumed the Jimson Weed slowly started to act as though they, too, were losing their minds. With each passing hour, they fell deeper into apparent insanity. They completely disassociated from reality and they felt the effects for eleven days.

“[For] they turn’d natural fools on it for several days: One would blow up a feather in the Air; another would dart straws at it with much furt; and another stark naked was sitting up in a corner, like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his companions, and snear in their faces, with a countenance more antick, than any in a dutch droll.” wrote Beverley.

When the toxic conditions finally wore off, the British troops who consumed the Jimson Weed had no recollection of any of the events that happened during those eleven days.

“In this franktick condition they were confined, left they should in their folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature,” wrote Beverley. “Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple trick they play’d, and after eleven days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.”

Though this is a footnote on the grand history of Virginia and, more specifically, Jamestown, it is also a cautionary tale to not ingest any plant that you can’t identify in the wilderness. The Jimson Weed is now understood for containing dangerous levels of tropane alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. All of which are classified as deliriants or anticholinergics.

Beverley lived out the rest of his days somewhere near the head of Mattaponi River where he was known to tend to a vineyard on his property. He died on April 22, 1722, at his estate in King and Queen County.

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