The story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson’s public establishment of the reputedly poisonous tomato as edible might be apocryphal, but it’s still a good yarn.
According to what passes for legend, Col. Johnson mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 (dates vary) with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. Over 2,000 people assembled to watch him drop dead after the first bite and wagered upon the exact moment (it being New Jersey after all, where gambling is a fine art). His own doctor (who happened to be his wife’s brother-in-law) predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid”; if not immediately, then the good doctor said Johnson would die soon afterwards of “brain fever and cancer.” When Johnson took his first bite of a tomato, several onlookers fainted and two were reported to have regurgitated with vigor.
Of course Colonel Johnson lived, and while available records do not entirely support rampant speculation that he collected on more than a few substantial side wagers and retired to Europe, we can say with certainty that he helped to win the tomato a place on our tables.