Last Call: Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Tomatoes And Witchcraft

It's been quite a while since our last installment of Fun Fact Friday! Why? Because finding and typing up fun facts is a lot of work, and, you know, it's Friday. If it was Fun Fact Wednesday the odds of me writing these would go up exponentially, but that doesn't sound very catchy so oh well. But it just so happens that on this very special of summer Fridays that I've got some time to spare, and it also so happens that I was up Googling random crap all last night, because I have ADD (longtime readers have probably figured that out on their own). I thought about writing about one of the incredible things I had learned, but then I realized I couldn't pick just one. Last night's Google k-hole was one for the ages! So instead of rehashing one single fun facts, I thought that this time I could guide you through a journey of useless knowledge, so that you, too, can see how my brain travels through seemingly unrelated things, filling my head with so many awesome things that will never, ever be helpful to me in any sort of meaningful way.

Our journey begins in my teeny tiny garden, where I was wondering what I could do to stimulate fruit growth on my tomato plants. I eventually ended up on the site of a tomato cage company, where I learned this:

Most Europeans thought that the tomato was poisonous because of the way plates and flatware were made in the 1500's. Rich people in that time used flatware made of pewter, which has a high-lead content. Foods high in acid, like tomatoes, would cause the lead to leech out into the food, resulting in lead poisoning and death. Poor people, who ate off of plates made of wood, did not have that problem, and hence did not have an aversion to tomatoes.

What an exciting fun fact! Everyone loves a good story about 16th century aristocrats getting their comeuppance. But I am always apprehensive when I find a fun fact that's almost too much fun, so I did more research which confirmed my suspicions: this is most likely nothing more than a fun story, as tomatoes aren't acidic enough to dissolve pewter plates. I learned this from an excellent article over at Atlas Obscura, which delved more into the tomatoes scandalous history, and it's associations with witchcraft:

At the time of the tomato's importation [to Europe] around 1540, diligent witch hunters were particularly interested in discerning the makeup of flying ointment—the goo witches smeared on their broomsticks (or on themselves, pre-broomstick). This potent magical gunk did more than enable airborne meetings with the devil; it could also transform the witch—or her unwilling dupe—into a werewolf... the key ingredients were agreed by consensus to be hemlock, nightshade, henbane, and mandrake—the final three of which are the tomato's close botanical relatives. Why any woman would keep this ointment around in such a dangerous climate, we can only speculate.

Know who has time for speculation? I do! And so, I began to research this mysterious "witches brew," as it was called, to see what exactly witches were doing with the stuff, and oh my god it's way waaaaaaay worse than I thought:

Hallucinogenic chemicals called tropane alkaloids are made by a number of plants including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake), and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed). During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make "brews," "oyntments," or "witches' salves" for witchcraft, sorcery, and other nefarious activities. Somewhere along the line, the observation was made that the hallucinogenic compounds, hyoscine in particular (also known as scopolamine), could be absorbed through sweat glands (especially in the armpit) or mucus membranes of the rectum or vagina. These routes of administration also bypassed rapid metabolism by the liver (and severe intestinal discomfort) had the user drank the boiled up plant extract. Just how did the alleged witches apply said ointments?

The earliest clue comes from a 1324 investigation of the case of Lady Alice Kyteler: "In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin." And from the fifteenth-century records of Jordanes de Bergamo: "But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places."

I could have stopped there, driven straight to the woods, and searched for plants to jam up my hoo-hah, but I didn't. No, I get my high from the pursuit of knowledge, and as such I dug even further! I wanted to know even more about the connection between witches and broomsticks, which brought me to this fascinating article from The Atlantic that shared more about the connections between witches, spooky spells, and food:

In the Europe of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, bread was made, in large part, with rye. And rye and rye-like plants can host fungus—ergot*—that can, when consumed in high doses, be lethal. In smaller doses, however, ergot can be a powerful hallucinogen. Records from the 14th to the 17th century mention Europeans' affliction with "dancing mania," which found groups of people dancing through streets—often speaking nonsense and foaming at the mouth as they did so—until they collapsed from exhaustion. Those who experienced the "mania" would later describe the wild visions that accompanied it.

Obviously, now that I had visions of medieval peasant mobs tripping balls in the streets, I needed to learn everything I could about that, and about ergot in general. Turns out mysterious cases ergot poisoning, and it's associated "supernatural" effects, weren't confined to the European continent. It can be found anywhere rye grows widely, including in the United States. In fact, there's evidence that back in 1692 there was a major outbreak of ergot in America's rye crops, and the epicenter... was in Salem, Massachusetts.

So there you have it, folks: how one woman's brain went from pruning tomato plants to one of the most infamous acts of female persecution in our nation's history in less than thirty minutes. Yes, thirty minutes. Want to know where my brain went off to during the rest of the evening? You'd never be able to handle it. But please, run off with the things I've just told you and discover more and more fun facts for all of us to enjoy, and leave your findings in the comments. Who knows what sort of recreational drugs we can accidentally discover if we all work together.