Jimsonweed and Jamestown

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


Jimsonweed, sometimes called “locoweed,” is a scary drug related to the deadly nightshade. Used for asthma, pain relief, and anesthesia in the past, the jimson’s leaves and seeds are also a powerful hallucinogen. The problem with using it, or abusing it, is that a toxic dose is only a little higher than a medicinal dose. That makes it dangerous.

Originally native to Asia, jimsonweed is now found all over the world. It grows in bushes that are about five feet tall and has pale yellow-green stems, bitter-tasting leaves that look a little like wrinkled maple leaves, and trumpet-shaped flowers that range in color from white to light lavender. The blossoms smell sweet and open at night, attracting nocturnal moths.

The effects of jimsonweed usually wear off after a day or two, but they can last up to two weeks. In one famous case of mass hallucination— the one that gave the plant its name— the effects lasted for about 11 days. “Jimsonweed,” it turns out, is a corruption of the name settlers gave it in the late 1600s: “Jamestown weed,” for the town where its dramatic effects were first witnessed by the new Americans.


In 1676 Jamestown, Virginia, settlers became disgruntled with their colony’s governor, William Berkeley, whom they felt was not doing enough to protect them from the area’s Native American tribes. Led by 29-year-old Nathaniel Bacon, the settlers decided to kill— or at least drive out— Native Americans in the area after repeated appeals to their governor to guarantee their personal safety were ignored. Bacon’s men ultimately attacked several tribes, provoking what looked like it might become a war. In response, Governor Berkeley sent in troops to put down the uprising, which is now known as Bacon’s Rebellion. The soldiers did eventually suppress the rebellion… but only after the rebels burned down Jamestown and a number of Berkeley’s soldiers became unwitting guinea pigs in demonstrating the powerful effects of “Jamestown weed.”


Here’s what early American historian Robert Beverley, Jr., wrote about the situation in 1705:

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. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll [comedy].

In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves— though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.

(Image credit: NobbiP)


Jimsonweed comes under many other names, including stinkweed, thorn-apple, prickly burr, devil’s trumpet, devil’s weed, hell’s bells, moonflower, burundanga, and mad apple.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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