Jersey Jottings: The South Jersey Legend of Colonel Robert Gibbons Johnson and the Wolf Peach
That there was an actual historical figure named Robert Gibbons Johnson who lived in Salem, NJ, in the early 1800’s is a fact. Everything else regarding the tale should be considered for what it is — a legend. The basics of the story go like this: In the early 1800’s, Col. Johnson brought the wolf peach back from an overseas journey and started cultivating them. His efforts to introduce them commercially having been resisted, in 1820 he publicized that he would eat some on the courthouse steps. Thousands came to watch the Colonel die, since the wolf-peach or love apple was considered poisonous and the thought of someone eating one would be the height of stupidity and almost inconceivable.
Johnson’s own personal physician, Dr. James Van Meter, reportedly said, “The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid, in one dose, and you’re dead. If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he'll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.”
Johnson mounted the courthouse steps, and announced he would proceed to eat the wolf peaches, saying most presciently, “The time will come when this luscious, scarlet apple will form the foundation of a great garden industry, and will be eaten and enjoyed as an edible food and to help speed that enlightened day, to prove that it will not strike you dead — I am going to eat one right now!”
He then proceeded to consume, depending upon the source, a couple, a basket, or a bushel of wolf-peaches. To the confusion, amazement and perhaps disappointment of the crowd, Johnson did not die or even seem to suffer any ill effects from the brazen act. He thus became the first known person in America to eat a wolf-peach, which is better known nowadays as the tomato.