Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Meljean posted about debauchery which reminded me of when I was a kid and my grandmother took me to England. We visited the National Portrait Gallery, where I saw a portrait of a woman. What has remained in my mind since 4th grade is that the woman is described as having died from a "surfeit of cherries."

So because of Meljean, I went looking on Google for "National Portrait Gallery cherries." Look what I found: Catherine Douglas

"The Duchess's beauty, coupled with her eccentricity, made her notorious in fashionable society and she is said to have died from a surfeit of cherries." Before she died in 1777 she was patron to Swift, Pope, and Gay (The Beggar's Opera)

OK, so I wasn't making this up. Kewl. But then I got to thinking about the phrase, "surfeit of cherries." That certainly sounds more familiar than simply a phrase pulled from the National Portrait Gallery--maybe it's in a poem? Maybe one of her grateful writer-friends made the phrase famous?

I can't find my Bartlett's, which is unfortunate, so instead I started searching for the phrase in Google. And this is where our little story gets weird. Apparently a number of people have died from A Surfeit of Cherries. Who knew this was such a problem? Why not a surfeit of peaches? Or apples?

This link takes you to a PDF file wherein the author highlights some of the more intriguing entries from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. On page 4, under Colorful Lives and Deaths, I read "Thomas Lockley, Bodley's librarian from 1660, died in 1679 of a surfeit of cherries."

From this list of the Descendants of George Clark, Revolutionary Soldier, I read:
In his first visit to American William Penn appointed William Clark as Justice of the Peace of all the counties. He served as justice at Lewes, and in 1690 was appointed by the Pennsylvania Assembly as provincial judge of the Lower Counties (now Delaware). At various times from 1683 to 1705 he served on the Provincial Council, being President of the body in 1686. Because of the time he was required to spend in Philadelphia he built one of the "grandest mansions" there at that period. He died of a "surfeit of cherries" in 1704/05 after attending the first Assembly of the new province of Delaware.

OK, so it's not an epidemic, but there's a death in 1679, 1704, and another in 1777 from "a surfeit of cherries." A death which is so bizarre that writers feel compelled to put it in quotes. Enquiring minds want to know--how DOES one die from a surfeit of cherries? Cyanide Poison? (You would have to eat A LOT of cherry pits whole--and then your body would need to digest the cyanide out of the pit.) Massive indigestion? Turning cherry-red like Violet Beauregard and becoming a giant cherry?

I now have a totally useless research project, one that is sure to waste much time.


Megan Frampton said...

Who said surfing was a waste of time? That is really cool info, Suisan!And "a surfeit of cherries" sounds like "an exaltation of larks" or "a murder of crows," an odd way to group things.

CindyS said...

Now see, you always find the interesting stuff. I think I will also try and track this down. I mean, these people couldn't have really died from eating too many cherries, right?

CindyS (I don't eat cherries but I don't want someone to say of me one day that I died from a 'surfeit of french fries', even if it could be true ;)

Suisan said...

Surfeit may be a grouping--I'll have to look into that--but it also means, more than enough. Not really an overabundance or an amount equal to gluttony, but just more than enough.

But still, assuming these people ate 4-5 pecks of cherries. How do you die of such a thing? Wouldn't you just throw everything up after awhile? OK, too much info....

CindyS said...

Okay, I followed the Cyanide Poisoning link you put up. I wonder if it means that these people were murdered? It says that by grinding the seeds you could make the poison. I wonder if they had cherry jam that someone tampered with.

It does say that although it would be hard to die from a food source, it also says 'rare' which might mean that there are people more suseptable to it. Again, I will continue the search - just as soon as my dogs go to the groomers for a hose down - oh Happy Day!!


Marianne McA said...

While investigating, maybe you could check up why you might die of a 'surfeit of lampreys'? (Fish, I think.)
I know it's a book by Ngaio Marsh, but I don't know where the original phrase comes from, other than a vague feeling it was some king or other, so possibly Shakespeare.
Of course, maybe medical science was less advanced, and if someone dropped dead after eating something a little unusual, the doctor ascribed the death to the foodstuff. I wonder did people die of surfeits of other things?

marianne mca said...

Googling a little, it appears that King John may have died from a surfeit of peaches in 1216 - who knew fruit was so dangerous? - and, my favourite so far, the Duc d'Escars died of a surfeit of a dish called Truffes a la purée d'ortolans invented by Louis VIII. According to the highly reliable internet, they cooked the dish together, enough for ten people, then sat and ate it between them. THe Duc awoke in the middle of the night indisposed, and forthwith died of a surfeit.

marianne mca said...

Shutting up now, promise - but - 'Pope Martin IV, the glutton, who died of a surfeit of eels'.

There's a dictionary of archaic medical terms that says 'surfeit' or 'surfit' means vomiting through overeating, and it adds that gluttony implies obesity which can be life-threatening. (Though in the portrait, Catherine Douglas doesn't look dangerously overweight...)

Suisan said...

Wow, Marianne, that's some cool stuff! "...-who knew fruit was so dangerous?" Indeed!!

So we're essentially talking about dying from vomiting?

Curiouser and curiouser.....

I can't figure out a mechanism wherein you could die from vomiting though. Exhaution? Stroke?

::Big Flashing Red Lights::
I. Am. Not. A. Doctor.

But you know, the phrase itself is so poetic, I can't help feeling that it must have been in a poem at some point. It is firmly lodged in my brain both because it flows so musically, but also because the method of death it describes is so freaking bizarre!!

Anonymous said...

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Elizabeth said...

I, too, was struck by this quote. NPG - just about my favorite museum.

Anonymous said...

No posts for 3 years and then I google my way here on the same day as Elizabeth, after reading about previous holders of the post of Bodley's Librarian and being puzzled by Wikipedia's description of Thomas Lockley's death. Did you ever unravel the mystery?

Richard H said...

Nearly six years later.....having found this site mostly because I'm munching on cherries, and whilst doing so remembered once reading of someone who "died from a surfeit of cherries". What is it about that phrase that remains in ones memory for decades? Well it really doesn't seem possible to me, but I have decided should things ever get so bad that I contemplate suicide this will be my choice of weapon ....10 kilos of juicy red cherries please! So much nicer way to go........