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.