Lobelia: Legal considerations in the Samuel Thomson trial

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 10(1-2):29

Herbalist Samuel Thomson was tried in Massachusetts in 1809 for the murder of Ezra Lovett, a patient under his care, by administering powders of the leaves of Lobelia inflata. Thomson was acquitted, but the outcome of the trial, and, by implication, of the potential lethality of Lobelia inflata has been selectively reported by various parties in the medical literature in order to reach opposite conclusions. Bigelow reported in 1817 that the facts of the death of Ezra Lovett by lobelia were established at the trial, but that Thomson was acquitted only because no malice on his part could be proven. Bigelow’s observations were later cited by Millspaugh (1898) and Hale (1886).  William Cook (1868), on the other hand, states that no proof of harm against Lovett had been established, and that Thomson was acquitted on that basis. An examination of the actual trial report shows elements of truth and selective reporting on both sides.

In the course of the trial, witnesses were called who testified to Thomson’s treatment of Lovett. At the conclusion of prosecution testimony, the judge determined that no case had been established and did not allow the defense to present its case.

But as the Court were satisfied that the evidence produced on the part of the commonwealth did not support the indictment, the prisoner was not put on his defense.

Thomson was acquitted without having the opportunity to present his rebuttal witnesses or his side of the story  Thus the trial summary contains only the unrebutted testimony of the prosecution, and the author of the summary concludes:

As the testimony of the witnesses was not contradicted, nor their credit impeached, that testimony might be considered as containing the necessary facts, on which the issue might be found. . . . That the deceased lost his life by the unskillful treatment of the prisoner did not seem to admit of any reasonable doubt.

Of course the testimony was not contradicted, nor the witnesses impeached, because Thomson’s lawyers, who were prepared to do exactly that, with an array of witnesses at hand to do so, did not receive the opportunity. Thus this conclusion of the author of the trial summary must be seen as evidence of his bias against Thomson. Indeed, at the conclusion of the summary, he editorializes against “itinerant quacks” and makes an appeal for medical licensing laws to outlaw herbal practice.

In order to establish that Thomson knew that lobelia was a poison, the prosecution attempted to prove that previous patients had died in a similar manner. The only witness they could find testified that he personally had been cured of a chronic illness by Thomson. And regarding this, the summary states:

And there was no evidence in the cause, that the prisoner, in the course of his very novel practice, had experienced any fatal accidents among his patients.

This, or course, does not refer to Lovett, but to previous patients of Thomson. To be convicted of murder, the death at Thomson’s hands had to be proven, as well as malice or intention to cause harm on his part. To be convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, it would have to be proved that Thomson knew lobelia to be a potential poison, and previous deaths by it would have to be proven. Since neither motive nor malice on Thomson’s part had been demonstrated, nor prior deaths from lobelia, the judge directed the verdict of innocent.

Thomson lamented the fact that his rebuttal witnesses were not allowed to testify and resolved on the evening of his acquittal to file a slander lawsuit against a Dr. French, who had been responsible for the murder charges against him (Although French had brought the original charges of murder, he declined under oath on the witness stand at the original trial to say anything against either Thomson or lobelia). Although that subsequent lawsuit against French was unsuccessful, it did present the opportunity to enter rebuttal evidence to the prosecution’s story in the Lovett trial. Any subsequent judgement of the facts of Lovett case should include both versions of the story.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner

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