Ordeal Trials

FOXGLOVE, a powerful poison, has been used in what the Americans call a "chemical jury", in other words ordeal trials to test guilt or innocence - if he survived he was innocent! (Thomson. 1976). The Jagga people in Africa used Datura (stramonium perhaps, but the exact species is not revealed in the account). Two handfuls of THORN-APPLE herb would be put into rather less than a pint of water, along with banana blossoms. (Why banana?). The litigant would address a solemn magical formula to the herb while putting his right hand into the vessel, and then the mixture was boiled, and eight snail-shells full handed to the person to be tested. The plaintiff described the offence, and urged the decoction to make the defendant fall down if he was guilty, but otherwise to spare him. The accused, with the container at his mouth, would assert his innocence and utter a corresponding wish. If any of the liquid dripped, it was taken as a preliminary sign of guilt. After the potions had all been drained, the defendant was ceremonially taken for a walk. A few minor rites would be celebrated, and finally, the decoction would produce the desired effect of putting the drinker into a trance-like state in which he soliloquized, confessed his guilt or denied it, or vehemently resented the indignity of the test. Only if he made a clean breast of his guilt was he convicted and condemned to pay all the requisite fees. On the following day he would be given an emetic to purge him of the poison. But even so, the effects would probably not wear off for over a month (Lowie).

Not a trial, but certainly an ordeal, was the use of poison to test powers of leadership. John Josselyn reported in 1638 that the root was used by young Indian braves in an ordeal to choose a chief - "he whose stomach withstood its action the longest was decided to be the strongest of the party, and entitled to command the rest" (Weiner).

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