The medical history podcast Sawbones, which I’ve been listening to for like a decade now, recently had an episode about when tomatoes were the trendy superfood (back in the mid-1800s). Before then, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. The man who popularized them was a guy named John Cook Bennett, and his life was fucking wild. Sydnee McElroy, co-host of the podcast, mentioned a biography of Cook. I knew I had to read it.

The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett by Andrew F. Smith came out in 1997. It was unavailable as an ebook, so I broke down and got it through interlibrary loan. It was the first paper book I’ve read in ages. I enjoyed the physical act of holding the book, though I wished I could make the type larger…

Anyway. Bennett led one hell of a life. He started adulthood as an apprentice to a doctor. At the time, it was rare for a doctor to have an M.D.; apprenticeship was all that was necessary. He started practicing medicine, and also became a preacher. Sounds pretty normal, right?

I’m not going to tell you the whole story, but here are some highlights:

  • He started several universities, and sold diplomas to anyone who wanted one.
  • He popularized the tomato, through lots of published letters and articles.
  • He joined up with the newly founded Mormons, became best friends with Joseph Smith, became the #2 man in the church, and collected power like some people collect Pokemon. He then had a falling out with Smith, was excommunicated, and sold Smith’s secrets to the press. Mormons loathe him to this day, and he’s been called the “Mormon Benedict Arnold.”
  • After going on a lecture tour to talk about how horrible the Mormons were, and publishing a tell-all book about them, he rejoined the church. This guy must have been hella charming. He became the #2 man of a breakaway sect after Smith died, and founded a group called the Illuminati.
  • He was the guy who brought Concord grapes, peaches, and more plants to Iowa that went on to become common crops there.
  • He was the founder of America’s first poultry breeding show, which still happens annually to this day. He developed new breeds of chickens, wrote extensively about fowl, and popularized chicken breeding for the average person.
  • He was a successful political lobbyist throughout his lifetime, despite being a complete con artist. He also held a few political posts, like Quartermaster General of Illinois.

There’s lots more, but holy hell this guy got around. He did a bunch of awesome things that still affect this country, and a bunch of terrible things that changed the Mormon church permanently. The book was great fun to read. He’s definitely someone worth learning more about, if you get the chance.

Categories: History

1 Comment

Becca · February 28, 2023 at 5:35 am

This sounds *amazing*. Now I want to read it too. I too, would one day like to start several universities and sell diplomas to all comers. It sounds like a legit career right now in the US.

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