Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People

Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine, was commissioned by the French king Francis to explore the new world in 1524. Verrazzano made landfall near Cape Fear in the Carolinas and eventually sailed north to the coast of Maine which he called The Land of Bad People. Seventy-eight years later another explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold, sailed south from Nova Scotia to the Land of Bad People looking for a cure for syphilis. He was under the misapprehension that sassafras was that cure.

According to the History and Epidemiology of Syphilis, the disease had been recently introduced to Europe and everyone was to blame. The English called it the French disease. The French called it the Spanish disease. Ironically, it appears to have been the American disease, first contracted by Columbus’ crew from Caribbean islanders.

Even though it had no effect on syphilis, the root of sassafras made a passable drink later called root beer—a passable soft drink but not much of a beer. It has an alcohol content of only 0.4% by volume. Understandably, it was most popular during prohibition. Sassafras is also street slang for marijuana but so is almost everything.

It may be an inconsequential bit of loosely related history but it what a great title for a short story: Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People. I should get Chris Furst to build a body of flesh around its bones.

One thought on “Sassafras, Syphilis, and the Land of Bad People”

  1. Aha! So this is what you’re delving into now? Seriously, this is fascinating stuff, and you know how much I like strange history. I’m going to take this as a challenge and see if I can turn the material into a story — you’ve given me a great title.
    Sorry I’ve been out of touch.

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