Arsenic in the Tea, Nisbet Wrote

It was an early summer day in 1792, and a gloomy man was in a bad mood. Charles Nisbet, a Presbyterian minister in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to his bookseller, William Young, in Philadelphia. The two had been corresponding about twice a year since 1790; Nisbet was beginning his sixth letter to Young. Nisbet's half of the exchange is in the archives of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Young's letters to Nisbet seem not to have survived. Nisbet had come with his family to Carlisle from Montrose, Scotland, in 1785, when he became the first principal (president) of Dickinson College and also assisted with preaching at the Presbyterian Church on the Square in Carlisle. A month before this letter to Young, Nisbet had presided at Dickinson's graduation of twenty-five seniors.  

As Nisbet sat down to write to Young on that June day, 1792, he saw only bleak horizons. "I often ask my self [sic]," Nisbet wrote, "What dost thou here?" The question was that heard by the prophet Elijah (1Kings19:13, KJV). Nisbet's answer to himself offered scant encouragement. "I can scarcely discover," he confessed, "that I have done any good," with the exception, he added, of teaching "a few young men to preach the Doctrine of Justification by the Righteousness of Christ, & the Necessity of Holiness in order to Salvation, in this Infidel Country. " Thus Nisbet, consoled himself.

Nisbet was fifty-six, and he had been licensed to preach for thirty-two years. At age sixteen he had entered the University of Edinburgh, his bookish home life preparing Nisbet with wide reading in Latin and Greek. He soon added French and Italian as well. Nisbet had begun his ministry with high hopes and higher praise; his admirers considered him "among the most learned men in Scotland. " Nevertheless, as he neared sixty, Nisbet saw his ministry as a failure, and his new country seemed barbaric. ''A Spirit of Madness & Riot, "he wrote, "seems to have taken Possession of this place lately." As a Christian minister, he meant what he said about spirits possessing the place, and this demonic possession extended beyond Carlisle. Nisbet saw around him a lack of order and discipline, and he believed that criminals were blatant because the state had no moral authority. "Evil Doers here," he wrote, "have no Punishment to dread."

For Nisbet, a simple glance at current events would prove that last point. The local newspaper, The Carlisle Gazette, carried dispatches from foreign capitals and then interspersed advertisements and legal notices with news from around town. Aside from international news that left Nisbet in dark moods, namely the French Revolution, domestic crimes also depressed him. Nisbet referred to a recent case of attempted matricide in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here we let Nisbet speak at length in his own words:

Last week a Woman at Lancaster was convicted of having endeavored to poison her own Mother, by sending her a Present of half a Pound of Tea, mingled with Arsenic. The Tea was suspected by some who came up with the Bearer on the Road, & knew that the Woman had lived in Enmity with her Mother, & had taken the very Bed from under her. She was condemned by the Court to one Month's Imprisonment, & to pay a fine of thirty Pounds, & even this Punishment, it was hoped, would be remitted.

Nisbet then blamed the current belief, much publicized by the French revolutionaries, that each person should be at liberty to act as one's conscience directed. "Such are the blessed Effects," he mocked, "of Liberality of Sentiment, & acting according to one's Conscience!" His sarcasm waxed. "It can not be doubted," he continued, "that this Woman was a person of Liberal Sentiments, nor that she acted in this Matter according to her Conscience. " As a scholar, Nisbet was careful to cite his sources, and so here he gave his indignant gossip solid authority. Nisbet told Young:

 I was informed by an Eyewitness that she [the accused] appeared in the Court with all the Serenity of lnnocence, & listened to her Indictment & the Pleadings against her, with as much Indifference as if it had been a Piece of common Conversation. How happy must evil Doers be, in a Country where they have so little to fear! Nisbet closed his letter with complaints about feeling trapped at the college, arrearages in his salary making return to Scotland impossible. 'The Cup of Slavery," he sighed, "is a bitter one, but I must drink it."

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Charles Nisbet

Portrait of Rev. Charles Nisbet first President of Dickinson College

Charles Nisbet (21 January, 1736-18 January, 1804), was born near Haddington, Scotland, and died in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he was a Presbyterian minister and formidable scholar, known to contemporaries as a walking library. From 1785 to 1804 he served as the first principal (president) of Dickinson College.