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Most Americans have read about the Salem witch trials in their history classes. Outside of religious beliefs that led to hysteria, it is difficult to imagine what might have sparked the insanity of 1692 as transplants from Puritan England fought to survive in a foreign and often inhospitable land. But there are a few researchers who have come up with a possible cause - ergot poisoning.
When religious beliefs spark a deadly explosion
Certainly people of the 17th Century were familiar with madness, but to the unenlightened, mental and emotional problems were linked to an evil force possessing the soul.In 1692, scientific thinking was only recognized by scholars and not by the superstitious and poorly educated settlers who huddled in fear at the thought of evil spirits holding sway over their lives. If they had been open-minded enough then perhaps they would have made a connection between the symptoms and the effects of eating tainted food.
Tainted food, tainted ideas
The year 1692 was hardly situated in an era of sound thinking. With the Age of Reason far off in the future, the Puritan settlers strongly believed in religious notions of devils, witches, spells, and possessed souls. As a result, nineteen men and women were convicted of witchcraft in Salem and marched to Gallows Hill for public hanging. Plus there were scores of tortures including one of a man more than eighty years old who was crushed to death under heavy stones for refusing to admit he was guilty of practicing witchcraft. The madness spread throughout New England. And it was madness it was in the greater sense of the word.
Ergot poisoning leads to acting like a 'witch'
In 1976 psychologist Linda Caporael suggested, based on compelling evidence, that the witch scare in New England followed an outbreak of rye ergot. Over the years there has been a debate over the validity of Caporael's conclusions, but in a careful analysis appearing in the journal American Scientist in the summer of 1982, researcher Mary Matossian substantiated the theory.
Ergot is a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic substances in bread. Eating it can be a mind- and behavior-altering experience — LSD was originally isolated from this species of fungus and symptoms of ergotism have been recorded since the Middle Ages and possibly even as far back as ancient Greece. The development of ergot is favored by a severely cold winter followed by a cool, moist growing season: the cold winter weakens the rye plant and the spring moisture promotes the growth of the fungus. These conditions were present in the New England area in the year of 1692.