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.
Made up of four groups of alkaloids, ergot produces a variety of symptoms. including giddiness, a feeling of frontal pressure in the head, fatigue, depression, nausea with or without vomiting and pains in the limbs and lower back. In more severe cases symptoms include formication (feeling that ants are crawling under the skin), coldness in the extremities, muscle twitching and tonic spasms of the limbs, tongue and facial muscles. Fits and convulsions are also present with more severe cases.
Consider what started the panic in the winter of 1692: "Young Betty Parris became strangely ill. She dashed about, dove under furniture, contorted in pain, and complained of fever. The cause of her symptoms may have been some combination of stress, asthma, guilt, boredom, child abuse, epilepsy, and delusional psychosis."
The symptoms and conditions sparked the fire of the witch hunt that was then fueled by mass hysteria and deeply rooted religious beliefs. The fact that people continued to eat the tainted grains perpetuated the outbreak of symptoms.
Flawed human thinking
If history is a good indicator (and it seems to be), human beings in social settings have a great propensity for jumping on the bandwagon and pointing fingers at one another. Genocide, race wars and a host of injustices develop quickly this way. As scores of individuals were experiencing symptoms of ergot poisoning in 1692, to the untrained and superstitious mind, the only plausible explanation was that somebody was doing the devil's work and that somebody needed to pay the price.
- 1. Matossian, Mary K., "Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair," American Scientist, Vol. 70, No.4, p.355, July-Aug 1982
- 2. Lienhard, John H. Rye Ergot and Witchs, No. 1037, University of Houston, uh.edu, Oct 2012
- 3. Linder, Douglas, The Witchcraft Trials in Salem: A Commentary, University of Missouri, http://law2.umkc.edu, Oct 2012