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Were the witches of Salem a result of poisoning with ergot fungus?

January 14, 2005

Dear Cecil:

I keep hearing claims that the Salem witchcraft trials were the result of poisoning by grain infected with ergot fungus, which caused convulsions and other symptoms that the simple souls of the day interpreted as signs of demonic possession. Any truth to this, Cecil?

Cecil replies:

Not likely. While it's rarely possible to prove or disprove these things conclusively, evidence for the ergotism-made-them-do-it theory is unpersuasive. The whole project, in fact, smacks of a refusal to face unpleasant truths about human nature. Who needs an organic cause to explain murder in the name of righteousness? Ignorance and superstition aren't enough?

Let's start with the facts. During the winter of 1691-'92, several girls in Salem Village, a county-size jurisdiction surrounding what's now the city of Salem, Massachusetts, came down with a strange illness, experiencing pain, fever, and convulsions and behaving oddly. After a doctor suggested that the girls might be under supernatural influence, someone proposed baking a "witch cake" containing urine from the girls, which was then fed to a dog as a test for witchcraft. That set the pot boiling. More girls began having seizures and claiming they'd been approached by specters of their neighbors with wicked intent. Soon a witch hunt was underway. The first three accused were a Caribbean Indian servant named Tituba; Sarah Good, a beggar; and Sarah Osborn, a quarrelsome older woman. The frightened Tituba cracked, confessing that she was a witch and that she and the other accused women had flown on "poles."

With the jails filling with suspected witches (one was four years old), the colonial governor convened a special court to hear the cases. The girls' satanic manifestations became highly stylized on the witness stand — when confronted with an accused, they immediately began to convulse or, in later stages, were struck dumb. Neighbors chimed in with stories of ominous coincidences. The court admitted two unusual (and to us, stupid) kinds of evidence: "spectral evidence," consisting of tales of supernatural encounters, and a touch test — if an accuser's convulsions ceased when you touched her, you were guilty. As many as 200 people were jailed; about 50 confessed to witchcraft. From June through September of 1692, 19 accused witches were hanged and one was pressed to death with stones. Several other defendants died in prison.

By fall the frenzy had begun to subside. After the governor disallowed the use of spectral evidence, most trials ended in acquittal. Eventually the proceedings were halted, the imprisoned released, and damages paid to the estates of the dead. Embarrassed colonists began asking themselves a question that historians have debated ever since: What the hell was that all about?

In 1976 psychology grad student Linnda R. Caporael proposed the ergotism hypothesis, and history professor Mary Matossian elaborated on it in 1982. The core contentions: A cold winter followed by a moist spring and summer prior to the witchcraft hysteria favored the growth of ergot fungus in rye that the colonists were obliged to eat due to crop failure. Ergot contains toxins known to cause convulsions, hallucinations, and other symptoms similar to those reported by the accusers.

Doubters were quick to raise objections: Evidence of a cold winter and crop failure is dubious, and none of the accusers displayed the full array of symptoms needed to support a diagnosis of convulsive ergotism. More importantly, the symptoms appeared only at opportune moments during the trials, strongly suggesting a psychosomatic origin if not fraud. The counterarguments seem to have persuaded most historians, but a credulous 2001 PBS documentary has helped keep conjecture about ergotism alive.

What really happened? Space won't permit a thorough analysis, but it seems clear a concatenation of circumstances was at work, the most obvious being a bedrock belief in the reality of witches held by a theocratic society having only a superficial acquaintance with the rule of law. We'll probably never know what was up with the first girls to act strangely, but the simplest explanation for the remainder is that they were dramatic types who enjoyed the attention and were egged on by overzealous judges. Their wild testimony might have been discounted had it not been for the confessions of defendants hoping to elude the noose — in Salem, in a departure from traditional witch-hunt practice, admitted witches were spared while those insisting on their innocence courted a death sentence. In the hysterical atmosphere of the trials few skeptics had the nerve to speak out initially lest they too wind up in the dock. Local rivalries and such may have played a part; it's been suggested that the more energetic partisans hoped to divert attention from their failures during the Indian wars of the era. Be that as it may, history abounds with examples of the madness of crowds; to suggest that grain fungus is necessary to precipitate such episodes borders on the bizarre. (Thanks to bibliophage of academicpursuits.us Science Advisory Board for research assistance.)

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