March 04, 2018

Did Moldy Grain Cause The Salem Witch Trials?

I think most people agree on the facts of the Salem witch trials. In 1692, nineteen people were executed for witchcraft, one died while being tortured, and several died in prison. More than 150 people from Massachusetts and Maine were accused. The trials ended as soon as they began, and were the last major witchcraft trials in New England.

There had been other witchcraft trials in 17th century New England, but none as large and deadly as the Salem trials. Historians have argued for years over what caused this terrifying social anomaly. Proposed explanations include mass hysteria, greed, Puritan misogyny, discord among neighbors, and stress caused by Indian attacks. There is probably some truth in all of these, but what if the cause was not social but biological? What if the Salem witch trials were caused by a fungus that grows on moldy grain?

The moldy grain theory first appeared in the April 2, 1976 issue of Science magazine in an article by Linnda R. Caporael titled "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" Caporael was a biology grad student at UC Santa Barbara, and she hypothesized that the Salem trials had been caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on grains, particularly rye.

Caporael's article explains that ergot (claviceps purpura) often grows on rye (and sometimes other grains) when the weather is warm and wet. Rye was the most widely planted Old World grain among the Puritans, and the spring and summer of 1691 were hot and humid in Massachusetts. The rye harvested that year would have been consumed in 1692. She theorizes that it was infected with ergot.

Barley infected with ergot, from Wikipedia
People who eat ergot-infected grains can develop a disease called ergotism. It comes in two varieties. Gangrenous ergotism causes an infected person's extremities to die and rot away. Fingers, toes and ears develop gangrene and fall off. Picture leprosy, but caused by grain. Scary! The second variety is called convulsive ergotism, which has very different symptoms, including the following:

  • Tingling sensations in the skin and fingers
  • Vertigo
  • Headaches
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Hallucinations
  • Bodily convulsions

Ergot contains the alkaloid isoergine, aka lysergic acid amine, a molecule similar to that found in LSD, which can cause hallucinations. Perhaps all those Puritans were just having a really bad trip?

Caporael's article goes on to explain how some of the behaviors seen in the Salem witch trials might be caused by convulsive ergotism.
Accusations of choking, pinching, pricking with pins, and biting by the specter of the accused formed the standard testimony of the afflicted in almost all the examinations and trials. The choking suggests the involvement of the involuntary muscular fibers that is typical of ergot poisoning; the biting, pinching, and pricking may allude to the crawling and tingling sensations under the skin experienced by ergotism victims. Complaints of vomiting and "bowels pulled out" are common in the deposition of the accusers. The physical symptoms of the afflicted and many of the other accusers are those induced by convulsive ergot poisoning. (Linnda R. Caporael, "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?", Science, vol. 192, April 2, 1976) 
The article also suggests that the demons people saw were just hallucinations, such as the thing with a monkey's body and bird's feet that choked John Londer while he slept, as were the spectral witches that people saw inside their homes or roaming the landscape. The Puritans didn't have a scientific understanding of ergotism so they explained away the strange symptoms as evil magic sent by witches.

Caporael's article really struck a chord when it was published. It received quite a bit of publicity, and even made the front page of The New York Times in an article titled "Salem Witch Hunts in 1692 Linked to LSD-Like Agent." LSD was a widely used drug in the 1970s and the link with contemporary drug culture made sense to a society dealing with its own hallucinating kids.

The ergot theory still remains popular, even though most people now don't know where it came from. I often see commenters online mention ergotism when discussing the Salem trials, and it comes up sometimes when I talk with people about New England witchcraft. Just a few weeks ago I was leading a tour in Boston and when I mentioned witchcraft someone asked about ergotism.

People still remember Caporaels' theory, but they don't remember the rebuttal that two psychologists published a few months later. Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb published an article titled "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials" in the December 24, 1976 issue of Science. The two authors outline some compelling reasons why ergotism did not cause the Salem trials.

First, only people suffering from Vitamin A deficiency contract convulsive ergotism; people with healthy vitamin A intake get the gangrenous variety. Vitamin A is found in dairy products and fish. Salem Village was a successful farming community with lots of cows and Salem Town was a seaport with lots of fishing activity. It seems unlikely that anyone had a Vitamin A deficiency.

Further, ergotism usually strikes entire families (since everyone is eating the same grain). That did not happen in Salem, where only a few members of families were afflicted by witchcraft. The afflicted girls also did not report diarrhea or vomiting, and more importantly they did not die or develop permanent dementia, which happens in severe cases of ergotism. Their skin also did not turn a livid color, which is another symptom of the disease.

The afflicted girls did not actually suffer convulsions or pain in a way that was consistent with ergotism. They would suffer fits and convulsions when a suspected witch was brought into the courtroom for them to see, but their symptoms would subside when the suspect confessed, when passages were read from the Bible, or when the suspect touched them. Their convulsion were clearly not the symptoms of a disease. As Spanos and Gottlieb write:

The afflicted girls were responsive to social cues from each other as well as from the accused and were therefor able to predict the occurrence of each other's fits. In such cases one of the girls would cry out that she saw the specter of an accused witch about to attack another of the afflicted. The other girl would then immediately fall into a fit.... 
... Taken together, these facts indicate that the afflicted girls were enacting the role demoniacs as that role was commonly understood in their day. (Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, "Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials, " Science, December 24, 1976)

Spanos and Gottlieb also point out that the afflicted girls were only a small subset of all the witnesses in the Salem witch trials. Dozens of people testified against the accused witches, and most of them showed no symptoms of ergotism at all.

So it seems extremely unlikely that ergotism caused the Salem witch trials or even played any role at all. It's too bad, because modern science is great at treating physical disease, but not so great at dealing with psycho-social eruptions. We can probably prevent outbreaks of ergotism, but that won't help us prevent future witch hunts. Witch hunts still occur around the world, and we've even seen seen similar phenomena within the last few decades in the United States, like the Satanic panic of the 1980s or the evil clown scare of 2016. If only they were as easy to treat as a troublesome fungus.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I’ve heard of the ergotism theory, saw it in a documentary some years ago. I hadn’t heard about the rebuttal. If it was rebutted so long ago, why were they still making documentaries about it in the 1990s, I wonder? Oh, well. Maybe Arthur Miller got it right, apart from Abigail and John, of course. ;-) Local land fights, girls playing silly games and then panicking they might be caught, etc.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention one accuser in later years admitted to making it all up.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious what you think of Chadwick Hansen's theory that there really were witches at Salem? He doesn't ascribe any supernatural powers to them, and he thinks most of the accused were innocent, but his hypothesis is that there was a small group of people who really did self-identify as witches, and who formed the kernel that the larger witchcraft hysteria grew out of. I don't know enough about the subject to have an opinion, but I thought it was interesting when I read his book.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Sue! Thanks as always for reading and commenting. I think the argument against ergotism isn't as exciting as the argument for ergotism, which keeps the ergotism theory alive and well. Just my two cents though.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Anonymous! Thank you for the comment and for mentioning Chadwick Hansen's book (WITCHCRAFT AT SALEM). I read it a few years ago and while I enjoyed it I didn't necessarily find his argument convincing. I felt like he selected only the evidence that would support his argument, like someone making a poppet out of goat hair, which Hansen connects with the Horned God of the witches (as described by Margaret Murray and others). He ignores that other alleged poppets were made of grass, rags, and even cheese. I'm also not convinced that George Burroughs was really a ringleader of a Wiccan-style cult. Not that there's anything wrong with Wicca, but it wasn't being practiced in Salem.

On the other hand, people in New England at that time did practice all kinds of folk-magic for divination, healing and protection, so there was magic happening in Salem. I also think some people said they were witches (or had met the Devil) to intimidate their neighbors or appear hip and edgy to their peers. I feel that Abigail Hobbs probably fits into that category.

Anyway, I think Hansen's book is worth reading!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to reply!