Did ergotism lead to the Salem Witch Trials?
by Judith Lavelle
The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 remains the Massachusetts town’s darkest and most infamous memory. Legend (and historical record) holds that when a group of adolescent girls began convulsing and experiencing “spectral visions,” they claimed they were being tormented by certain Salem townsfolk practicing witchcraft. The village’s leaders famously believed them, and the consequent trials led to the hanging of 19 “witches” from June to September of that year. Historians have since proposed several explanations for the girls’ unusual “bewitched” behaviors, including teenage mischievousness and mental illness. Still, some people maintain that the culprit was a hallucinogenic fungus lurking in the villagers’ rye crop. Could the girls have confused the effects of the fungus—a disease called ergotism—with witchcraft?
The behavioral psychologist Linnda Caporeal proposed the “ergotism theory” in 1976, speculating that the girls “bewitched” in Salem actually fell victim to Claviceps purpurea—a fungus that can grow in the wild rye the settlers would have eaten. The theory is compelling, and many still latch onto it to explain the colonial community’s horrific response. Proponents of the theory reason that, as in ergotism, the girls “bewitched” in Salem experienced seizure-like symptoms and hallucinations, and records suggest that the weather may have been humid enough that year for the growth of ergot-infested rye. But historians largely agree that the evidence leaves the fungus as innocent as those poor “witches.”
For one, the symptoms of witchcraft in 1692 Salem are missing key characteristics seen in documented cases of ergotism outbreaks (one occurred in France in 1951). Ergotism patients suffer the effects of several toxic substances produced by Claviceps purpurea—only some of which, chemical precursors to the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), would have caused the victims’ “visions.” The other fungal poisons cause less fascinating but more grisly symptoms that were never documented in Salem villagers or their livestock: like vomiting, infertility and constricted blood vessels that can ultimately lead to the loss of limbs.
But if ergotism didn’t spur the panic of 1692, then what did? The problem was likely lurking in the town’s sociology rather than its agriculture. In a true ergotism outbreak, the disease would afflict the youngest and most vulnerable in the population—not the relatively healthy teens who levied the accusations. But according to historical records, the only individuals who seemed to be affected by the twitching curses and visions were those old enough to understand what witchcraft was.
In fact, most of the accusers were from separate socio-economic groups than those accused. Some of the “witches” that eventually swung were women with less-than-Puritan reputations or community members who had stopped attending church—in other words, easy targets for prosecution by the powerful theocrats in colonial Massachusetts’s justice system.
It is tempting to defer the blame to a disease rather than the early societies that make up our national heritage, but the ergotism theory seems to be an example of science providing a poor excuse for human beings behaving badly.
Special thanks to Marilynne K. Roach, historian and author of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and to Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist at the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.