|The following account of what really happened poses a shocking new idea about the violent convulsions, delirium and strange skin sensations that struck a group of young girls in 17th century Massachusetts, and inspired the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
In 1692, 19 of the town's residents were put to death because they were believed to have been witches. For hundreds of years, this tragedy was blamed on religious fanaticism, adolescent cruelty and contagious hysteria. But these explanations failed to satisfy a "detective" who embarked on her own fact finding mission.
Courtesy of WNET New York Educational Broadcasting Corporation.
|The trouble in Salem began during the cold dark Massachusetts winter, January, 1692.
Eight young girls began to take ill, beginning with 9 year old Elizabeth Parris, the daughter of Reverend Samuel Parris, as well as his niece, 11 year old Abigail Williams. But theirs was a strange sickness. The girls suffered from delirium, violent convulsions, incomprehensible speech, trance like states,
and odd skin sensations.
The worried villagers searched desperately for an explanation.
Their conclusion was the girls were under a spell, bewitched and, worse yet,
by members of their own community.
And then the finger pointing began. The first to be accused were Tituba, Parris's Caribbean-born slave, along with Sarah Good and Sarah Osburn,
two elderly women considered of ill repute. All three were arrested on February 29. Ultimately, more than 150 "witches" were taken into custody
and by late September 1692, 20 men and women had been put to death,
and five more accused had died in jail. None of the executed confessed to witchcraft. Such a confession would have surely spared their lives, but, they believed, condemned their souls.
On October 29, by order of Massachusetts Governor Sir William Phips,
the Salem Witch Trials officially ended. When the dust cleared, the townsfolk and the accusers were at a loss to explain their own actions. In the centuries since, scholars and historians have struggled as well to explain the madness that overtook Salem. Was it sexual repression, dietary deficiency, mass hysteria? Or, could a simple fungus have been to blame?
When Linnda Caporael began nosing into the Salem Witch Trials as a college student in the early 1970s, she had no idea that a common grain fungus might be responsible for the terrible events of 1692. But then the pieces began to
fall into place.
Caporael, now a Behavioral Psychologist at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, soon noticed a link between the strange symptoms reported by Salem's accusers, chiefly eight young women, and the hallucinogenic effects of drugs like LSD. LSD is a derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain. Ergotism ~ ergot poisoning ~ had indeed been implicated in other outbreaks of bizarre behavior, such as the one that afflicted the small French town of
Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951.
But could ergot actually have been the culprit? Did it have the means and the opportunity to wreak havoc in Salem? Caporael's sleuthing, with the help of science, provided the answers.
Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which affects rye, wheat
and other cereal grasses. When first infected, the flowering head of a grain
will spew out sweet, yellow-colored mucus, called "honey dew," which
contains fungal spores that can spread the disease. Eventually, the fungus invades the developing kernels of grain, taking them over with a network of filaments that turn the grains into purplish-black sclerotia. Sclerotia can be mistaken for large, discolored grains of rye. Within them are potent chemicals, ergot alkaloids, including lysergic acid (from which LSD is made) and ergotamine (now used to treat migraine headaches). The alkaloids affect the central nervous system and cause the contraction of smooth muscle, the muscles that make up the walls of veins and arteries, as well as the
Toxicologists now know that eating ergot contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms, all of which, Linnda Caporael noted, are present in the records of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers. When Caporael examined the diaries of Salem residents, she found that those exact conditions had been present in 1691. Nearly all of the accusers lived in the western section of Salem Village, a region of swampy meadows that would have been prime breeding ground for the fungus. At that time, rye was the staple grain of Salem. The rye crop consumed in the winter of 1691 - 1692 is when the first usual symptoms began to be reported, could easily have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot. The summer of 1692, however,
was dry, which could explain the abrupt end of the 'bewitchments.'
These and other clues built up into a circumstantial case against ergot that Caporael found impossible to ignore. Tracking down historic outbreaks of ergot poisoning, Dr. Caporael compares its symptoms to those that plagued the girls in Salem, revealing a whole new side of this unsettling period.
A Commemorative Cemetery was built in honor of the people that died in the Salem Witch Trials.