24th Oct 2012

The Science of Halloween: The Salem Witch Trials

In the winter of 1692 in the Puritan settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, eight girls contracted a strange illness with terrifying symptoms—incoherent screaming, hallucinations, crawling skin, contortions and convulsions… When physicians could find no medical cause for their behaviour, witchcraft was suggested, and then accusations began to fly. What followed was the infamous Salem Witch Trials, which took the lives of twenty people and imprisoned many more. But what was the true cause of the mania? Perhaps the most intriguing and plausible theory—first proposed by Linda Caporael in 1976—suggests that the girls were suffering from ergot poisoning. Ergot (Claviceps purpurea) is a fungus that infects grain crops and forms a hallucinogenic drug—LSD is derived from it, and it’s thought to be linked to many bizarre occurrences throughout the middle ages, including the “Dance of Death.” When ingested, most often through bread, ergot releases a potent mycotoxin that cause victims to suffer headaches, paranoia, convulsive fits, burning and itching skin, vomiting, and hallucinations, which are fairly consistent with the symptoms of Salem’s “witches.” Moreover, ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a warm, humid spring, and weather records show that in 1691, Salem boasted these very conditions. So, although there’s no way of knowing with absolute certainty, it seems that ergot poisoning was a strong contributing factor to the trials. Since Salem was brewing with inequality, fear of native Indians, bitter land disputes and sexual repression, it’s likely that all ergot did was provide a catalyst for an already volatile situation. There were no witches after all—but perhaps the trials are all the more terrifying because they weren’t the product of supernatural evil, but instead of ordinary human evil.

(Image Credit: 1, 2)

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