Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Witches In The Rye

The Salem Witch trials remain one of the most haunting chapters in colonial American history. In the winter of 1692, the Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts were facing a terrifying conundrum. For no apparent reason, several young girls started behaving out of sorts.

Contrary to what you might see in the movies, the Salem witches
were not green and they failed miserably at broom flying.
These girls were having unusual fits. One minute they would be ranting incoherently and the next they would regress into a trance-like state (not unlike some candidates in political debates). After the doctor could find nothing wrong with the girls, the obvious conclusion was…witchcraft. 

The finger-pointing quickly commenced - who was responsible for bewitching these girls? But it wasn't easy to spot the guilty parties - it's not like they parked a broom outside the general store or asked for help getting a big black cauldron through their front door. 

The town was whipped up into an historic frenzy and, within a few short months, nearly 200 people were accused of being a witch and 19 of them tragically hanged. The mysterious events disappeared almost as quickly as they came and did not return.

The winter in Salem, 1692, was particularly grim. In addition to battling the cold and hunger, one had to be careful to avoid being accused of witchcraft.
While many people are quick to attribute a mystery to supernatural forces, Linnda Caporael was not content with this explanation. In the 1970s, as Caporael studied the firsthand accounts of Salem’s citizens, she hypothesized that a neurological toxin may be at play.

Caporael recalled that in 1951, the denizens of a small town in France suffered an outbreak of unusual behavior that was linked to ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye grain and contains alkaloids such as lysergic acid, the precursor of the psychoactive drug LSD. The strange behavior of the young girls may have looked like witchcraft to someone under the influence of ergot. 

No, “ergot on rye” is not the name of a sandwich you can order at the local deli. These dark areas on the grain are a fungus that may have initiated the Salem Witch trials.
There is little debate that ergot poisoning can cause hallucinations, but is it plausible that the terrible events in Salem had something to do with this fungus? We can’t know for sure, but several lines of evidence are consistent with Caporael’s theory.

Rye grain was indeed the staple crop used to make the bread back then. 1691 was a very warm and wet year for Salem, which would have provided an ideal climate for ergot to flourish. The contaminated rye would have been harvested in the fall to bake bread in the winter, in line with the start of the outbreak just after the New Year.

The ergot poisoning hypothesis also explains why the witch hysteria failed to rear its ugly head again. The following season was very dry, which is not conducive to the growth of the fungus, leaving the rye untainted in 1693.

The ergot theory is not without its problems, as spelled out in this paper. In addition, many scholars highlight the tense atmosphere in Salem at the time. Accusations of witchcraft may have had more to do with rivaling families than anything else.

Contributed by: Bill Sullivan, Ph.D.

Caporael LR (1976). Ergotism: the satan loosed in Salem? Science (New York, N.Y.), 192 (4234), 21-6 PMID: 769159

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