“Until an hour before the Devil fell, God thought him beautiful in Heaven.”
― Arthur Miller, The Crucible
Nearly everyone has heard of the Salem witch trials but what might have caused those living in colonial Massachusetts to become so paranoid that they felt the need to execute the accused? Between 1692 and 1693 roughly 200 individuals were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed (Blumberg). Over the years there was been numerous attempts to offer an explanation about what occurred in those few months. In my personal opinion, the strongest theory was first published in 1976 by, Linnda Caporael, and centers around a fungus (Blumberg).
The Trials and Executions:
At the start of 1692 some young girls in Salem were reported of having violent fits during which they would vomit, convulse, scream, and throw items. The local doctor examined the girls and believed that they were afflicted from something of a supernatural nature (Blumberg). After the girls were interrogated, they blamed their behavior on three women who they said had brought this upon them [Tibuba, a slave/ Sarah Good, a beggar/ and Sarah Osborn, and elderly and impoverished woman]. Starting in March of that year the women were questioned in court about the validity of the claims brought against them. Many of the accused claimed that the events were a folly and held to their innocence. Tibuba, fearful for her life, confessed to signing the devil’s book (Blumberg). Mass hysteria spread like wildfire and more and more people were brought in for questioning. Once the dust settled, 19 innocent people had been hung at the location later nicknamed Gallows Hill, 1 man was pressed to death by stones, and many had spent a significant amount of time in prison (Blumberg). In 1702 the court declared the trails to be unlawful but what happened in those months cannot be taken back.
“The Lord above knows my innocencye…as att the great day will be known to men and Angells. I petition to your honours not for my own life for I know I must die and my appointed time is sett but the Lord he knows it is that if it be possible no more Innocent blood may be shed.”-Mary Eastey (Executed by hanging on September 22, 1692.)
Linnda Caporael’s theory involves the assumed ingestion of the fugus ergot which is commonly found in rye and other cereal grasses (Blumberg). You see, ergot thrives in areas with similar climates to Salem and the summer of 1691 was very rainy and rye was a staple food for the community members (Lucchesi). Ergot is an hallucinogenic and is known to cause delusions, paranoia, vomiting, muscle spasms, and drastic behavioral changes [LSD is derived from the substance] (Blumberg). The alkaloids in the fungus directly affect the central nervous system and would be a probable cause for the behaviors described in the existing records from the trials (“The Witches Curse”). But if this is true, why did everything suddenly stop? Well, it is thought that the summer of 1692 offered dry weather which would have ceased the development of the fungi that was making people act strangely (“The Witches Curse”).
If you are interested in the Salem witch trials perhaps you should read the play, The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller. This literary work adds a level of humanity that will stick with you long after you get through to the end. My hope is that the souls so tragically taken during that dark time find peace and that their families continue to carry on their stories.
Thank you as always for reading and feel free to check out some more of my medical posts by clicking on the category tabs on the homepage.
Until Next Time
Blumberg, Jess. “A Brief History of the Salem Witch Trials: One Town’s Strange Journey from Paranoia to Pardon.” Smithsonian Magazine. 23 October, 2007. Accessed 13 January, 2021. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/.
Lucchesi, Emilie Le Beau. “Were the Salem Witch Trials Caused by Moldy Grain?: How a Rainy Growing Season Contributed to One of America’s Greatest Travesties.” Country Living. 20 September, 2016. Accessed 13 January, 2021. Countryliving.com/life/a39888/salem-witch-trials-ergotism.
“The Witches Curse: Clues and Evidence. PBS. 4 June, 2014. Accessed 14 January, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/witches-curse-clues-evidence/1501/.