Ergot Poisoning - the cause of the Salem Witch Trials

PBS "Secrets of the Dead II" — Witches Curse


Case 1: Interview

Linnda Caporael may have solved one of the biggest mysteries of early American history — the cause of the Salem Witch Trials — but she stumbled onto the case quite by accident. "I actually started this project as a senior in college," recalls Caporael, now a behavioral scientist and full professor at Photo of Linnda Caporael Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. "I had one of those standard senior problems where you are going for graduation check-out and find you are missing a critical course. Mine was a history course. I enrolled in one, and had to immediately write a paper, which I decided to do on Anne Putnam because I'd seen Arthur Miller's play THE CRUCIBLE. My goal was to demonstrate that women could be as wicked as men. As I began researching, I remember having one of those kind of 'ah-hah!' experiences, where I was reading a book in which the author said he was at a loss to explain the hallucinations of all these people in Salem. It was that word 'hallucinations' that made everything click. Years and years ago, when I was a little kid, I had read about the French case of ergot poisoning, and I made the connection between the two."

"The curious thing is that I went back recently to take a look at that reference and the author doesn't use the word hallucination at all. I must have hallucinated the word as much as anything else! Now I'm not too sure what the click actually was, but something said to me 'maybe it could be ergot poisoning.'"

Her detective work, first published 25 years ago, brought Caporael instant fame, worldwide recognition — even a front-page story in the NEW YORK TIMES. That's quite a heavy load for a student. "When it first came out it was quite sensational," Caporael recalls. "I sort of thought that was my 15 minutes of fame and went on to do my more usual work." But the allure of the trials and Caporael's intriguing explanation — that the "bewitched" accusers of Salem had in fact suffered hallucinations, convulsions, bizarre skin sensations and other unusual symptoms because they'd been poisoned by a crop of fungus-infested rye — is still fascinating 25 years later.

Caporael sees the allure. "It has all the elements of a good mystery story. I'd never worked on a project that was as well defined — we were talking about one event at one particular point in time," she says. "Plus, it was a lot of fun to do!"

Although she has long since moved on to other work, Caporael keeps her nose in the ergotism case file, following research that suggests the role of ergot in other historical events. She doesn't buy into all of them. "Some of these ideas are skating on thin ice," she says, such as the theory that ergot poisoning may have influenced the outcome of the French Revolution. "I do think there is a lot of work that can be done on the historical incidence of ergot, but not all of these cases will end up being ergot poisoning. Many of them could be attributed to the same kind of mass hysteria hypothesis that described Salem at one time."

Ergot poisoning can't even explain all of the events at Salem, Caporael concedes. Some of the behaviors exhibited by the witch accusers probably were the result of mass hysteria — or outright fakery. "At the end of June and the beginning of July, 1692, I think there was more imagination than ergot. But by that point in time three people had already been hung, and the trials had taken a path that people felt they had to stay on," Caporael says. "One of the clearest examples is the young accuser who, in the late summer, said 'wait a minute, I don't think that there are witches after all.' At that point, the other girls began accusing HER of being a witch, and she immediately seemed to understand what was going on and began being a vociferous accuser again."

And yet Caporael believes that the role of ergotism in history might still be underappreciated. "I just got a fascinating email from a scholar in England who noticed that the fits of Caliban — the character in Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST — matched the description of those of people with ergot poisoning. She wondered would this kind of poisoning been possible in the 16th century when Shakespeare was writing. And the answer, of course, is yes. There were claims of outbreaks in both the U.K. and Europe then," says Caporael. "I think it's a fascinating idea that this would have been picked up in literature. In fact, it should have been if there was some kind of consistent physiological response."


Case 1: Background

The trouble in Salem began during the cold dark Massachusetts winter, January, 1692. Eight young girls began to take ill, begining 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: the girls were under a spell, bewitched — and, worse yet, by members of their own pious 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; 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?


Case 1: Clues and Evidence

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.

Photo of professor discussing ergot 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 internal organs.

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 — 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.


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