As several readers have reminded me, ergot has caused plenty of trouble right here in the good ol’ US of A. European immigrants never traveled anywhere without the comforts of home, and rye was one of them. American colonists were fortunate that for whatever reason ergotism didn’t wipe people out on the scale it did in the Old Country. Perhaps the climate didn’t favor ergot quite so much, who knows? Still, a theory has been advanced that ergotism was responsible for the famous witch trials in Salem, Massachusettes in 1692.
The drama centered around a group of seven girls (aged 6 to nineteen years old), all of whom were, allegedly, afflicted with symptoms that resemble convulsive ergotism: delusions, trembling, pricking sensations and other nervous disorders. Whether they actually were, or whether they were simply a gaggle of vindictive teenagers looking for attention has been a matter of debate for 300 years.
In 1976 a researcher and author by the name of Linda Caporael was the first to suggest that the girls may have been suffering from ergotism. The idea was later expanded upon by author Mary Matossian in her book Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History. In it, Matossian does an impressive job of drawing an historical connection between ergot and witchcraft. A suspiciously high number of European witch trials, it turns out, were clustered in areas where rye was widely cultivated, and which had the sort of damp, cool climate that the ergot fungus likes. Since ergotism causes all sorts of bizarre behavioral symptoms it’s easy to see how preindustrial peasant folks might have come to see ergotism sufferers as victims of bedevilment.
Whether or not that’s what happened in Salem to one of the girls, some of the girls or all of them is a matter of pure speculation, though Caporael and Matossian do point out that there had been a bad wheat harvest that year and a cold, wet spring — prime conditions for ergot contamination of the food supply. Still there’s no hard evidence. What isn’t speculation is that some 24 people died as a result of the girls’ “symptoms”. Nineteen were hanged as witches (none of them the original seven girls, who accused others of bewitching them). Four died in prison while awaiting trial. One other, an old man in his eighties who refused to be tried, had a bunch of big rocks piled up on top of him. Which didn’t help him breathe any.
Sure, ergot might have been the cause of it all. Or was it just…you know.