Consummate evil? Or teenagers.

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.

6 thoughts on “Consummate evil? Or teenagers.”

  1. For what it’s worth, even after all of the drug talk, my family’s genealogy has traced by the single man that was crushed to death as part of the trials.

    As a man of science, I say pile on the rocks. They’ll feel bad about it later.

    1. You’re the second person to weigh in who’s descended from that group, D! I have quite a readership, no? Pile on the rocks indeed! Hehe…

      – Joe

    2. I have to say the guy who was pressed to death had courage. They would stake a person out flat & put a box on their chest then put rocks in the container. The weight made breathing difficult & eventually if they didn’t release the weight your muscles would fatigue to the point you couldn’t raise the box & you suffocated.

      Greatly weakened from some time of this the guy was approached by the confessor to see if he was finally willing to admit he was a witch. He beckoned the confessor to come close as his voice was very weak. He uttered one sentence, “more rocks”

  2. The Salem witch trials! I love that ergot’s LSD effect might explain the historical focus on devilry. It’s amazing how science allows us to understand weird behaviors as disease instead of the devil’s work. Kind of makes me wonder if some things that we think are “just in your head” will eventually be understood as a disease.

    On a side note, my mormon relatives have traced an ancestor back to an old lady who was convicted of being a witch at the Salem witch trials. She died in jail rather than through hanging or pressing, which is less interesting as a story, but probably better for her. Kind of cool to be connected to a moment in history that is so well known.

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