The Salem Witch Trials: Was Ergot To Blame?
Evidence for Ergotism in Salem
It is one thing to suggest convulsive ergot poisoning as an initiating factor in the witchcraft episode, and quite another to generate convincing evidence that it is more that a mere possibility. A jigsaw of details pertinent to growing conditions, the timing of events in Salem, and symptomology must fit together to create a reasonable case. From these details, a picture emerges of a community stricken with an unrecognized physiological disorder affecting their minds as well as their bodies.
1) Growing conditions. The common grass along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Newfoundland was and is wild rye, a host plant for ergot. Early colonists were dissatisfied with it as forage for their cattle and reported that it often made the cattle ill with unknown diseases (22). Presumably, then, ergot grew in the New World before the Puritans arrived. The potential source for infection was already present, regardless of the possibility that it was imported with the English rye.
Rye was the most reliable of the Old World grains (22) and by the 1640’s ot was a well-established New England crop. Spring sowing was the rule; the bitter winters made fall sowing less successful. Seed time for the rye was April and the harvesting took place in August (23). However, the grain was stored in barns and often waited months before being threshed when the weather turned cold. The timing of Salem events fits this cycle. Threshing probably occurred shortly before Thanksgiving, the only holiday the Puritans observed. The children’s symptoms appeared in December 1691. Late the next fall, 1692, the witchcraft crisis ended abruptly and there is no further mention of the girls or anyone else in Salem being afflicted (4, 9).
To some degree or another all rye was probably infected with ergot. It is a matter of the extent of the infection and the period of time over which the ergot is consumed rather than the mere existence of ergot that determines the potential for ergotism. In his 1807 letter written from upstate New York, Stearns (15, p. 274) advised his medical colleague that, “On examining a granary where rye is stored, you will be able to procure a sufficient quantity [of ergot sclerotia] from among that grain.” Agricultural practice had not advanced, even by Stearns’s time, to widespread use of methods to clean or eliminate the fungus from the rye crop. In all probability, the infestation of the 1691 summer rye crop was fairly light; not everyone in the village or even in the same families showed symptoms.
Certain climatic conditions, that is, warm, rainy springs and summers, promote heavier than usual fungus infestation. The pattern of the weather in 1691 and 1692 is apparent from brief comments in Samuel Sewall’s diary (24). Early rains and warm weather in the spring progressed to a hot and stormy summer in 1691. There was a drought the next year, 1692, thus no contamination of the grain that year would be expected.
2) Localization. “Rye,” continues Stearns (15, p.274), “which grows in low, wet ground yields [ergot] in greatest abundance.” Now, one of the most notorious of the accusing children in Salem was Thomas Putnam’s 12-year-old daughter, Ann. Her mother also displayed symptoms of the affliction and psychological historians have credited the senior Ann with attempting to resolve her own neurotic complaints through her daughter (8, 9, 14). Two other afflicted girls also lived in the Putnam residence. Putnam had inherited one of the largest landholdings in the village. His father’s will indicates that a large measure of the land, which was located in the western sector of Salem Village, consisted of swampy meadows (25) that were valued farmland to the colonists (22).
Accordingly, the western acreage of Salem Village, may have been an area of contamination. This contention is further substantiated by the pattern of residence of the accusers, the accused, and the defenders of the accused living within the boundaries of Salem Village (Fig. 1). Excluding the afflicted girls, 30 of 32 adult accusers lived in the western section and 12 of the 14 accused witches lived in the eastern section, as did 24 of the 29 defenders (14). The general pattern of residence, in combination with the well-documented factionalism of the eastern and western sectors, contributed to the progress of the witchcraft crisis.
Recently I was watching a mini series about the “Witch Trials” and remembered this paper. I had read it some time ago and had already come to the same conclusion myself. You see, Ergotism is much akin to “Saint Anthony’s Fire” where many had the biting/burning sensations as well as hallucinations from what may have indeed also been Ergot. It is logical to make the corollary between the symptoms of Ergotism and the actual events in Salem where the hysteria, physical manifestations, and hallucinations happened.
I have to wonder though if there isn’t some way of testing any of the remains (whatever could be found) for alkaloids…
In any case, I thought that this paper was on the right track and was rather well put together. Take a look at the full draft HERE