Did a Plant Disease Play a Role in the Salem Witch Trials?
Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist, Panhandle R&E Center
Ergot is a fungal disease of small grains, particularly rye, caused by the pathogen Clavicepts purpurea. It enters the plant during pollination, infecting the ovaries and displacing the seeds with an “ergot” or sclerotium (a mass of fungal hyphal tissues that serve as the survival structure). The sclerotia contain numerous chemicals (one of which is lysergic acid, a precursor to the hallucinogenic drug LSD) that can poison animals or humans if consumed, resulting in a condition known as ergotism.
This is one of the few plant diseases that can also cause direct damage to humans.
Ergotism is characterized by a host of different symptoms, depending upon the specific chemicals involved. Some of the more common symptoms include tremors, delusions, prickling sensations on skin, convulsing seizures, hallucinations, and violent muscle spasms.
The disease is favored by severely cold winters followed by a cool, wet growing season, and has historically occurred more commonly in areas highly dependent upon rye for sustenance. Although all cereal crops are vulnerable, rye is more susceptible than other cereals due to flowers being open-pollinated and staying open longer, thus remaining exposed for longer periods of time.
Ergot has been recognized since ancient times, and is now known to be responsible for the death of thousands of people. Its presence has also been correlated with dysfunctional human behavior and hypothesized to have altered or influenced certain historical events. One of the more provocative of these events involves ergot’s ties with the concentration of witchcraft trials in Europe and North America.
In early modern Europe, the locations of documented witch trials were clustered in central Europe (alpine France, southwest Germany), and the east coast of Scotland, all areas with cool wet weather and a reliance on rye as a staple food. Recorded witchcraft persecution trials reached a peak between 1560 and 1660, one of the coldest centuries on record.
Salem Witchcraft Theory
The worst outbreak of witch persecution in recorded history was from Colonial Massachusetts in a single year. In 1976, behavioral psychologist, Linnda Caporael proposed the concept of ergot poisoning to explain the strange events that occurred in Salem, Mass., in the fall of 1692.
During the late summer and early fall of 1692 more than 20 people were executed after being accused, tried, and convicted for witchcraft. Much of the evidence for conviction was provided by several young teenage girls exhibiting bizarre behavior (hallucinations and sensations of being pricked or bitten), all of which are consistent with symptoms of convulsive ergotism.
Furthermore, 24 of the 30 victims of the accused suffered from similar symptoms. According to English folklore, the symptoms of convulsive ergotism were also those consistent with a condition known as bewitchment, thus fueling further fears of witchcraft activity in Salem that fall.
Caporael also examined the records of weather patterns from that region and noted that cool, damp and rainy conditions had been present in spring and summer of 1692, following a severe winter. Rye was the staple grain for colonists at that time, and the grain consumed in the winter of 1691-1692 could theoretically have been contaminated by large quantities of ergot.
Thus Caporael’s premise for explaining the witchcraft accusations in Salem in 1692 was an ergot epidemic after consuming contaminated rye bread.
This hypothesis was highly criticized by several scientists at that time, but was also supported by others. Obviously it is impossible to determine today with any certainty whether ergotism was a factor in this historical event. Nevertheless, the evidence presented, although highly speculative and circumstantial, is very compelling, and fun to ponder and debate.
This article is based on material from these sources:
Caporael, L. R. 1976. Ergotism: the Satan loosed in Salem? Science 192: 21-26.
Christensen, C. M. 1975. Molds, mildews, and mycotoxins. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 264 pp.
Matossian, M. K. 1989. Poisons of the past: molds, epidemics, and history. Yale University Press, New Haven CN, 190 pp.