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Chemical Witchcraft in Salem

Can supposed witchcraft actually be explained by ergot?

Could there be a more interesting place to visit on Halloween than Salem, Massachusetts?  The town's stores are filled with witch memorabilia, witches are ready to tell fortunes and a sound and light show at the Witch Museum grimly portrays one of the most disturbing events in American history. 

The Salem witch trials of 1692 represent one of the best-documented cases of a "witch hunt."  The tragic event began innocently enough with a few young girls secretly dabbling in fortune-telling as an outlet from their restricted Puritan life.  Their curiosity had been stirred by Tituba, a West Indian slave who entertained the girls with tales of black magic.   

Everything was fun and games until one of the girls devised a crude crystal ball made of egg white and thought that she saw the image of a coffin.  Soon the other girls also began to have frightening visions which led to fits of panic-filled screaming and bizarre behaviour.  The local physician could find no earthly explanation for the girls' apparent torment and concluded that they must have been bewitched. 

The young ladies readily accepted this explanation since they were certainly not keen to reveal that they had been dabbling in the black art of fortune-telling.  The hysteria spread and soon people all over Salem began to show symptoms of being bewitched.  The search for the witches responsible for the suffering was on!   

The afflicted girls, revelling in the spotlight, did not hesitate to point out those whom they suspected of casting a spell on them.  These unfortunates were stripped and examined for telltale "witches' marks," such as warts which were supposedly used to suckle the devil.  Even if no marks were found, the degree of hysterical reaction of the accusers during the questioning of the suspects could determine guilt.  Before the madness was over, more than 200 people were imprisoned for practicing witchcraft, 19 others were hanged and one was crushed to death. 

The Salem tragedy is usually described as a classic case of mass hysteria.  Some scientists, however, have offered an alternate explanation.  It involves a fascinating ailment known as St. Anthony's Fire, an ailment from which the Saint never suffered.   

As a young, devout Christian in the third century, Anthony became disturbed by the ways of the world and decided to lead a simple life of seclusion in the Sinai desert.  Here, loneliness caused him to have hallucinations of wild animals and enticing girls. In spite of these repeated delusions, he maintained his life of isolation and eventually founded the first Christian mission in Egypt.  He lived to the ripe old age of 105. 

The moral strength shown by Anthony in face of his trials appealed to Christians who suffered from various mental derangements.  They often prayed to the Saint for help in coping with their own problems and apparently, at least in one of these conditions, their prayers were sometimes answered.  This ailment was characterized by disturbing hallucinations and a burning sensation all over the body.  It came to be known as Saint Anthony's Fire. 

Around the end of the sixteenth century, this disease was linked to the consumption of rye that had been contaminated with the "ergot" fungus (claviceps purpurea).  Today, we understand that this fungus produces a variety of compounds (the ergot alkaloids) which can lead to convulsions, burning sensations and the constriction of blood vessels.  The latter can lead to gangrene and the loss of fingers, toes, arms or legs. 

The active compounds in ergot have a chemical similarity to lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD.  Indeed, this powerful hallucinogen was produced from ergot by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist in 1938.  The ergot alkaloids themselves have been used in medicine against migraine and were once commonly used to stop bleeding after childbirth. 

How did praying to Saint Anthony cure ergot poisoning?  When those stricken with the condition made pilgrimages to the Saint's shrines, they left behind the environment that had caused them to eat contaminated rye.  The monks in these shrines made bread from pure white flour which therefore came to be associated with curative properties.  Today, there is no need to worry about eating rye bread because even if the grain has been tainted by the ergot fungus, modern milling techniques easily eliminate the problem. 

Now back to Salem.  It seems that rye flour was a staple in the diet, and indeed records show that the weather in 1692 was conducive to the growth of the fungus.  The young girls, having small body weights, may have been the most affected by eating food made from tainted flour.  The fits of possession may actually have been induced by the mind-altering effects of various ergot compounds. 

Curiously, one of the tests used to determine if the girls were really bewitched, also involved rye.  Tituba was asked to bake a "witch's cake," made with rye meal and the urine of the afflicted girls.  This was then fed to a dog with the assumption that if the girls were truly hexed, the dog should also start showing the same kinds of symptoms.   

Unfortunately for modern science, the Village Minister did not accept this test as valid and the results were never recorded.  Too bad, because in retrospect, the dog's behaviour could have offered clues about the validity of the ergot theory.  While at the time the dog's strange antics may have been interpreted as evidence of witchcraft, modern chemical wisdom would allow for the alternate interpretation of an effect due to ergot alkaloids in the urine.  But I guess we will never really know if the inhabitants of Salem were victims of mass hysteria or of "chemical witchcraft."


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