In Salem Truth is Stranger than Fiction

072115 Chris Banner

The story of the witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions has captured the imagination of writers and artists in the centuries since the event took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Many of the literary interpretations have taken liberties with the facts of the historical episode in the name of literary and/or artistic license. Yet the facts of the events, and the investigations into the possible causes of the behavior of the girls who made the claims, are as compelling as any fictional narrative.

The Crucible is a play by Arthur Miller that details a fictional account of the Salem Witch Trials.

The Crucible is a play by Arthur Miller that details a fictional account of the Salem Witch Trials.

In February 1692, 10-year-old Elizabeth Parris fell ill.   Concerned, the family called for the local physician William Griggs, who could not make a medical diagnosis based on her symptoms. Elizabeth suffered from violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms. When the treatments he prescribed failed, Griggs informed the family that the girl was possessed. Griggs’s diagnosis began a chain of events that led to a series of hearings and prosecutions of people accused of witchcraft, commonly known as the Salem Witch Trials. Looking back on the events, researchers have blamed psychological conditions, such as mass hysteria, isolationism, and boredom, as the causes that led to the executions of 20 people and the deaths of 5 more in jail. But modern developments in medical science have brought forth another potential culprit: ergot poisoning.

Ergot, also called cockspur, is the result of a fungus that grows on grains like rye, wheat, and other cereal grasses. Eventually the fungus invades the developing kernels of grain. In its final stage it appears to be a purplish-black whole grain. In the 1600’s farmers did not realize that grain tainted by ergot was poisonous. Eating bread that contains ergot can cause convulsive ergotism: the symptoms include mania, psychosis, hallucinations, paralysis, and prickling sensations of the skin. Accounts written during 1692 describing the behavior of Elizabeth Parris closely resemble other cases of ergot poisoning. This led Linnda Caporael, a behavioral psychologist at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to investigate.

1876 Illustration of the Trials provided by Wikipedia Commons.

1876 Illustration of the Trials provided by Wikipedia Commons.

Ergot flourishes during springs and summers that are unusually warm, damp, and rainy. Caporael started her research by examining the diaries of Salem residents in 1691 and found repeated reports of weather that would have allowed the fungus to thrive. In addition, rye was the staple grain grown in Salem and the meadows were in a swampy region on the west end of the town. This would have been a prime breeding ground for the fungus. The flour produced from the rye crop and consumed in the winter of 1691-1692—exactly when the unusual symptoms were reported—could easily have been contaminated by ergot. And the end of the “bewitchments” coincided with the summer in 1692—when the weather conditions were too dry to allow the fungus to survive.

The theory of ergot poisoning seems to explain the illness that Elizabeth Parris suffered, but some historians feel that the rest of the girls who claimed to be ill did so as a type of a prank to stave off the boredom of colonial life. Primarily the issue rests around the question: why was it only the girls who were affected? The first two reported cases, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, were cousins and lived beneath the same roof, so they both would have eaten the same grain. Caporael also discovered that the other girls lived on the western side of the town and their families farmed that area. Why the girls would be more susceptible to convulsive ergotism, though, is still a mystery waiting to be solved.

1892 Lithograph By Joseph Baker from Wikipedia Commons.

1892 Lithograph By Joseph Baker from Wikipedia Commons.

On October 29, by order of Massachusetts Governor Sir William Phips, the Salem witch trials officially ended. When the dust cleared, the townsfolk and the accusers were at a loss to explain their own actions. But this does not mean that a single element caused the entire event. Even Caporael believes that ergot cannot explain everything that happened in Salem. In an interview with PBS she states:

“At the end of June and the beginning of July, 1692, I think there was more imagination than ergot. But by that point in time three people had already been hung, and the trials had taken a path that people felt they had to stay on. One of the clearest examples is the young accuser who, in the late summer, said ‘wait a minute, I don’t think that there are witches after all.’ At that point, the other girls began accusing HER of being a witch, and she immediately seemed to understand what was going on and began being a vociferous accuser again” (“Behavioral Psychologist Linnda Caporael Interview,” 2015).

References

The Witch’s Curse: Clues and Evidence. (2015). PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/witches-curse-clues-evidence/1501/

Behavioral Psychologist Linnda Caporael Interview. (2015). PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/witches-curse-interview/1502/


 

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