A Common Misconception: The Ergot Theory and the Salem Witch Trials

During my time as a tour guide in Salem, one of the common comments I heard involved the ergot poisoning theory. Each time a tourist asked, “Wasn’t there a mold on the wheat?” I went on to explain why most historians that study the witch trials refute this theory. This is one of the ideas a lot of people seem to think of when Salem is discussed, so for the first post I decided to focus on the misconception that ergot poisoning was a factor that caused the Salem Witch Trials.

     “These Children were bitten and pinched by invisible agents; their arms, necks, and backs turned this way and that way, and returned back again, so as it was impossible for them to do of themselves, and beyond the power of any Epileptick [sic] Fits, or natural Disease to effect,” wrote Rev. John Hale of Beverly when describing the suffering of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. In the winter of 1692, the suffering of these girls, diagnosed as “under an Evil Hand,” sparked the outbreak of witchcraft accusations known as the Salem Witch Trials. When Rev. Hale’s book was published in 1702 giving this description of the girls’ suffering, there was no other medical explanation, and since then many explanations have attempted to explain what caused the trials to occur. In 1976, Linnda R. Caporael published her theory forwarding an idea of a physiological explanation, ergot poisoning. Since then, the theory has been attacked as one with little evidence although it still remains a common theory when people look into the basic ideas of the Salem Witch Trials.


At the time of Caporael’s research, there was far less written about the events of 1692 than today, but she believed that “the complexity of the psychological and social factors in the community obscured the potential existence of physical pathology.” Of the theories at the time, Caporael dismissed the ideas of fraud and hysteria for a physiological explanation. Her explanation was that the girls suffered from convulsive ergotism, caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, ergot. The symptoms of this poisoning include crawling skin, headaches, vertigo, hallucinations, epileptic-like convulsions, vomiting, and diarrhea, even mental health related symptoms of mania, psychosis, and delirium. By comparing the symptoms of ergot poisoning to the afflicted girls of Salem Village, Caporael argued that they demonstrated signs of convulsive ergotism; visions of specters were hallucinations, contortions were muscle contractions, mania and psychosis also described the girls’ behavior.


It is not enough for the symptoms to appear consistent with records from the witch trials, there needs to be an argument that supports the existence of ergot at the time, which Caporael provides. Wild rye does grow in New England and in 1692 it was a crop grown in Salem Village and used as a staple for winter months. The weather affecting the crops leading to the winter of 1692 needed to be ideal for ergot. Spring 1691 began with rain and was warm. The summer was hot and stormy. These conditions imply the possibility of successful ergot growth. Even more likely growth would occur in wet, swampy lands where rye was often grown and found in the western part of Salem Village which included the farm of Thomas Putnam. The farmers in Salem Village would have begun planting in April and harvested in August by the end of the summer. Caporael also believed the threshing of the rye would wait until the end of November, thereby allowing time for the fungus to grow in storage.


Provided ergot grew and the girls exhibited symptoms of the poisoning, one last issue needs to complete the theory for it to even make a plausible explanation; could the afflicted of Salem Village have consumed ergot? In Caporael’s argument, more than likely they did. The swampy lands of western Salem Village provided the conditions for ergot to grow. Of the accusers, she cites that thirty of thirty-two adults who testified were from the western side compared to twelve of fourteen accused persons on the eastern side. Furthermore, Thomas Putnam’s home and farm was on the western side and in his home, there were three accusers: his daughter Ann Jr., the most active accuser; his wife Ann Sr., and his maid Mercy Lewis. However, the first afflictions appeared in the home of Rev. Samuel Parris in a central area of the village, but Thomas Putnam was a leading support of the minister in a time of divisive conflict and one of the wealthier men in the village requiring that Putnam pay more in taxes. Part of these taxes covered Parris’ salary, most of which Parris received as provisions, such as crops like rye. If Thomas Putnam supplied Parris with rye for payment, ergot could have easily infected Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, the girls under Parris’ care. Betty, Abigail, and Ann Jr. are three of the four girls first infected to accuse, the fourth Elizabeth Hubbard also needed to ingest ergot to suffer the afflictions. Caporael suggests that since Elizabeth served as a maid for Dr. Griggs, it was possible that Thomas Putnam called on the doctor for his wife, Ann Sr. had been known to go through poor health, and could have paid Griggs in provisions, like Putnam probably did for Rev. Parris. Assuming Caporael is correct about the presence of ergot, the path of the fungus from the rye to the girls is a logical argument.


The convulsive ergotism theory has been criticized, so what are the arguments against it? A few months after Caporael published her theory, Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb published an article in response to disprove the ergotism theory. Where Caporael had to prove that ergot existed in Salem Village and show a reasonable link between the existence of the fungus and the potential exposure to the girls, Spanos and Gottlieb merely needed to debate the symptoms of the girls. The first flaw demonstrated in Caporael’s argument is the diagnosis of convulsive ergotism. This type of ergotism occurs in areas that have a lack of vitamin A in their diet, but Salem Village was a farming and agriculture based community and Salem Town was a successful port. The diets of the population certainly included enough fish and diary to provide sufficient vitamin A to prevent convulsive ergotism. There is also a question of why only the girls were infected. Yes, ergotism tends to infect younger children, but of the afflicted only three were less than fifteen. Previous cases of ergotism also led many to believe it was infectious since the poisoning occurred in families, but the Salem Village records do not show that families in the same households suffered together in this manner aside from the concentration in Thomas Putnam’s house.


The symptoms described with convulsive ergotism also do not appear as strongly as Caporael argued. No records indicate vomiting, diarrhea, or livid skin which are some of the standard symptoms expected with ergot. Of the afflicted girls, only three have records possibly indicating any of the gastrointestinal symptoms that appear with the poisoning. Even the argument that the lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) caused the hallucinations remains shaky since the girls reported visions of specific specters and named individuals rather than the perceptual distortions associated with LSD. Spanos and Gottlieb argued that this inconsistency of the symptoms with ergotism is evidence of other causes since the symptoms described as evidence of witchcraft were not consistent at the start of the accusations. The first signs of afflictions included the girls contorting, running around, shouting indistinguishable noises, etc., changing to become more symptomatic of demonic possession according to the beliefs of the Puritans. Essentially, as the girls acted their afflictions, they slowly mimicked their behavior to continue showing the expected symptoms of witchcraft. Part of this included the actions of the girls in the courtroom during examinations and trials when the girls fell into their fits based on the movements of the accused which caused them to cry out names. Had they suffered from convulsive ergotism, the girls would not have timed their afflictions in the same manner and would not appear healthy outside the courtroom or when attention could be received. Unless convulsive ergotism is able to time itself as to when it causes its victims to suffer, explaining the afflictions in Salem Village with this theory is insignificant.


One last note on the research of Spanos and Gottlieb, Caporael mentioned that most of the accusing adults lived in the western side of Salem Village, but most of this testimony did not include any physiological symptoms to suggest ergot poisoning. In fact, 78% of the testimony Caporael referred to has no indication of any health related issue relevant to the accusations made against the accused suspects.


This was not the end of the ergot debate. In 1982, Mary K. Matossian argued that not all of Spanos and Gottlieb’s criticism of the convulsive ergotism theory is valid. What most historians look at is the “social reaction to symptoms of bewitchment” rather than the cause of the symptoms. The political factions in Salem Village therefore reacted to what was perceived as bewitchment and arguing about the political factions creating the tensions ignores the cause of the symptoms for the reaction. One part of this is how the ergot poisoning could have affected more people than Spanos and Gottlieb suggested. She cites an Ethiopian epidemic where 80% of the victims were between ages five and thirty-four. The argument also reinforced the idea that ergot could grow by citing the reported weather for the years, noting the cooler growing seasons gathered from tree ring data and reports of winters being colder than average. While other crops would have suffered in the colder weather, rye would not have and the cooler, moist conditions were ideal for the ergot fungus to grow.


Again, this argument about ergotism focuses on the presence of symptoms since the existence and infection of ergot in Salem Village is at the heart of this debate. Matossian includes that cases of convulsive ergotism reported blindness, deafness, burning sensation, constipation, and stomach pain, all of which do appear in testimony in the records of the witch trials. Other symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, and livid skin do not appear, but this is possibly explained. The court officials and the people testifying in Salem Village were trying to prove the existence of witches, so the testimony of fits and claims of pinching and biting were submitted as the standard symptoms of bewitchment while other symptoms of ergot poisoning, but not considered standard afflictions caused by witchcraft, are not mentioned since they would have been considered irrelevant to the testimony against the accused. Once the trials ended in October 1692 by order of Gov. Phips, the records of the afflictions also stop, so the symptoms of ergot poisoning could have continued for longer outside the court records. While it is not entirely persuasive against Spanos and Gottlieb, Matossian does provide support for Caporael’s theory.


As far as the historiography is concerned, the convulsive ergot poisoning theory is given very little credit since there is very little to support it. The only authoritative book to mention the theory is Bernard Rosenthal’s Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 in which Rosenthal gives a page describing the theory and the arguments around it. He then ends by refuting Matossian who never acknowledges in her articles the vitamin A evidence presented by Spanos and Gottlieb and the notes on the afflicted by Thomas Brattle describing the girls’ perfect health aside from the fits. Needless to say, there is not much support for the theory. Mary Beth Norton, Marilynne K. Roach, and Emerson W. Baker do not even include the theory in their books, showing that the historians who have written some of the most highly regarded books on the subject see little reason to embrace the convulsive ergotism theory so long as the evidence for it remains inadequate.


 

-George Lincoln Burr, “From “A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft,” by John Hale, 1702,” In Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648-1706,. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1914.

-Linnda Caporael, “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192, no. 4234 (1976): 21-26, Accessed January 2, 2015, http://www.jstor.org.

-Nicholas Spanos, and Jack Gottlieb, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials,” Science 194, no. 4272 (1976): 1390-394, Accessed January 1, 2015. http://www.jstor.org.

-Mary Matossian, “Ergotism and the Salem Witchcraft Affair,” American Scientist 70, no. 4 (1982): 355-57, Accessed January 1, 2015, http://www.jstor.org.

-Bernard Rosenthal, Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692, 34-36, Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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