The Fungus that Hung Us: Did Ergotism Lead to the Salem Witch Trials?

Image credit to the  US Library of Congress
Image credit to the US Library of Congress

By Judith Lavelle
BU News Service

The Witch Trials of 1692 remain Salem’s darkest and most infamous historical moment. Legend (and record) holds that ten adolescent girls accused some Salem residents of practicing witchcraft. The town leaders believed them, given their convulsions and “spectral visions,” and the consequent trials led to the hanging of nineteen “witches” from June to September of that year. Historians have since proposed several explanations for the girls’ “bewitched” behaviors, including youthful mischievousness and mental illness. Still, some people maintain that the culprit was a hallucinogenic fungus lurking in the villagers’ rye crop. Could the girls have confused the effects of the fungus—a disease called ergotism—with witchcraft?

Probably not.

Behavioral psychologist Linnda Caporeal proposed the “ergotism theory” in 1976, speculating that the girls “bewitched” in Salem actually fell victim to Claviceps purpurea, or ergot—a fungus that infests wild rye, a crop the settlers ate. The theory is a compelling explanation for the colonial community’s horrific experience. Proponents argue that ergotism “bewitched” the girls in Salem experienced seizure-like symptoms and hallucinations. Furthermore, records suggest that the weather was humid enough that year for the growth of ergot-infested rye. However, historians largely agree that the evidence leaves the fungus as innocent as those poor “witches.”

Upon closer consideration, the symptoms of witchcraft in 1692 Salem are missing a few key characteristics seen in documented cases of ergotism outbreaks (one occurred in France in 1927). Ergotism patients normally suffer the effects of several toxic substances produced by Claviceps purpurea. While these include chemical precursors to the hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which may have caused the victims’ “visions,” other ergot poisons have more grisly symptoms not seen in Salem: vomiting, infertility and constricted blood vessels that can ultimately lead to the loss of limbs.

But if ergotism didn’t spur the panic of 1692, what did? The problem was likely in the town’s culture rather than its agriculture. In a true ergotism outbreak, the disease afflicts the youngest and most vulnerable in the population—not the relatively healthy teens who levied the accusations. According to historical records, the only individuals who seemed to be affected by the twitching curses and visions were those old enough to understand what witchcraft was.

In fact, most of the accusers were the wealthy children of town leaders. Some of the “witches” who swung had less-than-Puritan reputations or had stopped attending church—in other words, easy targets for prosecution by the powerful theocrats in colonial Massachusetts’s justice system.

It is tempting to defer the blame to a disease rather than the early societies that make up our national heritage, but the ergotism theory seems only to provide a poor rationale for humans behaving badly.

Special thanks to Marilynne K. Roach, historian and author of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials, and to Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist at the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

One Comment so far:

  1. I live in Salem and teach tourists about the witch trials in the tourist industry and (for fun) spend a lot of my free time arguing with people on the internet about history. The ergot theory is one of the most annoying things to have to deal with. There is at least one news article and several posts on sites like Reddit and Facebook every single month. People want an easy answer. I thought this was going to be another one of those articles, thanks for the pleasant surprise!

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