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Did mycotoxins cause the Salem witch trials?

It’s funny how a bit of drama from over 300 years ago can remain a hot topic centuries later.

If you grew up in the U.S., you probably learned about the Salem witch trials of 1692, when over 200 people around the colonial Massachusetts town of Salem were accused of witchcraft and 19 were hanged.

The situation began when a few young women began experiencing fits of screaming, pain, contortions and all manner of other bizarre behavior. What was the cause? According to the young women, nearby witches. They accused a few individuals of practicing witchcraft against them, and from there, the accusations spiraled out of control.

Even today, we love to talk about what the real reason behind the trials could have been. One of the most hotly debated theories is the 1976 proposal of psychologist Linnda Caporael: ergot poisoning.

Ergot is a type of fungus of the genus Claviceps. It grows on rye and other grains, producing natural toxins, or mycotoxins, called ergot alkaloids that are dangerous to humans and animals who consume them. Some of the chemicals Claviceps produces were used to create the hallucinogenic drug LSD, if that gives you an idea of what the mold might do to a person.

If you eat contaminated grain, you get ergot poisoning, otherwise known as “ergotism.” Ergotism can cause hallucinations, convulsions, an itchy and burning sensation, serious gangrene and in the worst cases, death. These symptoms aren’t far from what supposed witch victims who testified in the Salem trials claim to have experienced.

“Accusations of choking, pinching, pricking with pins and biting by the specter of the accused formed the standard testimony of the afflicted in almost all the examinations and trials,” wrote Caporael. “The choking suggests the involvement of the involuntary muscle fibers that is typical of ergot poisoning; the biting, pinching and pricking may allude to the crawling and tingling sensations under the skin experienced by ergotism victims.”

Caporael also discusses psychological effects of the affliction. “There are mental disturbances such as mania, melancholia, psychosis and delirium,” she wrote of ergotism. “All of these symptoms are alluded to in the Salem witchcraft records.”

Apart from symptoms, Caporael argues that the environmental conditions were right for ergot to develop at that time, in that place. She notes that wild rye, a host plant for ergot native to the area, had already proven to be a poor forage grass for early colonists because cattle were coming down with a mysterious illness. Rye had quickly become a well-established New England crop, and records from the time suggest that weather conditions that year would have supported the growth of ergot while it was in storage to be used as a wintertime staple crop.

The points against the claim

Despite the fact that Caporael’s claim is fairly well known, it’s still considered a fringe theory because there’s just no way to prove something like that. There are several points against the idea, too.

Convulsive ergotism, the kind of ergotism that Caporael argued Salem suffered from, occurs mostly where the local diet lacks Vitamin A. Salem, as a successful farming town with a nearby port, probably had a diverse and nutritious diet.

Other critics say that infections largely impacted individuals and didn’t follow a household-based pattern like one would expect from something coming from the food supply.

No records mention that the supposed witch victims suffered vomiting or diarrhea, which are symptoms of ergotism. Not to mention, the girls reported seeing the specters of specific individuals from around town during their episodes, rather than the simple perceptual distortions associated with normal ergotism hallucinations.

The witch victims could break into episodes almost on command, for instance during the court trial, with symptoms that changed over time (and just so happened to match Puritan descriptions of demonic possession).

Some scholars argue it was a simple case of mass hysteria.

Caporael never intended for her theory to be considered a complete and whole explanation, however. In a town as chock full of conflict and political intrigue as Salem — land disputes were as heated as could be — it’s quite possible that townspeople took the ergotism episodes and ran with them in order to take down their foes, if moldy rye really is involved.

The truth is, as frustrating as it is to leave mysteries unsolved, we’ll never really know what sparked the witchy nightmare. The one thing we know we can take away is this: Watch out for grain mold!

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