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In my last post, I said I would start exploring what caused the moral panic that underlay in the Witch Trials in this post. But then a reader asked a question on my Facebook page (which you should Like) and it’s prompted me to make a slight detour to address one of the common ideas about the Salem trials that circulates among the general public but which historians mostly reject: the idea that the trials were caused by ergot poisoning or ergotism.

Ergotism is a condition caused by, among other things, the accidental consumption of ergot rot, the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which grows on rye and other grains (including wheat and barley) in warm, moist weather. Ergot produces alkaloids that are precursors to LSD, so ergotism can produce hallucinations similar to those caused by LSD (in fact, Albert Hoffman first isolated LSD from ergot). It is also a vasoconstrictor (meaning that it narrows the arteries and restricts blood flow), which is the reason it is sometimes used in modern pharmacology.

Ergot fungus growing on barley

Ergot fungus growing on barley

Ergotism has three types of symptoms. It produces a variety of convulsive effects, include seizures, diarrhea, itching, nausea, headaches, vomiting, and mental issues like confusion, mania and psychosis. Because it is a vasoconstrictor, it also produces dry gangrene in poorly-vascularized body parts, chiefly the digits and the hands and feet, causing skin discoloration, peeling skin, neuropathy (pain or numbness in body parts), formication (the feeling of bugs crawling on or under the skin), edema (the retention of fluid in body parts, leading to swelling), the rotting of affected body parts, and in some cases death. Finally, because it contains LSD precursors, those affected sometimes see hallucinations such as halos or auras.

Ergot poisoning was a recurrent problem in Western society down into the 19th century. In parts of medieval Europe, it was known as St. Anthony’s Fire, although that term can also refer to erysipelas as well (especially in the British Isles). If the ergot rot is not noticed when grain is harvested, it can sometimes be inadvertently ground up when the grain is milled into flour, and may survive cooking. As a result, an outbreak of ergotism can affect a whole community. It is a particular issue with rye grain, because the dark color of rye can mask the presence of the dark-colored fungus, whereas in lighter grains it can often be spotted.

Advanced gangrenous ergotism

Advanced gangrenous ergotism


So What Does This Have to Do With Salem?

In 1976, Linnda R. Caporael, a graduate student working on a PhD in psychology, wrote an article for Science in which she argued that the possible causes of the moral panic of the Salem trial fell into three broad categories: fraud (basically, the accusers were intentionally faking their symptoms), psychological issues (essentially, mass hysteria), or physiological issues (physical medical problems). Since very little research had been devoted to the third category, Caporael devoted 2 ½ pages to proposing the novel theory that ergotism was an important factor in the Witch Trials.

Dr. Linnda R. Caporael

Dr. Linnda R. Caporael

She points out that ergotism was an issue in New England, where rye was an important element of the diet, and that the spring and summer weather in 1692 was hot and rainy, ideal conditions for the growth of ergot rot; in 1693, however, a drought set in, which would have prevented the growth of the fungus. This, she feels, perfectly coincided with the outbreak of the Witch Trials.

She then notes that four of the afflicted girls (including one adult), Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, all lived on the very large Putnam farm, so they could easily have been affected by eating ergot-tainted rye grown on their farm. Two other girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, lived at the home of Rev. Samuel Parris; two-thirds of Rev. Parris’ salary was paid in produce, and as a major supporter of Parris, Thomas Putnam would have given grain to the Parris household. Another afflicted girl, Elizabeth Hubbard, lived at the home of Dr. Griggs, the physician who treated the afflicted girls; he too would have been paid at least partially in grain. Sarah Churchill, another afflicted girl, lived on a farm that Caporael thinks could have had its own problem with ergot, but Caporael dismisses her accusations as fraud. The only accuser Caporael is puzzled about is Mary Warren, who lived with the Proctors, who were accused of witchcraft. The Proctors were well-off farmers and would probably not have received grain from anyone. Thus Caporael argues that ergot-tainted grain spread through a social network, causing young girls to develop symptoms they understood as magical affliction.

Salem Village in 1692

Salem Village in 1692

Caporael then examines the testimony. She notes that when the crisis started, Mary Sibley give instructions for making a witch cake out of rye, which was then fed to the dog. How the dog acted after eating the cake is unknown, but Caporael speculates that it may have suffered convulsions, and she argues that it was the dog’s reaction that started the accusations.

Then she moves into the heart of her argument, arguing that the symptoms described in the trial records are consistent with ergotism. The accusers were stricken with convulsive fits, and the spectral images they saw Caporael attributes to the hallucinations produced by ergotism. The girls reported numerous pains, including pinching, pricking by pins, and biting, which Caporael considers ergotic neuropathy or formication. She says that references to vomiting and “bowels almost pulled out” were common. She mentions the case of John Londer, who awoke in the middle of the night to see an apparition of a witch sitting on his chest; she attributes this to the mental confusion sometimes caused by ergotism. A visitor who “probably spent the night at the Putnams”, Joseph Bailey, experienced a strange encounter while traveling with his wife, in which the Proctors appeared, struck him in the chest, and then turned into a cow; he subsequently experienced pricking sensations. Another man saw strange quivering objects, which Caporael suggests were like LSD hallucinations.

Convulsive fits were a common symptom among the Salem girls

Convulsive fits were a common symptom among the Salem girls


So It Was Ergotism that Caused the Accusations?

Nope. There are a lot of problems with Caporael’s theory. To start with, although Caporael is today a respected expert on the relationships between culture and biology, she was at the time only a graduate student in psychology; she is neither an historian nor a medical doctor. So she’s writing well outside her field of study, without expertise either in reading old documents or diagnosing medical symptoms, and only part-way through her professional training. In and of itself, that doesn’t invalidate her argument, but it does force us to consider it with caution.

Caporael’s article was the subject of an immediate refutation by Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb, who responded with their own article in Science later the same year. They noted numerous flaws in her analysis. Convulsive ergotism typically occurs in populations that are deficient in vitamin A; Salem, however, consumed a lot of fish, which means that vitamin A deficiency was unlikely to be a serious problem. Additionally, those most likely to suffer from ergotism are small children, whereas the youngest accuser was 9, and most were in their teens; Ann Putnam Sr. was a married woman with children. Even if these older females were affected by ergotism, there should have been a much larger number of younger children affected.

They also ask why there are no references to ergotism’s gangreneous symptoms such as discoloration, peeling skin, and rotting of digits. Ergotism is more likely to strike livestock than humans, and yet there is little reference to livestock dying. Additionally, they note that it is extremely unlikely that the ergotism would selectively strike only the girls in a household, given that the whole family would be eating the same food; why weren’t Samuel Parris, Thomas Putnam, or the Proctors sickened? Why didn’t the girls manifest the ravenous hunger that typically followS ergotic convulsions? And if the ergot rot was more widely spread in the farmland, why wasn’t it occurring in more households?

John Proctor's stone at the Salem Memorial

John Proctor’s stone at the Salem Memorial

Spanos and Gottlieb also challenged Caporael’s claim that gastrointestinal issues were widespread. They found no explicit mention of vomiting in the sources, and the three girls who mentioned issues with their innards all mentioned only a single attack, rather than recurrent problems. So they feel that Caporael was exaggerating the degree to which gastrointestinal problems occurred among the afflicted girls.

They also note that the symptoms displayed by the afflicted girls behaved differently than ergotism would. The girls’ symptoms were sometimes resolved entirely by reading the Scriptures and in other times aggravated by it, suggesting that the issue was more psychological than medical. During the court sessions, the girls would appear to be fine until they encountered the defendants, and would then suffer sudden attacks that cleared up after the encounter ended. LSD hallucinations typically involve auras, halos, shimmering colors, and the like, but generally don’t involve seeing people who aren’t there. Finally, there is no record that any of the girls continued to have symptoms after May of 1693, but substantial incidents of ergotism cause long-term neurological damage that would probably have stayed with the girls throughout their lives.

Finally, they challenged Caporael’s explanation for why the panic subsided so quickly. Far from requiring the onset of a drought, Spanos and Gottlieb pointed out that most witch panics in Europe ended quite suddenly. So the drought would be irrelevant as an explanation.

Spanos and Gottlieb demonstrated that Caporael had read the evidence very selectively, mischaracterized the way some ergotic symptoms operate, and failed to account for the absence of key symptoms of ergotism. In other words, it is highly unlikely that ergotism was the issue because the reported evidence doesn’t actually match up with ergotism.

There are other issues that Spanos and Gottlieb don’t address. Why were there no young boys among those afflicted? There is no obvious reason that the ergotism would spread among teenage girls but not affect teenage boys. Caporael attributes the starting of the hysteria not to the initial affliction of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams but to the dog’s reaction after eating the witch cake. Yet she admits that we have no record of the dog’s reaction. She is theorizing that the dog had a seizure or died, and yet it is just as likely that the dog had no reaction at all. She also seems to think that Tituba played a role in the initial magical activities of the girls, which is wrong; it suggests to me that Caporael wasn’t reading that primary sources closely enough to realize that Betty and Abigail were employing English folk magic and not just following Tituba’s lead. It’s also been pointed out that what John Londer described is most easily explained as a case of sleep paralysis.

In regard to Joseph Bayley’s strange experience, Caporael notes that “it is a moot point, of course, what or how much Bailey ate at the Putnams’, or that he even really stayed there.” In fact, it matters a great deal, because the heart of her theory is that ergotism was being spread through social contacts; if Bayley didn’t contract ergotism from his visit to the Putnams, then his testimony actually works against her argument, because he would have been experiencing symptoms without a clear route of transmission. Similarly, her failure to account for Mary Warren’s connection to the Putnams is a problem. (But see Correction at the bottom of the article.)

Her brief treatment of Sarah Churchill is also a small problem. She first comments that Churchill lived on a farm next to a river, which would have been ideal conditions for the growth of ergotism. She seems to mean that the soil or air would have been moister there and therefore more conducive to the growth of ergot. But her model is that ergot was spreading from the Putnam’s farm, not that ergot was popping up in various areas across Salem, so she’s being a little inconsistent in her explanation. Then she dismisses Churchill’s case as probably being fraudulent. If that’s so, why mention the farm and the river at all? This is a small point, but it makes me feel like she wasn’t thinking through her argument very well.

Another flaw in Caporael’s argument is that she doesn’t account for all the girls doing the accusing. She connects the girls of the Parris, Putnam, and Gibbs households to the grain distribution network that she theorizes was spreading ergot-tainted grain, but admits she cannot connect Mary Walcott to that network at all. She also fails to connect Sarah Churchill, but discounts her. More seriously, she also entirely omits three afflicted girls: Bathsheba Pope, Elizabeth Booth, and Susannah Sheldon. Perhaps Caporael didn’t know about these three girls; Pope played a lesser role in the accusations, but Sheldon was an accuser of the Proctors and Rev. George Burroughs, three of the more important cases, and Booth also accused the Proctors. Given Caporael’s tendency to cherry-pick her facts, the omission of these girls might be due to her inability to find any connection at all with the grain-distribution network.

Furthermore, Caporael focuses her analysis only on the girls whose charges started the panic. In a short article, limiting the focus of research that way is not unreasonable. But she never says that’s what she’s doing, and in fact she includes analysis of two men outside that group, John Londer and Joseph Bayley. This creates the assumption that the accusations came largely from the girls she focused on, when in reality there were dozens of accusers. The girls tended to bring the initial accusations, but once a particular person was on trial, more accusers tended to come forward. For example, during Sarah Good’s trial, her six-year-old daughter Dorcas claimed to have seen her mother with strange birds and her husband William testified that she had a Witch’s Tit. Some secondary accusers brought fresh charges, claims that the accused had afflicted them years before in some fashion. In fact, if we limit ourselves purely to those who lived in Salem Village (as opposed to the other communities in the area) and factor out the non-adult accusers like Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, and so on, a total of 32 people brought accusations. Caporael only mentions two adult accusers, Londer and Bayley. She makes no effort to connect Londer to the grain distribution network and first connects Bayley and then says that his connection is irrelevant. The other 30 accusers go largely unmentioned. Again, given her tendency to read the documents selectively, it seems possible that she omitted the other accusers because she couldn’t find any way to connect their testimony to the symptoms of ergotism.

So after we dig into Caporael’s argument, we find that it really doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Unfortunately, as often happens, Caporael’s theory began to circulate in the wider public, and Spanos and Gottlieb’s refutation got overlooked outside of academia. A few other scholars have attempted to salvage Caporael’s theory. In 1982, historian Mary Matossian suggested that perhaps those in Salem did not think to record symptoms such as gangrene as being relevant because not all the symptoms fitted into current notions of witchcraft affliction. That’s certainly possible, but it’s hard to see how a major symptom like toes rotting off wouldn’t be remarked on. Furthermore, witches were routinely accused of killing livestock, and yet there is no mention of livestock being afflicted (although one dog was identified as acting strangely, and another was accused of trying to bewitch a girl). It’s also been pointed out that different strands of ergotism can cause either convulsive ergotism or gangrenous ergotism. That would explain the absence of reports of gangrene, but it then it can’t explain the presence of the other neuropathic symptoms that Caporael relies on, since those are associated with gangrenous ergotism, not convulsive ergotism. So, in my opinion and, I think, the opinion of most scholars who have studied witchcraft trials, the ergotism theory is too weak to act as a useful explanation of what was going on in Salem.

Medicalizing the Past

A wider problem here is that Caporael’s theory is an example of the tendency of some non-historians to medicalize the past. Medicalization is the tendency to attribute unusual behavior to an underlying medical problem rather than to social forces, the supernatural, or other possible factors. For example, modern psychiatry has to considerable extent persuaded Western society that certain forms of unstable behavior are the result of medical problems such as schizophrenia rather than, for example, demonic possession. In and of itself, medicalization is not wrong. A person who eats ergot-tainted rye bread and subsequently develops neuropathy and gangrene is probably legitimately suffering from ergotism, and may well be curable through modern medical techniques, whereas simply reading the Bible over them is unlikely to heal them. And I just medicalized John Londer’s experience when I said it is more easily explained by sleep paralysis.

Medicalizing the past occurs when someone attempts to explain unusual behavior in the past by resorting to the claim that the underlying issue was an undiagnosed medical problem rather than whatever contemporaries saw the issue to be. Enlightenment intellectuals often sought to explain away Biblical miracles by seeking what they saw as a more scientific justification for something. It wasn’t God who parted the Red Sea; it was a powerful windstorm. Jesus didn’t die on the cross; he fell unconscious from pain and blood loss and revived three days later. This is a common subject for modern news items and internet articles. People have been using this technique ever since the 17th century to explain away all sorts of things they don’t understand about the past, and Caporael’s article is a perfect example of this.

An uncorrupted saint's body: miracle, or saponification?

An uncorrupted saint’s body: miracle, or saponification?

The problem with medicalizing the past is two-fold. First, it encourages us to feel superior to the people of the past because we know something they didn’t, and therefore we wouldn’t make the same mistakes they made. If only the residents of 17th century Salem had understood ergotism better, all those innocent people wouldn’t have died! Rather than truly explaining the past, medicalization often serves to make us feel better about ourselves; we’re not at risk of accusing daycare workers of raping children unpopular women of witchcraft because we’re smarter than that.

I sometimes see this with my students. Their thought process often seems to be as follows. “Accusing people of witchcraft is weird, because believing in witchcraft is irrational. No rational person would ever actually believe in witchcraft. I know that ergotism is real but witchcraft isn’t. Witchcraft can’t be the cause of the Witch Trials, but ergotism could be. So the Witch Trials were caused because the residents of Salem were ignorant of science. Therefore, they were irrational and weird. But I’m smarter than that.” Notice how that argument makes a spurious connection between lack of scientific knowledge and irrational behavior, and that the argument is founded on a sense of superiority over the people of the past. And it’s not just witchcraft that triggers this thought process. I’ve frequently seen students fall into this mode of thinking when discussing monarchy, the Crusades, or any religion they don’t personally follow. I’ve even seen students resort to this when talking about the Nazis, labor unions and progressive taxation. It’s a very useful mode of thinking because it is so ego-stroking. We’re smarter than our ancestors; we’ve made “progress”.

The other major flaw in medicalizing the past is that, even when it’s right or plausible, it fails to fully explore the issues at hand. Once the problem has been medicalized, it’s generally assumed there’s no need to explore the social and intellectual world around the problem. For example, let’s assume that Caporael’s theory is right and ergot really was at the root of the accusations at Salem. That would explain why the afflicted girls were suffering. What it wouldn’t explain is why the girls and those around them interpreted their symptoms as signs of witchcraft rather than, for example, divine testing or conventional illness. It wouldn’t explain why only some girls made accusations, or why some healthy girls might have chosen to join in the accusations like Sarah Churchill. It wouldn’t explain why the adults around them found teenage girls making outrageous claims to be credible witnesses. It wouldn’t explain why the girls chose to focus their accusations on certain people like older women rather than healthy young men or Native Americans. It wouldn’t explain why the town elders regarded these accusations as issues for a law court or why they considered them serious enough to merit public execution. In other words, by medicalizing Salem, we’re missing most of the interesting social, economic, religious, and political dynamics operating in Salem, because we assume that the medical element of the problem is sufficient to explain everything that happened. Again, note how this links lack of scientific knowledge with extreme or irrational behavior.

Almost all historians who work on witch trials agree that the underlying issues are social, not physiological in nature. There has been enormous effort devoted to understanding the social psychology of witchcraft accusations, the social networks that manifested themselves in patterns of accusation, and so on. To me, the most interesting part of Caporael’s argument is not the ergotism, but her brief analysis of the social network that linked the Putnams, the Parrises, and Dr. Griggs. Ergotism led her to find a piece of a much bigger puzzle, but her theory caused her to stop her research once she found the specific link she was looking for. The social psychology and the social networks at play in Salem is what I’m going to look at in my next two posts.

Want to Know More?

Caporael’s article was published as “Ergotism: The Satan Loose in Salem” Science 192 (4234): 21–6. Spanos and Gottlieb’s response was published as “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials”, Science 194 (4272): 1390–4. Mary Matossian’s attempt to defend the Ergotism thesis was published as “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair”. American Scientist 70 (4): 355–7.

Correction: A reader pointed out to me that I may have misinterpreted Caporael’s use of the term ‘moot point’. If she uses the phrase in its strict sense as “a question to which no satisfactory answer is available,” then she is simply acknowledging that we can’t know whether Bayley ate with the Putnams or not. I still think she’s dodging the issue a little though.