Did Fungal Hallucinations Fuel Famous Witch Hunt?

In this lesson, we visit the town of Salem, Massachusetts in the late 1600s, where women suspected of witchcraft were put to death in front of the community. At the time, many believed that those women were possessed by demons, as their bodies experienced violent fits and contortions.

300 years later, however, historians and psychologists believe that the young women were merely unfortunate victims of a fungus in their food that caused fits and hallucinations, not the witchcraft believed at the time.

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The date is September 22nd. The year is 1692. On Gallows Hill in Salem, Massachusetts, a mob gathers. They are there to witness eight of their friends and families sentenced to death. The crime? Witchcraft!

The bloodthirsty crowd is immune to the tears of the condemned. In their eyes, they have committed the most unforgivable of sins. They have sold their souls to Satan and must pay the price.

Between 1692 and 1693, a total of 200 Salem villagers faced charges of witchcraft. Twenty ended up in the hangman’s noose.

From the 1300s to the 1600s, Europe was caught in the grip of a collective fever. People, usually women, were accused of being witches and executed.

The witch-hunt frenzy was running out of steam when Samuel Parris became Salem’s minister in 1689. Three years later, his young daughter and his niece would provide the spark which ignited the Salem witch trials.

For reasons unknown in January 1692, the two girls began having terrible fits. Their bodies would contort, they would scream and speak in tongues, and they would throw things.

Another 11-year-old girl, called Ann Putnam, suffered similar episodes. A local doctor blamed the supernatural. Under pressure from the authorities, the girls blamed three local women for their fits.

One was a homeless beggar named Sarah Good. Another was a poor old woman called Sarah Osborne. And the last was the Parris’s family slave – a Caribbean lady called Tituba.

Good and Osborne said they were innocent, but Tituba said, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She admitted there were three other witches in the village.

Paranoia swept through Salem like a perfect storm. No-one was safe from the judgmental hand of the mob. They even accused Sarah Good’s four-year-old daughter of witchcraft.

More were accused and killed for practicing “the Devil’s magic.” And then like a person awakening from a nightmare, the community came to its senses.

Governor Phipps forbid further arrests and pardoned all those who were in prison. The courts called the Salem witch-trials a tragic mistake and declared them unlawful.

But what was the root cause of such prejudice and paranoia?

In 1976, psychologist Linda Caporael explained the fungus ergot was to blame.

Found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses, ergot-contaminated foods can cause muscle spasms, vomiting and hallucinations.

Ergot was thought to have thrived in the swampy meadows of the area, and in Salem, rye was the staple grain throughout Spring and Summer.

Nearly 250 years later, Albert Hoffman would use ergot to synthesize LSD in a laboratory in Switzerland. They say you are what you eat, but was a simple fungus enough to convince the people of Salem that the devil walked amongst them?

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