Witch on a broomstick

Salem witch trials and Ergotism

October is one of my favourite months of the year. Not only is the month when most of the people I love were born, but is also the month where we celebrate Halloween 🎃.
My friends know how much I love Halloween so I couldn’t help but looking for some Halloween-themed topics (also in the podcast).

Today I am sharing the script from the latest podcast episode where I explore one of the hypothesis that are behind the explanation for the unusual behaviour of young girls (and men) in Salem, Massachusetts in the 17th century. A scientific theory is linking Salem mass hysteria with Ergotism.

Let’s all go back to the British New England colony of Salem. Here people are living in a dark period. Superstition and ignorance and religious fanaticism are the ingredients of what we came to know as the witch trials of Salem.
Innocents, mostly women (young and old) were put to trial, imprisoned, and executed with the accuse of being witches and practising witchcraft.

Salem, Massachusetts

The events  began in February 1692, when Abigail Williams and Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, 12 and 10, respectively, assumed strange behaviors. At first the girls became silent and began to avoid contact with people. They hid behind various objects sometimes expressing themselves in a language that was incomprehensible to anyone. The suspicion of being faced with acts of witchcraft immediately crept into the bigoted population of the village; it became evident when the situation degenerated. Abigail and Betty became violent and began assaulting anyone who approached them. They used to scream and make strange inarticulate sounds. This included writhing in anomalous positions and crawling on the floor to hide from the view of others.

The young women also complained of nausea, severe headaches and pains similar to bites or pinpricks all over the body. The girls reported strange visions and sensations, such as the impression that something was moving above and under their skin. The symptoms spread to other young women in the community, therefore, the first allegations of witchcraft were made and special court was called (Fig. 1). This fuelled mass hysteria and the witch hunt took on enormous proportions.

The people accused of practicing the dark arts were over 200, including men and a 4-year-old girl. Official trials began in June of that year. More than 50 people were found guilty of witchcraft; of these, 19 were executed by hanging and one man died during an interrogation. Many condemned were saved by confessing to having practiced magic and accusing each other.

Hallucinations and mycotoxins

But, if you got to this point, you are probably asking yourself what has all of this to do with food. Well, In the modern era, a scientific theory has been proposed to explain the origin of this mass hysteria. Some researchers have stated that, at the base of the anomalous behaviours witnessed by the documents of the time there would be Ergotism, an intoxication resulting from the ingestion of toxins from an ascomycete fungus called Claviceps purpurea.

This fungus develops mostly on rye due to too much rain and in dumb conditions. This represent the ideal environment for this rye-specific microorganism. But how does this fungus affect humans? C. purpurea produces, as secondary metabolites, alkaloids of various kinds responsible for Ergotism. This syndrome can present itself with various and different symptoms: from gangrene of the limbs to hallucinations. It is precisely the latter that have most intensely intertwined the history of this fungus with that of humans.

Was it Ergotism in Salem?

Today, from the analysis of historical sources and testimonies of the time, we have come to a possible explanation that scientifically justifies the “curse”. It appears that it can be linked with a particular intoxication called Ergotism. This is caused by the alcaloids produced by the fungus C. purpurea which is also called Ergot.

The alcaloids, especially ergonovine, are secreted by the fungus. They are compounds that protect it from animals. Such alcaloids can interact with various receptors in the central nervous system, such as those for serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline.

Psychic disorders due to the intake of ergonovine such as mania and psychosis can therefore easily explain the altered behaviours of the afflicted, delusions and demonic visions. The obscure anthropomorphic figures seen at the trials and the other infernal visions would therefore be the result of the psychic changes induced by this compound, which alters the perception of reality and causes vivid visual, auditory and tactile hallucinations. These deceptions of the mind are strongly influenced by the beliefs of the individual and in Salem, a puritan village of the seventeenth century dominated by religious fanaticism, they took the form of demons and other evil beings, becoming an expression of all the religious fears and obsessions of the time.

Further reading about Salem and Ergotism

Spanos NP. Ergotism and the Salem witch panic: a critical analysis and an alternative conceptualization. J Hist Behav Sci. 1983 Oct;19(4):358-69. doi: 10.1002/1520-6696(198310)19:4<358::aid-jhbs2300190405>3.0.co;2-g. PMID: 6361114. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6361114/

Mundra LS, Maranda EL, Cortizo J, Augustynowicz A, Shareef S, Jimenez JJ. The Salem Witch Trials-Bewitchment or Ergotism. JAMA Dermatol. 2016 May 1;152(5):540. doi: 10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.4863. PMID: 27168210. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamadermatology/article-abstract/2522008

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