Monday, November 7, 2022

Ergotism and Salem Witch Trials

I was grading a student's paper about the causes of the Salem Witch Trials.  I am sure all of you are aware of the theory popularized in the 1970s that ergot, a fungus that grows on rye caused hallucinations in the young girls who started the first set of accusations.  I was disappointed because in the Course Documents about this, I specifically mentioned the ergotism theory and why few historians take it seriously today.

As I dug into the research that she missed (Google for "ergot Salem" and you get a very different and less scholarly collection than searching, I found lots of evidence that pretty thoroughly demolishes this claim.

1. Ergotism presents differently depending on vitamin A levels.   If you have enough it is convulsive.  If not, it presents as gangrene; body parts as big as legs break off cleanly without pain and little bleeding.  That must have been weird and disturbing.   (I must write a sci-fi/horror story with that presentation of ergotism some day.)

2. Only a couple children suffered convulsions.   One was a nursing baby too young to have eaten any ergotic food and lysergic acid (yes, the LS of LSD) does not pass through mother's milk.

3. Some of the other popular claims that witch trials only happened where rye was widely grown turn out to be wrong.  England grew almost no rye and had plenty of Witch Trials.

Part of why I enjoy grading research papers is to help students improve their writing. (This paper at least had proper structure and sentences that would not drive an alcoholic to the bottle.)

The other reason is that I learn a lot.  Often there are things entirely new to me: Early first millennium natural gas and petroleum drilling and utilization in China.  Even areas where I have done some reading such as Salem, push me to read both student sources and ones the student missed.

1 comment:

  1. I read once about Ergot causing the French Revolution. Your observation that vitamin A levels determine how the Ergot poisoning presents itself, with gangrenous body parts breaking off is telling. I doubt that there were any mass hallucinations of the type we expect today with the "Dreaded Lysergic", as George Harrison referred to it.