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Could Ergot In Rye Be What Caused The Salem Witch Trials?

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

Cover photo for Could Ergot In Rye Be What Caused the Salem Witch Trials? Picture of professor Xi standing in front of a silhouette of a haunted house with the full moon in the back and witch flying on a broom stick over head.

Alright class we are going to take another spooky trip down the giant’s memory lane nearly 500,000 [microbial] generations ago when politics, religion, kids, social injustices, and perhaps a microbe or two caused 25 people to lose their lives, accused of witchcraft!

Student: Wait, my uncle said that wasn't us! We can't be blamed for all of the Giant's problems!

Well, there is a theory that Ergot in rye played a role in the Salem witch trials. And I agree with you, we do get blamed for many of the Giant's problems. But regardless this is an important part of our history, so let’s begin.

What Was The Salem Witch Trials?

Let’s go back to Salem, Massachusetts 1692, a time before the United States existed. They were just young colonies, and the town of Boston was still growing into the bustling city we know today.

This was a traumatic time for the young colony; they didn’t quite know where their place in the world was. New England was a brutal place, not only because of the weather but also had constant feuds with the land's native owners, the Native Americans. Not to mention feuds among themselves. Science was nearly non-existent and, much like today, politics drove the masses to hysteria. Or maybe it was bread…..

Just outside Boston was a little town called Salem. In January of 1692, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, ages 9 and 11 respectively, started having strange fits. They would convulse, bark like dogs, speak in strange tongues, and have sensations of things crawling all over their skin. Eventually, it was suggested the girls had been bewitched, and thus began the most infamous witch trials in history!

Once the word 'witch' was said,

mass hysteria spread

and in the end

25 were dead!

The Salem Witch Trials resulted in the brutal and unethical murders of 14 women and 5 men for being “witches”. One person was crushed to death and 5 others died in jail awaiting their sentencing.

Regardless of what caused The Salem Witch Trials, whether, for political gain or, quite literally, from the root of rye, it’s completely horrifying how far this hunt went. At this point in the Giants' history, witch hunts had been around for centuries starting in 1300 and 1330. It would be between the 1580s and the 1640s that the height of the “witchcraft” scare occurred in Europe. Witches became the go-to scapegoat for the unexplainable. It’s cold, must be witches. The crops all died? Must be witches. My daughter died, must be a witch. And the finger-pointing of witches always went to those just on the outside of popular society.

The Salem Witch Trial by numbers:

  • 25 People Died

    • 19 Hanged

    • 1 crushed to death

    • 5 died in jail

  • 150+ Sentenced to Jail

    • 4 years old was the youngest accused (Dorothy Good)

What Caused The Salem Witch Trials?

So what caused the Salem Witch Trials? The trials occurred some 50 years after the fervor of witchcraft and wizardry lost its appeal to the European audience, and long before the appeal was reignited by “The Boy who lived”? Well, if you look at the current political field of the Giants you will see that politics, religions, and family feuds always seem to stir up the absurd and throw science to the wayside for personal gain and the excitement and fear that engrossed a community during a ‘witch hunt’.

Student: But what was the politics? And why do they always put politics above science?

Very good question and only one of them I have the time to answer, but not in full of course for the Giants are a complex and overly dramatic animal at best.

Here’s the short version. Back in colonial Salem, Massachusetts, the population was small. Like any community, there are feuds, but because they were so small the feuds felt astronomical! There were two feuding families, the pious Putnams and the Porters. Religion was also very important during this time. You see, the first Americans were part of this very strict religion known as the Puritans and they thought they were creating God’s kingdom on the hill in Salem Town, making them very pompous and constantly thinking the Devil was out to get them.

During this time there was also a schism in the religion. A new form of religion was brewing. It was known as the Halfway Covenant which was more open than the original church. Then of course there was a young minister, Samuel Parris, who quickly grew greedy and stirred the colonial pot. Samuel Parris split the town into the pro-and anti-Parris factions.

It would be three girls very close to Samuel Parris that would really start the mass hysteria in the community. Parris’s daughter, Betty (age 9), niece Abigail (age 11), and friend Ann Putnam (age 12) were the first to have convulsive and ugly fits.

They would scream, contort their bodies, throw things and complain of strange sensations. This is what caused the Salem witch trials, but what could have caused this behavior? They brought the girls to a doctor who came to the conclusion this could be nothing other than bewitchment.

To put this into a little bit of perspective of where our history lies with the Giants, the Salem Witch Trials occurred in 1692, not even a decade after Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek published the first sighting of our microbial world in 1683.

But time and time again, what scares the Giants the most is not witchcraft but the unknown which is likely why they fear our world so much.

They have to have a tangible solution, no matter how absurd. And when they don’t have a solution, they will strangle anything and anyone different from them, anything to blame but themselves.

So out come the theories and conspiracies. One member of the community was convinced she had the answer to the girl’s fits. A “witch cake” was baked with the special ingredient of the afflicted girls' urine and fed to the family dog. This enraged the minister that someone would bring witch magic into his home. The girls, probably eager to keep the attention going, or perhaps coerced by their parents, confessed it was Tituba, the family servant, who had bewitched them.

Fingers pointed to those that did not go to church, to those that did not get along with the Putnams, or to those that were less fortunate within the community. Accusations flew across the community to anyone with less than a squeaky-clean past. If you could not live up to the strict and impossible standards of the Puritan lifestyle you were in life-threatening danger!

Yet, to be driven to madness over the words of two tweens seems utterly absurd; what were they all on, drugs? Some people think so….

The Ergot In Rye Theory

Student: Uhhh professor Xi, in that whole explanation of what caused the Salem witch trials you never mentioned us…

Ahhh yes! There is still an air of mystery shrouding the Salem situation. What caused the Salem Witch trials has been a question asked even by scientists of the Giants' world today. Some say what caused it may have been a mix of asthma, encephalitis, epilepsy, or even child abuse. Others have cast shade on the unseen world, blaming this hysteria on a microbial motive. Perhaps it was Lyme disease, or maybe it was ergot in rye.

Student: Wait, what's ergot in rye?

Well, let’s start with what ergot in rye is not. It is not a microbe that turns you into a witch or compels a witch to turn you into a newt, but one that causes hallucinations, fits, muscle spasms, and convulsions.

Very witchy behavior indeed. Ergot is a fungal blight commonly found in rye bread, and perhaps it was ergot in rye that was the culprit of this madness.

Picture of Ergot in rye and rye bread. Claviceps purpurea is the causal agent of Ergot in Rye

The ergot in rye theory was first proposed in 1976 by Linda Caporael in a study she published in Science Magazine. So, how does one little microbe cause mass hysteria and manipulate a town to turn against itself?

When ingested, ergot in rye is poisonous to the Giants and can cause convulsive ergotism or ergotismus gangrenosus. Symptoms of ingesting ergot in rye can include vertigo, the sensation that something is crawling on your skin, or an extreme tingling feeling. In the case of ergotismus gangrenosus, later stages of the disease can cause blood supply issues, changing the color of the skin and eventually leading to the loss of limbs and then death. Headaches, hallucinations, and seizure-like muscle contractions are also symptoms of convulsive ergotism.

So many of the symptoms can be attributed to behaviors that the girls initially had. Rye was ubiquitous in pre-colonial Massachusetts, but was ergot in their rye? Ergot is not in all rye, it needs the right conditions, this includes a cold, wet winter and a damp warm spring.

What is Ergot?

Ergot, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s fire”, is caused mostly by Claviceps purpurea. The Claviceps fungal group is devastating to plants, parasitizing on at least 600 different plants. Often, spores are carried by the wind until they find their new plant home which could be rye, wheat, or barley. They reside in the ovaries of the plant, where they form hyphae and candida. Once it starts to grow in the plant C. purpurea produces sclerotia, or ergot, which are purple-black growths that contain ergotamine and lysergic acid, which replaces the normal grain. The seeds can be 1-5x the size of a normal seed.

On a slightly different note, Claviceps purpurea has also been used in gynecology and obstetrics by the Giants for centuries, perhaps as far back as 1100 BC. Adam Lonicer, a German botanist in the 16th century wrote in his herbal medicines book that women should use three Claviceps sclerotia to induce a uterine contraction. Up until the 19th century, ergot was used as a crude drug to control uterine bleeding, irregular contractions, and uterus tumors. Some cases even report uses it to prevent miscarriages. But all those soon to be mothers that took Claviceps never turned into wtiches!

In the 20th century, the Giants began to pick apart the pieces of Claviceps purpurea, isolating its compounds like ergotoxine, ergotamine, lysergic and isolysergic acid. To put this in a little bit of perspective, one of the most hallucinogenic drugs, LSD stands for lysergic acid diethylamide, which is derived from the lysergic acid produced by C. purpurea.

The End Of The Salem Witch Trials

The wild accusations kept many of the townsfolk quiet as the Putnams and others continually brought people to court. The first to hang was Bridget Bishop followed by five others barely a week later. A group of ministers warned about leaning on “spectral evidence” too much. Many believe there were political hands at play that also drove this event. For instance, if you were in jail, your property could be seized. John Corwin, the deputy to the general court, made quite a profit off the Witch Trials. They even killed someone by the name of Giles Corey by pressing him to death by stone over a 2-day duration. His very last words were “more weight”. But then the finger-pointing went too far, for the women accused the Governor’s wife, who quickly decided these people’s ‘fun’ must end.

Greavestone with the names of the 25 victims of the Salem Witch Trials which was really caused by fear and property disputes

Others also spoke out, and judges resigned. Neighbors stopped going to church. Thomas Brattle, a prominent man in the society at the time once wrote,

...I think this is all which ought to be allowed to these blind, nonsensical girls; and if our officers and courts have apprehended, imprisoned, condemned, and executed our guiltless neighbours, certainly our error is great, and we shall rue it in the conclusion.

Increase and Cotton Mather were father and son ministers standing at opposite ends of this debate. Each whispering in the ear of powerful men. But ultimately Increases side won. But Cotton Mather would have another shot at being in the spotlight of an epidemic of pre-colonial mass hysteria over the unseen world some 30 years later. He would be involved in the Massachusetts smallpox outbreak of 1721. But that is the story of Onesimus, the slave who helped stop smallpox, and we will leave that for another time.

The intensity of the Salem Witch Trials lasted throughout the summer of 1692, but started to lose interest by the fall. By 1693 the whole thing was over. So what caused the Salem Witch trials? Were they all eating poisonous bread all summer? Do the hallucinations of ergot in rye really make your point to specific people in your town as witches?

Well when Dr. Albert Hoffman accidently took LSD for the first time he asked his neighbor to bring him some milk but according to him a the only person he saw was a

The End Of The Ergot Theory

So in conclusion, what caused the Salem witch trials? Can ergot in rye be blamed for Salem’s shame? The answer is of course not! But ergotism could have played a role in some of the witch hunts throughout history. Ergotism causes strange, and unexplainable symptoms, giving people reason to accuse each other.

It should be noted that the ergot theory is just that, a theory. And it’s actually not accepted by all historians, nor could it every be proven. The entirety of the Salem Witch Trials were far too targeted to be solely caused by Claviceps purpurea, if at all. But it could have played a role.

Many historians do not believe in this theory, as there were great political pressures that could also be driving and enhancing this hysteria of 1692. While the symptoms and conditions were ideal for the ergot in rye theory, there are many discrepancies in the theory. For one, only a few girls seemed to be affected - if the crop was affected, you’d suspect the whole town to be convulsing, not just a few tweens pointing fingers at those less fortunate than them. For another, the whole shenanigans lasted for a significant amount of time. Regardless, it’s enough of a theory that the Giants can blame us, and thus it’s an important historical moment to discuss in History of Humans 101.

But Lyme disease was also proposed as a theory to the symptoms. Do you know why? This is your homework for next week. Please leave it in a comment below. See you, next time class!

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