Myth 9) Salem’s residents were tripping throughout the Witch Trials
Trying to explain the mass hysteria that took hold of the residents of Salem, Massachusetts between the winter of 1692 and the spring of 1693 is no easy task. What lay behind the arbitrary executions of 20 people, either by hanging, by being left in prison, or, in one particularly grisly instance, by being crushed between two boulders, has been the focus of debate for centuries.
The uncomfortable truth is that the Salem Witch Trials were born out of a number of factors: misogyny, class tensions, land exploitation, puritanical repression… the list goes on. But in a perfectly human attempt to avoid this uncomfortable, human truth, we are sometimes drawn to theories that simplify what happened. One such theory is that vast swathes of Salem’s population were essentially tripping throughout the whole episode.
It suggested that they were experiencing the hallucinogenic effects of ergot poisoning, acting out the unwanted side effects the fungus causes when it infects rye bread. Ergot thrives amongst the damp conditions that would have characterized Salem in the months leading up to the trials. Ergot poisoning also brings about symptoms in those affected that are attested at the time: convulsions, the feeling of insects on the skin, vomiting, and hallucinatory delusions. What’s more, just as the summer months came and the harvest dried out, the madness loosened its grip on Salem’s residents.
Since its proposal in the 1970s, the theory has gained a lot of traction. As comforting as it may be, however, to remove free will from the actions of those who brought the accusations, the theory has been proven as just that: a theory. For a start, scientists convincingly refuted the theory in the wake of its publication. But as if often the case, the refutation failed to get as much press as the theory itself. Secondly, we would expect to see gangrene appear on the limbs—another effect ergot poisoning—in the limbs of those infected. Yet there is no evidence for this whatsoever.
Most importantly, however, ergot poisoning doesn’t account for the complete randomness of the Salem Witch Trials. If ergot poisoning were rife within Salem’s food supply, we would expect every member of an individual household to be suffering its hallucinatory effects. However, we know this wasn’t the case. Trying to pawn the murderous effects of social, cultural, religious, and gender-orientated complexities among Salem’s population on drugs might seem an easy, simple solution. But it distracts us from the bigger questions we should be bringing to the table; for events both past and present.