So it turns out that the whole Salem Witch Trial business may have been the result of a fungus.
As it happens, this theory, more like a hypothesis, similar to a hunch, probably a total waste of ink, was first made public in 1976. But it’s new to me. And if it’s new to me, it’s new to you, because the reality of your “youness” resides strictly in my head, a condition that may also be the result of a fungus.
What got me exercised before I could even finish my coffee was an article up on the Smithsonian magazine website today, which presents a neat little précis of the witch history.
We all learned about the trials in high school, of course, unless you were one of those progressive types and learned of them in kindergarten. They began in 1692 and ended with the election of Barack Obama. More than fifty million men, women, and children were accused of practicing sorcery, witchcraft, and the macarena long after they had become fashionable. Of those fifty million, one-hundred million were executed, resulting in a stain on our history so dark, no amount of OxiClean could prove comfort.
Now that’s what you’d think had happened, given the way the old Puritans are popularly regarded. In fact, the trials occurred over a period of one year, 1692 to 1693. A total of two hundred people were accused of practicing the dark arts, and twenty were executed.
Twenty. As in “20.” As in more people are trampled to death outside Walmart on any given Black Friday.
In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William’s War to colonists, it ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. . . . The displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture. Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village’s first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil.
In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions, and a local doctor blamed the supernatural. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. On February 29, under pressure from magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne, the girls blamed three women for afflicting them: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman.
All three women were brought before the local magistrates and interrogated for several days, starting on March 1, 1692. Osborne claimed innocence, as did Good. But Tituba confessed, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.” She described elaborate images of black dogs, red cats, yellow birds and a “black man” who wanted her to sign his book. She admitted that she signed the book and said there were several other witches looking to destroy the Puritans. All three women were put in jail.
And so on. Cotton Mather, one of the more brilliant ministers of his day, intervened at one point, arguing that “spectral evidence”—that is, dreams, visions, and late-night Mexican dinners—was no evidence at all. Hangings occurred anyway, but the community was never the same.
On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful. And in 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted £600 restitution to their heirs.
Think about that for a minute: eighteen years to come to terms with this dreadful episode. After almost a hundred years, the Turks still put their fingers in their ears and hum when you mention the Armenian genocide of 1915. And after more than two hundred years, the French are still trying to calculate how many civilians were massacred in the Vendée and whether it was all just a great rock-climbing expedition gone wrong.
Numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the strange behavior that occurred in Salem in 1692. One of the most concrete studies, published in Science in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael, blamed the abnormal habits of the accused on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye, wheat and other cereal grasses. Toxicologists say that eating ergot-contaminated foods can lead to muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions and hallucinations. Also, the fungus thrives in warm and damp climates—not too unlike the swampy meadows in Salem Village, where rye was the staple grain during the spring and summer months.
One wonders whether this seemly simple solution appeals because it explains misunderstood people, or merely aids in explaining them away.
Anthony Sacramone is a native New Yorker; a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts; and for the past 20 years or so has held various titles at such publishing outlets as Discover, Men's Fitness, First Things, Commentary, Beliefnet.com, the Wall Street Journal, and the HistoryChannel.com. He is currently the managing editor for ISI Books, Modern Age, and the Intercollegiate Review.