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Convulsive ergotism may have been a physiological basis for the Salem witchcraft crisis in Linnda R. Caporael From Science Vol. Numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the occurrence of the Salem witchcraft trials in , yet a sense of bewilderment and doubt pervades most of the historical perspectives on the subject. The physical afflictions of the accusing girls and the imagery of the testimony, therefore, is dismissed as imaginary in foundation.
One avenue of understanding that has yet to be sufficiently explored is that a physiological condition, unrecognized at the time, may have been a factor in the Salem incident. Assuming that the content of the court records is basically an honest account of the deponents' experiences, the evidence suggests that convulsive ergotism, a disorder resulting from the ingestion of grain contaminated with ergot, may have initiated the witchcraft delusion.
Suggestions of physical origins of the afflicted girls' behavior have been dismissed without research into the matter. In looking back, the complexity of the psychological and social factors in the community obscured the potential existence of physical pathology, suffered not only by the afflicted children, but also by a number of other community members.
The value of such an explanation, however, is clear. Winfield S. Nevins best reveals the implicit uncertainties of contemporary historians 1: 2, p. I must confess to a measure of doubt as to the moving causes in this terrible tragedy. It seems impossible to believe a tithe of the statements which were made at the trials. And yet it is equally difficult to say that nine out of every ten of the men, women, and children who testified upon their oaths, intentionally and wilfully falsified.
Nor does it seem possible that they did, or could invent all these marvelous tales, fictions rivaling the imaginative genius of Haggard or Jules Verne. The possibility of a physiological condition fitting the known circumstances and events would provide a comprehensible framework for understanding the witchcraft delusion in Salem. Prior to the Salem witchcraft trials, only five executions on the charge of witchcraft are known to have occurred in Massachusetts 3, 4.
Such trials were held periodically, but the outcomes generally favored the accused. In , a man charged with witchcraft was convicted of simply having told a lie and was fined. Another man, who confessed to talking to the devil, was given counsel and dismissed by the court because of the inconsistencies in his testimony.
A bad reputation in the community combined with the accusation of witchcraft did not necessarily insure conviction. The case against John Godfrey of Andover, a notorious character consistently involved in litigation, was dismissed. In fact, soon after the proceedings, Godfrey sued his accusers for defamation and slander and won the case.
The supposed witchcraft at Salem Village was not initially identified as such. In late December , about eight girls, including the niece and daughter of the minister, Samuel Parris, were afflicted with unknown "distempers" 1, Their behavior was characterized by disorderly speech, odd postures and gestures, and convulsive fits 7. Physicians called in to examine the girls could find no explanation for their illness, and in February one doctor suggested the girls might be bewitched.
Parris seemed loath to accept this explanation at the time and resorted to private fasting and prayer. At a meeting at Parris's home, ministers from neighboring parishes advised him to "sit still and wait upon the Providence of God to see what time might discover" 6, p. A neighbor, however, took it upon herself to direct Parris's Barbados slave, Tituba, in the concocting of a "witch cake" in order to determine it witchcraft was present. Shortly thereafter, the girls made an accusation of witchcraft against Tituba and two elderly women of general ill repute in Salem Village, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborn.
The three women were taken into custody on 29 February The afflictions of the girls did not cease, and in March they accused Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse. Both of these women were well respected in the village and were covenanting members of the church.
Further accusations by the children followed. Examinations of the accused were conducted in Salem Village until 11 April by two magistrates from Salem Town. At that time, the examination were moved from the outlying farming area to the town and were heard by Deputy Governor Danforth and six of the ablest magistrates in the colony, including Samuel Sewall.
This council had no authority to try accused witches, however, because the colony had no legal government--a state of affairs that had existed for 2 years. By the time Sir William Phips, the new governor, arrived from England with the charter establishing the government of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the jails as far away from Salem as Boston were crowded with prisoners from Salem awaiting trial.
Phips appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer, which heard it first case on 2 June. The proceedings resulted in conviction, and the first condemned witch was hanged on 10 June. Before the next sitting of the court, clergymen in the Boston area were consulted for their opinion on the issues pending.
In an answer composed by Cotton Mather, the ministers advised "critical and exquisite caution" and wished "that there may be as little as possible of such noise, company and openness as may too hastily expose them that are examined" 2, p.
The ministers also concluded that spectral evidence the appearance of the accused's apparition to an accuser and the test of touch the sudden cessation of a fit after being touched by the accused witch were insufficient evidence for proof of witchcraft. The court seemed insensitive to the advice of the ministers, and the trials and executions in Salem continued.
By 22 September, 19 men and women had been sent to the gallows, and one, Giles Corey, had been pressed to death, an ordeal calculated to force him to enter a plea to the court so that he could be tried.
The evidence used to obtain the convictions was the test of touch and spectral evidence. The afflicted girls were present at the examinations and trials, often creating such pandemonium that the proceedings were interrupted. The accused witches were, for the most part, persons of good reputation in the community; one was even a former minister in the village.
Several notable individuals were "cried out" upon, including John Alden and Lady Phips. All the men and women who were hanged had consistently maintained their innocence; not one confessor to the crime was executed. It had become obvious early in the course of the proceedings that those who confessed would not be executed. On 17 September , the Court of Oyer and Terminer adjourned the witchcraft trials until 2 November; however, it never met again to try that crime.
Of 50 indictments handed in to the Superior Court by the grand jury, 20 persons were brought to trial. Three were condemned but never executed and the rest were acquitted. In May Governor Phips ordered a general reprieve, and about accused witches were released.
The end of the witchcraft crisis was singularly abrupt 2, 4, 8. Repeated attempts to place the occurrences at Salem within a consistent framework have failed. Outright fraud, political factionalism, Freudian psychodynamics, sensation seeking, clinical hysteria, even the existence of witchcraft itself, have been proposed as explanatory devices.
The problem is primarily one of complexity. No single explanation can ever account for the delusion; an interaction of them all must be assumed.
Combinations of interpretations, however, seem insufficient without some reasonable justification for the initially afflicted girls' behavior. No mental derangement or fraud seems adequate in understanding how eight girls, raised in the soul-searching Puritan tradition, simultaneously exhibited the same symptoms or conspired together for widespread notoriety. All modern accounts of the beginnings of Salem witchcraft begin with Parris's Barbados slave, Tituba.
The tradition is that she instructed the minister's daughter and niece, as well as some other girls in the neighborhood, in magic tricks and incantations at secret meetings held in the patronage kitchen 2, 4, 8, 9. The odd behavior of the girls, whether real or fraudulent, was a consequence of these experiments. The basis for the tradition seems two-fold. In a warning against divination, John Hale wrote in that he was informed that one afflicted girl had tried to see the future with an egg and glass and subsequently was followed by a "diabolical molestation" and died 6.
The egg and glass an improvised crystal ball was an English method of divination. Hale gives no indication that Tituba was involved, or for that matter, that a group of girls was involved.
I have been unable to locate any reference that any of the afflicted girls died prior to Hale's publications. The other basis for the tradition implicating Tituba seems to be simply the fact that she was from the West Indies. The Puritans believed the American Indians worshiped the devil, most often described as a black man 4. Curiously, however, Tituba was not questioned at her examination about activities as a witch in her birthplace.
Historians seem bewitched themselves by fantasies of voodoo and black magic in the tropics, and the unfounded supposition that Tituba would inevitably be familiar with malefic arts of the Caribbean has survived. Calef 7 reports that Tituba's confession was obtained under duress. She at first denied knowing the devil and suggested the girls were possessed. Although Tituba ultimately became quite voluble, her confession was rather pedestrian in comparison with the other testimony offered at the examination and trials.
There is no element of West Indian magic, and her descriptions of the black man, the hairy imp, and witches flying through the sky on sticks reflect an elementary acquaintance with the common English superstitions of the time Various interpretations of the girls' behavior diverge after the discussion of its origins.
The currently accepted view is that the children's symptoms of affliction were fraudulent 4, 8, The girls may have perpetrated fraud simply to gain notoriety or to protect themselves from punishment by adults as their magic experiments became the topic of rumor 2. One author supposed that the accusing girls craved "Dionysiac mysteries" and that some were "no more seriously possessed that a pack of bobby-soxers on the loose" 8, p.
The major difficulty in accepting the explanation of purposeful fraud is the gravity of the girls' symptoms; all the eyewitness accounts agree to the severity of the affliction 6, 10, 11, Upham 4 appears to accept the contemporaneous descriptions and ascribes to the afflicted children the skills of a sophisticated necromancer.
He proposes that they were able ventriloquists, highly accomplished actresses, and by "long practice" could "bring the blood to the face, and send it back again" 4, vol. These abilities and more, he assumes, the girls learned from Tituba. As discussed above, however, there is little evidence that Tituba had any practical knowledge of witchcraft.
Most colonists, with the exception of some of the accused and their defenders, did not appear even to consider pretense as an explanation for the girls' behavior. The general conclusion of the New Englanders after the tragedy was that the girls suffered from demonic possession 2, 6, 9. The advent of psychiatry provided new tools for describing and interpreting the events oat Salem.
The term hysteria has been used with varying degrees of license 2, 8, 9, 14 , and the accounts of hysteria always begin in the kitchen with Tituba practicing magic. Starkey 8 uses the term in the loosest sense: the girls were hysterical, that is, overexcited, and committed sensational fraud in a community that subsequently fell ill to "mass hysteria.
He insists that witchcraft really was practiced in Salem and that several of the executed were practicing witches. The girls' symptoms were psychogenic, occasioned by guilt at practicing fortune-telling at their secret meetings. He states that the mental illness was catching and that the witnesses and majority of the confessors became hysterics as a consequence of their fear of witchcraft. However, if the girls were not practicing divination, and if they did indeed develop true hysteria, then they must all have developed hysteria simultaneously -- hardly a credible supposition.
Furthermore, previous witchcraft accusations in other Puritan communities in New England had never brought on mass hysteria.
Linnda R. Caporael
Ergotism: the satan loosed in Salem? Published on Apr 2, in Science Lr Caporael 1 Estimated H-index: 1. Find in Lib.
Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?
Convulsive ergotism may have been a physiological basis for the Salem witchcraft crisis in Linnda R. Caporael From Science Vol. Numerous hypotheses have been devised to explain the occurrence of the Salem witchcraft trials in , yet a sense of bewilderment and doubt pervades most of the historical perspectives on the subject. The physical afflictions of the accusing girls and the imagery of the testimony, therefore, is dismissed as imaginary in foundation. One avenue of understanding that has yet to be sufficiently explored is that a physiological condition, unrecognized at the time, may have been a factor in the Salem incident. Assuming that the content of the court records is basically an honest account of the deponents' experiences, the evidence suggests that convulsive ergotism, a disorder resulting from the ingestion of grain contaminated with ergot, may have initiated the witchcraft delusion.
Ergotism: the satan loosed in Salem?
Linnda R. She is a Fulbright-Hayes Scholar and a visiting scientist in the Dept. She researches culture from a biological perspective and biology from a cultural perspective. In the April 2, , weekly issue of Science magazine, Caporael debuted a hypothesis that the accusations of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, in could have been caused by ergotism.