A finger pointed in your direction could mean death in Salem, Massachusetts, during the town’s year-long witch hunt. Of the 200 people accused of practicing the Devil’s magic, also known as witchcraft, officials executed ten percent of them. But it may have been for nothing; now, experts point to a shocking source for all of the witchcraft accusations. Simply put, it may have had nothing to do with magic.
Against some of the other events in U.S. history, the Salem Witch Trials may seem relatively insignificant. But the town’s battle against supposed magic continues to grab the interest of people everywhere. More than one million visitors trek to Salem each year to relive the creepy, dramatic events that went down more than 300 years ago.
In fact, the Salem Witch Trials stand as the deadliest of their kind in the history of North America’s colonial period. The men and women who were hanged – or crushed to death – have become the subject of movies, plays and books. And to that end, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible might be the prime example of witch-trial-related storytelling.
But though the trials make for good storytelling now, they caused incredible mass hysteria among those alive at the time. Indeed, if you want a cautionary tale against due process or extremism, look no further. But it may not have been the people’s true beliefs that got them onto such a fatal path. Some experts say the whole thing was caused by a seemingly innocuous part of their everyday lives.
Salem was far from the only place in the world to deal with witchcraft fears and accusations, however. In fact, long before 1692 – when the trials started – many European countries had swept their citizens for practicing black magic. From the 14th century until the end of the 17th century, tens of thousands of alleged witches faced execution.
In fact, just as Europeans seemed to overcome their fears about witches, Salem’s own troubles began. The town had underlying problems that set the scene for its residents to turn on one another in such a deadly way. King William’s War had seen English royals William and Mary go to war against France’s North American colonies.
Specifically, battles in upstate New York, as well as in Quebec and Nova Scotia, sent the locals running for refuge in other parts of the continent. Many of them ended up in Essex County, Massachusetts, and a good portion of those refugees chose to make Salem their new home.
The new crowd in Salem did not ingratiate themselves with the locals, though. Instead, they put a huge strain on the village’s resources. Families who had long lived in the area had their own lengthy resource-related qualms, too. While some earned their living from agriculture, others made money through the town’s port.
Salem also had a very controversial religious leader in its midst. Reverend Samuel Parris had become the town’s first ordained minister in the same year that William and Mary ignited their war with France. The locals didn’t all laud his success, though – some saw him as too strict and incredibly greedy, in spite of his religious post.
The final element in this perfect storm were Salem’s Puritan residents. In general, they wanted to remove any Roman Catholic influence from the English Protestant faith. But in Salem, Puritans thought that all of the village’s tension and quarreling had been set in motion by the Devil himself.
It all came to a head in January 1692, when something terrifying happened in Reverend Parris’ family. His nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, and her cousin Abigail Williams, 11, began having inexplicable fits. The girls started making strange noises, contorting their bodies, shrieking and throwing things.
When a Salem-based doctor examined Elizabeth and Abigail, he drew a terrifying conclusion – something supernatural had caused their out-of-character behavior. Then, the news came that another 11-year-old girl named Ann Putnam had started exhibiting the same symptoms as Reverend Parris’ family members.
By the end of February 1692, Salem magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne pushed Elizabeth, Abigail and Ann to point the finger at the person or people who had bewitched them. Eventually, the little ones cited three women. These were the Parris family’s slave, Tituba; a panhandler named Sarah Good; and Sarah Osbourne, an older woman who lived in poverty.
Only two of the three women denied the charges against them. Good and Osbourne denied that they dabbled in the dark arts. Tituba, on the other hand, confessed a conversation that she had with the darkest figure of all. According to Smithsonian magazine, she said, “The Devil came to me and bid me serve him.”
But Tituba didn’t stop there; she said that witches had descended up on Salem to ruin the Puritan force within the village. The Parris family’s slave also described visions of black dogs and red cats coming to her, as well as the dark figure who implored her to sign the Devil’s Book. Eventually, she implicated Good and Osbourne in her witchcraft, too.
With Tituba, Good and Osbourne behind bars, accusations started to fly in Salem. Locals felt shock when churchgoer Martha Corey faced claims that she had participated in witchcraft. But the first woman to face trial for her supposed witchcraft would be Bridget Bishop, who had earned a reputation for spreading gossip and being promiscuous in her personal life.
Nevertheless, such indiscretions did not a witch make; and when the judge asked Bishop if she had participated in black magic, she denied the charges. According to Smithsonian, she countered, “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” But the court didn’t buy it, and, on June 10, 1692, the Salem gossip hung from the gallows.
In most of the cases that comprised the Salem Witch Trials, the accused had to defend themselves against non-physical evidence. Instead, claimants could enter spectral evidence into court. And here, they would describe the times in which a supposed specter or apparition of the so-called witch appeared to them.
Respected Salem figures – namely minister Cotton Mather – begged the local courts to stop admitting such evidence in the witch trials. Such a request fell on deaf ears, however, and a series of hangings followed Bishop’s. The authorities executed ten people between July and August of 1692, and eight more in September.
Fortunately for the accused, the situation took a turn in October of 1692. It had been the state’s governor, William Phipps, who established a special court to hear the witchcraft trials. But when his own wife faced accusations of her own dabblings in dark magic, he swiftly shut down the circuit.
Phipps also froze any further witchcraft-related arrests and set free some of the people held in jail on such accusations. He did replace the original witchcraft-centric court with one called the Superior Court of Judicature, but this new legislative arm would not admit any specter-related evidence.
Disallowing specter-centric testimony cut down on the number of people found guilty of witchcraft – only three of 56 trials resulted in condemnation for the accused. And by May 1693 those jailed for magical dalliances earned pardons from Phipps. Of course, changing his course a year later did little for those already killed during the Salem Witch Trials.
In the end, 19 people had died by hanging during the Salem Witch Trials. Giles Corey, 71, suffered an even more gruesome fate. He’d faced charges of witchcraft along with his wife, Martha. Upon his arrest, he would not enter a plea, so authorities tried to press one out of him – literally.
The Salem authorities used a form of torture known as peine forte et dure to try and get him to plead. They placed increasingly heavy stones on top of Corey, but he wouldn’t budge. After three days of such arduous torture, the former farmer died. And, while 20 people, including Corey, lost their lives as a result of their witchcraft-related charges, others perished in jail during the ordeal, too.
Afterward, the people of Salem had plenty of repenting to do. For instance, a judge named Samuel Sewall publicly admitted that he made errors during the trials. The entire village took steps to refresh, too, and in 1697 they spent a day fasting and thinking about the tragedy that had ignited their town.
In total, almost 200 people had faced accusations of witchcraft in Salem, and even the end of the trials didn’t wipe their slates clean. So in 1711 the colonists pushed through a bill that would restore all of their rights and reputation. Furthermore, the heirs of the accused earned £600 as compensation.
Such a gesture didn’t mark the end of the intrigue that the Salem Witch Trials have long caused, however. In fact, experts have wondered if something was to blame for all of the strange occurrences and behaviors exhibited during this stretch of time. Behavioral scientist Linnda Caporael devised one of the more concrete theories to explain what happened in Salem.
Caporael’s studies revealed that, in the summer of 1691, Salem had experienced an onslaught of rain and generally wet conditions. As such, a fungus called ergot might have grown on the village’s supply of rye. Residents went on to consume the rye, as it counted as one of the community’s biggest crop staples.
And this may have been the problem, according to Caporael. If the people ingested ergot, they would have accidentally consumed a hallucinogenic. The same substance is used to create the drug LSD, after all. Caporael therefore believed that the girls accusing others of witchcraft had unknowingly eaten a grain fungus, thus causing them to have such wild, magical visions.
The accidental incorporation of ergot into Salem’s rye supply would have been completely plausible, too, according to University of Hawaii associate botany professor George Wong. He told Country Living in 2016 that the fungus proved to be so common that people actually thought it was part of the grain itself.
In fact, Wong said, “They didn’t think anything about grinding up [the fungus] and putting it in bread.” The botany professor corroborated Caporael’s links between the women’s symptoms and the effects of convulsive ergotism. He described, “You’re getting fits, muscle spasms, hallucinations and delusions.”
Then in May 2016 even more support for the ergot theory emerged. At that time, JAMA Dermatology released its own study in which they proposed that Salem’s accusers had eaten fungus-ridden rye. The skin experts had analyzed the girls’ skin legions, which were a symptom that came with so-called convulsive ergotism.
Plenty of other data and facts corroborate Caporael’s initial suspicions, too. For one thing, the majority of those who made witchcraft accusations came from Salem’s west side. That area played host to sloshy, swampy meadows; an environment in which fungi would thrive. Most of the witches came from the opposite side of Salem, where rye came without as much contamination.
Research has also shown that women and children tend to suffer from the effects of ergotism more strongly than men. And, during the Salem Witch Trials, most of the accusers came from these categories, further strengthening Caporael’s argument. Salem’s doctors didn’t even think that people were suffering from sorcery when their symptoms began.
For instance, Abigail Williams had seizures, and her body began to wretch. She couldn’t seem to control her strange behaviors, which had her barking like a dog and jumping around as if she thought she could fly. She – and the other girls who soon began exhibiting the same symptoms – didn’t have fevers, nor did they have a history of epilepsy.
Some of the girls continued to act that way in court, too. As the accused witches fought for their lives, the potentially ergot-influenced witnesses sometimes said they could see apparitions in the courtroom. Others seized and flailed on the ground, and their behavior sometimes sealed the fate of the people on the stand for witchcraft.
As it turns out, Caporael’s isn’t the only medical theory that attempts to explain why the Salem Witch Trials happened. One hypothesis points the finger at Reverend Parris’ slave, Tituba, and claims that she gave the accusers a dose of jimsonweed. The plant, which falls into the nightshade family, can cause intense visions and delusions when ingested.
An alternative theory points to encephalitis lethargica, also known as sleeping sickness, as the root cause of the Salem Witch Trials. The condition affects the brain, causing a slew of side effects including sleep inversion, tremors, rigidity and psychosis. Altogether, this could have caused hallucinations and behaviors that mirrored those of the Salem accusers.
As such, some people haven’t bought into Caporael’s claims. Nicholas Spanos, for one, has penned two papers objecting to the behavioral scientist’s theory. He countered that the symptoms she cited don’t actually match up with those that commonly appear with ergotism. He added that skin-related side effects would be hard to discern in records from the time.
Still, Caporael’s theory does seem to have a lot of corroboration, and there’s one final piece of the puzzle to consider. The Salem Witch Trials ended around the same time that the area fell into drought conditions. A dry climate would make it tough for ergot to continue growing – and, with the absence of rain and dampness, the hallucinations and the accusations came to a halt.