Historians are now looking at the Salem witch trials in a whole new light. In the past, they had thought that mass hysteria had been behind the conviction and deaths of 25 men and women. Four others were found guilty of witch craft but were not executed.
The year was 1693. The people living in Salem, Massachusetts strongly believed that Satan was both present on earth and very active as well. The settlers had brought this belief with them from Europe where charms were used in order to increase the productivity of both their farming and their agricultural pursuits.
Over time, the harmless “white magic” that allowed fields to produce a larger crop yield and to protect their animals from disease or injury was slowly transformed into something darker. Now people who used witch craft did it to harm their neighbors. If an animal was born with a defect or crops failed it was witch craft that was to blame.
This belief was especially strong in Salem. They blamed the supernatural for every ill that befell them such as arguments or strife between members of the congregation. If a baby died, crops failed or there was any kind of disagreement among the colonists it was Satan and his minions that were to blame. Men such as Cotton Mather and Joseph Glanvill wrote about the supernatural and went a long way to strengthening sentiments against the supernatural.
It didn’t help that in 1692, a group of young girls began to have strange fits. They were examined and it was found that the fits were not caused by epilepsy or any other known disease. The girls were related to Reverend Samuel Parris, a Puritan minister. When the girls had their fits they tended to scream, make strange sounds and even contort their bodies into strange positions. These strange actions were then mimicked by other girls in the town.
Many historians have looked for a reason for the Salem witch trials. They felt that it was mass hysteria that was to blame for the deaths of innocent men and women. In one case, children as young as four testified against some of the members of the Salem community.
Now scientists and historians have a different theory as to the cause of the Salem witch trials. It is now theorized that ergot poisoning may have been the reason for the fits and strange dreams rather than simple mass hysteria. Ergot is caused by a fungus that grows on rye and other grains that would have been grown in the Salem settlement. The poison can be passed from mother to infant through breast milk, making it possible for very young children to suffer from this condition.
Some of the symptoms include convulsive fits that are very similar to those that the girls had during the trials. Sufferers will experience muscle spasms, parasthesia, nausea and vomiting. They also experience hallucinations similar to those that are produced by LSD.
While it is not possible to blame all of the activities in Salem on ergot poisoning it goes a long way to explaining many of them.