Cogito, ergo not ergotism: The Salem Witch Trials

After a grueling week of covering conspiracy theories, I thought that I would pick up a gauntlet not so much thrown down as dropped suggestively by Ryan F in the comments of Eve’s wildly successful berserker post a few weeks back:

I’d love to see a similar takedown of ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials; I always have a few students who latch on to that one. There really is an appeal to the mundane scientific explanation for a cultural phenomenon that doesn’t quite fit with modern sensibilities.

So, instead of conspiracy theories, today I’m going to talk about…a lot of people who thought there was a Satanic conspiracy afoot! But this is different because the characters in this story are wearing amusing headgear:

One of the perennial questions of American history is, “What the hell was wrong with the Puritans?” In my opinion, a lot. Let’s face it, the Netherlands didn’t want them, and you had to be a real jerk to make yourself unwelcome in the Netherlands in 1630, let me tell you.

Anyway, between September 1692 and May of 1693, 19 men and women were executed on charges of witchcraft in the towns surrounding Salem, MA, and one man was crushed to death as the court sought to force him into entering a plea. A variety of causes have been suggested for the witch mania that seized New England that year. In truth, it seems likely that a number of factors contributed to the Witch Trials; it is also apparent that the forces that initiated the craze were not the same ones that perpetuated it. Among factors that contributed in various degrees are gender and class (which were related), social and individual psychology, the social structure and beliefs of the townspeople, and, finally, the separation of church and state, which in Salem was about 2 blocks.

I have taught the Salem incident in past conspiracy theory courses. I tend to put a lot of weight on the theological background that made witchery seem like a plausible explanation. In really, truly unacceptably rough terms, the social order was thought to reflect a divine order. The maintenance of a system of covenants (women and children/father, head of household/government, government/God) was seen as ensuring the health of the relationship between the colony and the Lord. When that tranquility was disturbed, one might easily interpret that as someone having made a covenant with someone other than God, wink wink nudge nudge. It also makes a stunning lesson about standards of evidence.

But I digress.

In the 1970s, Linnda R. Caporael, a psychology graduate student at UC, Santa Barbara, published a new hypothesis in Science. She posited that ergotism might account for the physical symptoms that were reported by those making accusations of witchcraft. Ergotism is caused by…wait for it…ergot poisoning. Ergot (Claviceps purpura) is a fungus that grows on various cereals and has a special hankering for rye:

Ergot on wheat. Hold the mayo.

Caporael gives a cursory history of the madness outbreak (entire careers can be consumed by the scholarship around the Witch Trials), and considers three possible explanations 1) fraud on the part of the accusers, 2) psychological/ psychiatric issues, and 3) “physiological explanations.” Because Caporael finds that the possibility of physical ailments causing the outbreak have not been considered in depth before, the review of that literature is necessarily very brief, and she means to fill in the blank. She mentions that “A modern [1949] historian [Marion Lena Starkey] reports a journalist’s suggestion that Tituba had been dosing the girls with preparations of jimson weed, a poisonous plant brought to new England from the West Indies in the early 160o’s” (23), but the reference is not immediately available to me, so it is not clear when the journalist was writing or what evidence the journalist was citing.

Most of the studies of ergot that I have come across stress the effects of ergotism on cattle and livestock, which would be eating the affected grains. Ergot has medical uses, most notably as a vasoconstrictor, and most modern human cases of ergotism are the result of overdose on ergot-based medications. Ergot also contains alkaloid precursors to LSD, and so they share similar structures.

As you might expect given the pharmacology above, the types of symptoms associated with ergotism have to do with vasoconstriction resulting in dry gangrene and insults to the nervous system resulting in convulsions and hallucinations. It is the later suite of symptoms that lead Caporael to hypothesize convulsive ergotism as a possible culprit.

Caporael’s evidence falls into a couple of different categories. The first is “growing conditions.” There was ergot in the region, so it was a possible contaminant of rye stores. Also, she says that the crucial growing period, between April and Thanksgiving 1961, was warm and stormy, as evidenced in Puritan diaries, ideal growing conditions for the fungus. Her second line of evidence is “localization.” Three of the eight afflicted girls lived in the Putnam residence, and Putnam’s farm was large, as indicated by his will. Presumably, the agricultural yield from his substantial land holdings, if they were the source of the ergotism, would be dispersed more widely among the population. And this is how she explains the second group of afflicted girls:

The two afflicted girls, the daughter and niece of Samuel Parris, lived in the parsonage almost exactly in the center of the village. Their exposure to contaminated grain from western land [including Putnam’s] is also explicable. Two-thirds of Parris’s salary [as parson] was paid in provisions; the villagers were taxed proportionately to their landholding. Since Putnam was one of the largest landholders and an avid supporter of Parris in the minister’s community disagreement’s, an ample store of ergotized grain would be anticipated in Parris’s larder. (192)

Another sick girl was a servant in the household of the man who was presumably the town’s only doctor. Because Ann Putnam was often sick, he probably visited her a lot and got payments in ergotized grain. Another servant girl, this one on a farm near a river, may have been poisoned from her own Master’s fields, but Caporael says this case is questionable and possibly fraud (on the basis of the timing and nature of the accusation, as well as a second-hand report of the servant admitting to lying).

Another servant on an outlying farm is a bit of a puzzle. She alone was afflicted in the household (though pretty much everyone, including the kids was accused of witchcraft). There is a record of her once staying in town overnight, however. Because this girl had two bouts with the affliction, Caporael entertains the notion that she may have been poisoned the first time and then under psychological duress during the second episode.

I take these first two lines of evidence as an attempt to establish the plausibility of the ergotism hypothesis. The last line of evidence is the testimony of the trial, of which there is a staggering bunch. Caporael is looking for the symptoms of ergotism in the testimony.

After Caporael re-establishes that the outbreak of witches was an abnormal reaction, a strange paragraph follows:

The affected girls’ behavior seemed to be no secret in early spring. Apparently it was the great consternation that some villagers felt induced Mary Sibley to direct the making of the witch cake of rye meal and the urine of the afflicted. This concoction was fed to a dog, ostensibly in the belief that the dog’s subsequent behavior would indicate the action of any malefic magic. The fate of the dog is unknown; it is quite plausible that it did have convulsions, indicating to the observers that there was witchcraft involved in the girls’ afflictions. […]

The importance of the witch cake has incident has generally been overlooked. (25)

Hold on…I must have missed something. There is no contemporary record whatsoever of a dog having convulsions (or not)? If it did have any symptoms at all…surely it would have been mentioned somewhere? Where did the “importance of the incident” happen?

Regardless, lack of dog testimony aside, Caporael mentions the spectral evidence (images of the accused or of their familiars who appeared to the afflicted), and “epileptiform” convulsions which she believes are consistent with convulsive ergotism. She also notes that “[c]omplaints of vomiting and ‘bowels almost pulled out’ are common in the depositions of the accusers.” She also refers to pinches and burning sensations that might signify some sort of ergotic neuropathy.

She then points to what is slightly worse evidence than the dog:

“When examined in the light of a physiological hypothesis, the content of so called delusional testimony, previously dismissed as imaginary by historians, can be reinterpreted as evidence of ergotism. After being choked and strangled by the apparition of a witch sitting on his chest, John Londer testified that a black thing came through the window and stood before his face.”

It was a little monkey-man thing, but that’s almost completely unimportant because we already have enough to determine precisely what Londer was describing, sleep paralysis. The pressure on the chest that becomes someone sitting on you (probably because his body is still “asleep”), the sensation that there are people around you, this is classic sleep paralysis. And it’s very cool to see how confusing sensory data, even when they are fairly common, get interpreted through the filter of the experiencer’s culture. If Londer were alive now, he’d testify that little gray aliens with big dark eyes were standing around his bed. Throughout history, the specters have been variously represented as the recently deceased (as in reports of vampirism and the wacky cures that communities developed for that–exhumation, beheading, staking or cremation!); when the waking dream has a sexual element, the phantoms have become incubi and succubi, and so on. Now they’re “grays.”

Within about, oh, 20 minutes of the publication of Caporael’s paper, the thesis was completely demolished Nicholas P. Spanos and Jack Gottlieb. Their article, “Ergotism and the Salem Village Witch Trials,” appeared in the December 1976 edition of Science.

Spanos and Gottlieb raise a question that occurred to me while I was reading Caporael, “So, were there any cases of gangrene?” I mean, ergot causes both gangrene and neurological symptoms. If uncontrolled doses were being consumed by the public, surely someone would have contracted gangrene. Or maybe the animals? Most of the studies of ergotism that I found were veterinary, after all. But they take it one step further than my uninformed musings and deploy a full arsenal of reasons why ergotism is unlikely. For instance, convulsive ergotism has been seen in groups where “the inhabitants have suffered from severe vitamin A deficiency” (1390). They note that Salem was affluent enough and had enough fish to avoid such a disease. They note that children, really young children, are the most likely to succumb to ergotism, but in Salem that the ages of the girls trend well over 15 (only 3 of 11 were younger).
The fact that entire families, who you would think would be eating the same food, were not laid low casts further doubt on the hypothesis.

In the case of the gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) that Caporeal discovered in the depositions, Spanos and Gottlieb find much less than would be expected. One instance that Caporael cited as “bowels almost pulled out” in the original text reads like this: “Abigail hath been greviously vexed with the apparition of Eliz: Proctor the wife of John Proctor of Salem, by which apparition she has been greviously pinched, had also her bowels almost pulled out…”. It’s unclear that this is actually explosive at either end of the digestive tract, or whether it is a cramp or…even real. It seems to be a retelling, not an ongoing, verified complaint. Indeed, the three girls who mention what might be construed as gastrointestinal symptoms all had a single bout. There is no mention of vomiting. (Oh! Perhaps Regan in The Exorcist, which was released a few years before the paper, had ergotism! I sense a publication!)

They further notice that there is no record of ergotism being cured by the reading of particular Bible passages in the medical literature. There is no reason why someone who had ergot poisoning would appear to be fine (“hale and hearty”) outside of court, as was the case with these girls. The descriptions of hallucinations and apparitions are not consistent with the types that people report having when they are on LSD (remember, ergot and LSD share some characteristics), such as halos around objects, long-lasting afterimages, rainbow-like colors, etc. Seeing people who aren’t there while awake is reportedly a comparatively rare effect of LSD. The girls did not reportedly display the ravenous hungers that follow ergotic convulsions. The reports of burning sensations are clearly triggered by external suggestion. Lastly, nobody reported that the girls’ skin hues changed, as would be expected with ergotism. When the epidemic ended, it ended. There are no reports of the permanent neurological damage that people who had been ingesting ergot for months would have displayed. Ergotism is in almost in every way a bad match unless you are willing to cherry-pick symptoms.

Nonetheless, while Gottlieb and Spanos put a stake through the heart of the notion that ergotism caused witches, they did inadvertently prove that the reanimated corpse of a discredited theory can wander aimlessly through pop culture.

In 1982, historian Mary K. Matossian, who had been studying the effects of mold poisoning on history and culture, resurrected the theory. Her principal objection to the Gottlieb and Spanos is  that:

“The Salem court record does not mention certain symptoms often associated with mild or early ergotism, such as headache, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, chills, sweating, livid or jaundiced skin, and the ravenous appetite likely to appear between firs. If these symptoms were present, they may not have been reported because they were not commonly associated with witchcraft.”

They didn’t note that the sufferers had changed color, eh? I’d like to refer you to a specialist in this area:

They also would have noticed bits of people falling off, I imagine.

Most of Matossian’s reply is, “Well, you can’t disprove ergotism.” But that’s not positive evidence of ergotism. Matossian does offer more circumstantial evidence of conditions that might have been conducive to ergot, like tree rings, but again, we get nothing that remotely looks like ergotism in the record. Of course, her hypothesis got picked up by the New York Times, and the rest, as they say, is the History Channel.

In a strange way, I feel that this issue could be settled using Baysian analysis. As you probably do not remember because nobody was reading Skeptical Humanities at the time, Baysian analysis appeared in our examination of whether FDR had polio or an autoimmune condition. By looking at the frequencies of different symptoms in known polio cases, researchers were able to assign a very, very low probability that FDR’s particular cluster of symptoms would have appeared in a genuine polio case.

I looked for descriptive surveys of known ergotism outbreaks in human populations, but did not find any. (Be fair, I’m way outside my area here.) If you took a couple of large studies of outbreaks (or lots of little studies), it seems to me that you might be able to assign a likelihood of seeing an outbreak that has the variety of symptoms like the one at Salem.

So, there. Now you have homework. Go do that.



Caporael, Linnda R. “Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?” Science 192.4234 (2 Apr. 1976): 21-26.

Matossian, Mary K. “Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair,” American Scientist 70 (1982): 355-357.

Spanos, Nicholas P. and Jack Gottlieb. Science 194.4272 (24 Dec. 1976): 1930-1934.


8 Responses to Cogito, ergo not ergotism: The Salem Witch Trials

  1. John Santos says:

    With apologies to A. Conan Doyle, I’m struck by the curious incident of the dog in the courtroom. I’ve encountered this logical fallacy several times, particularly amongst defenders of conspiracy theories. I don’t think it is exactly an argument from ignorance, more of an argument from gaps in data. We don’t know what the dog did. Maybe he had convulsions or other symptoms of ergotism, maybe he didn’t. Since no one recorded the results, we don’t know, but Caporeal is going to assume it did because that fits her theory.

    A proper skeptical take on this might have been to mention the witch cake test in a footnote and ask if anyone had discovered a contemporary reference to it, since the results might be enlightening.

  2. Bob says:

    I agree. I would be really interesting to know what happened to the dog. The way that it seems to be playing out in the various interpretations suggests a little…post hoc from ignorance…to coin a new fallacy. 🙂 However, since the standards of evidence for witchcraft were pretty low (eg, “she walked past my field and three days later my cow choked on a potato”), the dog may have only had to have slept in someone else’s bed to trigger the witchcraft reflex. But I don’t know. I would like to see if anyone has dug up something new on the dog. I’m guessing, however, given the almost complete not-a-resemblance to ergotism of the outbreak, that the most likely outcome is that the dog that ate the pee-cake was unaffected.


  3. Pacal says:

    Thanks for the deconstruction of this particular scholarly rationalization. I’ve always felt that it was dubious. One writer, whoose name I can’t remember, thought it explained the entire Witchcraze. It was a bit much. The arguement seems to be that no one in their right mind could possibly have had these delusions so they must have been mentally sick, drugged, poisoned because we all “know” that people have to be ill / poisoned etc., to believe absurd things. Yeah Right!!

    An absurd book written more than 30 years ago( Not sure of title The Breakdown of the Bicarmal Mind and the Origin of Consciousness) peoposed that the ancients could not really have believed that the Gods talked to them so they must have all had the collective delusion brought on by having Bicarmal minds in which the right side of the head told the left side what to do and this was interpreted as “God” telling them what to do. Sane rational people just could not believe that God(s) talked to them it must have been one side of their heads talking to the other!? The only worth investigating here is the inability of the writer to image that people may not have thought as he did about what is rational.

    I’ve noticed this tendency in a large number books and articles written by various scholars. (There is one particularily absurd piece about Vampires, all about it being based on a disorder. Totally ignoring the mythological poetic etc aspects of the legends) I also remember A simple inability to understand that perfectly rational people can be rational in a different way from their rationality. So they spend an enormous amount of time trying to find “rational” explainations for irrational behavior when people may simply have thought differently about certain things.

    Just because we think what people believed or did in the past is irrational doesn’t mean that they were sick, poisoned etc.

  4. Bradley A. Skene says:

    The link at:

    wander aimlessly through pop culture

    seems to be broken.

  5. AK-47 says:


    […]Cogito, ergo not ergotism: The Salem Witch Trials « Skeptical Humanities[…]…

  6. CS Lear says:

    It seems that a number of writers took Caporael’s theory that Salem’s terrain was ideal for rye, and ran with it claiming that rye was the principal food grain crop. I read elsewhere, some years ago, that while ergotism could have causes some European incidents, rye in that period in colonial New England was considered not fit for good people to eat, and only used for animal feed, but I’m not able to hunt up a source for that on the internet.

  7. Kevin says:

    Bottom line a bunch of superstitious humans with petty human traits lying about their neighbors.

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