When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter, and inserted the phrase, “Would not the earth, quickened to an evil purpose by the sympathy of his eye, greet him with poisonous shrubs. Would he not suddenly sink into the earth, leaving a barren and blasted spot, where, in due course of time, would be seen deadly nightshade, dogwood, henbane, and whatever else of vengeful wickedness the climate could produce, all flourishing with hideous luxuriance?”, little did he know that he might have inadvertently been referring to the cause of the Salem Witch Trials. Between 1692 and 1693, 20 people were executed because of suspected witchcraft, and hundreds were arrested. Given that witch-hunts and inquisitions had been mainstays in Europe for many centuries, it was not seen as odd, especially since everyone and their neighbor were experiencing possessions of some kind, and the only logical explanation at the time was witchcraft. Being a very superstitious and religious people, the Devil was to blame for nearly everything that went awry in society. When the first girls claimed they were under some kind of spell, immediately, the cause had to be found, and that cause was witchcraft.
Over time, many historians have offered explanations to the real cause of the hysteria that broke out in the small, sleepy town of Salem. Since witches obviously do not exist, there has to be some kind of physical cause. I have researched this topic in-depth over the last few years, and have been met with many different versions of what exactly went down. In The Devil in Massachusetts, Marion Starkey posits that the possession-like actions of the initial young girls were a way for them to rebel against a society where women were repressed, and young girls especially, were mistreated and had little to no rights or say in anything they did in life. By faking convulsions and testimony that they were under possession, for the first time in their lives, they were the center of attention and had the chance to speak to an audience of eager listeners.
Brian Levack, author of The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe, which is semi-comparable to Salem, though the latter would be on a much smaller scale, takes a strictly sociological point of view from the time, and argues that even though today we do not see witchcraft as real, during that time, it was real to them and should not be looked upon with any humor. He argues against modern revisionism where we say, “They should have known better”, simply because they didn’t. To them, the devil, his minions, and their actions against people who were suspected of either practicing the dark arts or falling victim to them should be treated as real as if someone today was experiencing a medical illness.
Both points of view are respectable, and the issue is not black and white, so one could argue that the real cause encompassed a little bit of both. Personally, I have always leaned towards Starkey, because it actually makes sense, even if the girls did not plan it this way, and the entire outcome was accidental. Had they been mentally unstable, and, according to the story, played around in the woods with an African slave who told them scary stories of magic and voodoo, perhaps with the right combination, it could have caused their fantasies. Psychologically speaking, if one is truly convinced they are possessed by the Devil, it does not matter that they really aren’t, because their brain is locked on that, and the only way to cure it is by going along with whatever it takes to convince the brain it is no longer possessed. The same could be said for those who are not religious yet defend the powers of exorcism in the modern world.
However, after doing more research, I have gathered some information that might account, much more simply, for the Salem hysteria. In fact, the explanation might be so incredibly not complicated or dramatic that one almost wishes it was not true. Is it possible that the town of Salem experienced a mass-poisoning of ergot? According to a chapter from the book Wicked Plants, by Amy Stewart, this toxic fungus sometimes found in grain, and has affected bread-baking throughout history, may be the culprit behind what caused the insanity that led to the deaths of 20 people. In fact, the symptoms of ergotism are strikingly similar to what was experienced by the “victims” of witchcraft: violent convulsions, speaking incoherently, feeling burning sensations on the skin, or even the feeling that something is crawling on the skin. Most importantly, ergotism can cause seizures and hallucinations (similar to the effects of LSD). The seed still had to be planted regarding the Devil and his mischief, but in the right environment, could the social and religious aspects of the time have caused the hallucinations to be specific to what they were experiencing?
Since doctors of the time had no way of knowing what ergotism was, immediately the situation would have become one of faith, with each symptom being explainable by something other-worldly. The burning sensation was the flames of hell, the convulsions and seizures was the person being under the control of a witch, the babbling, which could have been mistaken for speaking another language, was yet another sign of possession, and the hallucinations, which were allowed to be admitted into court records as “spectral evidence”, was the possession in action, as the girls were able to say in court how they saw demonic figures around them that no one else could see, and that they were being tormented by them. Without such evidence, it is likely that execution could never have been assigned to the accused. All of this combined to form a mass outbreak of witchcraft, that was curable only with death to the offenders. The possessions then gradually stopped as the ergot poisoning eventually made its way out of the girls’ systems (perhaps as grain from unaffected crops was used for food), thus putting an end to accusations, trials, and executions.
One must have to take into consideration the concept of ergot being present in the grain used for bread in the village of Salem. While the girls could have certainly faked the entire thing, it would have taken an enormous amount of planning and coordination to pull it off, and would these young girls have had the mental capacity for such organization? And if so, been so sinister as to have their little moment of fame result in the death and imprisonment of so many people? Certainly once a hysteria begins it is hard to reel in, but it would have been even harder if the victims really were not in their right mind, and had hallucinatory help from infected crops. Such a disease has affected populations throughout world history, though in many different ways (it is thought to be the cause of various “Dancing Manias” of medieval times). Perhaps the saddest part of this, if it is the real reason, is that a simple washing of the grain in saltwater would have killed the fungus and prevented all of it.