Ergot Poisoning Theory: Fact or Fiction?

Caporael isn't pulling her theory out of thin air. The historian researched the growing season of rye -- the grain on which ergot seems to grow most easily. She found that there had been a wet summer in Salem, Massachusetts prior to the winter of 1692, and ergot spreads most easily in damp weather.

The historian also researched where the households of the girls who suffered the fits the villagers concluded was bewitchment got their grain. The first two afflicted, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, were cousins and lived beneath the same roof, so they both would have eaten the same grain. Moreover, two-thirds of the salary of their provider, the Reverend Parris, was paid in goods -- like grain -- rather than currency [source: Caporael]. The Parris household could have gotten the grain they ate from any number of sources.

The ergot-poisoning theory certainly seems to explain the afflictions the girls underwent, but the idea has come under attack since it was first introduced in 1976. Some historians feel that it's entirely possible that Elizabeth Parris, the first girl to fall ill, did suffer from some form of ergot poisoning. The rest of the girls, however, are believed to have taken an opportunity to stave off the boredom of colonial life with a ruse. If this is true, it's hard to imagine their reactions when the adults took the reins and began to hang their neighbors.

Other historians don't believe that ergot had anything to do with the Salem witch trials. University of Georgia history professor Dr. Peter Hoffer raises some questions: "Why only the girls, why not others?" he asks. "Why only [1692], why not previous years and later years?"

Hoffer, who has written extensively on the Salem witch trials, is one of those who believes the girls who accused their neighbors of witchcraft were carrying out a prank.

Regardless of the cause -- whether it was ergot poisoning, a teen prank, a vendetta against past wrongs, a grab for land or mass hysteria -- the Salem witch trials stand as a dark period in American history.

Had it not been for the slave Tituba's baffling confession upon questioning, the physicians' diagnosis of bewitchment, the powder keg that was Salem at the time, had any of these elements been missing, perhaps the trials would have never taken place. But these elements converged and created an environment of suspicion and reckless abandon. Then again, history is a convergence of events and conditions that seem separate until they come together to form a whole.

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