Outbreaks of ergot poisoning have occurred elsewhere in history, the earliest on record being in Germany in A.D. 857. The idea that ergot was causing the ghastly illness called St. Anthony's Fire was suspected as early as 1670 after an investigation by a French physician named Thuillier [source: University of Georgia]. But it wasn't until 1853 that Louis Rene Tulanse proved indubitably that these cockspurs were causing the agonizing death of so many people and animals.
Simply eating bread containing flour made from grain containing ergot can kill a person. Ergot poisoning can manifest in two ways: Gangrenous ergotism involves a burning of the skin, blisters and dry rot of the extremities -- which eventually fall off. The condition usually results in the death of the sufferer.
Convulsive ergotism attacks the central nervous system, causing mania, psychosis, hallucinations, paralysis and prickling sensations. It was these symptoms that reminded Caporael of those exhibited by Elizabeth Parris -- especially the mania.
Accounts written during 1692 describe behavior of the afflicted girls that bears an uncanny resemblance to a hallucinogenic state, and the fungus contains isoergine -- the main ingredient in the drug LSD. Is it possible that Elizabeth Parris and her fellow afflicted had eaten rye and fallen ill with convulsive ergotism?
Read about the arguments for and against the theory of ergot poisoning as an explanation for the Salem witch trials on the next page.