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Did bad bread cause the Salem witch trials? The Science Behind the Fiction of 'The Witch'

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Feb 24, 2021, 2:00 PM EST

Even in this, the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-twenty-one, we are still fascinated by the notion of dangerous witchcraft. It plays a part in many of our most beloved stories from children's tales such as Roald Dahl's The Witches and Disney's Hocus Pocus to more macabre stories, including The Craft or 2016's The Witch, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary.

That fascination, though alive and well today — and often linked, however inaccurately, to people who do practice witchcraft in modern times — dates back to early human history and crystallized, at least in the United States, in 17th-century Salem. There, in 1692, hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft: 30 were convicted and 19 executed.

There are many possible explanations for what might have caused the tragedy of those few months, including the mounting pressure of colonial life, mass hysteria, and, of course, actual witchcraft. A24's The Witch supposes it was the latter for horror purposes.

In real life, there's another possibility — one with a more tangible source.

BAD BREAD

In our modern world of preservatives and food regulation, it's easy to forget eating can be a dangerous activity. The world is rife with bacteria, viruses, and fungi colonizing surfaces, water sources, and foodstuffs. And all of it is waiting for some unsuspecting person to give it a warm body to call home.

In late 1691, a handful of young girls experienced symptoms of "distemper." They reported seizures, tingling skin, and visions. Authorities called the local doctor and, after being unable to identify the source of their affliction, someone suggested they may have been bewitched.

It's possible these symptoms were psychosomatic, or that they didn't exist at all, only the result of colonial-era young people play-acting. But if they were true physiological symptoms, they may have originated in the grain they ate.

There is a type of fungus known as claviceps purpurea which infects cereal grasses like sorghum, millet, and rye. Spores colonize the grasses' reproductive organs. As the fungus moves through its lifecycle, the rye or other grass crop stops growing and fungal filaments spread through the plant body, replacing individual grains with their own fruiting bodies.

The sclerotia or resting spores, also called ergots, appear similar in shape to grains. Any modern botanist could tell the difference but, at the time, no one knew ergots existed and they may have been mistaken for discolored rye. Colonization of food grasses by these fungi was also common enough that many believed them to be a natural part of the plant until the 1850s.

After infection, most of the ergots fall from the plant where they wait to spread, but some remain on the stalks, mixed in with non-infected grains. These are the ones that historically caused trouble. Consumption of ergot leads to ergotism, which has a series of potential side-effects, some of which are similar to those reported in Salem.

Mature ergots contain a number of psychoactive chemicals and toxins, some of which are useful in pharmaceuticals. Others can be fatal. For reference, it's this species of fungus that provided the initial source for LSD. So, you can imagine what sorts of experiences the unsuspecting residents of Salem might have undergone.

Ergotism, the syndrome that occurs as a result of ingesting ergot, takes one of two paths. The more severe outcome is gangrenous ergotism caused by severe or long-term poisoning. Claviceps purpurea creates alkaloids, which constrict the blood vessels. Tissues located further from the heart, such as fingers, toes, and ears, lose blood flow and die. Infections take root in the dead tissues, ultimately leading to their loss. If the infection isn't treated, it can spread to connected tissues. All in all, it's a pretty bad time.

When ergots aren't eating away at your flesh in some sort of twisted retribution for being consumed themselves, they can lead to convulsive ergotism. The symptoms here aren't as serious. They are, however, strikingly similar to the types of things that might drive accusations of witchcraft.

Sufferers undergo bodily contortions, confusion, hallucination, and the sense that there's something crawling beneath the skin. Those symptoms pretty closely mirror some of the reports from the time.

Moreover, the conditions in Salem leading up to the witch hunt, were perfect for claviceps purpurea to spread. Linnda Caporael, a professor at the Science and Technology department of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, first hypothesized the ergot explanation for incidents of witchcraft in an April 1976 issue of Science.

In addition to the reported symptoms, Caporael cited weather patterns as supporting evidence. She suggested heavy rains in 1691, combined with swampy farmlands, could have contributed to a higher than normal prevalence of ergot in that year's rye crop.

Were that the case, that rye would have been harvested in the autumn and stored for consumption over the winter. The timeline works out for the emergence of symptoms in December of that year. Caporael makes a convincing case for ergot poisoning as the impetus for the witch trials, though some scientists believe this is little more than an answer in need of a question. Opponents of this hypothesis believe religious fervor, stressful living conditions, and good old-fashioned groupthink are enough to explain the events without needing contaminated rye.

Ergot poisoning was, of course, not a new phenomenon. It's likely we've dealt with it for as long as we've been eating grains. And, while there's some evidence suggesting a correlation between ergot and accusations of witchcraft both in Massachusetts and earlier in Europe, it's almost certainly true that many outbreaks of ergot poisoning did not result in this sort of mass hysteria and mass murder.

We may never truly know the precise cause of the Salem Witch trials, and probably it was the result of a number of culminating factors. We're just glad witches have moved out of the public discourse and onto our screens, and that our PB&J sandwiches don't make our feet fall off.