Poisoning or Demons?

Dublin Core


Poisoning or Demons?


Salem Witch Trials, Ergot Poisoning, Colonial America, Massachusetts


    During the late 1600s, the English-colonist were still trying to find their purpose in the New World. This led to strain and conflict in some of the colonies between colonizers and the natives. In some cases, this strain was turned between the colonists themselves. This was true in Salem, Massachusetts. In Salem towards the end of 1692 and the beginning of 1693, there was a devastating turn of events. This short time frame is known as the Salem witch crisis, a time where people were accused and put to death for being a witch. This time in Salem was terrifying for its residents. People were accusing people they didn’t like or trust. Salem was not a phenomenon that was the first of its kind. In fact, all over Europe, this was a trend throughout the 1500s. In Matossian’s article, she wrote about how in the 1500s the symptoms of ergot were blamed on witches. [3] Nonetheless, this was a several months span of false accusations ran rampant in the court and church of Salem. There are many assumptions about why these accusations were made. New Englanders thought that there were actual people that were possessed by demons and practiced the dark magic. There is also a valid explanation, that is widely believed today, to why the people of Salem were accused of being witches, that is rye ergot poisoning. Rye ergot is the culprit to the reasons that people in Salem Massachusetts, not demonic possession. 

     To understand what rye ergot is and how it affected the town of Salem, Massachusetts, there needs to be an understanding of the social makeup of Salem, it’s location and the type of agriculture in the area. Salem is located on the east coast of Massachusetts just north of Boston. This geographic location is important because for ergot to grow it needs to be in a place that has cold winters with warm and damp springs. The other aspect that needs to be taken into consideration is the social structure in Salem during this time influenced who was accused, and who did the accusing. Salem Massachusetts was led by Puritans during the late 1600s. They were mainly a religion-based society that allowed ministers to have political and economic control over its residents.[1] This led to many ministers preaching about this problem of witches in town. The more ministers taught about the devil and witches, and the more that they told the citizens that they could find safety in God, the more control these ministers had over the citizens of Salem. As this grew ministers could use this witch trial to build wealth by the tithes and offerings that the Bible teaches about.1 The population of Salem was between five hundred and six hundred people in 1692.[2] The social make up of Salem played a role in the reasons why the witch trials even existed. 

    Salem is in eastern Massachusetts, just north of Boston, where there is a cold winter followed by a damp spring. This is where ergot thrives.3 Rye ergot is a fungus that forms hallucinogenic drugs in bread.[3]  Mary Matossian, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, did a study on ergot poisoning. This study found that the symptoms of the poisoning were the same as the plague.3 During this wet season in the spring, ergot would “replace seeds of susceptible cereals and plants intended for human and animal diets.[4] After these fungi took the place of the seed and was processed it was ground up with the rest of the rye grain. Matossian’s study showed that the plague spread quicker in areas that the diet consisted of rye bread and places where the weather was conducive to rye ergot growth.3 Rye ergot entered the body when colonists ingested the grain baked into bread or eaten as cereal. Once the ergot fungus was in the body it caused “hallucinations, twitches, and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children.”[3] The hallucinations, twitching, and spastic movement was received by the locals of Salem as being possessed by the devil. This is seen in the example of Sarah Bishop who, in her hallucinations, she saw children lying on the floor pleading for vengeance.[5] She shows all the symptoms of ergot poisoning. She even had miscarriages. This is just one example of many that describe hallucinations and strange behavior. To further show that the cause of the witch hunts was not invoked from actual demonic possession Matossian’s study shows that “witch hunts hardly occurred where people did not eat rye.”3 Now that there is a brief understanding of what rye ergot is and how it forms and the effects that it has on the body. This is a more valid reason to the “hallucinations, twitching, and spasms” that were witnessed by the colonists. 

    Previously stated, Salem Massachusetts is a small town just north of Boston, led by a central focus on Protestant beliefs. This little town was like most New England towns in the colonial era, centered around houses, farms, and churches. The churches played major roles in the life of the citizens of Salem. The church was not just a place where people would go on Sundays to get guidance and learn how to be forgiven of sins. It was a place that people felt at home, and when someone feels at home they tend to listen intently to what their father says. This is exactly what happened. In the Gospel of Matthew 12:22 “Then was brought to him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, so that the blind and the dumb both spoke and saw.” This is one of the scriptures that Pastor Samuel Parris would use to show the people of the church that the “possessions” evident in some Salem residents were the work of the devil, but there was hope in God because He could save them. Part of the reason of why the “witch” aspect of these few months ran rampant was because the work that Samuel Parris did. Seth Ragosta wrote a brief history about Samuel Parris while he was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. In his excerpt, he states, “Parris' preaching had a major hand in creating the divisions within the village that contributed to the accusations of 1692.”[6] Preachers were looked at as role models that would always lead by example. Parris was one of the major “witnesses” in the trials because he was seen as a trustworthy figure. Religious leaders such as ministers would sometimes evoke hysteria to affect the outcome at churches.1 This was used to increase their wealth and their power over people. Rather than finding the cause of the spastic twisting of the body or the hallucinations the minister in Salem used it for personal gain. 

     Although Salem residents thought the afflicted in their midst were possessed by a demon, modern studies show that these people may have been affected by a type of poisoning. Their bodies contorted in pain as they hallucinated and murmured. People that were tried and later killed for being a witch were falsely accused. With no prior knowledge of science and rye ergot poisoning witchcraft seemed like a valid answer in a Puritan community where there was an understanding of Hell and demonic presence. Yet, there were cases that show a direct correlation to ergot poisoning symptoms and how a person from this era would describe someone that was “possessed”. 

 In conclusion, there are speculations on the cause of the witch-like behavior. The Puritans of the town of Salem argued that it was due to being possessed by the devil, while some modern historians and scientist alike, claim it was a fungus, rye ergot, that when consumed would cause hallucinations, twitching, and stillborn babies. Even with all these correlations between the symptoms of ergot poisoning and being possessed. Nonetheless, one argument can still be made. Was the devil in Massachusetts in the early 1690s, or was it this hallucinogenic fungus?


  [1] Ernest W. King, and Franklin G. Mixon, "Religiosity and the Political Economy of the Salem Witch Trials." The Social Science Journal 47, no. 3 (2010): 678-88.
[2] "The Salem Witchcraft Site." Salem Village History Accessed November 02, 2016. http://www.tulane.edu/~salem/Salem and Village.html.

 [3] John Lienhard, "No. 1037: Rye Ergot and Witches." No. 1037: Accessed November 02, 2016. http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1037.htm.
[4] Luca Dellafiora, Chiara Dall’Asta, and Pietro Cozzini. "Ergot Alkaloids: From Witchcraft till in Silico Analysis. Multi-receptor Analysis of Ergotamine Metabolites." Toxicology Reports 2 (2015): 535-45.
[5] John "Hale, Sarah Bishop". The Salem Witchcraft Papers, Volume 1. Accessed November 02, 2016.
[6] Seth Ragosta, “Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature. Important Persons in the Salem Court Records”. Accessed November 1, 2. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people?group.num=&mbio.num=mb39#top.


Andrew Albonetti


[no text]


University of Memphis


11/30/ 2016


[no text]


[no text]

Collection Items

Martha Carrier's Trial
In this document Joseph Houlton and John Walcot blames multiple wives of townsmen for “sundry acts of witchcraft.” Most importantly the accusation against Martha Carrier, because she was later tried and put to death for the accusation of being a…

The Accusation of Sarah Bishop
In this document, John Hale testifies in court that he witnessed Sarah Bishop having different “fits”. About midway through the document, it states that she had a vision of his children being dead. This is just one of the accusation that consisted of…

Trial of two Witches
This image is an illustration created by Howard Pyle of a court/church room where a trial is taking place. Two women are being accused by another woman of being a witch.
View all 3 items