STORIES

Psychedelics Might've Caused the Salem Witch Trials

By David Jenison on November 1, 2017

In 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, eight or so young girls started to experience convulsive fits, disorderly speech and hallucinations. It was as if "Satan were loosed in Salem," said one villager, while a doctor suggested the girls might be under the spell of a witch. When a neighbor directed his female slave to check for magical influence, the girls accused the slave and two local women of being the witches who vexed them. The girls continued to suffer the "Satanic" symptoms and accuse more townsfolk, and similar trials occurred in neighboring towns. By the time the witch hunts waned in May 1693, 14 women and six men were executed, and another five died in prison. 

Religious folk seems to blame drugs for all the evils in the world, but in this case, psychedelics might have contributed to the mass hysteria. A parasitic fungus can grow on grains of rye in cold, damp weather, and the fungal alkaloids include lysergic acid. The botanical name for the fungus is Claviceps purpurea, and hallucinations and formication (i.e., the feeling that insects are crawling under the skin) are among the possible effects that can occur with consumption. Ergotism is the term used to describe the poisoning that can occur when a person ingests the contaminated grains.   

Did you watch The X-Files during its heyday? If so, you might remember a 1997 episode titled Never Again in which Agent Scully gets naughty with a guy named Ed whose recent tattoo—a Sailor Jerry-like pin-up girl—starts telling him to kill. Well, the tattoo artist used ink that included plant-based dyes, one of which came from a plant infected with this fungus. Would you believe Quentin Tarantino originally agreed to direct this ridiculous storyline? Anyway, this is a popular media depiction of ergot-induced hallucinations, but several historic tragedies might also involve the psychedelic. 

During the Middle Ages, ergotism went by more colorful names like Holy Fire, Hell's Fire and St. Anthony's Fire that reflect the burning pain associated with the condition. Near the turn of the first millennium, about 40,000 people suffered in one of the largest outbreaks, and contaminated rye possibly played a role in the Great Fear that helped accelerate the French Revolution. Ergot poisoning declined in the 20th century with improved food safety, but outbreaks still occur in less-modern global communities. 

In 1976, Science published a study titled "Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem?" that suggested the regular ingestion of ergot-tainted bread and grains possibly sparked the delusions. Though the theory has its doubters, others embraced the possibility, and a supportive 1982 study in American Scientist noted that the young girls would be more susceptible based on their lower body weight. While many think the girls merely faked the convulsions and hallucinations, the latter study noted that the visions resembled those produced by LSD and that several grain-fed cows also exhibited the symptoms. The cows probably didn't fake the symptoms to get attention or exact revenge since they didn't moo at the town butcher. 

During the hysteria in Salem, the weather was particularly cold and wet, which would increase the risk of ergotism, but the witch craze fizzled in 1693 when the temps warmed up. Tragically, this hysteria was not an isolated incident as tens of thousands of so-called witches were executed in Europe between the 14th and 17th century. It's uncertain if most or any involved ergotism. 

In the 1950s, the Broadway play The Crucible retold the Salem witch trials as an allegory for McCarthyism, i.e., a post-World War II hysteria in which Senator Joseph McCarthy accused countless people of Communism. In the 21st century, the Salem trials could also serve as an allegory for the Drug War. With its unfounded claims, obsessive accusations and mass imprisonment, the Drug War has all the trappings of a 17th-century witch hunt... minus the psychedelic prompting.  

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