When local girls from Salem began to have strange visions, the intensely religious Puritan community jumped to the conclusion of witchcraft. But, persecution of witches had been out of fashion for more than a decade in Europe, so what exactly made accusations of witchcraft so real for Salem?
A popular theory is that Salem residents were consuming rye bread infected with ergot, a precursor to LSD, an extremely potent psychedelic. LSD heightens suggestibility and causes hallucinations- a bad combination in an isolated, religion-based society.
Could mass ergot poisoning create a panic that spiraled out of control to involve hundreds of Massachusetts colonists?
The Story of the Salem Witch Trials
The Accusing Girls
In October of 1692, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began to suffer from “fits” – screams, odd noises, tossing objects, and contorting their bodies into strange positions. Shortly after, Elizabeth Hubbard and Ann Putnam showed the same symptoms.
The local doctor, William Griggs, examined the girls but found no physical problems and concluded they were bewitched.
The girls were daughters of important local figures, notably Reverend Parris and the Putnam family. These men would be ringleaders for the trials, but if they were honestly afraid of witches is a vital piece of the Salem puzzle.
Puritan Colonial Massachusetts
The History of Massachusetts Blog explains that in 1626 the protestant Puritans had come to Salem to create a society that reflected their religious ideals of strict adherence to the Bible.
Colonists also battled smallpox, war with the indigenous, feuds with the French, and political turmoil. The residents of Salem became unwelcoming to outsiders and were insulated from the outside world.
Persecution of witches had already been endorsed by Massachusetts politicians and clergy, which were closely connected, notably by Cotton and Increase Mather. Increase Mather had published books in 1684, making witchcraft a real threat. His son, Cotton Mather, had a woman hanged for witchcraft in 1681, and Mather’s influence made witches appear to be a real threat.
Conflict in Salem and Reverend Parris
Salem was known for out-of-control feuds between local families, which sometimes turned into physical fights. The fighting affected the town so severely that no reverend would stay in Salem, a big deal for a colony trying to create a society of religious ideals.
However, in 1689 Samuel Parris committed to the position. A merchant turned reverend, he could not make peace and even entered into land disputes seeking his unpaid wages.
During the witch trials, he would become a central force not just as a community leader but because two of the possessed girls were his daughter and her cousin. When the girls were brought to local magistrates in February, Parris’s servant Tituba was named a witch.
Tituba was a Caribbean servant of Reverend Parris. Historian Alan Woolf explains that Tituba told local girls stories about voodoo, sex with demons, and fortune-telling, and only after hearing these stories did the girls begin “writhing in pain.”
The girls also said their visions included local outcasts Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne. Good and Osborne denied the allegations, but Tituba gave a shocking confession of being in league with the devil – but only after being whipped by Reverend Parris.
Tituba’s confession would set the tone for hundreds more confessions. Her stories about a “man in black” getting her to sign her name in a book would be repeated as evidence of the devil’s presence in Salem.
The girls claimed to have had visions of the ghostlike forms of the women harming them, a severe accusation among Puritans, implying a “covenant with the devil.”
The accepted belief was the devil could use a person’s shape for evil deeds, but only with that person’s permission. Once someone reported visions of being attacked by someone’s ghost, a complaint with local magistrates could be filed.
Visions like these were known as “spectral evidence” and were taken very seriously in the Salem Witch trials and gave tremendous amounts of power to a group of young girls.
Oyer and Terminer
In May of 1962, the Governor of Massachusetts, William Phips, created a special court “Oyer and Terminer” and appointed a powerful politician and clergy member William Stoughton as chief judge and prosecutor. Stoughton supported spectral evidence and was ruthless, even once forcing a jury to reevaluate a not guilty verdict.
When a witch was put on trial, options were limited – plead not guilty and try to refute spectral evidence or confess, name other witches, and be reintegrated into society.
Suddenly, many people began confessing to being witches not only in Salem, but the accusations and confessions spread to surrounding villages Andover and Topsfield.
Not Only Witches: Devil Dogs and Wizards of Salem Massachusetts
As the hysteria built momentum, men too were blamed for being wizards, the court executed a dog for witchcraft, and a 4-year old child was accused of witchcraft. The History of Massachusetts Blog notes that a pattern of accusations emerged. Those who were wealthy or who held alternative beliefs were more likely to be working with the devil.
It also seemed specific community members had a good eye for witches, specifically the Putnam family with Thomas and his daughter Ann accusing a large portion of the witches – over one hundred individuals between the two of them.
Dissent from the Community
Church records show that Reverend Parris fueled the trials by preaching locally about “a witchcraft outbreak.” An account in New England Soul wrote that Parris suddenly had found a channel for the decades of conflict in Salem with witchcraft trials.
However, not everyone had visions of witches. A local farmer, John Proctor, was the first wizard named in April of 1692 after he called the girls “scam artists.” John’s reaction came after his pregnant wife was accused, but his pushback only got his entire family, including his children, charged with aiding the witches. John’s wife and children were spared, but he was hanged in August of 1692.
Martha Corey, too, expressed doubts early in the trials but was regarded as suspicious and only got her accused of witchcraft, with her husband, Giles Corey, testifying against her apparently swept up in the hysteria.
However, Giles changed his mind when he was accused shortly after Marth. He refused to enter a plea and was subjected to “peine forte et dure,” where stones are piled on top of someone until they confess or die. Corey chose death. The two died in the same week in late September 1692. One book called this a protest, and others point out that Giles’s public death impacted public support for the trials.
The Governor Stops the Trials
Governor Sir William Phips had meekly tried to intervene in the trials, but when his wife was accused of witchcraft, he suddenly decided enough was enough.
After over a year and 200 people accused, he froze the trials and no longer allowed spectral evidence, apparently triggering lead judge Stoughton to storm from the room during the announcement.
Without spectral evidence, the executions ground to a halt. A few more convictions occurred, but in October of 1693, Phips eventually dismissed the court and released the remaining prisoners overcrowding the jails across Massachusetts and allowing normal life to resume.
Salem Witch Trials: The Aftermath
The trails would go on for sixteen months between 1692 and 1693. Over 150 people were taken into custody with spectral evidence, 30 were found guilty, 19 were hanged, and one was crushed to death. The trials left Salem in ruins as during the witch hunt spanning, many of colonial Massachusetts residents left their lands untended and their neighbors dead.
Ann Putnam issued an apology, in which she blames the devil for her actions. Chief Judge William Stoughton never expressed remorse and became a successful politician. Cotton Mather would publish a book in defense of the trials by attempting to show “how careful” the court was; however, history would favor the convicted witches.
The History of Massachusetts blogs records in 1711; the Colony of Massachusetts eventually passed a bill restoring some names of convicted witches and paid sums to their families. However, they were also careful to note “no sheriff, constable, or other officers” could be held responsible for their roles in the chaos, as many of these figures were still alive and actively climbing the political ladder.
Names of People Found Guilty and Executed During the Salem Witch Trials
Bridget Bishop (June 10, 1692), Sarah Good (July 19, 1692), Elizabeth Howe (July 19, 1692), Susannah Martin (July 19, 1692), Rebecca Nurse (July 19, 1692), Sarah Wildes (July 19, 1692), George Burroughs (August 19, 1692), Martha Carrier (August 19, 1692), John Willard (August 19, 1692), George Jacobs, Sr (August 19, 1692), John Proctor (August 19, 1692), Alice Parker (September 22, 1692), Mary Parker (September 22, 1692), Ann Pudeator (September 22, 1692), Wilmot Redd (September 22, 1692), Margaret Scott (September 22, 1692), Samuel Wardwell (September 22, 1692), Martha Corey (September 22, 1692), Mary Easty (September 22, 1692).
Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials
Historian Vincas Lapinskas explains that in 16th and 17th century Europe, large populations experienced the same symptoms recorded in Salem. The symptoms of the girls – seeing apparitions, feeling burning sensations, and convulsions were age-old signs of witchcraft.
However, historian Lapinskas explains witchcraft epidemics could have been “ergotism.” Ergotism occurs after eating too many grains infected with an ergot fungus and has caused chaos even in modern times in Ethiopia and India. On Alicudi, a remote island off the coast of Italy, residents may have been tripping for years.
What is Ergot?
Ergot is commonly found on various grains, most commonly rye, and is sometimes known as the purple-headed club fungus. Ergot fungus is the source of LSD, the powerful psychedelic synthesized by Albert Hoffman in 1938 while doing routine research. He accidentally ingested it in 1943 for the first LSD trip.
Was Ergot the Cause of Salem Witch Trials?
Accidental ingestion has been a trend throughout the history of ergot. In Salem, Alan Woolf of Harvard confirms rye was grown in wet conditions of a nearby marsh, with many residents consuming as much as half a loaf of rye bread per day.
But in Salem, it is less clear what happened. Hallucinations related to ergot could have got the original ball rolling, with reports of “fits” affecting over 12 girls.
Modern research LSD makes a clear case for suggestive outside ideas- like a doctor saying you are bewitched more influential. Fear of the devil in the Puritan religious atmosphere, particularly after earlier concerns about witches, could have influenced the girls’ understanding of what was happening to them.
Alan Woolf of Harvard examines the evidence, outlining that the girl’s initial symptoms do correspond with ergotism. Some historians suggest recent weather made ergot growth more likely, and the afflicted girls lived along the supply routes of rye through Salem. Also, cows are susceptible to ergot poisoning, and several died during the trials.
However, Woolf points out some problems. He contends that evidence of poor weather is lacking, cows die all the time, and the girls lack the complete set of symptoms of ergot poisoning. In addition, Woolf points to the power the young girls and their families suddenly possessed as a more likely cause of the “hysteria.”
The Touch Test
A troublesome detail is the “touch test.” An established witchcraft test was if the accused touched their victim, and symptoms stopped, the accused was a witch. When the girls were touched by who they accused, symptoms usually stopped.
Were the Salem Witch Trials a Land Grab?
Accusations of witchcraft settling old feuds is a more accepted conclusion about the trials. Woolf firmly states ergot was extremely unlikely.
Historians have suggested that the girl’s parents, notably Reverend Samuel Parris and Thomas Putnam, encouraged the girls to have village members hanged for revenge in old feuds. Thomas Putnam and his daughter accused more witches than anyone throughout the trials.
Particularly compelling is evidence that judge and local Sheriff Johnathan Corwin could confiscate the land of criminals. Women could own land in Salem, and the majority hanged were elderly females without heirs. After someone was convicted, not even executed, the Crown took possession of the land later auctioned off.
Salem Witch Trials Today
In 2001 the state officially released an apology clearing the names of all the accused in the trials. The witch trials have inspired television series, ghost stories, and live re-enactments that can be witnessed in Salem today.
Online exhibits can be found at the Salem Witch Museum, which keeps the legacy of hysteria, corruption, and the dangers of isolation alive.
Entertainment aside, the trials still teach valuable lessons about groupthink and hysteria, along with the careful examination of motives behind modern-day persecution and discrimination.