Friday, January 16, 2009

Which Witch is Which?

The Legend:  The Salem Witch Trials were the result of Puritans inadvertently tripping on LSD

Status: Quite Possible


The Salem Witch Trials are an intriguing piece of American history, taking place between 1692-1693 in Salem, Massachusetts. What happened to cause townspeople to suspect each other of being witches has been debated for centuries. One of the most logical explanations is ergotism.

Ergotism is the result of eating baked goods that have been made with flour that has been contaminated with ergot. The ergot fungus grows on rye and can create compounds that are very similar to LSD. In fact, LSD was discovered by a chemist who was researching ergot chemicals.

At this time in history, no one suspected that the bread was causing these bizarre affects. After all, bread? What could be more benign than bread? Yet, when people ate the ergot-infected rye it was possible for entire villages to experience ergotism, or LSD-like trips. The symptoms of ergotism are paranoia, hallucinations, spasms and twitching. The spasms suffered are involuntary, irregular, jerking and twitching movements that came to be called St. Vita's Dance.

Beyond the hallucinations, paranoia and involuntary movements there was also an intensely painful burning sensation in the arms and legs that was called St. Anthony's Fire. In severe cases, constriction of the blood supply to the extremities would be so profound that it would cause gangrene or the hands and feet.  In less severe cases, it would cause a person to feel uncomfortably hot, maybe even hot enough to take off their clothes and appear to be dancing.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, ergot poisoning symptoms were blamed on the devil. People with ergotism were described as being bewitched and it was thought that they could see the devil and whoever was with him.  In these visions, people who were seen consorting with the devil were obviously witches. By naming names, based on their hallucinations, the accused were labeled as witches and sentenced to death. 

In the end, 19 "witches" had been executed; 14 women, 5 men, and one dog.