Ergot Poisoning
December 7, 2005 6:23 AM   Subscribe

Ergotism: The Satan Loosed in Salem? Linda Caporael's 1976 Science article was the first sustained argument that the Salem witch scare was caused by a case of ergot poisoning. Mary Matossian's 1989 book Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History makes a more comprehensive argument for the effect that ergot poisoning has had specfically on European history. Barbara Comyns wrote a fabulous 1955 novel called Who Was Changed, and Who Was Dead about a 1927 ergot poisoning outbreak in Manchester, England. Pictures of the dread mold.
posted by OmieWise (25 comments total)
Eww. That doesn't even look like mold.
posted by wakko at 6:44 AM on December 7, 2005

On the other hand, ergot has been the source of some helpful drugs.
posted by TedW at 6:48 AM on December 7, 2005

The Straight Dope disagrees with the ergot theory for the salem witchtrials.
posted by justkevin at 6:48 AM on December 7, 2005

I'm not buying it. The problem with the ergot thesis (and the other medical explanation, Laurie Winn Carlson's thesis that encephalitis is at the root of the witch trials), is that it is too place specific and ignore the larger cultural context. The Salem trials come near the very end of several hundred years of witch hunting in Europe and the Atlantic World. Were those all caused by ergot? Salem was wrought with other tensions--economic, political, racial (regarding fear of the Indians). So when a couple of young girls were caught practicing some fairly common, but illicit folk magic, and when they attempted to dodge trouble by claiming they had been bewitched, their accusation was like a spark on dry tinder.

Also--the prickling sensations, pains, hallucinations, etc. that the girls reported, and that are the core evidence for all the medical explanations, are just as easily explained as fakery. These same girls reported that they were tormented at night by fantastic apparitions. If they were making up the latter, why not the former?

Ergo, no ergot.
posted by LarryC at 6:56 AM on December 7, 2005

I think the Straight Dope seems a little biased on this one. This stuff happened hundreds of years ago, so there really is no way of us ever having a definitive answer. And, frankly, Caporael doesn't claim that ergot is the only cause. She readily said that mass hysteria eventually took over after the poisoning stopped.
posted by MrZero at 6:59 AM on December 7, 2005

Does Ergot contain LSD, or does it contain precursors or what?
posted by delmoi at 6:59 AM on December 7, 2005

Yeah, but Larry, wouldn't the apparitions be a symptom as well? (I don't necessarily buy it either, I just read a great novel about ergot poisoning and so go interested.)
posted by OmieWise at 7:00 AM on December 7, 2005

Interesting that Caporael glosses over the possibility of jimsonweed poisoning, which causes many of the same symptoms as ergot. Although ergotism does seem like the more likely explanation of the two, jimsonweed as an answer seems worth exploring.

Very thorough and interesting post.
posted by amro at 7:10 AM on December 7, 2005

delmoi: precursors.
posted by Gyan at 7:15 AM on December 7, 2005

My best-friend's specialty is the history of witchcraft. He pointed me to that Straight Dope article some years ago as an easy, correct explanation of why ergot made absolutely no sense.
posted by Captaintripps at 7:28 AM on December 7, 2005

What about the Dancing French Liberals of '48?
posted by klangklangston at 7:33 AM on December 7, 2005

Captain, are you tripping? The SD article is datemarked '14-Jan-2005'.
posted by Gyan at 7:44 AM on December 7, 2005

amro: jimson weed would likely have caused as many fatalities as hallucinations, the dosage for noticeable effects and the LD50 are a very fine line with datura.
posted by IronLizard at 7:54 AM on December 7, 2005

Good point, Iron Lizard. And children especially would be more likely to die from even a small amount. (Still think it wouldn't have hurt the author to throw a sentence or two to that effect into her article, though.)
posted by amro at 8:15 AM on December 7, 2005

The Sheep Look Up, one of John Brunner's very best science fiction books, has a subplot with ergot poisoning leading to riots and massacres (and is delightfully back in print).
posted by hydropsyche at 8:22 AM on December 7, 2005

Omie: Oh, it is interesting, and if I think this explanation is wrong, I don't think it is wacky. The appartitions (hallucinations are a modern term) are just so convenient for the accusers, and so very like other apparitions for other witch scares in the early modern world.

Here is a good page with summaries of the major schools of interpretation for the Salem Trials.
posted by LarryC at 8:26 AM on December 7, 2005

LSD was derived from ergot ( think there is a connection). There are beliefs that Lewis Carol wrote "Alice in Wonderland" under ergots influence, and it is a known fact Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote "Jeckyl and Hyde" while undergoing ergot therapy (it was for a time in the 1880s and 90s used in hospitals as a therapy). The question is, did they take enough to be altered and were these literary works the end result of drugs, or just very creative people, or both. There is no "factual" evidence to support it, but many people believe it based on circumstantial evidence.
posted by stbalbach at 8:26 AM on December 7, 2005

A good summary of Ergot is in the Wikipedia. In summary the main psycoactive ingredient is Ergine or LSA. This is a rather different drug from LSD, you may know of it from Hawaiian Baby Woodrose. It's believed by some to be the active ingredient in Kykeon, the potion administered in the Eleusinian Mysteries however it's not particularly hallucinogenic, so opinions differ (Erowid Link).
posted by grahamwell at 8:51 AM on December 7, 2005

Gyan, they update and republish those SD columns from time to time. The Captain probably saw an earlier incarnation of it.
posted by gubo at 9:12 AM on December 7, 2005

OmieWise: .... too place specific and ignore the larger cultural context.

I think so, too, and I was kind of surprised to learn that she was associated with that idea. I interviewed her in 1988 or so, and she stressed the importance in her work of the idea that people's behavior looks different when considered with regard to individual or to the group.

That said, the theory makes sense, as far as it goes. It does promote a tendency to say "Oh, we've got an explanation, that's the end of that!" There's really so very much more to learn about witchcraft accusations. Even if we know the cause of a few major witch hunts, we still have lots and lots of important phenomena around the witch hunts, not directly connected with the possessions, that merits attention.
posted by lodurr at 9:47 AM on December 7, 2005

Gyan: The Straight Dope updates columns constantly, but does not give a history of changes most of the time. No need to trust me on it, but that article was in existence some years ago.
posted by Captaintripps at 10:07 AM on December 7, 2005

There is another factor, one widely neglected in mass events like this: sheer boredom.

Difficult to imagine in the modern world, many witch burnings and lynchings were really the culmination of mischief begun from a lack of entertainment. Small rural communities which might not even see a stranger pass by for years, kept from regressing into primitivism solely by visits from itinerate preachers.

Even the larger towns had little to do but work and church, so any event would draw every free citizen. Public punishment of miscreants was very popular, and anti-gossip laws were common, and for good reason.
posted by kablam at 5:36 PM on December 7, 2005

kablam, the funny thing is that there's a grain of truth in what you're saying. But it's not that the "burnings" or punishments drew spectators; it's that people hungry for drama cooked up petty arguments and let them get blown out of proportion into accusations of malfeasance.

One good single source for a lot of work on this is Robin Briggs' Witches and Neighbors : The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft.

As for a "decline into primitivism" -- what does that even mean?
posted by lodurr at 6:03 PM on December 7, 2005

lodurr: The idea is not originally mine, it was an observation of life in the deep South, where the only two forms of entertainment in many places were tent revivals and lynchings.

Perhaps saying "a decline into barbarity" would have been a better choice of words. From the 17th through the 19th Centuries, traveling preachers really did help to maintain order in isolated rural areas. They brought with them news, and were the closest thing to a government liason with perhaps the one person in a small community who *was* the local government, doing a dozen different jobs as needed.

He registered marriages, births and deaths, provided them to the County, and acted as courier with the County Sheriff.

His religious activities emphasized civility and morality, and he would report violations, which were also criminal violations at the time. In his absence, all sorts of bad situations could develop, to include feuds, wife kidnappings, and superstitious excess, such as accusations of witchery.
posted by kablam at 7:23 PM on December 7, 2005

If you're referencing the south, you're missing some important context.

European villagers had a strong foundation of tradition to call upon. The villages were culturally homogenous, and the culture-history was deep. The Church was profoundly integrated into their lives, with a clergyman available at any time. Social roles were well established; what was in question was who would fill them, and one of the results of those social battles was witchcraft accusations.

It's also very important to remember that European witchcraft accuastion (in which I'll include Salem, for sake of argument) falls into two general categories: Local, low-intensity, ongoing accusations, and the big witch-hunts. The former seldom resulted in corporal punishment, and usually happened in towns and small villages ; the latter usually resulted in a number of public executions and were usually urban.

Witchcraft accusations are usually not as big a deal as you might think. In cultures that believe in witchcraft*, it's basically the stock explanation for any bad thing that you don't understand: Your cows stop giving milk, two people in the family get goiters or go insane, the crops fail two years in a row -- it's witchcraft. Judgemens often favored the accused. The accused is most often marginal in some sense -- someone lacking in social capital, like a wanderer or the village idiot or childless people or relatively wealthy people.

The last is one of the more eye-opening victim-types: It's counter-intuitive that wealth would marginalize you, but in small, highly-traditional communities, it does. In most cultures, wealth is assumed to entail social responsibility -- as it did in European culture prior to the Reformation, and in large degree after it (viz Puritan Salem).

Childless people are another interesting category of victim. In a small community, raising children is not somehting you regard as an option. Rather, it's simply the proper thing to do. It's a responsibility. Children are the future. Please excuse the cheesy pop-song reference. If you're not doing it, you're not fully part of the community.

But I digress. What's interesting about Salem is the scope of the accusations. Witchcraft accusation is usually a low-intensity phenomenon: You get a few a year, and deal with them, usually through fines or short terms of imprisonment or some kind of reparation in kind. (E.g., if you think someone cursed you, the magistrate sentences them to cure you. It works a surprising amount of the time.) Salem starts out like that, but rapidly escalates to a crisis that resembles a small scale version of hte big european witch-hunts. And it's happening in the context of a culture (Puritanism) that denigrates the idea of witchcraft on theological grounds, in contrast to the Catholic context of the big European witch hunts.

Personally, I think Miller was onto something that few social scientists or historians have picked up on: The Puritan angle. That's what caused the crisis to escalate so sharply. And that was a matter of teh stakes involved, which were escalated in that context to nothing less than eternal damnation.

In the deep south of old, there was lots of witchcraft accusation. They didn't call it that, but it was there. Where it was recognized by law, it was dealt with in the old fashioned way: By repaparation and peace-making.

*It's important to remember that in social-science language, "belief in witchcraft" basically means "belief that other people practice witchcraft against me". In social-science language, witchcraft only refers to bad things that people think other people are doing -- not to things that people actually do as a matter of religious practice. E.g., in social sciences terminology, Voudoun, Santeria and Wicca are not witchcraft in that sense, precisely because people actually do them.
posted by lodurr at 3:47 AM on December 8, 2005

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