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What Caused the Salem Witch Trials?

The Ergot Poisoning Theory

The Salem witch trials have fascinated historians for centuries, largely because of their bizarre nature and the great uncertainty that surrounds them. One of the most intensely debated topics is the question of why random townspeople were accused of witchcraft. However, there is little evidence to support any theory, and consequently historians are forced to rely heavily on speculation. Many, including author and scientist Linnda Caporael, have found the traditional theories of fraud and hysteria to be inadequate. Caporael’s famous article, “Ergotism: the Satan Loosed in Salem?,” argued that ergotism, a physiological condition caused by the ingestion of rye grain infected with an ergot germ, altered the girls’ minds and led them to begin accusing people of witchcraft.

The Puritan Witch-hunt Myth

Although popular culture often portrays Puritan New England as a place where ministers were more powerful than the government, accusations of witchcraft were ever-present, and it was commonplace for accused witches to be condemned to death, in reality very few witchcraft trials had taken place in Massachusetts prior to the events in Salem in 1692. When witchcraft trials were held, they rarely resulted in convictions, much less capital punishment for the accused. Thus, in December 1691, when eight girls, including the local minister’s daughter, began to exhibit strange symptoms including “disorderly speech, odd postures and gestures, and convulsive fits,”[1] the townspeople did not immediately blame witchcraft. It was a doctor, not a minister, who first proposed witchcraft as an explanation for the illness, and at a meeting of nearby ministers Samuel Parris—the Salem parish minister and the father of one afflicted girl and the uncle of another—was advised to not hastily accept any conclusions but to rest upon God’s providence.[2]

The Witchcraft Crisis

In early 1692, however, the girls began to make accusations of witchcraft. Their illness did not subside, and they continued to allege that certain members of the community were witches. The first witchcraft case was heard on June 2 and resulted in a conviction and a hanging of the accused. The Massachusetts ministers, including Cotton Mather, continued to caution the judges associated with the trials of using insufficient evidence to convict the accused witches. Every accused person who admitted guilt was spared from execution, but those who maintained their innocence were sentenced to death. Twenty people had been executed when the trials reached an abrupt halt, and approximately 150 accused witches awaiting trial were released and had the charges against them dropped [3].

Traditionally, this bizarre sequence of events has been attributed to either fraud or hysteria. Many historians believe that fraud is the most likely explanation, in part because it is the least complex. Fraud-theorists posit that the young girls did not realize the full consequences of their accusations, and that they were either seeking attention or attempting to escape punishment. Some historians allege that Tituba, one of the Parris family’s slaves, had been teaching the girls simple magic tricks, and that somehow rumors about this had begun to spread in the community. Had the girls’ parents found out, they would surely have punished the children. To escape punishment, the girls pretended to be possessed and accused others, including Tituba, of witchcraft. Scientist Linnda Caporael counters by arguing that no eyewitness accounts present fraud as a possibility—and most New Englanders attributed their condition to demonic possession.[4]

Proponents of psychiatric theories posit that the Puritans’ intense fear of witchcraft caused them to fall subject to mass hysteria triggered by the girls becoming overexcited after observing Tituba practice magic. The Puritans developed a mob-mentality and were stricken with a need to cleanse their community of witchcraft. However, Caporael points out that it is highly improbable that all of the girls would be overtaken with hysteria simultaneously. Further, the Purtians had dealt with previous accusations of witchcraft very sober-mindedly and had been very reluctant to resort to capital punishment.[5]

Putnam residence, home of three of the afflicted girls

Putnam residence, home of three of the afflicted girls

The Case for Ergotism

Finding these theories lacking, Caporael proposes that there is substantial evidence to support the theory of ergotism. She admits that the argument is largely circumstantial, but she believes that the evidence better supports her case than any other. She argues that the symptoms exhibited by the girls are physical symptoms, and she notes that although the Puritans later attributed the girls’ afflictions to demonic possession or witchcraft, they initially believed that their condition was caused by a physical illness. Ergot grows on a variety of cereal grains, including rye, and Alan Woolf notes that the growing conditions necessary for the growth of ergot, cold winters, warm, humid summers, and swampy farmland, were present in Salem in 1692.[6] Children and females are the most susceptible to ergot poisoning. Convulsive ergotism has been known to cause LSD-like symptoms in those that it infects. Many of these symptoms, such as “seeing apparitions, feeling pinpricks and pinches, and burning sensations,” were exhibited by the accusers.[7]

Caporael supports her case by linking six of the original eight afflicted girls to a single supply of rye grain. The largest farm in the village, owned by Thomas Putnum, consisted of swampy marshland and was the home of three of the afflicted girls. Two more of the girls lived in the Parris residence, which would have likely received a large payment of Putnum rye grain because Parris, as a minister, was paid in provisions received through taxes. Another afflicted girl was a servant in the household of a doctor, who may have either purchased ergotized grain or received it as payment.[8]

Problems with the Ergot Theory

Although Caporael has thus far made a compelling case, it begins to unravel when she attempts to explain evidence contradictory to her thesis. Her attempts to rationalize inconsistencies make an already complicated theory simply too complex. She relies heavily on extreme theories and improbable conjecture. She cannot explain how the two remaining girls contracted ergotism, because she cannot connect them to the Putnam grain. She admits that in one of the cases, it is simply impossible to know how she came in contact with the ergotized grain. However, she dismisses Sarah Churchill, the final accuser, as a fraud because she was not connected to the Putnam grain and only testified in a limited number of cases. [9]

Perhaps her most bizarre claim is that the judges and magistrates associated with the Salem trials had contracted ergotism, which influenced their rulings and caused them to be less pragmatic about the witch trials than they had been in the past. Not only does this claim border on conspiracy theory and lack any semblance of supporting evidence, but it contradicts evidentiary support she used earlier in the article. She had formerly claimed support for ergotism by noting the fact that all of the original accusers were young girls and thus the most susceptible to ergotism.[10] However, by claiming that the judges and magistrates, adult males, had contracted the disease, she nullifies her former claims and causes the reader to wonder why the ergotism outbreak was not more widespread.

Caporael also fails to explain why the Salem ergotism outbreak was an isolated incident. She makes no attempt to reconcile the fact that the Salem incident was not duplicated anywhere else in Puritan New England, which was characterized by small agricultural communities very similar to Salem. Further, she does not offer reasoning for why the Putnum grain was never again infected with ergot, considering that it was grown in conditions prime for an ergot outbreak.


Evaluation of the Ergot Theory

The Salem witch trials were certainly a bizarre sequence of events, and numerous theories have been proposed to attempt to explain them. Historians have tended to propose that the girls supposedly afflicted with “distempers” were frauds or hysterics, but many doubt these theories. Scientist Linnda Caporael proposed that a physical explanation, ergot poisoning, was more in accordance with the evidence than any previous theory. Her theory is very intriguing, but it is too complex in relation to its amount of evidentiary support. Further, Caporael does not account for the major inconsistencies and contradictory evidence that arise when the theory is examined. Without increased supporting evidence, Caporael’s theory relies too heavily on conjecture to be a sufficient explanation. Perhaps historians and scientists will never be able to explain precisely what occurred. Nevertheless, based upon the available evidence, Caporael’s theory of ergotism should not supplant traditional hypotheses as the predominant theory for the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692.


[1] Linnda Caporael, “Ergotism: the Satan Loosed in Salem?,” Science 192, no. 4234 (1976), Ergotism article.pdf (accessed October 16, 2011), 21.

[2] Caporael, 21.

[3] Caporael., 22.

[4] Caporael, 23.

[5] Caporael, 21.

[6] Alan Woolf. “Witchcraft or Mycotoxin? The Salem Witch Trials.,” Journal of Toxicology—Clinical Toxicology 38, no. 4 (2000), Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 16, 2011), 458-9.

[7] Woolf, 459.

[8] Caporael, 24.

[9] Caporael, 24.

[10]Caporael 23; 25-6.


guardian41 on June 30, 2018:

Another great article, thank you. I thought you were headed right towards ergot contamination causing the incident (I voted no)

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on February 09, 2015:

You wrote that ergotism can cause "LSD-like symptoms"--that's because ergot is the, or a, source of LSD.

Corey on December 28, 2014:

Even though there were no aucatl witches who were harmed in the Salem Witch Trials, the impact is far reaching into today's society. How? We've really pushed for more religious tolerance, for rights of those who may be of different faiths, and the true choice of religion and our right to choose our religion (Religious Freedom). There is still a lot of prejudice but modern day witches of all varieties deal with it and try to educate people on their particular path. I think the Salem Witch Trials were really a time in history that where people can look back and say, Wow, this is what happens when you mix extreme religious beliefs and a hallucinogen (ergot) creating a mass hysteria. Honestly, it was a lesson learned the hard way, but from that mistake came a better understanding of how we should all interact.To the guy who claimed Wiccans think that the Witch Trials of Salem are the Wiccan's version of 9/11, I don't know who you know, but that is not reflective of the majority of wiccans. Do not classify us all in that group.

Brian Dashner from St. Charles on October 29, 2014:

I don't think that we need to insert Ergot into a situation easily explained by "mean girls". There are a number of situations that could explain why a few young girls in such a community would choose to cause mischief. Perhaps one or more were having illicit sex or were taking substances they were disallowed. Either way, although Ergotism is certainly a possibility given the "Little Ice Age" and Winter Without A Summer that occurred around that time, I can find enough evidence that such a situation might just be the result of girls being girls without understanding the consequences.

custom Inflatables on July 05, 2013:

Well Whattadya know, yet another great site to add to my reader!

W1totalk on July 02, 2013:

Thank you for this article. I distinctly remember hearing that rye would cause certain people to hallucinate in Salem causing the murder of numbers of people. Thank you for this breakdown that makes it even more truthful.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on July 01, 2013:

I wrote that comment during late evening hours and, as I feared, I got the quote backwards, "As ye sew, so shall ye reap!" Ah, well, I'm sure you got the meaning in spite of that little slip.

Yes, Edgar Cayce, known as "The Sleeping Prophet," has a whole library of his readings in Virginia Beach. I know if I were there, my nose would be in the preserved works.

Our contemporary society isn't perfect--we're still using capital punishment. And, there is a lot of fear generated by the mass consciousness of the people. (All you have to do is listen to or read the news.)

I'm on a kind of respite from HubPages right now, so I won't be doing any more follows for a while. I just thought I'd check out your comment because I made a rather long one (and I wondered about that biblical adage I had quoted).

Take care, and keep writing!

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on July 01, 2013:

Thanks for the comment and encouragement Marie! I definitely agree with you about the Puritans, and I too am relieved that we do not have to worry about witch trials in contemporary society. I have not researched Edgar Cayce's work before, but he certainly would be an interesting subject to study!

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on June 29, 2013:

I appreciate people who know how to write English. Thank you, Josh, for your scholarly vocabulary, logical thought pattern, grammar, and syntax. You even have a summary, which a lot of hubs don't have.

I visited the Salem Witch Museum one weekend back in the mid-70s. There was a display of Tituba "telling stories to the children."

This is the first I heard of an ergot theory and had to look up the term to gain a better understanding of it. If, in fact, the grain exhibits a dark shell, it seems it would have been pretty obvious to the colonists that they shouldn't eat it. Also, there are too many gaps in the theory. And, if the proponent of the theory contradicts herself, well . . . what can I say?

The Puritans were an austere group of people, and we have to remember that they themselves were escaping religious persecution by coming to America. Many modern dramatizations have been done about these witch trials, and one can only speculate about the thinking that motivated these people to put their kinfolk on trial for something they couldn't explain.

From my studies of metaphysics and personal psychological experiences, I understand that negative thinking eventually manifests itself in physical manifestations of various kinds of disease. I find it interesting that the eight young women all experienced similar symptoms and then blamed others in the community for the occurrence. It seems the girls may have shared membership in a coven and then, out of fear of being discovered, began accusing others for the symptoms which almost sound epileptic in nature. The law of karma, "As ye reap, so shall ye sew," has a double meaning here with this bad-rye theory.

I'm just grateful the dark times of this topic are behind us as a people and look forward to the "new heaven and new earth" written about in the sacred texts.

Thank you for taking the time and doing the research to write this hub, Josh. I think you did an excellent job of presenting what you gathered from your two resources.

P.S. I see you are from Virginia Beach. Is there any possibility you might be researching Edgar Cayce's work in the near future? I, for one, would enjoy the read.

Asia Fans on June 27, 2013:

Very interesting ! Congrats on it winning the HOTD award.

Syafiq Ajis on June 27, 2013:

Whooa! Fantastic article. I had not heard of the ergot explanation before. Thanks !

Mark Knowles on June 26, 2013:

Sounds to me like another excuse to defend religious beliefs. Probably they were poisoned or - maybe they were suffering from some other interference. Almost certainly was not religiously motivated. Most likely there was something in the water making them believe such things. Probably sent by radio waves from Europe where exactly the same thing went on for hundreds of years. Not 2 dimensional? You mean like the anti gay marriage rights people are not religious fanatics? They probably hate gays for lots of reasons............. Probably poisoned..... We can never be certain, but as much doubt as we can throw the better. lol

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on June 26, 2013:

I think that Arthur Miller's The Crucible has definitely played a role in how we view the Puritans because of how popular it is. It's easy to view them as a 2-dimensional cartoon characters and believe that only religious fanaticism caused the Witch Trials, but we have to recognize that they were motivated by a number of complex factors, just as we are today.

LiamBean from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on June 26, 2013:

Excellent article. I had not heard of the ergot explanation before.

Stan Murphy from Kansas on June 26, 2013:

Wow, fascinating topic. I am not convinced either way about the poisoning, but it was great to have your insight. What a theory!

rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on June 26, 2013:

Excellent article! I was reminded of the Crucible a play by the American playwright Arthur Miller. This was very insightful. Perhaps it was ergot poisoning. All I know is that it certainly was a bizarre time in history. Just being different could have deemed you a witch. Great job and deserving of HOTD, congratulations! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up)


Selina Kyle on June 26, 2013:

Very interesting and well wriiten, good read. I see why this is a HOTD- much deserved :)

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on June 26, 2013:

Interesting article. Congrats on it winning the HOTD award.

LastRoseofSummer2 from Arizona on June 26, 2013:

This is a great article which lays out a great theory. The Salem Witch Trials is another one of those infamous historical events that will probably leave us wondering forever. The world was such a different place back then and people looked at things in such a different way. There is, however, no denying that SOMETHING strange was going on.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 26, 2013:

First, congrats on another Hub of the Day! There are always multiple sides to every story and this one definitely is loaded. I agree with a number of the commenters that it was a combination of circumstances. But the rye theory is intriguing. Keep the great hubs coming!

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on June 26, 2013:

Thanks for all interesting perspectives, guys. This was definitely a very interesting topic to study. Like most other people, I had always been taught that the Salem witch trials were a product of religious fanaticism, so I was shocked when we studied alternative theories in my Historiography and Research Methods class. Even though it is hard to know exactly what happened, it is fun to examine different theories.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on June 26, 2013:

I have to back up what mbuggieh said...great was a combination of many things that all came to a head at one time. As for "witches" in the Bible, the actual original term was kasheph which actually translated to "poisoner" mistranslation leads to the ability for the righteous to persecute the ones they believe are not-so-righteous. Great hub! Voted up and interesting. It's nice to see something different that pushes the envelope selected as a Hub of the Day for once.

mbuggieh on June 26, 2013:


My sense is that the Salem Witch Trials were the result of a long-brewing "perfect storm" of social and cultural claims, religious belief, religious stresses, local politics that were exacerbated---at least for some people, by an ergot poisoning.

No matter what is remains fascinating stuff.

Nancy Owens from USA on June 26, 2013:

You opened my eyes to another way of looking at it, Josh. Hats off to you.

bradley brown from Harrow Middlesex on June 26, 2013:

Really enjoyed reading your hub Josh, Interesting stuff, well done on hub for the day.

Mark Knowles on June 26, 2013:

Murder? Surely it is not murder if you are doing wot god sed? The bible clearly states what is to be done with witches. I even showed you specific passages. lol No wonder Christianity causes so many wars. :( No further comments.

SAM ELDER from Home on June 26, 2013:

Exodus 20:13 ESV

“You shall not murder.

Interpreting God's words to justify personal sins has been done for centuries and it seems some people still follow the same tactics.

No further comments

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 26, 2013:

Mysteries like this always lead us to wonder. It definitely was a horrid time...I cannot imagine the pain and sadness the families felt to know their family members had been slaughtered in this way.

Congrats on HOTD.

Angels are on the way to you this morning. ps

Mark Knowles on June 26, 2013:

Sam - I suggest you actually read the bible instead of lying at me. Leviticus 20:27 is clear. Never mentioned burning myself - the bible says to stone them to death, but Exodus 22:18 is unclear as to the exact way you should kill them so I guess an early fire is why that way was chosen.

Cecil Wilde from Melbourne, Australia on June 26, 2013:

This is a really interesting take on a sad chapter in history. Great article, really enjoyed reading it.

SAM ELDER from Home on June 26, 2013:

The Bible is pretty clear what to do with witches.... Mark Bible doesn't support witch burning and murders.... :@

Josh, this is great article...

Mark Knowles on June 26, 2013:

Religious belief is what caused the Salem witch trials. The Bible is pretty clear what to do with witches, and once you believe what the bible says, believing some one is a witch is a small step to take. I imagine any natural disaster would be enough to go looking for witches to blame. Seeing as Rye is (and was) mostly grown in northern and eastern Europe and many so-called witches were slaughtered in southern and western Europe, I fail to see a correlation myself. Nice article though.

platinumOwl4 on June 02, 2013:

This article deal with a caliber of people we may or may not be able to comprehend. this makes it difficult to may an intelligent statement concerning their frame of mind.

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on April 17, 2013:

It's an interesting theory. In retrospect, it's difficult to ascertain the motives and mindset of nearly anyone involved with the trial. Thanks for your comment Nell!

Nell Rose from England on April 17, 2013:

Interesting stuff Josh, and yes I do believe a lot of it was Rye, but of course back then there was the religious side not knowing the truth behind science, people deliberately causing trouble to get rid of people they didn't like and so on, fascinating read, and welcome to hubpages!

Josh Wilmoth (author) from North Carolina on April 17, 2013:

Thanks for your compliments! Lienhard's research certainly does raise an interesting point. Historical mysteries like this are so intriguing!

humanitiesmentor from New England on April 17, 2013:

Hi Josh,

Extremely well written piece. While there are obvious problems with ergot theory, there are also striking consistencies between instances of witchcraft prosecution in Europe and the Salem case. Almost every area in Europe where witchcraft prosecution was concentrated was also a rye-reliant one. In fact, according to John A. Lienhard at the University of Houston , witches were not executed in any area which did not have a rye-influenced diet. Interesting but still quite circumstantial.

Great article, and best of luck in pursuit of your M.A.!