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 the girls began to accuse seemingly random townspeople 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,” 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.
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 .
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 
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. 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.
Do You Think Ergot Poisoning Caused the Salem Witch Crisis?
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.
 Linnda Caporael, “Ergotism: the Satan Loosed in Salem?,” Science 192, no. 4234 (1976), http://classes.plantpath.wsu.edu/plp150/Caporeal Ergotism article.pdf (accessed October 16, 2011), 21.
 Caporael, 21.
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 Caporael, 23.
 Caporael, 21.
 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.
 Woolf, 459.
 Caporael, 24.
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Caporael 23; 25-6.