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The colony of Salem, Massachusetts was founded in 1626 by a group of fishermen. The name Salem is related to Hebrew and Arabic words which mean peace. Ironically Salem turned out to be anything but that. Fueled by the maniacal religious fervor of the extremist Puritanical faith, Salem was beset by inequality, fanaticism, repression, and ignorance. Women were expected to be completely subservient to men. Females were also viewed as naturally lustful and thus more susceptible to corruption by the devil. Children were literally expected to be seen and not heard. Playing games or with toys was considered idle and wasteful.
There were also a variety of conflicts within the community. Hardships such as crop failure, livestock losses, or the death of children were viewed as punishment from God. Individuals who had fallen on hard times were thus inhumanely perceived as deserving their suffering. Naturally this bred ill will amongst Salem’s inhabitants. The increasing population was also putting strains on the agrarian economy. There were several disputes between neighbors about land as well as feuds with the Native Americans. There was even disagreement over the choice of Salem’s first ordained minister, Samuel Parris, which set the ominous stage for the events to come.
In January 1692 Parris’s daughter and niece became afflicted with a strange condition. They became delirious and displayed convulsions, bizarre skin sensations, garbled speech, and at times appeared to be in a trance. Soon afterward, other individuals exhibited the same syndrome. Unable to explain their symptoms medically, the townsfolk came to the parochial conclusion that they were the victims of witchcraft.
That one spark ignited a conflagration of paranoia and finger-pointing. Increasing numbers of the community implicated one another as being witches and in cahoots with the Devil. Some of the “victims” alleged that their demonic tormentors had appeared to them in visions and/or dreams. This “spectral evidence” as it came to be called, was considered sufficient justification to bring someone to trial.
Grudges, resentment, and festering disputes amongst the townsfolk prompted many of these accusations. In addition, individuals who seemed odd, had committed past crimes, or just didn’t seem to fit into the Puritanical order were especially targeted.
The trials ended in October 1692 thanks to the intercession of Massachusetts Governor Sir William Phips who was beseeched by various objectors. Interestingly, Phips’ wife was inculpated as well. All in all, 150 people had been accused of witchcraft. Nineteen were hanged, four died in prison, and one poor 80 year old was slowly crushed to death by stones over a two day period for refusing to enter a plea. Thus ended a dark, vindictive, and shockingly moronic period of American history.
But what caused the Salem witch hunt? Certainly ignorance, religious zealotry, vengeance, and mass hysteria all played a role. But what was the initial stimulus? What caused the bucolic denizens of Salem to exhibit such inexplicable behaviors? Encephalitis, Huntington’s Chorea, and schizophrenia have all been suspected. But according to research by psychologist Linnda Caporael of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, it was a good ole fashioned fungus, ergot to be precise. Ergot is a fungus that affects grains and grasses. Rye is particularly vulnerable to developing ergot and was the staple grain for the citizens of Salem.
Rye is a grass related to barley and wheat. Its beginnings are uncertain but it probably originated in and around modern day Turkey. By the Middle Ages it was widely cultivated in Europe. Rye is used to make breads, alcoholic beverages such as rye whisky, and for animal fodder. Because rye flour is low in protein it produces inadequate gluten and therefore does not rise well. Thus, it is often mixed with traditional wheat flour to boost its protein content. Rye flour is also heavier and darker and subsequently produces darker and denser loaves. Pumpernickel is a popular sourdough bread from Germany made from rye flour.
Returning to the ergot issue, the ergot fungus contains alkaloids including lysergic acid from which LSD is made. These compounds affect the central nervous system and also cause vasoconstriction. Initial signs of ergot poisoning, a.k.a., ergotism, include gastrointestinal symptoms followed by burning, itching or crawling sensations on the skin, convulsions, hallucinations and psychosis, the exact symptoms displayed by Salem’s “bewitched.”
Outbreaks of ergotism have occurred throughout history including a modern case in the village of Pont-Saint-Esprit, France in 1951. Two hundred and fifty of the villagers were afflicted and several died. In medieval times ergot poisoning was known as “St. Anthony’s Fire” named after the monks of the order of St. Anthony who became known for their treatment of the condition.
Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy environments, the exact conditions that occurred in Salem the year prior to the trials. Most of the symptomatic accusers lived in the western part of the village, an area of swampy meadows perfect for fostering ergot. Interestingly, the summer of 1692 was very dry and this coincided with a marked reduction of “hexed” people.
Of course there’s no way of determining with certainty whether ergotism was the catalyst for the Salem Witch Trials. The evidence, although compelling, is nonetheless circumstantial. Moreover as stated, regardless of the initial trigger, the ultimate culprit was a conglomeration of psychological and cultural factors. In the end, the real demon lay not in the spiritual realm, or even in the rye, but in the irrationality of the human mind and the animosity of the human heart.