Bewitching fungi – The disease behind the Salem Witch Trials

Nowadays, witches are very popular Halloween icons. Women with magical powers, wearing pointy hats and flying on broomsticks take to the streets one night a year to spread mischief, put spells on everyone, and maybe do some trick or treating.

But witches have been around for much longer than trick-or-treating. They appear throughout history and in many different parts of the world, as people who used magic and could communicate with spirits. Many witches were “wise-women” who used their knowledge to heal illnesses with herbs, ointments, poultices, and prayers.

In 1484, the Pope Innoncent VIII condemned witchcraft as a form of Satanism and in 1486, Johann Sprenger, and Heinrich Kraemer wrote Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on how to identify, hunt and punish witches. This book also blamed witchcraft on women. This was when the idea of a witch being an evil woman with magical powers, controlled by the devil, spread, planting the seed for witch hysteria and witch hunts where many people, especially women, were wrongfully accused of evil-doing and humiliated and killed in brutal ways.

Perhaps the most famous witch-hunt is the Salem witch trials, in 1692, where 150 people, including women, men, and children were accused and 19 were killed by hanging.

It all began when several young girls from Salem, Massachusetts, started experiencing unexplained symptoms that included violent convulsions, hallucinations, temporary blindness and skin lesions. The girls accused three women – Tituba (a slave), Sarah Good (a homeless beggar), and Sarah Osborn (an ill, 40-year-old woman, thought to suffer from anxiety and depression). All three were social outcasts, and therefore perfect targets for a witch hunt.  

But what the Salem residents attributed to witchcraft, was probably a disease called Ergotism. This hypothesis was proposed in 1976 by psychologist Linnda Caporael (Carporael, LR (1976) ) . The disease is caused by a fungus – Ergot fungus (Claviceps purpurea)- that infects rye and other grains. This fungus produces compounds (alkaloids) that affect the nervous system and are vasoconstrictors (cause blood vessels to narrow).

There are two types of ergotism: gangrenous, which is caused by vasoconstriction and leads to desquamation (peeling) of skin, swelling, loss of peripheral sensation, and death of the affected tissues (Mundra LS, Maranda EL, Cortizo J, Augustynowicz A, Shareef S, Jimenez JJ. (2016) ) ; and convulsive, which causes pain in limbs, feeling of ants crawling under the skin (formication), muscle twitching, convulsions, and paralysis. Patients also report hallucinations and changes in vision (Matossian, Mary K. (1982)).

These symptoms match the symptoms of “bewitchment” mentioned in the records from the witch trials of Salem, leading some scientists and historians to believe that Ergotism was the cause of the girls’ strange symptoms and the skin lesions on the accused and labelled as “witch’s mark” . Other theories suggest that the girls were suffering from encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain that causes behavioural changes, psychosis, visual and auditory hallucinations and seizures), but it is unlikely that all the involved would have had encephalitis.

Whatever the cause, many innocent people died as result of ignorance, prejudice and unfounded fear. The Salem witch trials and many other reports of ‘demonic possessions’ can, nowadays, be explained by science, showing that just because we don’t fully understand something, doesn’t mean that it’s the devil’s work.

There are many documentaries, articles, and books about Witchcraft, Demonology, and the Salem Witch Trials, but here are some resources to help you start, if you want to learn more about this topic:

  • Witches in History – a small article about the origins of witches in history written by Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar,  a Research Fellow in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland and the author of Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2017).

6 thoughts on “Bewitching fungi – The disease behind the Salem Witch Trials

  1. Interesting read. Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar’s book looks interesting but I do wonder how much we can take from those pamphlets. From what I’ve read of the European Witch Hunts, the writers were rarely in attendance at the trials and the pamphlets were published for their entertainment value rather than as historical accounts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment. I believe that when it comes to topics like this, we should not take everything we read at face value. Indeed there are multiple sources about the Witch Hunts and some contradictory information and speculation. I don’t claim to be an expert in the subject, as I am more interested in the scientific/medical side of it (which comes with a lot of discussion and theories in itself).

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      • Of course, I was just musing. There in certainly an overwhelming wealth of books and articles on the subjects. I was trying to researching witch trials in my local area for an article and found quite a lot of contradicting information, and a fair bit of fiction stated as fact. You broke this element of the Salem witch hunts down well. I enjoyed reading it.

        Liked by 1 person

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