Salem Witch Trials

It’s officially Halloween. Yes, I am one of those people. October is Halloween in my book. So, what goes along best with Halloween? Spooky stuff; ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, homework. Just kidding on the last one (or am I?) For anyone who knows me, I am obsessed with spooky stuff, Buzzfeed Unsolved, and cats. My first thought for this article was something spooky so here we go.

 

The year is 1692. America is being colonized and the town of Salem, Massachusetts (modern day Danvers, Massachusetts) is controlled by the Puritans. Betty Parris and Abigail Williams began a wave of panic through the town in the early spring when they began having fits. Seeing as medicine back then was very limited, the only possible reason for these fits had to be witchcraft. And thus began the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

The young girls pointed the finger at the Parris family slave, Tituba, as well as a local beggar and an elderly woman. Of these three, Tituba was the only one to confess to witchcraft. She also stated that she wasn’t working alone, that there were others working against the Puritans. More and more women (and girls as young as the age of four) were accused and the local justice system got overwhelmed.

On June 2nd, the first person was hanged for being a witch, with 18 more being executed within the next few months and seven of the accused women dying in prison. Four men were accused as well, one of these men died in these months as well, being crushed by stones when he refused to admit to practicing witchcraft.

Throughout this tragedy, over 200 people were accused of witchcraft and over 20 people were executed, while several others died in jail. Later, the colony admitted to their unlawful actions and compensated the affected families. In 1697, the General court designated a day of fasting and thinking about the tragedy. In 1957, Massachusetts officially apologized for the events that occurred during the witch trials, more than 250 after the calamity.

What could have caused this mass spread hysteria? Especially the widespread symptoms of those “afflicted by witchcraft”. The girls doing the original accusing had fits comprising of what appeared to be caused by the supernatural. They convulsed, screamed, uttered strange sounds, and would complain of a biting or pinching sensation on their skin.

These symptoms can be explained by a type of fungus, called ergot, which infected products of rye, which was the common grain of that time. Convulsive ergotism (the term for those who ingested so much ergot the started experiencing symptoms) presented with convulsions, vomiting, hallucinations, choking and the sensation of something crawling on one’s skin. LSD is a derivative of ergot, so let’s put it this way, these people could have been just tripping balls and calling it witchcraft. Relatable right?

Other possible explanations include encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), Lyme Disease, child abuse, epilepsy or delusional psychosis. The only ones that could possibly explain the multitude of those inflicted would be Lyme Disease, child abuse and convulsive ergotism, as those could easily affect many people during this time period.

Some people still believe that this tragedy was actually caused by witchcraft. That explanation is much cooler, for very clear reasons, but there just isn’t enough evidence to support the very existence of witchcraft. I personally believe in the convulsive ergotism theory, but you have the right to believe whichever theory you want. Seeing as the length of time that has passed since the event, we will most likely never know the actual cause of the Salem Witch Trials.

Sources:

https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/salem-witch-trials

https://www.britannica.com/event/Salem-witch-trials

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-brief-history-of-the-salem-witch-trials-175162489/