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Materia Hysterica

May 2024
1min read
 

The twitches, convulsions, and erratic behavior of the seventeenth-century Salem. Massachusetts, girls who accused their elders of witchcraft have been the subject of speculation for nearly three hundred years. It is still not known why they acted as they did, but theories continue to abound—including a unique recent one, which enjoyed a short vogue before it was shoveled into the dustbin of the unlikely.

 

The twitches, convulsions, and erratic behavior of the seventeenth-century Salem. Massachusetts, girls who accused their elders of witchcraft have been the subject of speculation for nearly three hundred years. It is still not known why they acted as they did, but theories continue to abound—including a unique recent one, which enjoyed a short vogue before it was shoveled into the dustbin of the unlikely.

The new theory was developed by Linda Caporeal, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the April 2, 1976, issue of Science magazine, she argued that the Salem girls behaved in a crazed fashion because they had ingested ergot, a parasitic fungus that grows on rye, a staple in colonial New England. Convulsive ergotism, a condition caused by the long-term consumption of ergot, manifests itself in symptoms remarkably similar to those displayed by the afflicted Salem girls: hallucinations, vertigo, headaches, crawling sensations on the skin, and painful muscular contractions resulting in vomiting, diarrhea, and convulsions.

To support this theory, Caporeal marshaled considerable evidence. The 1691 growing season, she pointed out, had been warm and rainy, ideal conditions for the parasite’s infestation of the rye crop. All the afflicted girls probably were fed rye obtained from the same fields to the west of Salem Village. And, Caporeal noted, the hysteria ended abruptly after the harvesting of the 1692 rye crop, which had grown in a season of drought and hence was less susceptible to ergot infestation.

Caporeal’s dramatic notion was hardly advanced, however, before it was refuted. In the past several months a number of articles have appeared in learned journals taking her to task. It seems that convulsive ergotism occurs only in individuals suffering vitamin A deficiencies. In healthy people, the fungus does not produce hallucinations and hysteria; it produces a form of gangrene. Since vitamin A is found primarily in fish and dairy products, and since Salem Village was a farming community bordering a major seaport, it seems unlikely that adolescent girls from reasonably prosperous families would have suffered this deficiency. Had ergotism been the devil’s tool in the small New England village, putrefaction, not execution, would more likely have resulted.

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