The Salem Witch Trials May Have All Started with a Bad Loaf of Bread

The Salem witch trials represented a dark time in the U.S.'s colonial history. But it may have all started with some spoiled rye bread.

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The Salem witch trials were probably thoroughly covered by both your high school literature class (see: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) and your high school history class (see: a textbook). In 1692, Salem, Massachusetts (one of the five spookiest towns to celebrate Halloween in the U.S.), entered into a goose-chasing frenzy that left 25 people dead. The hysteria was ignited by the curious case of two young girls, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams, who experienced severe convulsions and other peculiar symptoms which led the community to believe they were bewitched.

Other members of the community began to show similar symptoms and the sleepy village nestled just north of what became Boston broke into a panic in short order. Surely, it wasn’t witches at work, so what was the real culprit? The proof might just be in the bread pudding.

Well, not bread pudding, just bread.  Dr. Linnda Caporael of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute completed research in 1976 which may have found an entirely different evil at work in Salem. The seemingly occult symptoms may have just been caused by ergotism, a form of long-term food poisoning which can be contracted through the consumption of rye infected with the Claviceps purpurea fungus.

In short, something was awry with the rye.

When a rye crop experiences a severe winter and then a damp spring, it becomes especially susceptible to ergot contraction. The harvest season of 1691, which would have affected the crop for 1692, had a reportedly severe winter and damp spring.

The symptoms of ergotism include muscle spasms, convulsions, delusions, hallucinations, and the feeling of crawling skin. And since the knowledge of ergotism was non-existent at the time, Salem’s doctor would be more likely to attribute the issues to a seemingly known source, witchcraft, as opposed to an unknown disease.  

According to Caporael’s theory, the witch trials ended abruptly in May of 1693 because the ergot-infested rye crop had been exhausted. The scourge of the witch trials was over, but the damage was done. 

Next up, find out about the creepy real events that actually happened on Halloween.

[Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

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