Ergot Poisoning in Salem

RE: The question were the Salem witches a result of Ergot poisoning?

Hi Cecil and everyone else!

Far be it for me to contradict you Cecil, but I thought it might be of interest to you to draw your attention to the book ‘Secrets of the Dead’ by Hugh Miller (ISBN: 0752271660).

Although, like most mysteries in history, science is yet to concretely prove a theory, this book (well, chapter to be precise) does make a persuasive argument!
Although, I’m just a part-time browser of your wonderful site, I’m sure it’s been brought up before.

Best Regards,

Eden Night.

Welcome to the SDMB, eden.

I helped Cecil with the research for this column. The Secrets of the Dead book you mention (which I have not read) is evidently affliliated with the PBS documentary series of the same name. The “credulous 2001 PBS documentary” that Cecil mentions in the column is an episode of that series, “Witches’ Curse” (which I have seen).

I’d say the ergot argument is persuasive, but not definitive. It’s the theory du jour.

One can draw modern parallels with “satanic panic” trials ca. 1980’s-90’s. People were jailed for no more evidence than that used in Salem; in particular, unbelievable and uncorroborated testimony coerced from children was believed over rational adults.

10 points to Eden Night for being a new member who included the original link. Hooray for reading the FAQ!

What evidence is there for ergot? Can you summarize the chapter in the book?

The ergot poisoning theory is thoroughly unpersuasive. It’s whole premise seems to be, “Hey, there was this famous example of a community in a panic thinking up nonsense to strike out at some innocent victims, how on earth can we explain that? I know, let’s pick the first pseudoscientific explanation we can think up instead of, say, researching the long history of extremely similar social panics thoroughly documented elsewhere but which we can’t be bothered to go read.”

It’s been a long time, but I seem to remember that other aspects of the Salem event suggested ergot poisoning, specifically, a significant jump in human and animal miscarriages.

Man, I hate it when someone poisons my ergot.


There’s a chapter on the ergotism hypothesis in the great book “The Barmaid’s Brain” by Jay Ingram. I think he came up with largely the same conclusion; the idea is interesting, but the general opinion is that mass hysteria is a better fit.

While working on my Master’s degree, I took a class that examined this very phenomenon, the witchcraft trails in Salem. The book we used was: Salem Possessed.

Long story shortened, the explanation given for the witchcraft scare was essentially a shift in the balance of power (social and economic) between the two dominant families in Salem at the time. It’s a very good read with lucid explanations for how the whole phenomenon came about.

Salem Possessed is the basis of a short movie called Three Sovereigns for Sarah that also goes into the “Who was accusing?” v. “Who were the accused?” patterns.