The Unexplained: Mysterious Days of the Witch
October 28, 2022
At least 200 people were accused of witchcraft, which led to the Salem Witch Trials. But what would be their fate, and how was their guilt determined?
‘Tis the season of the witch. Since it is, what is a witch, exactly? Do we really know? Do thet have green skin, dress in black, and have pointy hats?
A witch has come to traditionally mean: a person who uses magic or supernatural powers to harm others, someone with malignant supernatural powers. It would be helpful then to know what magic is also: using methods such as charms or spells (believed to have supernatural powers) over natural forces. Witches were people who had made contracts with the devil.
Between 1500 and 1660 there were over 80,000 suspected witches in Europe that were felt to be such a threat to their fellow citizens that they were rounded up in witchhunts and executed, often in hideous ways. Germany was supposed to have the highest concentration of witches, Ireland, the least. Did witches venture to the new world? People would come to believe that witchcraft was able to take hold here.
Puritans who set up the Massachusetts Bay Colony arrived in 1628 in Salem to relieve the first struggling settlers that were led by John Endicott in 1626. The village had been named Salem, the Hebrew name for peace.
As the witch craze was winding down in Europe, it was beginning to surge in America. The Salem Witch Trials happened in Massachusetts between early 1692-mid 1693. Waves of rumors spawned aggressive witch hunts, and at least 200 people were accused of witchcraft. What would be their fate? How was their guilt determined, for sure? People in other parts of the world had developed some tests to determine if someone were a witch.
One test was to throw them into water to see if they would rise to the top and float. Some were made to recite scripture. Real witches could not do this. The verse would come out garbled. If a witch touched a person having a fit, the fit would subside. If the fit continued they were not a witch. Certain blemishes on the body were telltale witches marks. Pricking the skin with needles was a popular way to ferret out witches. The skill was in the technique of the skin pricker. It took many pricks to get a proper reading.
In Salem, in January of 1692, a minister’s daughter, and niece, ages nine and twelve, began displaying odd behavior: they dropped things and sometimes threw things. They, hollered, screamed, had fits of contortions, they spoke nonsensical gibberish and made odd noises. A doctor, who should have known better, and calmed the situation down, made things worse by saying the cause for the bizarre displays had to be rooted in the supernatural. Another young girl, age twelve, became afflicted with the behavior. The young girls were unanimous in claiming that three eccentric women in the town had hexed them. They were ready to place blame.
Throughout Salem, similar odd behavior was reported in young girls who placed blame on older eccentric women in their circles. Paranoia spread and in the case if the first two girls, an odd Caribbean woman, Tituba, gave a sort of confession to the magistrates who were questioning everyone–saying that the devil had come to her requesting her assistance. Tituba went on to describe vibrant visions she often had.
Here comes the juicy part of the witch study. The Puritans and other rigid religious offshoots that first settled Massachusetts had meals that were as bleak as their social and religious traditions. Furthermore, since wheat was hard to grow in New England, they often had to make their bread of rye, or a blend of maize and rye. Some of their New World bread techniques were borrowed from the Wompanoag people.
Since rye was a large part of the Salem area diet, it would have been good if the people had known more about ergot.
It probably would have been helpful if European witch hunters had known all the details about ergot, too, as ergot may have played a huge part in the wrongful and barbaric executions of thousands of people – and twenty people in the Salem area.
What is ergot? Ergot is a fungus that can grow on rye grain and related plants. The afflicted kernals turn black. The fungus produces alkaloids that are toxic to humans.
The symptoms of ergot poisoning can be projectile vomiting, spasms, confusion, convulsions, hallucinations, contortions, itching fits, and weakness. Some extreme cases of poisoning can cause gangrene and even death.
Many of these are the very behaviors that the young girls displayed–the behaviors that caused them to tell magistrates that they had been put under spells by mysterious women in their village.
Ergot poisoning is now believed by many to be the main cause if the Salem Witch Hunts and trials. It is also being considered to be a cause of The Dancing Plague.
Please click HERE to find Sara’s mysterious novel of New Orleans, Gris Gris, on Amazon.