LSD in the Salem Witch Incident

Blog Post #1, September 26, 2019

Photo: Instead of the healthy grains pictured above, Claviceps purpurea infection causes swollen, dark kernels, laden with toxins and LSD. 

The Salem Witch Trials are a horrific historical tragedy, which took place in colonial Massachusetts, in the late winter and early spring of 1692 and 1693. Twenty people were executed for alleged witchcraft. Amongst the contributing factors of the incident were isolation, religious fanaticism (Puritan), and sexism (the majority of those executed were women; Puritans believed women to be more sinful than men). Notably, a South American Indian slave named Tituba did express to other women her interest in the comprehensive witchcraft book Malleus Maleficarum. This gives the events an interesting context, as it surely contributed to suspicion of witchcraft. However, the real nail in the coffin was something more elusive. 

Initially, two girls presented undiagnosable symptoms including convulsions, bizarre unintelligible outbursts, apparent hallucinations, delirium, and the contortion of their bodies into unusual positions, and they complained of being pricked with pins. This was shortly followed by additional, alike cases. According to Mary K. Matossian (1982), "three of the girls said they felt as if they were being torn to pieces, and all of their bones were being pulled out of joint." There were multiple witnesses, with outbursts from the ill girls even interrupting a local preacher's sermon. 


Ergotism at Play

Many academics try to explain the events as being caused by social hysteria, scapegoating, and jumping to conclusions, and also claim the girls were faking their symptoms. However, as explained by Matossian, it had been 47 years since the last major case of witchcraft trials in England, and in no following years would such intense persecution of witches take place, which demonstrates this was not a common issue. Furthermore, the events were relatively tightly centralized, in just two counties in the Massachusetts Bay area, which is indicative of microclimate-induced plant disease. Plant pathogens only infect their host plants when provided the proper environmental parameters, which may not have been present in nearby counties. Perhaps most precluding of any social theories of causation is the fact that animals were afflicted by the mysterious illness, and three people and several cows died.  

The ergot fungus Claviceps purpurea is a common pathogen of grain crops usually rye. Infected kernels become darkened and distended as they're replaced by fungal tissue. The fungus produces toxins that can lead to gangrene, as well as other symptoms including convulsions, hallucinations, renal failure, and death. The symptoms of convulsive ergotism are complex and vary in combination between specific cases. With regard to the Salem Witch incident, most tellingly from the post-countercultural-revolution, modern perspective, ergot produces lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD. Albert Hoffman at Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland first isolated LSD from ergot in 1938, and later accidentally absorbed a dose through his finger in 1943. LSD induces a psychedelic experience similar to that of magic mushrooms. LSD causes dilation of pupils leading to increased intraocular exposure to light, and readers who've experienced an LSD psychedelic 'trip' will find it striking that Salem victim John Barlow reported that "daylight seemed to prevail even at night." Dilated pupils also cause the eyes to take on a pitch-black appearance, which could certainly frighten astonished onlookers.













The Case for a Fungal Pathogen

According to Matossian, tree ring evidence from 1690, 1691, and 1692 suggests that the climate in New England was several degrees cooler than average. This would favor the survival of rye crops over other grain crops, and yet would put the rye at a greater risk of fungal disease. Due to wheat rust infestations (another fungal pathogen), colonists in New England planted more rye and depended on it more than they would have in the old country. In the context of the localized nature of the events, especially damning is the fact that the afflicted population farmed swampy, low-lying, intermittently waterlogged land, which was particularly susceptible to Claviceps purpurea. Shading of many fields by nearby hillsides also contributed to fungus-favoring conditions.

Failed Academia

After examining available evidence, there should be no doubt that the Salem Witch Trials were caused by the ergot fungus Claviceps purpureaOne may be surprised however, by the number of papers refuting this theory. Teachers, social scientists, and historians perhaps turned away from an honest investigation of the events due to prohibition of psychedelics, who claim social, religious, and cultural causes, are 'tripping.' And they are disregarding the intellect of the people of that time, who had no other explanation available to them, yet clearly witnessed a remarkable phenomenon, which cannot be sufficiently explained by hysteria, fear, anxiety, etcThe hard evidence available, including deaths of those who were sickened, animal cases, the specific symptoms and observations of the victims which are attributable to LSD and ergotism, the fact that rye was cultivated, and the local field and climatic conditions, all point to ergotism as the culprit. 



























            A Fever in Salem, by Laurie Winn Carlson

            Ergot and the Salem Witchcraft Affair, by Mary K. Matossian

            Albert Hoffman isolated LSD from ergot fungus


Photo: Chemist Albert Hoffman in 2006. Hoffman discovered LSD.

Photo: Ergot-infected wheat displaying distended sclerotia