The place was called Salem Village. The year was 1692, when doctors lacked in-depth medical knowledge and religion played a major role in local government. As a result, girls suffering bizarre symptoms were slapped with a diagnosis of “bewitched.” The cure? Find the witches responsible and kill them.
The supernatural isn’t the only theory out there regarding what caused the behavior that sparked the Salem witch trials. A less sensational theory exists as well. And it involves rye.
Jeff Wallenfeldt asserts that 19 people were convicted and hanged for witchcraft between June 1692 and May 1693. He contends in his Britannica article “Salem Witch Trials,” that Betty Parris, her cousin Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam —ages 9, 11, and approximately 12, respectively—manifested “fits” of body contortions, odd sounds, and strange skin sensations. After assessing them, Dr. William Griggs blamed their symptoms on the “supernatural.”
Emerson W. Baker confirms the above to some degree in A Storm of Witchcraft. In the following quote, Baker quotes Hale, author of A Modest Inquiry: “[S]cholars believe that Griggs was the unnamed doctor who had been attending the girls and determined that they were ‘under an evil hand.'” The girls Baker refers to in this quote are Ann Putnam and Elizabeth Hubbard. With that said, if Griggs had been the go-to doctor of the area, it makes sense he’d have seen Abigail and Betty as well.
*Baker calls the former “Ann Putnam Jr.” to avoid confusion, as her mother’s name was also Ann Putnam.
Fueling the supernatural diagnosis:
- People of the era lacked today’s medical insight.
- A community of Puritans, they feared Satan.
- They believed the devil did his work through witches.
Such circumstances led to horrifying witch hunts and death sentences. Under pressure to identify the cause of their bewitching, Ann and Elizabeth blamed a feisty beggar, Sarah Good. Abigail and Betty blamed Tituba, the family slave. Imprisonments, trials, and hangings followed.
Interesting to note, Baker says that Tituba and her husband, John Indian, had baked “witch bread” at the behest of neighbor Mary Sibley. The intent was to feed it to the dog, who’d determine the witch’s identity. Eventually, Reverend Parris, Betty’s father and Abigail’s uncle, would attribute this cake incident to the beginning of the witch hunt. He also went on to scorn Sibley in front of his congregation for using such a wicked means of witch detection (15).
Witch Cake, a superstitious and super-sketchy recipe:
Knead one or two dashes of the afflicted’s urine into rye dough and bake. When cooked, feed to family dog and let the witch reveal begin.
Warning: Except for the actual ingredients (urine & rye), this recipe was concocted by way of a wild guess by Yours Truly, who does not actually recommend eating this cake. In fact, she discourages it.
Ergotism (caused by Rye)
Wallenfeldt doubts the ergotism theory. However, Kate Lohnes makes a case for it. She asserts in her Britannica article, “How Rye Bread May Have Caused the Salem Witch Trials,” that in 1976, Dr. Linnda Caporael challenged the witchcraft theory. She related the afflicted girls’ behavior to symptoms of ergotism, “a disease commonly contracted by rye.” According to Lohnes, scientists evidenced Caporael’s hypothesis by citing 1691’s “severe winter and damp spring,” conditions conducive to the growth of ergot fungi on rye. The dreary season of 1691 could have led to a tainted 1692 rye harvest. Symptoms of ergotism are similar to those of “bewitchment” and include:
- severe convulsions
- muscle spasms
- sensation of crawling under the skin
Their immature immune systems may have made the affected girls more susceptible to contracting ergotism. This information raises the question: How many “witches” died because of rye?
No Proven Cause
In A Storm of Witchcraft, Baker asserts that the majority of historians believe “there’s no single cause for witchcraft that started in Salem and spread across the region” (6). Betty and her cousin Abigail’s symptoms worsened after the “witch cake” fiasco. And the same day that cake was baked, Ann Putnam Jr. and Elizabeth Hubbard, from different parts of town, came down with “demonic afflictions” (15). Baker says no evidence exists that proves Tituba or the Parris girls performed “white magic” (15).
Given the dog was supposed to eat the witch cake, we can assume none of the girls ate the cake. Thus, we can’t blame its rye for exacerbating the girls’ afflictions. With that said, Caporael’s claim legitimizes the idea that the affected girls could have ingested contaminated rye at some point prior to exhibiting their weird symptoms.
Several factors may have contributed the the hysteria surrounding the witch trials. But surely, religious beliefs played a role. Mob mentality seemed to as well.
Experts have yet to determin a definite cause of the symptoms some girls experienced in 1692. Regardless, limited medical knowledge perpetuated witchcraft hysteria and Salem’s witch trials. So did the Puritans’ strong belief that Satan, through witches, caused unexplainable, scary “afflictions.” Advancements in medicine grant us hindsight. Puritans saw as “demonic” symptoms that today’s doctors and lay people would attribute to any number of illnesses. Hopefully, a little more common sense has kicked in about such things as well.
The reportedly damp spring of 1691 could have led to a rye harvest that spawned ergotism. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to analyzing the Salem-witch debacle, which spread beyond the boarders of the city we now call Salem. Fortunately, the witch hunt terminated. Thanks to the outcries of reasonable people, magistrates and religious leaders came to their senses.
Salem’s Witch History Museum teaches the history of Salem’s witch trials. Through its live presentation and tour, people can learn how the tentacles of the witch hunt spread across Essex Country and who was involved in witch trial scandals.
Baker, Emerson W. A Storm of Witchcraft. Oxford University Press, 2015.
*britannica sources Linked in text.