The Salem Witch Trials Were One Long LSD Binge And Here's How
The Salem Witch Trials stands as one of the greatest WTF moments in all of American history. In 1692, a few girls fell ill, and one year later, 25 people were dead after being accused of witchcraft. How could something like this happen? Historians have been scratching their heads for centuries, and we still have no definitive answer as to what exactly went down that fateful year in Massachusetts. That’s probably why there are so many misconceptions and myths surrounding the Salem Witch Trials.
First, let’s start with what definitely DIDN’T happen:
Burning at the stake. Source: (Pinterest.com)
What do you do with a witch once she’s convicted? Burn her at the stake, of course! But don’t be too fast with your marshmallows and dough-boys, because not a single person was burned alive in Salem. Burning so-called witches at the stake may have been a popular pastime in medieval Europe, but not so much in 17th century America. All those convicted in Salem were hung by the neck at Proctor’s Ledge, with the horrific exception of one Giles Corey.
Giles Corey refused to name names no matter how much pressure they put him under, and they put him under a lot of pressure. We’re talking hundreds of pounds of pressure. Because he refused to plead, Giles was the only person in Salem to be killed with the method of “pressing.” Essentially, they put a board over his chest and stacked stones on top until his abdomen caved in. While loading the rocks, the sheriff asked him to give the names of other witches, to which Giles replied with the two simple words “more weight.” Most people would say anything and throw anyone under the bus to get the torture to stop, but not our guy.
You might have noticed Giles doesn’t sound like a particularly feminine name. While women were the majority of the accused, five out of the nineteen executed were men, and a sixth man died in prison while awaiting trial. More egalitarian than the European witch hunts, at least? Listen, it’s hard to find the positive in this.
Source: (Thomkins H. Matteson (1813–1884) - Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum)
One of the most common interpretations of Salem is that it was a mind-blowing case of mass hysteria. It’s not like such events are unheard of -- there are many cases of mass hysteria throughout history, from incurable laughter to fictional Irish mobbers and invisible slashers.
However, these things usually lasted a few days, weeks, or in rare cases, months. The Salem Witch Trials lasted a whole year. Also, when mass hysteria does occur, it usually affects people of different backgrounds, socioeconomic standings, and political ideologies. In Salem, the people being accused and the people making the accusations weren’t totally random. There’s a clear pattern in the town and clear geographic divisions.
But if not mass hysteria, then what was it? There are a few prevailing theories, and likely, all of them have a bit of truth. Historians haven’t been able to fully agree on any specific one, but here’s their best shot: The world experienced a mini age from the 1300s to the 1800s, but most acutely in the 17th and 18th centuries. The winter of 1691 was particularly cold, meaning that the previous summer’s crops would need to last through the spring and into the next summer. Who’d have known that these were the exact right conditions for the fungus Claviceps purpurea, better known as ergot, to breed and infect its way through the rye crops?
Claviceps Purpurea. Source: (Pinterest.com)
SYMPTOMS OF ERGOT include sensations of pinching and scratching on the skin, muscular contractions, and LSD levels of hallucinatory effects. These symptoms closely resemble the description of what many of the young girls experienced in the early days of the Witch Trials. Ergot predominantly affects children and teenagers because of their lower body mass and lessened ability to fight off infections, which explains why the adults didn’t convulse and hallucinate if it was in the bread, and historians have noted with interest that the afflicted girls lived along the same rye trade route in town.
However, while ergot poisoning might have kicked off the hysteria, it certainly wasn’t enough to fuel it for over a year. Most of the accused were in Salem Village, a farming community next to Salem Town. Complex political, religious, and socioeconomic feuds played a large role in who was convicted and who was a victim. The poor, elderly, and less religious were all more likely to be targeted and accused as a witch. All “witches” were considered outsiders in some form or another to the Puritan power players in town. Land disputes, especially regarding the hyper-religious and wealthy Putnam family, also poured fuel onto the fire, and what probably began as hysteria soon became an effective political tool to seize land and property from the convicted.
Map of Salem Village in 1692. Source: (Pinterest.com)
That isn’t to say most of the people involved were in on a long con. We have to keep in mind that these people really truly believed in witches, and not in a fun, Harry Potter way. This was also before the separation of church and state and before the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” meant anything in the colonies. The court was set up so that if you confessed and gave the names of your collaborators, you would be spared, so that’s what people did. They weren’t crazed lunatics; they were rational actors trying to survive a system than incentivized the blaming of others. What’s perhaps the scariest thing about the Salem Witch Trials is how non-hysterical all of it truly was.