As Halloween approaches I thought it would be a good time to write something on the Salem Witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts between the months of May 1692 through October 1692. The entire incident can be traced back to two people, Tituba, a Caribbean slave woman, and Reverend Samuel Passis.
Tituba began to entertain three girls, Elizabeth Passis, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam with tails of black magic, spells, and fortune telling. When the girls began to exhibit strange behaviors such as fits, convulsions, contortions, outburst, delusions and hallucinations, Reverend Samuel Parris, father of Elizabeth and uncle to Abigail, called the local doctor who, unable to find a medical explanation for the odd behavior, diagnosed the girls with being possessed by witchcraft. Reverend Parris agreed and began to interrogate the girls for the name the person who had afflicted them. Soon, the girls gave in to the questioning and named the slave woman Tituba. Thus, began the witch hunt.
The first to be accused was Tituba, who confessed, next was Sarah Good, who pled innocent, and the third was Sarah Osborn, who also pled innocent. Before it was over, 182 men and women would be arrested and accused of being witches, including one four year old child, Dorcus Good.
According to the law of the day, if a person did not enter a plea, that person could not stand trial, therefore, in order to extract a confession, several forms of torture was used, the most popular being the dunking stool. The accused person would be strapped to a seat and held under water until they stopped struggling, then brought up for air just before drowning. The second most popular form was crushing. The accused would be laid naked in a shallow pit and large heavy boulders would be placed on the upper and mid torso until the person confessed or died.
Of the persons convicted, 17 were hanged and one was crushed to death.
According to legend, Giles Corey, the only person crushed to death, put a curse on the present Sheriff and all subsequent Sheriffs. It is said that from that time on, every Sheriff since, has had a heart attack and died while in office, with the exception of one. Also, Giles Corey’s ghost supposedly appears before a disaster befalls the city of Salem. Residents of Salem said that they saw an apparition of the old man just before the Great Salem Fire of 1914.
The Salem witch trials ended on October 3, 1692. In five short months, 185 people were accused (141 women, 44 men), 52 women and 7 men stood trial, 26 women and 5 men were convicted, 14 women and 5 men were executed, 8 others died in prison, including one infant child; due to his mothers imprisonment.
Between 1700 – 1703, petitions were filed with the Massachusetts Governor demanding the convictions be overturned. The convictions were overturned in 1711 and reparations made to the survivors or their decedents in the amount of 578 pounds, 12 shillings.
So, what caused the girls to act so strangely? Scientists of today have learned that the strange antics could have been attributed to a fungus called claviceps purpurea fungus ergotism. This long winded fungus is the natural substance found in LSD derivatives. The fungus is found in rye, wheat and other grains, which were the main staple of the Puritan diet. A build up of this fungus in the system can cause ergot poisoning, ergot poisoning is due to ingestion of alkaloids produce by the fungus. Symptoms include: convulsions, contortions, vomiting, delusions, and hallucinations.
What can we learn from the unfortunate events of 1692? Perhaps it is this, “Those that overlook the lessons of the past, are destin to repeat it”.
Smithsonian.com/A brief history of the Salem Witch Trials/Jess Blumberg