Salem, MA, Ergot poisoning

Our microbiologist visitor today explored the work of Linda Caporeal in her article Ergotism: Satan Loosed in Salem? It was a fascinating talk, even though I was suffering from a little exhaustion during her second presentation.  The essence of the argument is that Ergot (Claviceptus spp.) is a fungus that attacks rye plants growing in low-lying marshy areas during warm, wet springs, and wet, warm summers.  It then lies dormant in the food until winter, when it grinds up into flour just like ordinary rye kernels, and enters the food supply as bread.   The active compound in Ergot, Ergotamine, is chemically similar to Dr. Hoffman’s famous synthetic, LSD.

Furthermore, the symptoms of ergot poisoning — including convulsions, seizures, hallucinations, pricking skins, phantom itching, and violent retching and diarrhea — are similar to the reported issues behind the so-called “witch activity” of the winter of 1692. This winter — cold and difficult — followed a warm, wet spring, and a warm, wet summer.  Lastly, nearly all the people who reported symptoms lived in the western half of the town of Salem, on the marshy ground near the river.  Those who lived in the town (and who relied on food supplies grown elsewhere) exhibited no symptoms or limited symptoms… and so became the accused in the witch trials.

Fascinating talk.

I’d known most of the outline of the story, but it was so much fun to have a parent present it.  I can’t exactly get in trouble if a parent — known to all my other parents as a competent and capable leader, and a more than competent microbiologist — comes in an gives a talk on the effects of hallucinogens on history. Can I?

2 comments

  1. […] All three groups encountered problems.  The third group found it hard to generate right angles, until they hit on the idea of using a plywood board to create the right angle for them.  The second group accidentally derived the A^2+B^2=C^2 formula, and also found that their piece of ground was actually only twenty square perches, not forty.  So they had to estimate the area of the second half of their acre off into the woods and marshland — which they noted would be unusually suitable for growing the wrong kind of rye. […]

  2. […] All three groups encountered problems.  The third group found it hard to generate right angles, until they hit on the idea of using a plywood board to create the right angle for them.  The second group accidentally derived the A^2+B^2=C^2 formula, and also found that their piece of ground was actually only twenty square perches, not forty.  So they had to estimate the area of the second half of their acre off into the woods and marshland — which they noted would be unusually suitable for growing the wrong kind of rye. […]

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