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WATCH: This hallucinogen might have sparked the Salem witch trials

This could explain a lot.

JOSH HRALA
1 DEC 2016
 

Between February 1692 and May 1693, more than 19 people were executed in Salem, Massachusetts, for being suspected witches.

As you probably know, this odd moment in US history became widely known as the Salem witch trials, which saw a small puritan town collectively lose its mind after a series of young girls reportedly suffered attacks from 'supernatural beings'.

 

Many of these attacks were reported by other villagers, who saw people start to shake, experience pain, fainting spells, and just act plain weird in ways that couldn’t be explained by the doctors of the time. The strange symptoms caused panic among the masses, who ended up blaming witchcraft.

While a number of researchers have weighed in on what happened in the town, with many of them marking up the event as a case of mass hysteria, political manoeuvring, or the town’s weighty puritan belief system gone wrong, there might be a more evidence-based reason for why the town experienced such 'attacks'.

As the Vox video above reports, the Salem witch trials might have had more to do with an hallucinogenic fungus found on rye than any other explanation.

This weird fungus, Claviceps purpurea, is a type of ergot fungus, and was commonly found on rye grain at the time of the Salem witch trials.

As Vox explains, when the fungus is ingested, it can cause ergotism: a condition that can either be gangrenous, causing limbs and extremities to fall off; or compulsive, causing seizures, pain, and a slew of other upsetting symptoms that match the behaviour the townsfolk blamed witchcraft for.

 

Oh, and ergot is also one of the ingredients needed to synthesise a little hallucinogen known as LSD.

Sometimes the consumption of the fungus on its own can cause hallucinogenic effects, which could explain why some people claimed to have seen witches, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, back in Salem.

This hypothesis is backed up by the fact that the region experienced a rather stormy summer the year the witch hunts began, providing the ideal conditions for the fungus to flourish on their rye supplies.

In 1693, a drought hit the region, potentially ending the fungus's reign and curbing the witch hunts.

For now this is just a hypothesis, and other researchers have argued that the population of Salem at the time were likely too healthy to have such a bad reaction to ergotism, suggesting that the witch hunts were more likely a social craze that ran amok.

Look no further than this year’s clown panic to see a modern day example of how that can happen.

In reality, both might have played some part, although we still need more evidence to figure out how that would have worked. 

Check out the video above to learn more about ergot, and how it might have triggered one of the strangest periods in US history.

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