A tale of ergot, and witches sentenced to hang until dead...
This is a little story about a fungus. It is called Ergot, or, to be more precise, Claviceps purpurea. It behaves like most living things...it eats, reproduces, completing its life cycle. Its favorite host (food) is rye--and members of the rye family. It has a complex life cycle, one stage during which it infects rye flowers, and then produces "sclerotia".in the place of a rye grain. Such a little thing. But, like so many things, it is not as simple as one would think at first glance. This little fungus has a deadly history.
So, just how did this fungus become associated with the Salem witch trials?
Photo credit: smithsonianmag.com
The fungus produces an alkaloid called ergotamine. Consumption causes a human (or animal) to lapse into ergotism. Sometimes called "St. Anthony's Fire" due to a burning sensation in the limbs, it can be fatal. It causes severe constriction of blood vessels, compromising the entire vascular system. And, this leads to gangrene in the limbs. Other symptoms it causes include hallucinations.
So, imagine, the cows have been eating annual ryegrass in the pasture, contaminated with actively growing ergot. And the women have been baking bread and sampling it--rye bread, of course.
The women are wondering around, talking to things that no one else can see.
The cattle are in the pasture field wondering around with glassy-eyed stares. Their legs are infected and swollen...then they fall down and can't get back up.
Looks to me like someone is talking to spirits and casting spells to kill their neighbor's cows. Hmmm... could it be *drum roll* witches!
But the science says that the women were stoned on the alkaloid, and the cows had developed gangrene--and they were hallucinating, too.
There is quite a lot of support for the theory that ergot was to blame for many of the Salem witch trials. There are dissenters too, and a quick Google search will turn up both. But for my money, I'd bet that researchers who put this idea together are onto something. Seems plausible to me.
What do you think?
Read more about Ergot here and here .