A Witches Brew
“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” The Three Witches brewed prophesy for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but what about the witches from Salem, Massachusetts? Could ergot poisoning have produced the hallucinations, spasms, twitches—the bewitchment—that led to the Salem Witch trials? Some think so.
Ergot is the product of Claviceps purpurea, a fungus that parasitizes ryegrass and other grains under certain environmental conditions. It is responsible for ergotism—called St. Anthony’s fire during the Middle Ages—an adverse reaction to ergot-contaminated food. Conditions in 1691 in the Puritan village of Salem were ripe for the ergot fungus to grow—a severe winter and a damp spring. It’s likely that rye harvested in 1692 would have contained ergot sclerotia, a purple-black growth containing alkaloids (nitrogenous organic compounds) of ergotamine and lysergic acid.
Ergotism manifests with two clinical presentations: chronic (gangrenous ergotism) and acute (convulsive ergotism.) In the former, ergotamine’s vasoconstrictive properties produce dry gangrene—tissue death—from the oxygen deficit caused by the reduced blood flow. Victims afflicted with St. Anthony’s fire initially described burning limb pain (holy fire) followed by coldness of the skin and numbness. They also experienced nausea and vomiting. Later the limbs developed gangrene—blackened hands and feet that looked as if they had been burned by fire. Fingers and toes would often autoamputate—dry up, mummify and fall off.
The vasoconstrictive properties of ergotamine have been used medically to treat postpartum hemorrhage and vascular headaches such as migraines.
In geographic areas where convulsive ergotism was more frequent than gangrenous ergotism, the composition of the alkaloids found in spoiled grain may have differed with a higher concentration of lysergic acid alkaloids. Here ergotism victims manifested with severe seizures, double vision, delirium, muscle spasms, and hallucinations. Lysergic acid is a precursor to lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD, a known psychedelic drug. When several young girls in Salem became inexplicably ill with skin lesions, temporary blindness, convulsions, and hallucinations, the local doctor found the afflicted to have a “diabolic nature,” and they were accused of witchcraft.
Environmental conditions, superstition, and fear of the unknown may have conspired to produce the Salem Witch Trials. But when we look back to the past, science can often explain what at the time seemed only like hocus pocus.