Tag Archive | labor

Holy Fire, Witches, and Doctors: ergot poisoning throughout history

 Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

Engraved illustration by Howard Pyle, 1893

It’s January 1692 in the brand new colony of Massachusetts. It’s cold. It’s boring. And there isn’t much to eat. We all know the story that comes next: two girls fall ill, afflicted by strange bursts of screaming, terror, and contortionist fits. Soon other girls begin to exhibit the same symptoms. ¬†Doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with them so the only logical explanation available is witchcraft. And suddenly over 140 neighbors of this small town were jailed, 20¬†of them actually executed for their crime of being witches.

There are many theories about what actually happened that year in Salem. Some are cynical: the girls started the whole hysterical panic by playing a game for some attention, or as a way to make themselves feel powerful in a society that didn’t value them, or as a way to “get even” with those members of the community they felt had wronged them. Others are psychological: the religious fervor of this community was so great that of course the devil would send witches to torment them. Their belief was so strong in this absolute truth that they exhibited psychosomatic symptoms because they simply felt that they were truly bewitched. But I think the most enticing theory is drugs. Specifically the naturally occurring precursor to LSD (Caporael, 1976). Continue reading