In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Essex was a main growing area for Rye, as was Salem, and the parts of Europe where witch hunts were most prevalent.
Witch hunts were rare in places that did not grow rye as a staple food. In Ireland where oats were the main grain, there were only four witchcraft trials. While in Scotland, the trials were most common in areas where rye was grown, while in the Highlands they were absent.
This pattern seems to appear throughout England and Europe, as well as Salem, where ‘Bewitchment’ only appeared in the parts of the town that relied on rye for their bread.
Ergot thrives in a cool, wet growing and harvesting season and even today small amounts of ergot are to be found in rye crops. And where records are available, it seems that the worst witch hunts occurred, following these weather conditions.
In 1943, in Switzerland, Prof. Albert Hoffman was working with extracts of ergot, when he spilt some on his skin, causing hallucinations. This led to him developing something more well known....LSD.
In 1976, Prof. Linnda Caporael realised the similarities between the details of bewitchment at Salem and the symptoms of a bad acid trip.
This caused her to do more research and she not only found that rye was the staple diet for the parts of Salem affected but the weather conditions were ideal for ergot.
Following up on this research, Prof. Mary Matossian, studied seven centuries of demographics, weather, literature and crop records.
She points out that throughout history, drops in population have followed diets of rye bread and damp weather.
During the early years of the Black Death 1348 on, conditions were ideal for ergot.
Many symptoms of ergotism and plague are similar. The worst plagues occurred where ergot suppressed the immune system. Records of deaths show large regional variations, possibly showing areas of rye farming.
In August 1951 (less than 60 years ago), ‘Pont St. Esprit’ a small town in France, was allegedly struck by ergot poisoning, following a local bakery selling rye bread contaminated with ergot. Four people died, and a large number suffered ‘possession’ or ‘bewitchment’
The bakery was actually believed to be possessed by the Devil and was exorcised by the local bishop.
However recent research by Albert Hofmann shows that the poisoning was due to a toxic mercury compound used to disinfect grain to be planted as seed. Some sacks of grain treated with the fungicide were inadvertently ground into flour and baked into bread. Whilst Swedish toxicologist Bo Holmstedt still insists the poisoning was in fact due to ergotism.
The argument continues...
Witnesses still alive today recall the symptoms.....
Thousands of pin pricks on the skin / insects crawling under the skin
Seeing all sorts of wild or deformed animals
Visions of fire and blood running down the walls
Ergot poisoning also affected animals, causing sickness and death. A good example and comparison of cases is this....
A dog was fed small scraps of rye bread. He soon started running round in circles, gnawing on rocks so hard that he broke his teeth, and finally dying.
Tituba and her husband John Indian were asked to bake a witch cake - made of rye soaked in the accused’s urine - which was then fed to a dog. The dog became bewitched and died, thus proving the guilt of the accused.