Halloween — chemistry and witches

Stumbled onto the PBS Halloween special on witchcraft tonight. Some of you probably know already that one particular investigator (Linnda [sic] Caporael) started in 1976 making it her life’s work (well, virtually) to find out what was really going on when the Salem witch trials created such a blot on American history.

In case you haven’t heard this story, we weren’t the first to blot our history with accusations of witchcraft. The middle ages found massive areas of Europe regularly reporting this phenomenon–people having severe convulsions and wild hallucinations–and hanging witches. As late as 1951 a whole town in France experienced many of the same symptoms as the people of Salem did back in the 16th and 17th centuries–and were found to have eaten bread made from contaminated flour.

Thanks to the dedicated research of this one woman–who discovered that in 1943 a Swiss scientist was the one to discover that a strange natural substance called ergot created a drug with crazy symptoms like she’d seen in the people who indulged in the drug called LSD during the 60s. And those symptoms, shockingly, exactly mirrored those described in the written testimonies from the Salem episodes.

Anyway, it’s a long and fascinating case of research that uncovered a quite natural cause for the horrible sypmtoms people were experiencing–ergot poisoning. Ergot occurs naturally when grain–especially rye–is grown in extremely swampy, humid conditions. Poisoned bread is the result.

Long story short, the DNA and stomach contents of the guy they found perfectly preserved in the bogs gave them scientific proof that ergot had entered his bloodstream and may have been the reason he was found with his skull crushed by a severe blow and his throat cut from ear to ear–he was probably exhibiting these insane symptoms and they were terrified that he was possessed.

It’s too long to explain, but they even believe Shakespeare described similar fits and convulsions in one of his plays. But very interesting. Check out the PBS story about ergot poisoning masquerading as bedevilment.